Look Back on Happiness, by Knut Hamsun

Chapter XXXVIII

I have written this story for you.

Why have I written thus? Because my soul cries out with boredom before every Christmas, boredom with all the books that are all written the same way. I had even the intention of writing in dialect, so as to be truly Norwegian; but when I saw you understood the country’s language also, I gave up writing in dialect because, for one thing, it is becoming obsolete.

But why have I gathered so many incongruities within a single framework? My friend, one of the most celebrated literary creations was written during a plague, because of a plague — this is my answer. And, my friend, when you have lived for a long time away from the human beings you know inside and out, then you indulge once more in the iniquity of speech; your powers have been so little used that your head is filled with a thousand sermons. This is my defense.

If I know you at all, you will revel in one or other of my outspoken passages; especially where there is a nocturnal episode, you will lick your chops. But to others you will shake your head and say: “Think of his writing such things!” Alas, small, vulgar soul, retire into solitude and try to understand that episode! It has cost me much to surrender it to you.

Perhaps, too, you will be interested in myself and ask about my irons? Well, I may give you their greeting. They are the irons of one who is half a century old — he has no other kind. But the distinction between myself and my brother travelers is that I freely admit: I have none but these. They were planned so big and so red; yet they are small irons, and they hardly glow. This is the truth. They congregate with the painstaking works of others round the Christmas table. This is the truth. It is the truth even though, in spite of everything, they are distinct from the nothingness of others. You cannot judge this, for you are the modern spirit in Norway, and this is the spirit I scorn.

One thing you will admit: you have not wasted your time in “cultured company”; I have not tried to quench your little upstart heart with a “lady.” I have written about human beings. But within the speech that is spoken, another lies concealed, like the veins under the skin, like a story within a story. I have followed the septuagenarian of literature step by step, and reported the progress of his disintegration. I should have written this description long ago, but I had not years enough; only now am I entering upon them, directly and indirectly. I should have done it while the country was groping for long periods under the shadow of superannuated incompetence. Instead I do it now, when I myself am being accused of a tendency to cast shadows. “Sensationalism,” you will say, “chasing after fame!” My dear, chaste friend, I have fame enough for the last twenty years of my life, and after that I shall be dead. And you? May you live long; you deserve it. May you almost survive me — in the flesh.

I have just read what a man on the pinnacle of culture has said: “Experience shows that when culture spreads, it grows thin and colorless.” Then one must not raise an outcry against the bearers of a new renaissance. I can no longer herald a renaissance; it is too late now. Once, when I had the power to do much and the desire to do more, mediocrity everywhere was too strong. I was the giant with the feet of clay — the lot of many youths. But now, my small, small friend, look about you: there has appeared, within even your field of vision, a figure here and a figure there, a shining crest, lavish with its bounty, geniuses beneath the open sky — you and I should bid them welcome. I walk in the evening of life and, trembling, recognize myself in them; they are youth with jeweled eyes. Yet you begrudge them your recognition; yes, you begrudge them fame. Because you are nobody.

To you — to the modern spirit of Norway! I have written this during a plague, and because of the plague. I cannot stop the rot; no, it is unassailable now, it flourishes under national protection, tarara-boom-de-ay. But one day no doubt it will stop. Meanwhile I do what I can to fight it; you do the reverse.

Of course I have shouted in the marketplace; perhaps that is why my voice is hoarse now, cracked at times. There are worse things. A worse thing would have been if it had not obeyed me. Is there any danger of that? No, my friend, not for you; you will live till you die, be assured.

Why have I written to you, of all people? Why do you think? You refused to be convinced of the truth and integrity of my conclusions; but I shall yet force you to recognize that I am close to the truth. Not until then shall I make allowance for the fool in you.

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