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Knut Hamsun - Without Pedigree

Knut Hamsun - Without Pedigree

Probably one of the most controversial figures in Norwegian literature, Knut Hamsun earned an equal share of bouquets and brickbats during his lifetime and even later. We take a look at his life.
Penlighten Staff
Born as Knut Pederson, in Lom, on August 04, 1859, in the Gudbrandsdal Valley in central Norway, the fourth son to Peder Pederson and Tora Olsdatter, life as a young boy was not very remarkable for Hamsun. When he was three, the family moved to the harsh land of Hamsund, Hamarøy. A couple of years later, circumstances forced his family to send him to live with his uncle.

As far as it is known, it is then that Hamsun's difficulties started. He has been quoted as having said that his chronic nervous difficulties were a result of his uncle's mistreatment. His uncle often beat him and starved him. He escaped from there in 1874 and then started years of working at odd jobs to make extra money. It was during this time, that the future Nobel Laureate turned to the written word for solace and company. Writing articles occasionally for local newspapers, working off and on as a teacher, shoemaker's apprentice, and even a store clerk, Hamsun during this time saw life at its trickiest, and yet he tried to stand tall out of sheer vanity.

He also traveled to America off and on, working as a streetcar conductor, tram driver, and even a farmhand. He recorded his travels in the book, Fra det moderne Amerikas Aandsliv (1889), a satirical view of life in modern America. This was much later though, and his first book Den Gaadefulde: En Kjærlighedshistorie fra Nordland (The Enigmatic Man: A Love Story from Northern Norway) was published in 1877.

The novel that brought him to the forefront of Norwegian literature was the 1890 novel Sult (Hunger) which reflected his angst and arrogance. Hugely autobiographical, the novel narrates the tale of a young, impoverished author who would not let go of his pride even while acute poverty percolates into reason leaving a trail of gnawing hunger in its wake.

Hunger was a unique novel, in the sense that it ushered in an entirely new style of writing - it broke away from the conventions set and followed by more renowned authors like Ibsen and Tolstoy, and embarked on a psychological adventure with the protagonist. Set in Christiania, it weaved the tale of a young author whose hungered body takes over his mind, so much so that at times he fails to grasp his own incoherence. Hamsun does dwell upon the troubles of the protagonist, but never does he try to initiate sympathy for him in the minds of the reader - he presents the facts as they are, delving more into matters abstract, such as pride, dignity, and nonchalance. As the story goes along, Hamsun unveils the various shades of the protagonist's personality in detail with striking fluidity of language - there are no blacks or whites in Hamsun's prose, just grays juxtaposed with grays. The following paragraphs extracted from Hunger perhaps best detail the author's skill in portraying the eternal swings in human emotions:

"The passion that thrills through the movements of every one of the passers-by, the dim light of the gas lamps, the quiet pregnant night, all commence to affect me - this air, that is laden with whispers, embraces, trembling admissions, concessions, half-uttered words and suppressed cries. A number of cats are declaring their love with loud yells in Blomquist's doorway. And I did not possess even a florin! It was a misery, a wretchedness without parallel to be so impoverished. What humiliation, too; what disgrace! I began again to think about the poor widow's last mite, that I would have stolen a schoolboy's cap or handkerchief, or a beggar's wallet, that I would have brought to a rag-dealer without more ado, and caroused with the proceeds.

In order to console myself-to indemnify myself in some measure-I take to picking all possible faults in the people who glide by. I shrug my shoulders contemptuously, and look slightingly at them according as they pass. These easily-pleased, confectionery-eating students, who fancy they are sowing their wild oats in truly Continental style if they tickle a sempstress under the ribs! These young bucks, bank clerks, merchants, flâneurs-who would not disdain a sailor's wife; blowsy Molls, ready to fall down in the first doorway for a glass of beer! What sirens! The place at their side still warm from the last night's embrace of a watch-man or a stable-boy! The throne always vacant, always open to newcomers! Pray, mount!
"

After Hunger was published, Hamsun's reputation as an author was well established; and in 1892 he published the novel Mysterier (Mysteries). While some hold that this book served as an inspiration to Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man - a matter which remains unverified - what is certain is that the book directly challenged the very pillars of classical literature during the period, both in style and through the words of the protagonist Nagel. To quote, "To speak about Tolstoy: I do not find his mind to be any deeper than, say, that of General Booth. They are both preachers, not thinkers but preachers. They sell existing products, popularize ready-made ideas, vulgarizing them for the masses at bargain prices and causing commotion in the world. But if you're going to sell, you must do so at a profit. Tolstoy sells with staggering losses. God help me, how Tolstoy sweats over drying up people's sources of life, of wild and joyful life, drying them up and making the world fat with love of God and everyman. It fills my heart with shame."

In 1894, Pan was published. The third book in his triad of rebellious literature, it was written during the period (1893 - 1895) when Hamsun was in Paris. Written in the form of a memoir, this novel criticized urban civilization and nihilism - two very different aspects which yet stem from the same roots of development.

After several more novels such as Victoria (1898) and Dreamers (1904), in 1917 Hamsun came out with Markens Grode (The Growth of the Soil) - a deeply enriching tale of the bond between man and nature. The novel fetched him the Nobel Prize for literature in the same year.

In the late 1920s, Hamsun suffered a mental breakdown, and went through prolonged treatment. During the Second World War he took a stance in favor of the German Nazi party and Hitler, a fact that caused him to be shunned by the literary circles in Norway. Though he never himself became a member of the Nazi party, he is known to have written several pro-fascist articles that upheld the German cause. However, it is unlikely that he was a supporter of the methods employed by the German militia, a matter that is endorsed by the fact that when he met Hitler in 1943, he infuriated Hitler with his complaints about the conduct of German troops in Norway.

Post-war, Hamsun's fate rapidly began to deteriorate - he was tried for favoring the German cause, and it was only his age that saved him from rigorous imprisonment. He was sent to a hospital in Grimstad. The popularity of his works also began to wane for reasons more political than literary, and after his death on February 19, 1952 in his Norholm estate, his works were ignored by both, Norwegians and the European literary circles for quite some time. However, the past couple of decades have seen a renewed interest in his literary accomplishments, and the Nobel laureate's prose is gradually reclaiming its place of pride.