History of Literature

Knut Hamsun


Knut Hamsun


Knut Hamsun

Knut Hamsun, pseudonym of Knut Pedersen (b. August 4, 1859, Lom, Norway—d. February 19, 1952, near Grimstad), Norwegian novelist, dramatist, poet, and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1920. A leader of the Neoromantic revolt at the turn of the century, he rescued the novel from a tendency toward excessive naturalism.

Of peasant origin, Hamsun spent most of his childhood in the remote Lofoten Islands and had almost no formal education. He started to write at age 19, when he was a shoemaker’s apprentice in Bodø, in northern Norway. During the next 10 years, he worked as a casual labourer. Twice he visited the United States, where he held a variety of mostly menial jobs in Chicago, North Dakota, and Minneapolis, Minnesota.

His first publication was the novel Sult (1890; Hunger), the story of a starving young writer in Norway. Sult marked a clear departure from the social realism of the typical Norwegian novel of the period. Its refreshing viewpoint and impulsive, lyrical style had an electrifying effect on European writers. Hamsun followed his first success with a series of lectures that revealed his obsession with August Strindberg and attacked such idols as Henrik Ibsen and Leo Tolstoy, and he produced a flow of works that continued until his death.

Like the asocial heroes of his early works—e.g., Mysterier (1892; Mysteries), Pan (1894; Eng. trans. Pan), and Victoria (1898; Eng. trans. Victoria)—Hamsun either was indifferent to or took an irreverent view of progress. In a work of his mature style, Markens grøde (1917; Growth of the Soil), he expresses a back-to-nature philosophy. But his message of fierce individualism, influenced by Friedrich Nietzsche and Strindberg, remains constant. Consistent to the end in his antipathy to modern Anglo-American culture, Hamsun supported the Germans during their occupation of Norway in World War II. After the war he was imprisoned as a traitor, but charges against him were dropped in view of his age. He was, however, convicted of economic collaboration and had to pay a fine that ruined him financially.

Hamsun’s collaboration with the Nazis seriously damaged his reputation, but after his death critical interest in his works was renewed and new translations made them again accessible to an international readership. Already in 1949, at age 90, he had made a remarkable literary comeback with Paa gjengrodde stier (On Overgrown Paths), which was in part memoir, in part self-defense, but first and foremost a treasure trove of vibrant impressions of nature and the seasons. His deliberate irrationalism and his wayward, spontaneous, impressionistic style had wide influence throughout Europe, and such writers as Maksim Gorky, Thomas Mann, and Isaac Bashevis Singer acknowledged him as a master.

A six-volume comprehensive edition of Hamsun’s letters, Knut Hamsuns brev, was published in Norwegian (1994–2001), with two volumes of Selected Letters (1990–98) appearing in English translation.



Knut Hamsun

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Knut Hamsun, born Knud Pedersen (August 4, 1859 - February 19, 1952) was a Norwegian author. He was considered by Isaac Bashevis Singer to be the "father of modern literature", and by King Haakon to be Norway's soul. In 1920, the Nobel Committee awarded him the Nobel Prize in Literature, "for his monumental work, Growth of the Soil". He insisted that the intricacies of the human mind ought to be the main object of modern literature, to describe the "whisper of the blood, and the pleading of the bone marrow". Hamsun pursued his literary program, debuting in 1890 with the psychological novel Hunger.


Knut Hamsun was born as Knud Pedersen in Vågå, Gudbrandsdal, Norway. He was the fourth son of Peder Pedersen and Tora Olsdatter (Garmostrædet). He grew up in poverty in Hamarøy in Nordland. At 17, he became an apprentice to a ropemaker, and at about the same time he started to write. He spent several years in America, traveling and working at various jobs, and published his impressions under the title Fra det moderne Amerikas Aandsliv (1889).

In 1898, Hamsun married Bergljot Goepfert (née Bech), but the marriage ended in 1906. Hamsun then married Marie Andersen (b. 1881) in 1909 and she would be his companion until the end of his life. She wrote about their life together in her two memoirs. Marie was a young and promising actress when she met Hamsun, but she ended her career and traveled with him to Hamarøy. 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, they decided to move 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. Here Hamsun could occupy himself writing undisturbed, although he often travelled to write in other cities and places (preferably in spartan housing).

Knut Hamsun died in his home at Nørholm, aged 92 in 1952.

Hamsun first received wide acclaim with his 1890 novel Hunger (Sult). The semi-autobiographical work described a young writer's descent into near madness as a result of hunger and poverty in the Norwegian capital of Kristiania. To many, the novel presaged the writings of Franz Kafka and other twentieth-century novelists with its internal monologue and bizarre logic.

A theme to which Hamsun often returned is that of the perpetual wanderer, an itinerant stranger (often the narrator) who shows up and insinuates himself into the life of small rural communities. This wanderer theme is central to the novels Mysteries, Pan, Under the Autumn Star, The Last Joy, Vagabonds, and others.

Hamsun’s prose often contains rapturous depictions of the natural world, with intimate reflections on the Norwegian woodlands and coastline. For this reason, he has been linked with the spiritual movement known as pantheism. Hamsun saw mankind and nature united in a strong, sometimes mystical bond. This connection between the characters and their natural environment is exemplified in the novels Pan, A Wanderer Plays on Muted Strings, and the epic Growth of the Soil, the novel which is credited with securing the Nobel Prize in literature in 1920 for Hamsun.

A fifteen-volume edition of his complete works was published in 1954. In 2009, to mark the 150-year anniversary of his birth, a new 27-volume edition of his complete works was published, including short stories, poetry, plays and articles not included in the 1954 edition. For this new edition, all of Hamsun's works underwent slight linguistic modifications in order to make them more accessible to modern-day readers.

Political sympathies
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Hamsun was a prominent advocate of Germany and German culture (i.e., he was a Germanophile), as well as a rhetorical opponent of British imperialism and the Soviet Union, and he supported Germany during both the First and the Second World War. Despite his immense popularity in Norway and around the world, Hamsun's reputation for a time waned considerably because of his support of Vidkun Quisling's National Socialist government. Following a meeting with Joseph Goebbels in May 1943, he sent Goebbels his Nobel Prize medal as a gift.

While in his 80s, and largely deaf, Hamsun met with Adolf Hitler. His audience with him is recorded to have been mostly him complaining about the Nazi depredations against Norwegians. Hamsun tried to have him remove Josef Terboven from the position of Reichskommissar of Norway.

But in the meeting with Goebbels around the same time, Hamsun made clear his support for Nazi Germany and his dislike of the English and distaste for the US. He said that based on his experience of living in the US, he believed that the people there were devoid of culture. Goebbels ordered that 100,000 extra copies of his books should be printed in Germany. In his Diary Goebbels noted that the meeting with Hamsun was "one of the most precious encounters of his life."

According to Bennett Cerf's book Try and Stop Me, after Hamsun's alliance with the Quislingites became widely known, angry Norwegians sent copies of his books back to his hometown in such numbers that the small post office in the town had to hire temporary workers to assist in handling the volumes of books arriving.

After Hitler's death, Hamsun wrote an obituary in the leading Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten, describing him as a "warrior for mankind". It has been argued that his "sympathies" were those of a country that had been occupied. He sometimes used his status as a man of fame to improve the conditions of his area during the occupation and criticized the number of executions. Still, following the end of the war, angry crowds burned his books in public in major Norwegian cities.

Postwar Trial for Treason
Hamsun's wartime pronouncements in support of the German occupation regime could easily have been punishable under existing Norwegian treason laws and wartime ordinances passed in relation to treasonous acts. After the conclusion of World War II in May, 1945, Hamsun was initially held under house arrest. Police constable Finn Christensen took a statement from Hamsun on June 20, 1945. In the statement Hamsun denied being politically active or being a member of the fascist Nasjonal Samling (N.S.) party led by Vidkun Quisling but was open about his connections with both the party and with the German occupation regime. Hamsun denied in his statement that he was trying cover up his involvement, indicating that he wished he could have "gone further," to help them, because he believed it had been, "in Norway's best interests" at the time.

Hamsun was then confined for several months in a psychiatric hospital. Following a long period of psychological investigation that tormented the author and weakened him considerably, on February 5, 1946 psychiatrist Gabriel Langfeldt and head doctor Ørnulv Ødegård concluded that Hamsun had "lasting weakened mental capacities."  On the basis of this judgement the criminal treason case against Hamsun was dropped.

Civil Liability Trial
Instead of a criminal treason trial, a civil liability case was raised against the author. Hamsun was called to summons May 16, 1946 in response to the accusation that he was a member of Nasjonal Samling. In contrast to an earlier claim in legal documents that Hamsun, "consented to" membership in the party, the civil liability charge rested on the accusation of the more basic objective question of actual membership in the party.

The main hearing of Hamsun's case took place December 16, 1947 and lasted only one day. The judgement in the case was delivered December 19, 1947. In a vote of two to one, he was sentenced to pay civil compensation charges of 425,000 kroner and court costs of 250 kroner. The judges in support of the ruling placed emphasis on the fact that Hamsun was listed in the N.S. party's membership card index and the fact that in a questionnaire sent out by the NS political press office, Hamsun described himself as "Quisling's man."

Supreme Court Appeal
The case was appealed to the Norwegian supreme court on the December 29 and the case was heard by the court from the June 18-19, 1948, with a judgement handed down on the June 23. The supreme court judgement unanimously affirmed the validity of the previous ruling regarding Hamsun's membership but the compensation demanded was reduced to 325,000 kroner and 500 kroner in court costs in light of the reduced financial circumstances of the accused. In its judgement, the court again emphasized that Hamsun was in the party membership index, had a member number, had worn an N.S. symbol on his clothing during the occupation, that he filled out, signed, and returned a questionnaire for a party organization which was based on the assumption of membership, that he had stated he was "Quisling's man" and that in his preliminary hearing on the June 23, 1945 had stated he had "slid into the [N. S.] organization."

Criticism of the Court Rulings Against Hamsun
The fact that no criminal treason trial was held and Hamsun did not serve a punitive sentence in prison for his wartime actions has not reduced the controversy surrounding the treason proceedings against Norway's most famous 20th century author in the postwar period. Because the civil trial hinged upon the question of membership in the N.S. party, rather than upon Hamsun's support for the German war effort, or praise of Quisling and fascist political ideals, much discussion about the legal aspects of Hamsun's postwar trial has focused on two issues: the validity of the initial judgement of Hamsun's weakened mental faculties, and Hamsun's formal relationship with the wartime fascist N.S. party that led to the court ruling against him.

Hamsun's Allegedly Weakened Mental Capacities
Critics of the handling of the psychological evaluation of Hamsun in the aftermath of World War II emphasize both the inhumane treatment of the author as well as the final evaluation itself. With respect to the latter, it has been pointed out that some who met Hamsun during this period, including Christian Gierløffs who visited the author at Landvik home for the elderly in the fall of 1945, found Hamsun to be in full command of his mental faculties. It has also been argued that his final 1949 novel On Overgrown Paths does not reveal any weakening of Hamsun's mental capacities. Already by June 1946 there were some 47 pages of the original manuscript completed from this work



Growth of the Soil

Knut Hamsun

Growth of the Soil, which led to Hamsun's Nobel Prize win in 1920, strives for a plain and uncomplicated prose suitable to the simplistic lifestyles of the farming community it describes. Beginning with one man's lone arrival in the Norwegian wilds, the narrative follows him as he clears the land, builds up his farm, marries, and has a family. This sense of the solitary hero forging his life gives an epic trajectory to a novel that seeks to explore the hardships facing those who iive on the land, and to portray the isolation felt in small, rural communities. Although no paean to rural idylls, Hamsun's narrative gently prizes the qualities of hard-working, plain-thinking people whose lives follow the rhythm of nature's cycles. Repetition is indeed one of the keys to the novel, which is not without its dark underbelly of selfishness and even infanticide. In following two generations, it tracks the alterations wrought by man upon the land, and records the inevitable technological changes that slowly come to transform farming methods. As a family saga it also traces the troubles, tensions, and love within familial life, as the younger generation matures and the parents age. Growth of the Soil evinces an almost romantic nostalgia for the slow-changing earthy lives of the rural wilderness; this came at a time when the culture and celebrity of city living had come to make such communities seem archaic. In this winning, if strangely sad, novel, it is a now obsolete way of life that Hamsun portrays.



Knut Hamsun

Hamsun's reputation has suffered from his Nazi sympathies, but his early, semi-autobiographical portrait of the writer as a hungry young man is a seminal modernist classic. Influenced by Dostoevsky, Hamsun here develops a kind of Nietzschean individualism that rebelled against both naturalism and the progressive literary politics associated with Ibsen. The urban angst of Hunger prefigures the alienated cityscapes of Kakfa, but with an Insistence on tensions between everyday economics and colloquial reverie worthy of James Kelman.
Told with the urgency of a starved present tense, the novel traces the various degradations of the narrator as he attempts to sustain himself through writing. Sometimes feverish from lack of food, other times merely contemptuous of humanity, the narrator has an overdeveloped sense of personal worth.The resulting encounters and misperceptions are both darkly existential and hilarious. Hunger gradually pulls apart the relation between need and dignity, inducing representations of madness that have an almost hallucinatory effect. Juxtaposing his fantasies and petty crimes with no less petty strategies of revenge and dreams of respect, the novel is carefully balanced between affirming this writer as exceptional and revealing him as a deluded soul, comically lost to spite and stupidity. In ways that prefigure the intellectual down and outs of Beckett's work, Hunger is an antidote for anyone planning a career as a starving writer.



Type of work: Novel
Author: Knut Hamsun (Knut Pedersen, 1859-1952)
Type of plot: Impressionistic realism
Time of plot: Late nineteenth century
Locale: Norway
First published: Suit, 1890 (English translation, 1899)


In Hunger we find a striking study of a man's mind under stress; realistic in subject, the novel's form and treatment are highly impressionistic. This is the novel that established Hamsun's reputation.


Principal Characters

The Narrator, a young man down on his luck who writes articles and plays. He is paid so little for his work, however, that he is desperately hungry most of the time. He tells his story in the feverish state of mind that hunger produces. It is a story of his encounters in the town with girls, beggars, pawnbrokers, old friends, policemen, editors, potential employers. Sick with hunger, he is eventually turned out of his room and, finally and violently, out of the house itself. His story ends when he throws into his landlady's face a crumpled envelope containing a half sovereign and a letter from a woman.
An Old Cripple, a penniless beggar to whom the narrator gives a halfpenny after he has pawned his waistcoat to get the money.
Two Women, who are strolling about the town. They take the narrator for a madman because he tells the younger one that she is losing her book, when the fact of the matter is that she carries no book with her. Later, the younger woman—now The Lady in Black—befriends the narrator because she is an adventuresome girl who is intrigued with the idea of odd experiences, including those madmen might provide for her.
A Company Manager, an employer who refuses to give the narrator a job as a bookkeeper because he made a careless mistake on his application.
A Policeman, an officer who sends the narrator to the police barracks as a homeless man.
A Pawnbroker, a merchant who laughs at the narrator when he appears at the pawnshop to sell the buttons from his coat.
An Editor, a kindly gentleman who likes the narrator's work but cannot accept his sketch on Correggio. He offers the narrator money, certain that the narrator can repay the obligation with his writing, but the narrator refuses the advance.
A Young Clerk, a boy who gives the narrator change for a crown when he has given the boy only a florin with which to buy a candle. The narrator profits by the clerk's mistake by renting a room in a hotel and buying two full meals.
A Landlady, a woman with a family who patiently waits for the narrator to pay his rent. She finally rents his room to a sailor but allows the narrator to sleep in the house. She throws him out of the house, however, when he protests the children's cruel game of sticking straws into the nose of the paralyzed grandfather who lies in a bed before the fire.
A Beautiful Girl, dressed in silk, who appears to the narrator in a dream. She offers him erotic pleasure.


The Story

I awoke at six o'clock and lay awake in my bed until eight. Hungry, I searched in my packet of odds and ends, but there was not even a crumb of bread. I knew that I should have gone out early to look for work, but I had been refused so often I was almost afraid to venture out again.
At last I took some paper and went out, for if the weather permitted I could write in the park. There were several good ideas in my head for newspaper articles. In the street an old cripple with a big bundle was using all of his strength to keep ahead of me.
When I caught up with him, he turned around and whined for a halfpenny to buy milk. Not having a cent on me, I hurried back to the pawnbroker's dark shop. In the hall I took off my waistcoat and rolled it in a ball. The pawnbroker gave me one and six for it. I found the old cripple again and gave him his halfpenny. He stared at me with his mouth open as I hurried away.
Two women, one of them young, were idly strolling about. When I told the young woman that she would lose her book, she looked frightened and they hurried on. Seeing them standing before a shop window, I went up to them again and told the younger woman that she was losing her book. She looked herself over in a bewildered way; she had no book. I kept following them, but they put me down as a harmless madman.
In the park I could not write a thing. Little flies stuck to my paper. All afternoon I tried to brush them off. Then I wrote an application for a job as bookkeeper. After a day or two, I went to see the man in person. He laughed at my desire to become a bookkeeper because I had dated my letter 1848, years before I was born. I went home discouraged.
On my table was a letter. I thought it a notice from my landlady, for I was behind in my rent. But no, my story had been accepted. The editor said it would be printed right away. He had included half a sovereign in payment. I had written a masterpiece, and I had a half sovereign.
A few weeks later I went out for an evening walk and sat in a churchyard with a new manuscript. At eight o'clock, when the gates were closed, I meant to go straight home to the vacant tinker's workshop which 1 had permission to occupy, but I stumbled around hardly knowing where I was. I felt feverish because I had not eaten for several days. At last I sat down and dozed off. I dreamed that a beautiful girl dressed in silk waited for me in a doorway and led me down a hall, she holding my hand. We went into a crimson room where she clasped me tightly and begged me to kiss her.
A policeman woke me up and advised me to go to the police barracks as a homeless man. When I got there, I lied about my name and said that it was too late for me to get back to my lodgings. The officer believed me and gave me a private room. In the morning, thinking I was only a young rake instead of a destitute, the police gave me no breakfast ticket. I drank a lot of water, but I could scarcely keep it down.
Faint with hunger, I cut the buttons from my coat and tried to pawn them, but the pawnbroker laughed at me. On the way out, I met a friend bringing his watch to pawn. He fed me and gave me five shillings.
I went to see an editor who critically read my sketch on Correggio. He was kind, saying that he would like to publish my work but that he had to keep his subscribers in mind. He asked if 1 could write something more to the common taste. When I prepared to leave, he also asked me if I needed money. He was sure I could write it out. Although I had not eaten a real meal for some time, I thanked him and left without an advance payment.
A lady in black stood every night on the corner by my tinker's garret. She would look intently at my lodging for a while and then pass on. After several days, I spoke to her and accompanied her on her walk. She said she had no special interest in my poor garret or in me. When she lifted her veil, I saw that she was the woman I had followed and spoken to about the book. She was merry with me and seemed to enjoy my company.
One night she took me to her home. Once inside, we embraced; then we sat down and began to talk. She confessed that she was attracted to me because she thought I was a madman. She was an adventurous girl, on the lookout for odd experiences. I told her the truth about myself, that I acted oddly because I was so poor. Much of the time I was so hungry that I had a fever. She found my story hard to believe, but I convinced her. She was sympathetic for a moment. I had to leave, for her mother was returning, and I never saw her again.
I awoke sick one morning. All day I shivered in bed. Toward night I went down to the little shop below to buy a candle, for I felt I had to write something. A boy was alone in the store. I gave him a florin for my candle, but he gave me change for a crown. I stared stupidly at the money in my hand for a long time, but I got out without betraying myself.
I took a room in a real hotel and had a chamber to myself and breakfast and supper. About the time my money was gone, I started on a medieval play. The landlady trusted me for quite a while, for I explained that I would pay her as soon as my play was finished. One night she brought a sailor up to my room and turned me out, but she let me go down and sleep with the family.
For some time I slept on a sofa in the entry way; once in a while a servant gave me bread and cheese. In my nervous condition it was hard to be meek and grateful. The break came one evening when the children were amusing themselves by sticking straws into the nose and ears of the paralyzed grandfather who lay on a bed before the fire. I protested against their cruel sport. The landlady flew at me in a rage and ordered me out.
I wandered down to the docks and got a berth on a Russian freighter going to England. I came back to the hotel for my possessions and on the step met the postman. He handed me a letter addressed in a feminine hand. Inside was a half sovereign. I crumpled the envelope and coin together and threw them in the landlady's face.


Critical Evaluation

Knut Hamsun's Hunger is part of the literary tradition of impressionistic realism. This so-called "modernistic" school deals in part with subjective reality, and it is particularly in this regard that Hamsun's position in the movement is most secure.
Hunger grew out of the same general environment that produced at the end of the nineteenth century Sigmund Freud and his works. Hamsun delves into the subconscious of his protagonist and comes up with an excellent depiction of madness as seen from inside the mind of the madman. The fact that this madness derives from hunger is significant, because this story of a young journalist literally starving to death is autobiographical to some extent. When Hamsun first presented the manuscript of his work for publication, the editor was so struck by his emaciation that he paid Hamsun an advance on the work, without even bothering to read the title. The story told by the editor is closely paralleled in the novel.
On one level, this is a madman's story of a madman, but on another, it is an account of life in a large city of the industrial age. The city where the action takes place, Christiania, is like any city where people try to sell their art, their literature, or their journalism and discover that there is no market for the best they have to offer. Like modern-day Los Angeles and New York, Christiania is presented as a city full of people who seek fame and fortune but who find instead that they are not capable of reaching their goals. Characteristically, this sort of person often becomes discouraged and is obliged to seek employment in a field far removed from his original ambition. The protagonist of Hunger finds himself in just this situation. He is unable to make a career for himself in the environment of a large city of the industrial age.
What lifts this novel from a mere story about a poor boy doing poorly in the big city is Hamsun's description of the internal workings of the human mind. He demonstrates the foolish pride and motiveless behavior that come from a tenuous existence such as the protagonist of the novel leads. The starving man in this novel is one who lies, as the saying goes, even when it is not necessary. He has no regular habits and is at the mercy of his own strange whims. The incident of his persistence in telling a strange woman on the street that she has lost her nonexistent book is a case in point. He lies to save his pride time and again, even in the face of starvation.
Hamsun explains that at the stage when the body is starving, the mind falters and mistakes the inconsequential of life for life's necessities and cannot distinguish between the two. Hamsun terrifyingly depicts in this book the odd sort of seemingly lucid logic that is to an impartial observer nothing but the worst sort of nonsense.
While Hamsun is able to depict the workings of such a mind broken by the stress of hunger, he does not present a full picture of the book's protagonist. Yet, because of this omission, his study of psychological pressure is all the more vivid and effective. The reader does not know much about the young man in the novel, only that he is starving and periodically reduced to chewing on wood shavings or bits of cloth. Hamsun focuses the reader's full attention upon the issue of the mind, and he does so in a masterful fashion.
On yet a third level, this book is also a portrait of a failure. Indeed, the book is a collection of episodes that are united only by the underlying themes. The book is divided into four sections, each one describing the thoughts and actions of the protagonist as he suffers the effects of starvation at different times. There is, strictly speaking, no beginning or end to the novel. At the end of each section there is a stroke of good luck. The protagonist sells a story or gets a loan. Then the novel immediately jumps to the next episode in his life when he is starving, and the cycle begins again.
At the end of the book the young writer joins the crew of a steamship bound for England. The effect of this ending, however, is one not of escape but of pessimism. There is a flaw in this man's character, one that Hamsun only hints at, that damns him to a continuing cycle of luck and hunger. It is a cycle that the reader at the end of the novel feels can lead eventually only to death.



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