Look Back on Happiness, by Knut Hamsun

Chapter I

I have gone to the forest.

Not because I am offended about anything, or very unhappy about men’s evil ways; but since the forest will not come to me, I must go to it. That is all. I have not gone this time as a slave and a vagabond. I have money enough and am overfed, stupefied with success and good fortune, if you understand that. I have left the world as a sultan leaves rich food and harems and flowers, and clothes himself in a hair shirt.

Really, I could make quite a song and dance about it. For I mean to roam and think and make great irons red-hot. Nietzsche no doubt would have spoken thus: The last word I spake unto men achieved their praise, and they nodded. But it was my last word; and I went into the forest. For then did I comprehend the truth, that my speech must needs be dishonest or foolish. . . . But I said nothing of the kind; I simply went to the forest.

You must not believe that nothing ever happens here. The snowflakes drift down just as they do in the city, and the birds and beasts scurry about from morning till night, and from night till morning. I could send solemn stories from this place, but I do not. I have sought the forest for solitude and for the sake of my great irons; for I have great irons which lie within me and grow red-hot. So I deal with myself accordingly. Suppose I were to meet a buck reindeer one day, then I might say to myself:

“Great heavens, this is a buck reindeer, he’s dangerous!”

But if then I should be too frightened, I might tell myself a comforting lie and say it was a calf or some feathered beast.

You say nothing happens here?

One day I saw two Lapps meet. A boy and a girl. At first they behaved as people do. “Boris!“ they said to each other and smiled. But immediately after, both fell at full length in the snow and were gone from my sight. After a quarter of an hour had passed, I thought, “You’d better see to them; they may be smothered in the snow.” But then they got up and went their separate ways.

In all my weatherbeaten days, I have never seen such a greeting as that.

Day and night I live in a deserted hut of peat into which I must crawl on my hands and knees. Someone must have built it long ago and used it, for lack of a better — perhaps a man who was in hiding, a man who concealed himself here for a few autumn days. There are two of us in the hut, that is if you regard Madame as a person; otherwise there is only one. Madame is a mouse I live with, to whom I have given this honorary title. She eats everything I put aside for her in the nooks and corners, and sometimes she sits watching me.

When I first came, there was stale straw in the hut, which Madame by all means was allowed to keep; for my own bed I cut fresh pine twigs, as is fitting. I have an ax and a saw and the necessary crockery. And I have a sleeping bag of sheepskin with the wool inside. I keep a fire burning in the fireplace all night, and my shirt, which hangs by it, smells of fresh resin in the morning. When I want coffee, I go out, fill the kettle with clean snow, and hang it over the fire till the snow turns to water.

Is this a life worth living?

There you have betrayed yourself. This is a life you do not understand. Yes, your home is in the city, and you have furnished it with vanities, with pictures and books; but you have a wife and a servant and a hundred expenses. Asleep or awake you must keep pace with the world and are never at peace. I have peace. You are welcome to your intellectual pastimes and books and art and newspapers; welcome, too, to your bars and your whisky that only makes me ill. Here am I in the forest, quite content. If you ask me intellectual questions and try to trip me up, then I will reply, for example, that God is the origin of all things and that truly men are mere specks and atoms in the universe. You are no wiser than I. But if you should go so far as to ask me what is eternity, then I know quite as much in this matter, too, and reply thus: Eternity is merely unborn time, nothing but unborn time.

My friend, come here to me and I will take a mirror from my pocket and reflect the sun on your face, my friend.

You lie in bed till ten or eleven in the morning, yet you are weary, exhausted, when you get up. I see you in my mind’s eye as you go out into the street; the morning has dawned too early on your blinking eyes. I rise at five quite refreshed. It is still dark outdoors, yet there is enough to look at — the moon, the stars, the clouds, and the weather portents for the day. I prophesy the weather for many hours ahead. In what key do the winds whistle? Is the crack of the ice in the Glimma light and dry, or deep and long? These are splendid portents, and as it grows lighter, I add the visible signs to the audible ones, and learn still more.

Then a narrow streak of daylight appears far down in the east, the stars fade from the sky, and soon light reigns over all. A crow flies over the woods, and I warn Madame not to go outside the hut or she will be devoured.

But if fresh snow has fallen, the trees and copses and the great rocks take on giant, unearthly shapes, as though they had come from another world in the night. A storm-felled pine with its root torn up looks like a witch petrified in the act of performing strange rites.

Here a hare has sprung by, and yonder are the tracks of a solitary reindeer. I shake out my sleeping bag and after hanging it high in a tree to escape Madame, who eats everything, I follow the tracks of the reindeer into the forest. It has jogged along without haste, but toward a definite goal — straight east to meet the day. By the banks of the Skiel, which is so rapid that its waters never freeze, the reindeer has stopped to drink, to scrape the hillside for moss, to rest a while, and then moved on.

And perhaps what this reindeer has done is all the knowledge and experience I gain that day. It seems much to me. The days are short; at two, I am already strolling homeward in the deep twilight, with the good, still night approaching. Then I begin to cook. I have a great deal of meat stored in three pure-white drifts of snow. In fact I have something even better: eight fat cheeses of reindeer milk, to eat with butter and crisp-bread.

While the pot is boiling I lie down, and gaze at the fire till I fall asleep. I take my midday nap before my meal. And when I waken, the food is cooked, filling the hut with an aroma of meat and resin. Madame darts back and forth across the floor and at length gets her share. I eat, and light my cutty-pipe.

The day is at an end. All has been well, and I have had no unpleasantness. In the great silence surrounding me, I am the only adult, roaming man; this makes me bigger and more important, God’s kin. And I believe the red-hot irons within me are progressing well, for God does great things for his kin.

I lie thinking of the reindeer, the path it took, what it did by the river, and how it continued on its journey. There under the trees it has nibbled, and its horns have rubbed against the bark, leaving their marks; there an osier bed has forced it to turn aside; but just beyond, it has straightened its path and continued east once more. All this I think of.

And you? Have you read in a newspaper, which disagrees with another newspaper, what the public in Norway is thinking of old-age insurance?

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38