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||Knut Hamsun (1859-1952) - pseudonym of Knut Pedersen|
Norwegian novelist, dramatist, poet, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1920. Knut Hamsun's most famous novels include Sult (1890, The Hunger), an intense story of a starving writer, which has attracted readers since its publication in 1890. Before and during World War II the author embraced the Nazi ideology. This separated Hamsun from other intellectuals and writers who supported the Soviet Union and Stalin. After the war Hamsun was consequently ostracized as a traitor.
"If one only had something to eat, just a little, on such a clear day! The mood of the gay morning overwhelmed me, I became unusually serene, and started to hum for pure joy and for no particular reason. In front of a butcher's shop there was a woman with a basket on her arm, debating about some sausage for dinner; as I went past, she looked up at me. She had only a single tooth in the lower jaw. In the nervous and excitable state I was on, her face made an instant and revolting impression on me – the long yellow tooth looked like a finger sticking out of her jaw, and as she turned toward me, her eyes wee full of sausage. I lost my appetite instantly, and felt nauseated." (in Hunger)
Knut Hamsun was born in Lom in the Gudbrandsdalen Valley in central Norway, the fourth son of Peder Petersen, a skilled itinerant tailor, and Tora (Olsdatter Garmotraedet) Pedersen. When Hamsun was three the family moved to the town of Hamarøy, some 100 miles north of the Arctic Circle. There Peder Petersen took charge a farm, owned by his brother-in-law Hans Olsen, who ran the village library and post office. Olsen became a victim of paralytic illness and claimed that the Pedersens owed him money. Hamsun was not allowed to play with the other children but he started to work for Olsen, keep the post office accounts, and chop wood, to pay the debt to him,. Later Hamsun returned in his works to his ill treatment – Olsen he called "red-bearded messenger of death."
During this period Hamsun turned to books to relieve his feelings of loneliness. Apart from occasional attendance at a travelling school, he had no other formal education. In 1873 Hamsun ran away to Lom, where he was employed as an apprentice in a shop, and fell in love with the shop owner's daughter. He returned to Hamarøy in the following year, and held various jobs. With his friend he wandered in Nordland and Tromssa as a peddler and tramp. His first work of fiction, Den gaadefulde (1877), appeared under the name of Knut Pedersen Hamsund – he was eighteen years old. In 1884, after meeting Mark Twain and writing an article on him, a printer's error dropped the final 'd' on Hamsund. Hamsun accepted his new, accidentally born name.
For the next year Hamsun taught school in Vesterålen, and published his second novel, Bjørger (1878). With the support of a wealthy merchant, Erasmus Zahl, he wrote in Hrdanger the novel Frida. For his disappointment, it was in Copenhagen rejected by the publisher Frederik Hegel. When he asked help from Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson (1832-1910), the older writer advised him to think of a career as an actor. In 1878 Hamsun moved to Christiania (now Oslo), where he lived in poverty. For some time he supported himself as a highway construction worker. Between 1882 and 1884 he wandered in the United States. Returning to Oslo, Hamsun continued his literary career without much success. From 1886 to 1888 he again traveled in the United States, where he worked as a streetcar attendant in Chicago and a farmhand in North Dakota. In Minneapolis he gave lectures. Hamsun was considered eccentric by Norwegian immigrants, but the Unitarian minister and writer Kristofer Janson allowed Hamsun to use his large library. This sojourn produced Fra det moderne Amerikas aandsliv (1889), a satirical description of America and its spiritual life.
Hamsun made his breakthrough in 1890 with The Hunger,
a story about a young writer on his own, unable to find work, starving
and homeless in Christiania. Although his clothing, prospects, and
health fail, he guards his dignity (often comically) and pencil stubs.
The narrator, Pontus, wanders through the streets of the city – "that strange
city no one escapes from until it has left its mark on him..."
Eventually his high-minded articles – now and then purchased by
newspapers – become incomprehensible even to his own fevered thoughts.
There is nothing sentimental in his fasting – it is his own more or
less nihilistic choice. He sells articles to the local paper, and meets
a young woman, who is frightened of his impetuosity. '"Well, I never!"
I blurted out. "Just you wait and see!" And I flung my arms lustily
around her shoulders. Was the girl out of her mind? Did she take me for
a complete greenhorn? Haw-haw, wouldn't I, though, by the living...
None should say about me that I was backward on that score. What a
little devil! If it was juts a matter of pushing on, then..." Losing
his hair in clumps and unable to keep down his hard-won meals, the
narrator finally gets a job as a deckhand on a Russian ship bound for
England. "He fasts. But not in the way a Christian would fast," wrote
Paul Auster in his introduction to Hunger. "He is not denying
earthly life in anticipation of heavenly life; he is simply refusing to
live the life he has been given."
The Hunger expressed similar
modernist tendencies as Edvard Munch's famous painting The Cry
(1893), which did not derive from nature but from introspection,
rejecting the notion of objective reality. The Hunger has been
called the first modern road novel. As a type the young writer, who
bears some resemblance to Dostoevsky's
Underground Man, can be seen a predecessor to Charles Chaplin's famous
screen character, the invincible vagabond, or Henry Miller's narrator
in Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn.
Henning Carlsen's film adaptation from 1966 mostly shows Pontus's
doings outside, but there are much point-of-view shots. The
cinematographer Henning Kristiansen also used the overexposed effect
introduced into the movies by Last Year in Marienbad (1961).
The novel became an immediate sensation, and established Hamsun as a writer of note. Encouraged by this, he criticized in his lectures such idols as Henrik Ibsen and Leo Tolstoy. Mysterier (1892) allowed Hamsun present his contempt for democracy and his admiration of the Nietzschean superman. The mysterious protagonist has several identities, he has no fixed personality. He comes from nowhere and then disappears, commits suicide. Pan (1894), written in the form of a hunter's diary, was a pantheistic story about escape from urban civilization. Lieutenant Thomas Glahn, the hunter, falls in love with a woman who rejects his advances. Hamsun wrote the book during the years which he spent in Paris (1893-1895).
Victoria (1898) is Hamsun's only full-heartedly romantic book, a love story. It was written at the beginning of his marriage with Bergljot Gopfertin, a 25-year old woman, who had separated from her Austrian husband. Hamsun named his daughter Victoria, born in 1902, after the novel. The social gulf between the two young protagonists, Johannes, the miller's son, and Victoria, the daughter of the lord of the manor, appears uncrossable but they don't stop loving each other. At the end Victoria writes a letter to Johannes from her death bed. Bo Widerberg's film adaptation of the novel, which was shown in Cannes in 1979, was a failure mostly because of poor dubbing.
During 1900 Hamsun lived in Finland, writing a long play. He associated with such Finnish cultural figures as Albert Edelfelt, Akseli Gallén-Kallela, Juhani Aho, Alexander Slotte, Jean Sibelius, and Robert Kajanus. Hamsun's active social life and heavy drinking with Finnish artists annoyed his wife. From Finland Hamsun continued his travels to Russia, and the Near East, and settled then in Copenhagen. During this journey, Hamsun developed a great respect for the Islamic work, which he expressed in the play Drottning Tamara (1903). Its basic message is that Christians and Muslims can live in harmony and learn from each other.
After divorce in 1906, Hamsun started to work with his first vagabond book, Under høstræjrnen (1907). In 1909 Hamsun married an actress, Marie Andersen; they had two daughters and two sons. Marie Hamsun, who was twenty-three years younger than her husband, depicted her stormy marriage in her books Regnbuen (1953) and Under gullregnen (1959). According to Marie, their two double beds were not "real double beds" set side by side – Hamsun wanted a room of his own and needed privacy, not only to write but to read or smoke a pipe. However, Marie never slept alone, because she had the company of her children when they were young.
"Solen daler stærkt og det blir en solnedgang så vældig, denne rødme er av mere end guld og blod of den er som er lydløst døn ned i havet. På et skjær sitter to store måser med brystet ret imot kvælsrøden, de ser ut som av råsilke. De snur hode og øine efter båtene men letter ikke. Mariane er i det hele litt tankefuld, hun sier: Hvor de måserne er mystiske, de lever i sin verden og er kanske høie fygler der, ansete fugler der. Så at om de døde nu så blev det kanske savn efter dem i måseverdenen!" (in Segelfoss by, 1915)
In 1911 Hamsun left urban literary circles and moved to a farm in Nordland. After the publication of Markens g røde (The Growth of the Soil) in 1917, he purchased an estate, Nørholm, in southern Norway. He lived there until his death, dividing his time between writing and farming. Like the American port Robert Frost, Hamsun saw himself both as a farmer and a writer, an artist-hero. The old-fashioned agrarian toil became for him an act of individualism.
The Growth of the Soil – "sounds like a piece of Nazi propaganda," as Paul Auster said of the book – earned Hamsun the Nobel Prize. The protagonist is Isak, Hamsun's ideal hero, who lives close to the elements. In Hamsun's idyll the human world and nature are united in a strong, mystical bond. "The wilderness was inhabited and unrecognizable, a blessing had come upon it, life had arisen there from a long dream, human creatures lived there, children played about the houses. And the forest stretched away, big and kindly, right up to the blue heights." Although Hamsun's feeling for the nature was not merely a Norwegian version of the Teutonic Blut und Boden (blood-and-soil) mystic, his sentiments were broadly shared in Germany, where his novels had a wide readership.
Between the wars Hamsun became a virtual recluse. He took a stand against socialism, democracy, feminism, and urban life. After a mental breakdown, followed by psychoanalytic treatment, he wrote Landstrykare (1930), August (1930), and Men livet lever (1933), which form his Vagabond trilogy. Individualism and antipathy to modern Western culture led Hamsun to support the Germans during their occupation of Norway in World War II. "We are all Germans," the author told his countrymen. Hamsun did not develop this attitude overnight – he had sympathized with the German cause in the First World War when public opinion in Norway overwhelmingly favored Britain and France. Also Nietzschean tradition in fascism fascinated him.
Hamsun never joined the Norwegian Nazi party, but he wrote a series of pro-Fascists articles. Marie, his wife, was more close to Vidkun Quisling, the puppet head of Norway's occupation government. When Hamsun met in 1943 Adolf Hitler and Josef Goebbels, he gave Goebbels his Nobel Prize medal as a token of his esteem. These meetings have inspired stories, in which Hamsun is credited with saving Jews from the Nazis. However, the journalist and writer Arne Tumyr has claimed in his biography of the author, that these stories are not true, and that Hamsun only succeeded in infuriating Hitler with his complaints about the conduct of German troops in his home country.
After the war Hamsun was held in custody for some time – his wife was imprisoned and sentenced to three years hard labor – and transferred in 1945 to a psychiatric clinic in Oslo. From there he was moved to an old-age home in Landvik. Marie was interrogated and when she revealed intimate details about their marriage and sexual life, Hamsun refused to see her for four years. In 1947 Hamsun was tried and fined for his opinions. Ignoring the advice of counsel, he refused to pretend that he was senile and showed little remorse. Upon hearing of Hitler's death, when the war was over, Hamsun wrote: "He was a warrior, a warrior for mankind, and a prophet of the gospel of justice for all nations." It was no wonder that during these years Hamsun's books sold poorly.
According to Harald S. Naess, editor of Hamsun's published letters, the author planned to divorce his wife. Hamsun's explanation of his views and account of his experiences during his trial, På gjengrodde stier (On Overgrown Paths), appeared in 1949, when he was ninety years old. It sold out instantly, and showed that his mental resources were intact. Hamsun died in Nørholm, on February 19, 1952. Since then his reputation has been largely rehabilitated and there is renewed interest in his oeuvre. Hamsun also wrote travel books, essays, and short stories. His dramas were not very successful when they were staged, but Stanislawski is said to have admired Hamsun's work.
For further reading: Knut Hamsun by H.A. Larsen (1922); Mein Vater by T. Hamsun (1940); Der Geist in der Despotie by P. de Mendelssohn (1953); Der Regenbogen by M. Hamsun (1954); Introductions to Hunger by R. Bly and I.B. Singer (1967); On Overgrown Paths by K. Hamsun (1967); Knut Hamsun og Amerika by H.S. Naess (1969); Knut Hamsun: en bibliografi by A. Østby (1972); Knut Hamsun by Harald S. Næss (1984); Enigma: The Life of Knut Hamsun by Robert Ferguson (1987); Knut Hamsun og hans kors by Arne Tumyr (1996). Museum: Hamsun Childhood House, 8294 Hamarøy; open mid-June to mid-August. See also: Per Olov Enquist, Halldór Laxness, Anton Tammsaare. Film: Hamsun (1996), dir. by Jan Troell, starring Max von Sydow, Ghita Norby, Anette Hoff. Based on a book by Thorkild Hansen. Some other writers with Nazi sympathies: Louis-Ferdinand Céline Hanns Johst (German), Richard Walther Darré (German), E. E. Dwinger (German), George Sylvester Viereck (American), Lawrence Dennis (American), H. L. Mencken (American), Elizabeth Dilling (American), V.A. Koskenniemi (Finnish), Robert Brasillach (French), Henry de Montherlant (French), Jean Giono (French), Jean Cocteau (French), Alphonse de Châteaubriant (French), David Irving (British)