KNUT HAMSUN (1859 - 1952)
Knut Hamsun was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1920. Knut Hamsun was born on 4 August 1859 in Garmo, a remote mountain hamlet on the western shore of Lake Vågå. He died at his country estate Nørholm, near Grimstad,
during the night of 19 February 1952. A life of 92 years and 6 months,
stretching from the age of horse-drawn carriages to that of the atom
bomb. A life full of restlessness and complications, yet at the same
time a life rich in experiences. And, most important of all, a life in
the service of words.
One is tempted to ask whether it is at all
possible to find a leitmotiv through this life, something which can
bind all the individual events into a meaningful whole. Some
commentators have tried to reduce the marathon of Hamsun´s life to a
mere 100-metre Nazi sprint, thinking that in this way they would be
able to forge a key which could be used to unlock the "enigma" Knut
Hamsun. It is a rather worthless key: it fits the lock too poorly. The
only tool of any real potential use to someone wishing to fathom Hamsun
and his work is an understanding of his relationship with words.
use as a point of departure the theory that Knut Hamsun wrote his books
in order to further a particular ideology or to earn his livelihood is
to set off on the wrong track. His motive was not the great pleasure he
could obtain from entertaining his fellow human beings with good
stories; not moral indignation and a sense of commitment, not vanity,
social ambition, the desire to be feted and famous, either. All these
elements may have played their part in determining Hamsun´s "choice"
of career, they may also have been of varying consequence at different
times in his career. None, however, was the most important driving
force behind his activity as a writer. Rather than choosing the career
of man of letters, Hamsun probably felt that he had been chosen for it.
He succumbed to an inner necessity, an imperative which doomed him to a
perpetual labour of writing. If ever in the history of Norwegian
literature the use of the word "vocation" is justified, it must be in the case of Hamsun.
His creative talent, his very ability to write was, then, of crucial significance to Hamsun; it was his alpha and his omega. Oscar Wilde wrote in a letter that "to the artist,
expression is the only mode under which he can conceive life at all".
As for Wilde so for Hamsun; writing became a sort of affirmation that
he was still alive.
From his early youth, Hamsun was absorbed by
the opportunities of expression afforded by words and language, and by
their secret lives. In 1888, two years before his break through came
with "Hunger" (Sult), he wrote in an article:
must resound with all the harmonies of music. The writer must always,
at all times, find the tremulous word which captures the thing and is
able to draw a sob from my soul by its very rightness. A word can be
transformed into a colour, light, a smell. It is the writer´s task to
use it in such a way that it serves, never fails, can never be ignored.
The writer must be able to revel and roll in the abundance of words. He
must know not only the direct but also the secret power of a word.
There are overtones and undertones to a word, and lateral echoes, too."
The preacher and writer Kristofer Janson,
who had known Hamsun as a young man, wrote of him that he had never met
a person with the same "pathological passion for aesthetic beauty" as
Hamsun. "He could jump for joy and wallow in delight for a whole day
over an original, particularly expressive adjective he had found in a
book or made up himself".
Marie Hamsun, who was married to the writer for more than forty years, tells in her book of memoirs "The Rainbow" (Regnbuen), published in 1953, how the rest of the family had to suffer when Knut was "pregnant" with one of his books and could not get started properly. He was profoundly depressed and unhappy for as long as the "labour pains" lasted. Several times he promised his family and himself that if he could just finish this book, it would be the last. But
unfortunately - or fortunately, those who admire his skill with words
will say - this was a promise it was impossible to keep.
her marriage to Hamsun, Marie was astounded to hear repeated complaints from her husband about the many tribulations of being an author. But
Marie saw through him. He might well speak deprecatingly of his
ink-slinging occupation, yet she perceived that it was only in this
selfsame occupation that he could find real joy. She writes: "My love
was indeed an ingredient of the atmosphere he needed if he was to
attain true happiness. But I understood that when he, as now, could not
settle down to his work, there was nothing which could offset that. The
happiness I perhaps gave him was only a means, not an end in itself".
be capable of writing or not to be capable of writing, that was the
crucial question. "Well, now we shall see what I am fit for, life,
death or putrefaction", he wrote in a letter home to Marie. She was
alone with the children at Nørholm. Hamsun had packed his writing
materials and gone off to the Ernst Hotel at Kristiansand in order to be able to work undisturbed.
Hamsun´s childhood home at Hamarøy.
When Hamsun was three years old, his family moved to Hamarøy.
Here they earned their living as ordinary farmers, with his father´s
trade to supplement the income: he was a skilled tailor. Knut was the
fourth of seven children.
When only 17 or 18, he tried his hand at creative writing with "The Enigmatic One" (Den Gaadefulde),
which was published in Tromsø in 1877. A year later, "Bjørger" was
published in Bodø. Another work, a long narrative poem "The Reconciliation" (Et gjensyn)
was printed in 1878. These writings, which the hopeful, young budding
author no doubt saw as the first great works on the threshold of a long
life as a writer, proved to be no more than an insignificant interlude
in his literary career, a short-lived "mini-career". Today this teenage Hamsun
is of little interest to anyone but specialist researchers. For the
ordinary reader the most interesting discovery to be made from these
early works would be the fact that even Hamsun at one stage wrote in a
cliché-ridden, obscure style.
Greatly encouraged by his success
in the local environment of Nordland, and with generous financial
support from a wealthy merchant, Erasmus Zahl of Kjerringøy, Hamsun, in 1879, set out into the world with the manuscript of yet another "masterpiece" in his suitcase: the peasant tale "Frida". Some months later he returned, disillusioned, to Norway, to Kristiania after making an abortive attempt to have the book published by Gyldendal in Copenhagen.
long and trying decade ensued. Hamsun lived a turbulent and roving
life, and experimented with many different jobs. Twice (1882-84 and
1886-88) he travelled to America, where he tried working on a farm, as assistant in a store, as tram conductor in
Chicago, and as lecturer. His activities were many and varied,
thing seems to have been a constant: his urge to write. If he was not
satisfied, he might in anger tear to pieces what he had written with
the utmost care in a leisure hour the previous day, but he was
incapable of putting aside paper and pencil forever. Writing was his
spiritual respite from the cold and materialistic world around him,
which condemned him to continuous toil to meet his daily wants.
In the autumn of 1888, he at last caught sight of the first lights at the end of a long, workaday tunnel. After returning from America for the second time, this time for good, he published anonymously in the Danish periodical "Ny Jord" a piece he had called "Hunger" (Sult).
With its original content and compelling prose style, the piece caused
a and the book of the same name, published in 1890, was Hamsun´s
breakthrough. Within two years of its publication, Hunger had been
translated into both German and Russian.
Later in the 1890s a series of works was published which confirmed Hamsun´s reputation as
one of the country´s most promising young authors. In novels such as
"Mysteries" (Mysterier (1892), "Pan" (1894), and "Victoria" (1898), he, with incomparable mastery of language, took as his subject the experiences and emotions of distinctive characters.
tried writing for the stage, though with less success than he had in
the epic genre. His strength seems to have lain in characterisation and
description rather than in developing a dramatic plot. Consequently
there is something static about his drama. "The Game of Life" (Livets Spill) (1896), with its dream play qualities (antedating Strindberg),
is probably the best of his six plays. On several occasions Hamsun
spoke deprecatingly of drama as an art form. "It is impossible for the
dramatist to be a penetrating psychologist", he wrote in an article in
1890. "Besides", he admitted to an admirer, "I don´t care about plays,
only about the money they earn".
After a failed marriage - to
Bergliot Bech, lasting from 1898 till 1906 - Hamsun had by 1909
sufficient courage to try again. Marie Andersen (born in 1881) was to
be his companion until the end of his life - despite the souring of
their relationship after the Second World War. Marie was a young and promising actress when she met Hamsun, but she broke off her career and travelled with him to his childhood home at Hamarøy.
There they bought a farm, the idea being to earn their living as
farmers, with his writing providing some additional income. However,
after a few years Hamsun discovered - to Marie´s regret - that Hamarøy was after all not the place for him, and they moved South, to Larvik.
In 1918, the couple bought Nørholm, an old and somewhat dilapidated manor house between Lillesand and Grimstad.
The main residence was restored and redecorated to perfection, new farm
buildings erected, and new land put under the plough. Hamsun could busy
himself with his writing undisturbed, in a special "writing hut"
of his own a short distance from the farm, but it was as though his
migratory youth had established a pattern in him it was impossible to
Often he had to travel elsewhere to get his writing going.
the turn of the century, Hamsun stopped writing novels which focused on
one individual, and changed to a broader, socio-historical format.
"Children of the Age" (Børn af Tiden), (1913) and "Segelfoss Town" (Segelfoss By) (1915) were published, books largely based on the reality of North Norwegian society. They were followed in 1917 by "The Growth of the Soil" (Markens Grøde), for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature three years later.
Knut Hamsun was born on 4 August 1859 in Garmo, a remote mountain hamlet on the western shore of Lake Vågå.
message to a world in need was; return to the soil, and to the basic
values. Isak, the main character in the book is described as "a tiller
of the soil, body and soul; a worker of the land without respite. A
ghost risen out of the past to point the future, a man from the
earliest days of cultivation, a settler in the wilds, nine hundred
years old, and, withal, a man of the day". Only now did the general
reading public in England and America begin to take note of his name. Several of his earlier works were translated into English, but he never enjoyed the same success there as in Germany, for example.
the 1920s and 1930s Knut Hamsun´s popularity was at its peak. A number
of new works were published in large editions and were immediately
translated into all the major languages of the world. Among the most
popular were the novels about the adventurer and jack-of-all-trades
August: "Wayfarers" (Landstrykere) (1927), "August" (1930), and "The Road Leads On" (Men livet lever) (1933). For Hamsun´s 70th birthday in 1929, a Festschrift was issued, in which many of the world´s leading authors paid tribute to the great master. Among the contributors were Thomas Mann, André Gide, Maxim Gorky, John Galsworthy and H. G. Wells.
But dark and threatening clouds were gathering on the political horizon. Adolf Hitler seized power in Germany, and embarked on an ominous sabre rattling. Hamsun, who had been friendlily disposed towards Germany since the days of the Empire, through the First World War and the Weimar Republic, adhered to his pro-German sympathies. The painful years began in earnest when the Germans occupied Norway in 1940. Seen with patriotic Norwegian eyes, Hamsun found himself on the wrong side in a life-and-death struggle.
At the liberation of Norway
in 1945, Hamsun emerged as a rather diminished figure. He was forced to
undergo a harsh mental examination, and the psychiatrists conclusion
was that he had "permanently impaired mental
faculties". In an ensuing court case he was sentenced to pay a ruinous
sum to the Norwegian government
as compensation for the moral support he had given to the occupying
power. His prospects were rather dismal. Where, for instance, would he
find any income in future? The value of his most important asset, his
author´s copyright, could in his present situation be written off as
Marie and Knut Hamsun bought the farm Skogheim, the idea being to earn their living as farmers, with his writing providing some additional income.
Both during and after the Second World War,
many Norwegians would, had they had the power to do so, have exhorted
Hamsun to return to the anonymity from which he had once emerged. Yet
it was impossible to reduce Knut Hamsun to silence. His need to
express himself and his urge to write were too strong. That his talent,
too, was unimpaired he showed in "On Overgrown Paths" (Paa gjengrodde Stier)
1949. In this, his last book, he hit back at the director general of
public prosecutions and the psychiatrists for their treatment of him.
That apart, the work exudes resignation and sadness. Old and new events parade before the incessantly writing man of letters: "One, two, three
four - thus I sit and make notes and write little pieces for myself. It is to no purpose, just an old habit. I leak muted words. I am a dripping tap, one, two,
Knut Hamsun´s influence on 20th-century literature in Europe and America can hardly be overestimated. What was revolutionary about books such as "Hunger" and "Mysteries"
was first and foremost their contribution to a new understanding of
For the first time, modern, alienated and anxiety-ridden Man appeared
in literature. With his insight into the aberrations of the psyche,
Hamsun, anticipating Freud and Jung,
laid the foundations for an extension of our cognition. Into the domain
of literature came the ambivalent and composite, at times incoherent
elements in the pattern
of human reactions. And his descriptive prose was so skilful and
assured in style that it, too, became a model to be emulated.
In 1929, Thomas Mann maintained that the Nobel Prize for Literature had never been awarded to someone who deserved it more. And writers such as
Franz Kafka, Berthold Brecht, and Henry Miller have all expressed their admiration of Hamsun. In an introduction to an American edition of "Hunger", Isaac Bashevis Singer states that Hamsun
"is the father of the modern school of literature in his every aspect -
his subjectiveness, his fragmentariness, his use of flashbacks, his
lyricism. The whole modern school of fiction in the twentieth century
stems from Hamsun".
What, then, is Hamsun´s reputation in Norway
today? We must unfortunately place on record the fact that his
political views still cast their long and compromising shadows over
him, both as an author and as an individual. More than forty years after the end of the Second World War, many Norwegians have an ambivalent attitude towards him, a love / hate relationship that
springs from disappointed expectations.
"Official Norway" takes
little visible notice of Hamsun. Generally speaking, Norwegians are
very keen to honour their men of letters, but they let Hamsun
exception. There is no major thoroughfare, square or public building
called after him. His portrait is on no banknote, nor has a postage
stamp been issued to commemorate him. The closest Norway has come so
far to any sort of "official" recognition of Hamsun is the Ministry of Foreign Affairs organisation of a Hamsun seminar in Paris in the
autumn of 1994. The purpose of the seminar was to strengthen Norwegian-French cultural ties.
But though Hamsun may be
"officially dead", he has always been alive and topical in literary and
cultural circles. People think, talk and write about him continually. Seven times since 1982, Hamsun Days have been arranged at Hamarøy. These festivals highlight the arts as a whole in that part of the country, yet Hamsun always has a prominent role. A Hamsun Society
was founded in 1988. Its aims are to promote greater understanding of
the author and his writings. The Society publishes a yearbook, among
Other Hamsun publications published in recent years
include Jan Fr. Marstrander´s doctoral thesis "Battle for life and
perception of reality" (Livskamp og virkelighetsoppfatning)
(1993) dealing with his literary work from 1877 to 1887, before his breakthrough; Harald S. Næss
planned six-volume edition of Knut Hamsun´s letters, of which two
volumes have been published (the last one in 1995); and the Thorheim /
Grepstad literary duo´s "Hamsun in Fairy Tale Land. Life in Nordland
and Poetry" (Hamsun i Æventyrland. Nordlandsliv og dikting) (1995). A new book about Hamsun was also published in 1995, in connection with the Hamsun Society´s publication of Lurtonen, a newly discovered, previously unknown narrative poem all of 56 stanzas long, written some time at the end of the 1870s.
Proof that Hamsun is a "living"
author is further demonstrated by the continual release of new screen
versions of his works. Among the latest events on this front are Erik Gustavson´s "The Telegraphist" (1993), based on the 1904 novel "Dreamers" and Henning Carlsen´s "Two Green Feathers" (1994). The latest Hamsun film at this juncture is Jan Troell´s "Hamsun" (1996), based on Thorkild Hansen´s 1978 book "The Trial Against Hamsun". Max von Sydow plays the lead in this cinematic opus, which along with "The Telegraphist" and "Green Feathers" have all drawn large audiences.
then awaits the Hamsun-hungry tourist who comes to Norway, eager to
follow in that writer´s footsteps and absorb impressions of the places
lived in and visited by him? At Garmo, enthusiasts have rebuilt the house where Hamsun was born: a small museum has been established there. Also at Garmo there is a nine-metre high monument, inset with a relief portrait by the sculptor Wilhelm Rasmussen, unveiled in 1960. At Hamarøy
there is the same sort of privately run museum, also with a statue. The
latter, whose artistic qualities have been debated, is the work of a Greek, Georg Themistokles Malto. He sculpted the bust from a photograph, and presented it to the municipality of Hamarøy. At Kjerringøy there is yet another statue, a bust of Knut Hamsun as a young man. It is by Thore Bjørn Skjølsvik, and was unveiled by Tore Hamsun, painter and son of Knut Hamsun, during the 1984 "Hamsun Days".
Nørholm also features a work of art. In the park
in front of the residence, visitors permitted to enter the place (the
estate is still owned by the family) may admire another of Wilhelm Rasmussen´s works: a bust made during the last war. Hamsun´s earthly remains are encased in the plinth. Rasmussen
worked from the life; for three days on end, Hamsun sat on the table in
his cold atelier, and drank hot chocolate in an attempt to keep in the
warmth. "He stayed the course most bravely, though he was freezing", Rasmussen relates. When
the bust was finished, Hamsun maintained that it looked as if his teeth
Hamsun himself was far from thrilled by his fame all of the time. It is
true that in his younger days he could on occasion behave in a waggish
and self-advertising manner in order to attract sufficient attention to
his works, yet over the years, being in the limelight became an
increasing strain on him. On his birthdays he would flee to an unknown
address in order to avoid public attention. It pained him to be
besieged and gawked at. It might be a consolation to those who regret
that there is so little public celebration of Hamsun to learn that he would probably not have appreciated being feted in such a way.
In connection with the publication of Kristian Elster´s history of literature in 1923-4, which was to include Hamsun, the publisher Gyldendal
contacted Hamsun and asked him if he could
provide some pictures of his birthplace. Full of irony and ridicule he
replied, "I have just received from two different sources thoroughly
documented statements to the effect that I was born both at Lom and at Vågå,
so that must be true. Seven places dispute...." "However", he added,
"if only there is enough money, I may well get a statue - perhaps an
equestrian statue - at both Lom and Vågå". (Later findings show that he was born in Vågå.)
"On Overgrown Paths", Hamsun reverts to the subject of an equestrian
statue. He was fully aware of the honour and renown he had lost, but
consoled himself with the argument that
time would prove a pitiless master for others, too. "Time takes it.
Time takes everything and everyone. I lose a little of my reputation in
the world, a portrait, a bust; there would hardly have been an
equestrian statue anyway". Knut Hamsun´s time in the service of words
was running out.
Lars Frode Larsen