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Scandinavian Literature: Knut Hamsun

Thoughts after reading the novels Hunger, Mysteries, and Victoria by the Nobel-prize winning Norwegian author Knut Hamsun

Every July, the inhabitants of Stockholm pour out of the city and tourists come streaming in.  It sometimes seems as if everyone in Stockholm must take the entire month off work.  In our district, the few children without vacation plans for July (including my son) were all moved to a central daycare, the only one that remained open.  The daycare my son attended was located next to a nature reserve by the Igelbäcken stream, so the walk there, although quite a bit longer than usual, was absolutely beautiful.  There were also two water fountains located along our route where my son always insisted on stopping in the afternoons on the way back home.  We were never in any hurry, so when the weather was nice (which it often was this July), we stopped at the water fountains so Anton could chase after birds and I could read.  I chose several short novels by the renowned Norwegian author, Knut Hamsun, as my reading material. The novels were very quick reads, both because they were short, only a few hundred pages each, and because they so easily absorbed the reader in the story.  I was finished with each one in only a few sittings, and Anton was happy to play outside by the fountains while I read.

The first novel I read, Victoria, was a tragic love story with a twist.  Unlike, say for example, Romeo and Juliet, where the lovers are doomed because of external factors entirely beyond their control, the plot in Victoria is set up so that the external obstacles, while compelling enough to provoke sympathy for the characters, are by no means insurmountable.  Unfortunately, however, the lovers do not have enough faith in their love to take the leap, and they end up torturing each other in a perverse attempt to find some kind of objective proof capable of giving them the will to overcome these obstacles. Of course, such proof does not exist, and in the end, it is the lovers themselves, and not the obstacles per se, that bring about their own doom.

The contrast between inner life and perceived reality is also brilliantly portrayed by Hamsun.  To spectators, Victoria’s sudden decline in physical demeanor – her pale look and faded beauty – were due to her fiance’s tragic hunting accident.  In reality, her appearance reflected the news that her true love had, in the mean time, also promised himself to someone else.  Likewise, to the outside world, the narrator of the book was a wildly successful author and entertainer, but in reality, all of his books and poems were inspired by and written to one person:  Victoria.  She was the only reader he cared about.

The second book I read, Mysteries, I think I enjoyed even more than Victoria. The book centered around a stranger’s visit to a coastal Norwegian town. The stranger possessed striking intuitive insights, which often unnerved the local residents.  This book also contains elements of a tragic love story, but unlike Victoria, the book is not centered around love, but has a more expanded scope on intuition in general.

Finally, the last book I read, Hunger, now ranks easily as one of my favorite books of all-time.  Hunger’s main theme was artistic inspiration, although again, elements of tragic love and intuitive insight also appear in the book.  The main character, a writer who would sooner starve than suffer spiritual or moral corruption, could have been a guardian or philosopher king in Plato’s ideal city-state.  Hamsun, however, caught his hero in an all -too-plausible inversion of Plato’s ideal, and left him dependent on the vulgar and base for shelter and bread.

The genius of all three books, in my opinion, lies in Hamsun’s ability to portray both the extreme fragility and the supreme importance in those phenomenon which, although outside the scope of scientific enquiry, in practice play a large role in human affairs.  According to the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, these are the things which “whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”  Or, as put by the physicist Erwin Schrödinger:

Earlier I have commented on the fact that for this same reason the physical world picture lacks all the sensual qualities that go to make up the Subject of Cognizance.  The model is colourless and soundless and unpalpable.  In the same way and for the same reason the world of science lacks, or is deprived of, everything that has a meaning only in relation to the consciously contemplating, perceiving and feeling subject.  I mean in the first place the ethical and aesthetical values, any values of any kind, everything related to the meaning and scope of the whole display. All this is not only absent but it cannot, from the purely scientific point of view, be inserted organically.  If one tries to put it in or on, as a child puts colour on his uncoloured painting copies, it will not fit.  For anything that is made to enter this world model willy-nilly takes the form of scientific assertion of facts, and as such it becomes wrong.

-Erwin Schrödinger, from What is Life? with Mind and Matter and Autobiographical Sketches

Hamsun transports us out of the realm of science and into to the realm of the ideal – into the arms of art, religion, and philosophy -and shows us how these things can be everything and nothing at the same time.  And so love, for example, “is only a wind whispering among the roses and dying away,” but also “an inviolable seal that endures for life, endures till death.”  How does one know whether one is in the presence of the former or the latter?  From a scientific perspective, it is a meaningless love affair – a firing of neurons,  a release of chemicals.  The possibility of the latter exists only subjectively, in the mind or spirit of an individual.

The subjective nature of Hamsun’s themes is what makes them so extremely delicate.  Love, intuition, inspiration:  how fleeting the feeling, how easy it is to doubt, to dismiss.  There can never be an objective confirmation of the meaningfulness of these occurrences in an individual’s life. But one ignores them, or analyzes them from a scientific perspective (which at best amounts to the same thing, and at worst can drive a person insane*) at one’s own peril.  Hamsun here enters the domain of Kierkegaard’s repetition and Dostoevsky’s miracles. While the notions are somewhat different for all three authors, there is a common thread.  For Kierkegaard, “repetition is the raising of [ ] consciousness to the second power.”  It is “the movement by virtue of the absurd that commences when one has reached the border of the wondrous,” and it occurs when:

. . .being has been split . . . the moment it is apparent that the individual can lose himself in events, fate, lose himself in such a way that he therefore by no means stops contemplating but loses himself in such a way that freedom is taken up completely in life’s fractions without leaving a remainder, then the issue becomes manifest . . .

– Soren Kierkegaard, A Little Contribution by Constantin Constantius, Author of Repetition

This point, when the crisis comes, when “being has been split” is the same point at which Dostoevsky saves his hero in The Brothers Karamazov by a miracle in the guise of a meaningful coincidence linked to a dream.  And time and time again in Hunger, Hamsun’s hero also reaches this point of absolute despair, but as soon as this point arrives – the moment he begins to curse God and welcome his death – he is saved by a sudden flash of inspiration or an unexpected act of kindness.  Such occurrences appear as a lifeline thrown out to the character which, if he does not reach out and grab, will leave him to fall and drown in the dizzying depths below.

Hamsun is a brilliant writer, but his stories are dark and his characters profoundly unhappy.  The mood of the novels contrasted sharply with the idyllic scenery surrounding me, and I often found myself worrying whether so much happiness was bound to be cursed.  I think I have had my fill of Hamsun now for a while, but am sure to pick him up again when I feel capable of reading Pan in Swedish (much, much closer to the original Norwegian than is possible with an English translation).

Anton sitting beside one of the fountains on the way to "dagis," Swedish for daycare

Anton sitting beside one of the fountains on the way to "dagis," the Swedish expression for daycare.

* The trap of analyzing such phenomenon from a scientific perspective is, I think, masterfully demonstrated by Vladimir Nabokov in The Defense.

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