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A Kink in his Crock: Norway’s Nobel Nazi

Knut Hamsun: Dreamer & DissenterKnut Hamsun: Dreamer & Dissenter by Ingar Sletten Kolloen

Reviewed by William H. Gass
Harper's Magazine

Once the only Knut Americans knew was Knute Rockne. Although the lesser-known Knut was born a generation before the celebrated one, and obtained a Nobel Prize in literature, our better-known Knute won a record number of football games for the University of Notre Dame. A Catholic God gave his team these victories in spite of their Lutheran leadership. The famous coach-to-be picked up the additional "e" when, at the age of five, his family emigrated from Norway to Chicago. Only Ireland sent a greater proportion of its impoverished population to the United States, and these Norsemen naturally headed toward areas with familiar climates, similar ores. Michigan had iron, Minnesota lakes, North Dakota snow, but none had mountains. This absence had to be suffered.

In his youth, Hamsun spent some time in Chicago as a cable-car conductor, but he never earned the concluding "e" or achieved movie-star status. Rockne was killed in an airplane crash at the age of forty-three, whereas Hamsun survived his alleged TB, success, disgrace, and confinement, to die a very old man, though writing still, at ninety-two. Now Norway has built a museum devoted to Hamsun, not as a spiritual guide or patriot but as a writer of certain prudently selected books, beloved by schoolchildren and a credit to his country. This shrine has been established in Hamaroy, a small town fastened above the Arctic Circle where Hamsun could be said to have "grown up," though it would be hard to find anyone more "on the go" than he. The new institution will no doubt be careful to distinguish the honorable literary hero from the dishonorable quisling, perhaps through the use of separate display cases and stern warning labels. A larger-than-life bronze statue was put in place at the same time, possibly to remind us of Hamsun's steadfast defense of his German loyalties and his resolute defiance of the War Crimes Court. No one will be able to display the gold medal the Nobel committee hung around the author's neck because Hamsun disgraced the prize by regifting it to Joseph Goebbels, himself a great creator of fictions. Back in Oslo, meanwhile, the twenty-seven volumes of Hamsun's Collected Works are scheduled to appear, complete enough to smother any critical objections under a crowd of pages and a crush of words.

I read The Growth of the Soil in high school. I remember that it opened like a child's primer, and that I much preferred Ole Rolvaag's Giants in the Earth. I think I thought Giants less mannered, less "Me Tarzan, you Jane." Rolvaag, like Hamsun, was born a Pedersen. Perhaps there were too many Pedersens among Norwegians in either native or adopted country, and the writers sought, as a defense against anonymity, a name that was less ubiquitous and of their own assignment. In any case, Hamsun believed one's name to be of great importance, especially his own, and consequently his authorial self suffered many revisions before he got it right. Upon a frosted window pane he wrote his childhood name and then protected it from teasing erasure with snarls the way a dog might guard the household door. For his first publication he admitted to being Kn. Pedersen. Subsequently he altered the spelling of Knud Pedersen to Knut Pederson in order to shed some Danish tarnish. Next his signature was lengthened to Knut Pederson Hamsund, though the newcomer, let in like a cowbird to the nest, muscled Pedersen out for good. For a time he spelled himself, more Germanically, Knut Hamsunn. Because of a printer's error that pleased him, Hamsun let the "n" fade and the dropped "d" rest.

During the portentous opening of The Growth of the Soil, an initially nameless man appears on a wilderness path. This primal creature calls himself Isak. He will pry stones out of the earth, hoe the cleared land, take for himself a woman worthy of his hulk and education. We are immediately led to understand that this man, simple and crudely hewn as he is, shall persevere through every hardship; but what we may not immediately realize is that Isak is Man the way God should have made Adam, the way Nature wants him to be; moreover that, in another sense, Isak is Hamsun, who dug for his dinner too, mostly by living in remote rooms and in a landscape of words. Hamsun also appears as God in the guise of a wanderer who pulls a few providential strings when required. It is Hamsun's favorite role -- to observe his hill of ants as if they were a hill of ants. Among the many writers whose central subject is their image in the public glass, Hamsun is perhaps the most loyally devoted to his task. And when he confesses his faults, he is always coldly proud.

Knut Hamsun was born in poverty and raised in servitude. He was sent to work for an uncle who would pay for his keep, and whose palsy made the child's unexpectedly fine penmanship of considerable use. Hamsun saw much to read in the size, shape, and condition of hands, and his were frequently whacked for copying mistakes. His interest in the words themselves also arrived early, and he must have felt, in this sort of upper-class manual labor, both its similarity to the tailor's trade his father pursued and its difference from the art that his hands were already itching to emulate. Hamsun would later sometimes falsely laud this unpretentious life -- falsely because he knew he was utterly alien to it, was a slacker about his tasks and dimly ashamed of his connection to them. As if he were avoiding recruitment, he attempted to run away, and attacked his own foot with an axe, not the best method if you intend to travel. Hamsun even romanced the idea of suicide. When he dreamed, he dreamed of stories written on the sky, of Hamsun's glory waving in the wind of the world's attention. His parents had no way of understanding such ambitions, and he would never be able to say, with any success: "Look, Mom and Dad, look at what I've done." So he would cut them out of his life, along with most of his siblings, one of whom he would sue much later for assuming Knut's adopted surname.

It is a habit of relatively unmodernized nations to allow their publics to be instructed by poets and writers. Citizens are proud of their "giants," often worship them immoderately, and are personally encouraged by their words to embrace cockamamie beliefs. In Europe's northern climes, the myth of the honest, simple peasant at his plough, suffering many a setback, to be sure, but resolutely plodding on, was, in structure if not in participants, the same as a Fable of Aesop or a Satire of Horace. At first, Hamsun was that country mouse who rejected his poor and simple origins for the wine and women, the glory and connections, of the city. In Horace, the city mouse complains of his friend's food, whereas the country mouse feels threatened by the city and scampers back to his farms and barns well before getting his tail nipped or his whiskers singed. But this was not to be Knut's fate. Unlike the country mouse, he did not learn his lesson in one go; he would get repeatedly lured by the presence of publishers, fleshpots, and gambling casinos; and get repeatedly spurned, burned, and sent home broke.

In the small country town that fiction loves to imagine, everyone's similarities of look, taste, and opinion will make them neighbors of the mind, comfortable about who is next door. But that's why the community's parochialism continues to grow and its distrust of strangers deepens. There is the reliability of routines to be admired and the tyranny of tradition to be feared. The country mouse, the boast is, lives in harmony with nature, yet his life is a war against harsh climates and their extremes, and in front of many problems he exhibits a passive fatalism. Indeed, unlike the working city mouse, who is often merely a cog in a distant machine, the country mouse has a close relation to the soil, his implements, and all the celebrated fruits of his labors; but he has little leisure, his nose has worn out its grindstone, and his eyes are as narrow as a needle's. The mice of haystack and barnyard know what's what, what's right and what's wrong; but they receive their moral clarity through dogmatism and bigotry. The self-sufficient tillers of the soil want desperately to be independent of the city's sort of world and end up being merely irrelevant to it, whereas their own community squelches freedom the way one juices fruit.

Hamsun's own ambivalence was as regular and evenhanded as a metronome. Moved by a sense of his worth that was nevertheless wholly unearned, he would seek verification of his superiority from those elitist hedonists who had money, lived in the city, went to the theater, and worked in editorial offices. To get noticed he played the braggart and buffoon, but he would be followed, his entire life, by the curse of the self-taught: the embedded belief that he was inferior, a fake, an academic outsider, for there would be holes in his education (as good as it was, considering circumstances), and sometimes these holes were larger than the subjects. This was the ground of his intense hatred for intellectuals; and even the Nobel Prize, which would seemingly buy him membership in any academy whose bell he wished to push, could not cover up the spotty character of his tutelage or obscure his origin, since Hamsun was one of those plants whose roots tended to lie in full view, as though they were voracious crawling vines.

For a period he might seem charming, even interesting, to the literati living it up in Oslo or in Copenhagen, but eventually he would be deemed a clown, a country bumpkin, a flashy parvenu who waved money he had cadged from loyal publishers in front of the world's face, expecting it to feel the breeze; so that after each embarrassment an angry and chagrined Hamsun would gallop off to any place that didn't know him. He already had "a runaway's personality" and felt an alien from the moment, as was then customary, he was first slapped on the behind -- ein Fremder unter Fremden, as Rilke, another wanderer, put it: a stranger among strangers. Moreover, he was comparing his early awkward efforts to write with those of the local masters -- Ibsen, Bjornson, Lie -- only to suffer shameful results. Still, Hamsun's humiliations were mostly those of an assumed persona, not character, since he possessed an arrogance whose engine was powered by public attention and located in the rear of the machine.

As a stripling, Hamsun had already been a farm boy, store clerk, shoemaker's apprentice, sheriff's secretary, ditch digger, peddler, salesman, and teacher. He felt he had been scorned in neighboring countries as well as in his own, and later that feeling would apply to every nation except Germany, where a generous publisher appears to have immediately welcomed him; where his sales would always be strong; and where its step and his temper were in time. His obligatory poor boy's voyage to America was too much like the job-to-job and hand-to-mouth existence he suffered at home, but he did find opportunities to represent Norwegian culture to American audiences. This more appropriate occupation led to a commission that brought him back to the United States two years later, and it furnished him material for one of his earlier books, On the Cultural Life of Modern America, a sour diatribe, already typical in its anti-materialist sentiments and hatred of democracy. An earlier biographer of Hamsun, Robert Ferguson, remarks that "America pleases him not. Not its politics, not its language, not its women, not its sensationalist press, not its crass materialism, not its analphabetism, not its literature, not its painting, nor yet its theatre." Economically, Hamsun uses one dislike to drum upon the head of another: "Instead of founding an intellectual elite, America has established a mulatto stud-farm."

Hamsun was more than a living encyclopedia of distasteful traits, for traits need only be mentioned once, like the cleft of a chin; whereas our principal biographers -- Ingar Kolloen and Robert Ferguson -- must bravely repeat the occasions when they are displayed. Hamsun, it seems, had pejorative names for every creature he felt he outstripped, which was most of them -- the native Lapps in particular. He grew quickly sick of old people, even when he became one; regarded tourists with disdain; mistrusted intellectuals of every mental elevation; was a practicing misogynist, detesting just those women he most desired. He hated whole nations, especially if they spoke English, or anybody who belonged to the urban working class, and he held in contempt all forms of public life. Perhaps to support his irrational view of mankind, he made acting on whims a habit, however inconvenient his impulses were to others. He drank himself into a hospital and a state of shakes; lied right and left -- to women he wanted to ride, to publishers he wanted to diddle. He squandered his first wife's fortune at the gaming tables but gambled less with his own money. He was treacherous with his literary rivals, and bad-mouthed them whenever he had the public's ear. He shirked his family responsibilities, disappearing for long periods, especially if one of his wives was about to give birth, and frequently pulled up his and his family's stakes, moving them about against their will but at his humor.

There was nothing funny or fictional about Hamsun's sufferings, his moments of miserable shame, his frequent disappointments: hadn't he starved, fruitlessly wandered, been denied his chances to advance in the cultural system, and even been told, by a medico in Minnesota, that he had a galloping case of tuberculosis and didn't have long to live? The blood he coughed up would prove to be caused by bronchitis, but he preferred to think he had outwrestled the Devil.

Hunger was not Hamsun's first work, yet it was youthful, full of the immediacy of its material, deliberately limited in its diction, shocking in its depictions, and surprisingly indecisive in its conclusion, as if the text were a length removed from a hose. It is made of a very simple prose, almost as if written by a child. The gait is a little awkward, so the child sometimes seems a toddler. Meanwhile the narrator reads the world the way a tracker reads a trail. The characters jump to conclusions. Moods come and go with the regularity of a toy train. A part is readily taken for a whole, but the whole is simply whatever it is, a noun with its adjective leaning quietly against it. That is: modifications are few and unrefined. Complexities are ignored. Complexities are a human invention, and despised. The basic things of life are prized out of necessity; consequently wisdom about them is seen as savvy. The touch of the author is sure when directed to rustic things, and many simple scenes are indelible. That is because objects, acts, ideas are surrounded by so much silence, so much space -- like an argument between mutes, like a table that is all top -- that their very presence is treated the way a rare visitor to your hut would be: you offer a biscuit; the biscuit is eaten; a few grunts of agreement are exchanged.

The hungry young fellow of the title, famished for food, yes -- for sex, yes -- but more than these, for recognition, loves to bait strangers with lies, outrageous stories they politely respond to with their own accommodating falsehoods, until both contestants are spiders contributing to a common web; then the knowledgeable instigator suddenly accuses his mark of making things up and forces him to leave in shame and rage; or he follows women, engages in stare-downs, asks them inapplicable questions aimed at puzzling their heads, and then interprets their responses as inviting or meaningful; or in a public place he suddenly exhibits a bizarre walk, emits strange sounds just to turn heads so he can accuse passersby of impolite staring at a poor jobless youth of hidden genius. The text acts in the same way its narrator does. Readers are also to be caught in this web of Hamsun's devising and shown up along with everybody else.

Paul Valery's well-known witticism, offered once to Andre Breton as you would a smoke, pretended that Valery could not bring himself to write fiction because he might have to sign for sentences like "The Marquise went out at five." His trepidation is repeatedly justified by Hunger, Hamsun's first success, a novel composed (down every paragraph, over every page) of prose possessing no literary interest whatever: such as, "I took the blanket under my arm and went to 5 Stener Street." This sentence opens a scene (powerful in its context but banal in its construction) during which our penniless protagonist fails to sell his blanket, and thus concludes: "I took the blanket under my arm again and went home."

In some later works, like the misnamed novel The Last Joy, Hamsun's pedestrian style slows to the halt that follows a hike. Hamsun insists on banality because regularity is what recommends the simple life. There are no surprises: none when the leaves turn, none when the snow arrives or dew weighs the morning grass. To escape your consternations, you can always row your boat out to sea and sit upon the slowly rising tide. "Night comes and he does not go home, the next day comes and he does not go home; no, he follows the usual pattern, lets the boat drift, fishes for food, goes ashore, cooks, eats, sleeps. It is incomparable, this wonderful idleness and sloth."

Humans, alone, are unpredictable: suddenly a randy shepherdess will appear before your hut door, or a hunter from the village will rest his gun against a rock you prize. Perhaps a tourist bus will surprise an empty inn, or a Lapp from even farther north will materialize upon a mountain path. If you are a penniless wanderer, a fortuitous wad of money may be pressed upon you. The plot can count on what the plot needs to march it from A and B to Z, because, in the wings, fortuitous interventions await their moment on the page.

The narrator of Hunger treats interior states (such as deep melancholy or acute pain) with the same nominal objectivity and dispassion that he does the exterior world, because, to this starveling, "in and out" sit on the same park bench, and even the narrator's glib falsehoods gain the status of realities in no time. This detachment, present despite an apparent outburst of emotion, and the rapid shifts of mood that torment Hamsun's narrator, struck reviewers in his time as revolutionary. Shortly, however, they withdrew the credit Hamsun thought his due by recalling the vacillations of Dostoevsky's people, whom they had once accused of the same faults but now praised for displaying real conflicts and rare glimpses of some of the deeper recesses of the psyche. Characters who stayed inside their descriptions were soon called wooden Indians and stereotypes, whereas those who were obedient to impulse were said to be truer to life.

So are we really like that? Must we be incomprehensible to be free? It seems to me it scarcely matters whether the writer believes or understands this or that, perceives acutely, or feels deeply, or imagines wonderfully; what matters is whether these qualities reach the page. If it is a disordered mind the novelist is portraying, it is not important that the picture meet the approval of a psychoanalyst (who will insist upon a cause) but whether it is convincing in the world established by the text.

The comparison with Dostoevsky was strengthened in quite the wrong way by a story of Hamsun's called "Chance," whose scenes at the roulette table almost necessarily resembled those in the Russian's novella The Gambler. Both men had experience enough in that squanderous milieu. The German version of the tale drew a charge of plagiarism from one critic.

Neither Ingar Kolloen nor Robert Ferguson go very far with this incident, which resolved itself mostly by evaporating, although Kolloen tells us that Hamsun, with his characteristic whirligig condition, was himself initially shocked by the resemblances to the point of trying to squash the piece, yet he later offered "Chance," unchanged, to his German translator. If he thought that in German the similarities would not show or be seen, he was mistaken. German publishers, who had been clamoring for his work, fell silent and grew remote. Hamsun, according to Kolloen, believed "that one of his fellow Norwegian writers must have fed the critic" -- his accuser -- "false information." That is as far, in this severely reduced English edition, as Kolloen is prepared to go, whereas Ferguson is reflective and, I think, perspicacious:

This suspicion, that his contemporaries and brother writers, as well as the press, were dedicated to the aim of destroying him . . . gave him a fanatic strength, a determination to triumph over the imagined odds in a stratospheric sense, and by the exercise of his talent alone force the establishment to hail him as a great writer.

Hamsun worked from carefully gathered batches of notes to shape short sentences into brief paragraphs. These many small gulps of prose, numbered like chapters, form the procession of anecdotes that make up his books; and his present biographer follows that lead, beginning each section with a teasing headline the way TV's evening news tries to catch our attention, followed by a lead-in sentence, and the necessary paragraphs with their own entry and exit, then concluding with a dramatic summary that manages to be enigmatic too. Let one example stand for many. While the twenty-year-old Hamsun was trying to survive in the United States, he was kindly given a job by the pastor of a Unitarian church in Minneapolis. The pastor's wife was sympathetic with his parlous state, which included the misdiagnosis of TB. Bedridden, the young man confides to her his fear that he shall die before ever having known a woman. Eventually, instead of the hired whore he hopes for, she offers herself. Kolloen's terseness imitates Hamsun's manner perfectly, and the one-two punch is powerfully delivered.

He refused her.

It was high summer and Hamsun asked Drude to pull open all the curtains. He demanded she light some lamps, many lamps. He could not fill the room with enough light. He loved the light, he told her.

She no longer understood him. Everything was different between them now. She wondered if he had gone mad.

One night he set fire to the curtains.

Did this action bring the fire department, consume the house, damage his relationship with the husband? We are never told. We aren't told Hamsun had bronchitis instead of TB either.

Unfortunately, Kolloen is infatuated with this rhetorical device. He employs it to render nearly every section of Hamsun's life as routinely as if he were slicing a loaf of rye. Eventually, its appearance becomes annoying: "A man walked in and sat at the neighboring table. . . . Hamsun had been a guest in his house on several occasions. . . . Now, they pretended not to see each other. . . . There was good reason for Hamsun to be unsettled by this chance encounter with Erhardt Frederik Winkel Horn. He had been having an affair with his wife."

The conviction Hamsun has that each man is a mystery (except for English tourists and other objects of his scorn -- they are just the stupids we take them for) is rather delightfully played out in Mysteries, a surprisingly lighthearted little novel that unpacks like a box of puzzles the inner selves of its characters yet leaves the puzzles puzzling even after we've found a place for all the pieces. I think the reader is supposed to feel that a mystery is what we each ought to strive to be. We are to run away and play hide-and-no-seek in our Unconscious.

Three problems: (1) If Hamsun is always working out personal issues and settling scores in his books, how shall he manage to escape the egocentric predicament? Joyce's mememoreme seems to account for everything. (2) The psyche is a strange unfunny place; it tends, when unveiled, to be ugly, or silly, or dumb, or childish, or really evil. Where do the generosities lie concealed -- those virtues too shy to be ordinarily seen? A few acts of benevolence in Hunger succeed brilliantly in undermining themselves; that is, they turn out to be not so nice after all. (3) In trying to render the random and the inexplicable, the text may exhibit the paradox of imitative form (Coleridge's famous caution to Wordsworth that he should not render a dull and garrulous discourser by being dull and garrulous). Hamsun's stories wander with apparent aimlessness. Why not call several Wanderers? He did so.

After Hunger, Pan is perhaps the most celebrated of Hamsun's novels. Pan also makes allegorical gestures, but its loyalty to its symbolic structure is a bit more devoted. In Hunger, the town through which our hero caroms is called "Christiania" (an early name for Oslo), and the text will suggest, on more than one occasion, that its hero's suffering is Christ-like; on the other hand, he complains like Job and curses God and in the end simply leaves town. Making a holy mess and then leaving is Hamsun's favorite fictional formula. It always seemed to work in his life.

The principal struggle that Hunger depicts is between the body and the ego's ambitions. Neither God nor his city is an agent of the ensuing suffering. In Pan the pain is self-inflicted too (Pan shoots off his big toe, an old enlistment dodge), with pride and power, as well as the rifle, the punishing instruments. The mythological Pan is a goat god, a hunter of food and a hunter of women, but Hamsun's Pan meets more than his match in a beautiful, hard-to-figure, out-of-town tease. A tiresome tug of war ensues. To this cautionary tale of a god brought low by a woman (as Samson is by Delilah), the spurned lover's ultimate response is to dynamite part of a mountain down upon an unintended target -- his goat-girl mistress, who gave generously of herself and loved him without reservations. The book is spotted, like its high mountain trees, with set "sublimities" during which the identity of the hero and his natural surroundings is alleged. We enjoy bliss as well as suffer its attendant tears. Ferguson, whose viewpoint I have been taught to value, greatly admires this novel, as do many others. "This is again a book," he says, "that reaches effortlessly and deeply into the soul. . . ." But I am more inclined to share the opinion of a contemporary reviewer: "The new book is characterized by the same cheap phoneyness which has marred so much of what Hamsun has written." To the main body of this novel is attached an utterly misguided epilogue, which I would advise the reader to skip. It kills off the protagonist of the previous text in a place, at a time, and in a manner that runs from most unlikely to ludicrous. Critics have extended themselves to justify the existence of this appendage, but it is, like the blindfolded man's stab at the donkey, pinned far from its intended place. In this instance, the Defense maintains, the author has created a purely fictional persona to narrate the work, rather than a man (as in Hunger) who must undergo its victimizations. But the distance between the tale and its teller, in Hamsun, is that of the thinnest thread. We can learn from his biographers that this book is a dramatization of one of his courtships and the incidental characters (as in Hunger) are all clippings from his life.

Hamsun also lived according to the cliches which cling to the art of writing: that it is a solitary occupation requiring hours of absorbing and profound meditation; that it asks for patience during dispiriting periods of sterility, demands continuous vigilance against the vanities of the self, as well as a ruthless indifference to the matters of ordinary life when they chance to interfere; it tells him to trust in his genius yet retain an almost naive acceptance of inspiration when it arrives. As a specifically Norwegian writer, he would be expected to challenge received opinion and the aesthetic efforts of his predecessors; he would defy tradition, whereupon tradition would award him for it. Ibsen's outrages were expected of him; writers were supposed to send their works to scout out country customs and by attacking them to initiate change. Both Ibsen and his readers lived as much upon scandal as did the fishermen on their fjords, and adored the exposure of shocking thoughts and feelings as much as the public nakedness they pretended to deplore.

Early in his career, Hamsun made much of his attachment to purely aesthetic ends, and certainly his interest was not in the social realism of many of his contemporaries; but his intentions weren't artistically pure either, and they concealed the behavioral excuses his writings created for him, the personal vendettas they provided, as well as the other rearrangements of reality that suited his purposes: "Language must possess all the scales of music. The writer must always, unfailingly, use a word that pulsates, that conveys a thing, that can wound the soul so it yelps." Hamsun also liked to boast about his scruples as an artist, but in the twenty-eight years between Hunger and The Growth of the Soil, he wrote twenty-six books. How many of these could have been Madame Bovary? Later on his publisher remarked, "During the course of the last seven years he [Hamsun] had written over 1,500 book pages." Translation, of course, is always an element that must be apologized for in the estimation of any literary work. Each language has its own musical scales and its own syntactical and rhetorical structures. As far as I can tell, Hamsun's principles are most steadily upheld by those ideological loyalties that express his embattled sense of himself. When you write in frenzied bursts, in such amounts, there can be little time for prolonged concern about art or even the graces of daily life. His private opinion accompanied the manuscript of The Road Leads On (about yet another vagabond lover) and was more accurate: "Some good stuff and some garbage, just as in every book."

Hamsun's dislike of democracy seemed, for much of his life, to be a cranky possession of his own; but the rise of Hitler to power in Germany changed that.

All over Europe little schools of disappointed people appeared, prepared to follow the Fuhrer's lead in malice, ruthlessness, and noise. Here was a leader who resembled Hamsun in his simple origins, his maniacal ambition, his artistic genius, and for the ordinary world his contemptuous disdain -- a figure in whose shadow Hamsun might walk without seeming merely a second shade. The defeat of the Germans by the beastly English in World War I was as unhealed a wound for Hamsun as it was for most German citizens.

In a festschrift to celebrate Hamsun's seventieth birthday in 1929, German praise was overwhelmingly present: Gerhart Hauptmann, Heinrich and Thomas Mann, Jacob Wasserman, and Austrian pacifist Stefan Zweig were among the many who complimented him then and regretted it later. In honor of the day, Max Reinhardt staged one of Hamsun's plays, and it enjoyed an impressive run. Half a million copies of Hunger were in print. Germany loved him close up as well as from a distance. When Hamsun visited in 1931, his hotel room was filled with flowers, letters, and gifts. Irritating journalists pursued his touring party but by their persistence made it clear that Hamsun was still news. While his entourage traveled through southern Germany, Hamsun hummed and smiled. The moment they arrived in Milan, however, his mood changed, and during supper at the station he tried to straighten the prongs of the forks; noisily complained he couldn't decipher their maker's mark; and then attacked the spoons.

The smell of power is more seductive than musk and more damaging than secondhand smoke. Initially, Hamsun's life story had been merely disgusting; it now grows grimly dismal as he falls in with the quislings, jockeys for political position, and supports the German occupation of his country even when it begins its reign of terror there, arresting gentiles as well as Jews. His public utterances weren't nutty the way Ezra Pound's were, and they had a weight in his country whose heft the American poet could only imagine. Hamsun takes his prestige and his fame to see the Fuhrer; then in that presence pleads the cause of his countrymen -- commendable if his concerns hadn't been so callously selective. But the Leader wants to talk literature, not politics, and is quickly made to regret his agreement to meet with the argumentative novelist. Hamsun has no influence, despite all his speeches, his accumulated pile of work, those impressive sales and badges of honor. Nor did Hamsun's diatribes against the English defeat the hated islanders. Nor did the realization that he could not rescue a single Norwegian citizen from the Nazi camps and their deadly chambers alter his attitudes. After the war, when legalized revenges were being undertaken, Hamsun's wife Marie, who surpassed his Nazi sympathies in fervor (her children's books were also a success in Germany), though hating her husband only as thoroughly as he her, was convicted of treason and sentenced to two years in prison; but Hamsun, in an exercise of national hypocrisy, was hustled away into a psychiatric hospital and the company of doctors who were expected to find a kink in his crock and an excuse to save the State from an embarrassing trial. At the end of their investigations, however, the patient had to be pronounced healthy for his age, sound of mind, and competent in his dealings with the world.

The trial would be Hamsun's finest moment. Every step in the proceedings justified, once again, and before the public, the worth of his dearest beliefs. He stood alone, as his memorial statue in winter will, its shoulders only colder because of the opposing gale.

Retired to his farm, Hamsun was neither a country mouse nor a rodent exiled by his city. Some years before, he had settled on being the squire who owns the barn, though presently down on his luck, what with all those penalties demanded by the State. And it was the barn's cats that killed the rats. As for the afterlife's awards: "I have never been attracted to the honor that might come with big bronze statues of me in Norway's towns. Quite the opposite: each time I have thought of these posthumous statues, I have wished I could benefit from their value now -- bring on the cash!"

William H. Gass is a contributing editor of Harper's Magazine and the author, most recently, of A Temple of Texts (Knopf).

Books mentioned in this post




4 Responses to "A Kink in his Crock: Norway’s Nobel Nazi"

  1.  
    Mamac April 29th, 2010 at 11:29 pm

    I don't recall reading any of Hamsum's works and hope someone who has will recommend a good introduction to his writing. I'll look for this bio in the library. Also, I think that a worthy companion to the book would be the fine Norwegian movie called "Hamsun," which deals with his falling out of favor.

  2.  
    BradR May 3rd, 2010 at 7:33 pm

    I was disappointed though not surprised by Mr. Gass' slash-and-burn review, whose target is not so much the biography at hand as it is the worth of Hamsun's work, life, and posthumous literary existence--a tall order, but one Gass meets with frothy glee. It's hard to get more bizarrely vituperative than Gass does in excoriating the as yet unreleased 27-volume collected works of Hamsun, describing it as "complete enough to smother any critical objections under a crowd of pages and a crush of words." Wow! Opportunistic alliteration aside, will the sheer existence of the Collected Works, of however many volumes, really constitute a critically unassailable monolith? I doubt it--after all, the sloppy and bad parts of Hamsun's gargantuan oeuvre have never been hard to spot (as is the case with many another writer). Nor has the existence of bad Hamsun--in his art or his life--detracted from the power, beauty, and, yes, ethical force of his best works, including Hunger. Maybe Gass is still reading Bly's dreadful version, but even there it's hard to miss the powerful images and brilliant structural patterns that reveal the significant artistry of this novel. As for the rest of Gass' flaying of Hunger, it's inaccurate (the narrator follows one woman and her friend, for instance, and the woman later becomes his one frustrated romantic interest) and in some significant ways distorted. I'll leave it to other readers of the novel to see for themselves; I don't think you even need to be a fan of the book to agree with me.

    There are many more holes I could poke in Gass' elegant bullying (for instance, the many strange generalizations, the weak use of examples), but my ultimate question is this: Why expend so much energy going after Hamsun for his support of the Nazis when there are so many other writers with ambitions just as craven, hands even dirtier, beliefs far more foul? Gass seems determinedly injudicious here, as if he's waited ever since high school to write this hate letter, and the result comes off as a mostly ad hominem attack. As I said at the start, this disappoints me, as a fan of some of Hamsun's work and much of Gass', especially his essays and criticism; but neither, sadly, am I surprised, having always known he could use his pyrotechnics to light up cruel displays.

  3.  
    Margo May 4th, 2010 at 11:33 am

    you need to visit belsen.

  4.  
    Nick May 5th, 2010 at 2:49 pm

    This review is a mess. Knute Rockne? The author as a country mouse/squire that owns a barn where cats kill rats? The non-sequiturs referencing Pan, fjords, Samson and Delilah, Madame Bovary? Even the title, a kink in his crock, is poorly chosen (the fact that the author was a Nazi is considerably more than a "kink"). The essay is scattered with pithy, pointless observations that add nothing to our understanding: "The smell of power is more seductive than musk and more damaging than secondhand smoke." Unfortunately, it seems that Gass has fallen prey to the same "cliches which cling to the art of writing." Hamsun's political tastes were reprehensible, of course, but hopefully he could at least put a sentence together.

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