Look Back on Happiness, by Knut Hamsun

Chapter VIII

The bustle of spring season had already started at the great farm; men and animals were awake, the barn re-echoed with lowing the whole day long, and the goats had long since been let out to pasture.

It was a long way between neighbors here; one or two cotters had cleared an area in the forest, which they had then bought; apart from that, all the land in sight belonged to the farm. Many new houses had been built here as the traffic over the fjelds increased, and gargoyles, homelike and Norwegian, sat on the gable ends, while the sound of a piano came from the living-room. Do you know the place? You have been here, and the people of the farm have asked after you.

Good days, nothing but good days: a suitable transition from solitude. I speak to the young people who own the homestead now, and to the husband’s old father and young sister Josephine. The old man leaves his room to look at me. He is terrifyingly old, perhaps ninety; his eyes are worn and half-crazed, and his figure has shrunk to nothing. He toils with both hands to drag himself into the day, and each time it is as though he left his mother’s womb anew and found a world before him:

“Look, how strange, there are houses on the farm,” he thinks as he gazes at them. And when the barn doors stand open, he looks at them, too, and thinks:

“Just like a doorway; what can it be? Looks exactly like a doorway. . . . ”

And he stands still a long time staring at it.

But Josephine, the daughter of his latest marriage, is young and plays the piano for me. Ah, Josephine! As she runs through the garden, her feet are like a breeze under her skirt. How kind she is to the visitors! Surely she has seen us coming a long way off, Solem and myself, and sat down to play the piano. She has gray, pathetic, young girl’s hands — hands which confirm an old observation of mine that one’s hands reveal one’s sexual character, showing chastity, indifference, or passion.

It is pleasant to watch Josephine crouch down to milk the goat. But she is only doing this now to charm and please the stranger. Ordinarily she has no time for such work, for she is too busy at her indoor tasks, waiting at table and watering the flowers and chatting with me about who climbed the Tore Peak last summer, and who did it the summer before that. These are Josephine’s tasks.

Refreshed and rejuvenated, I idle about, stand for a while watching Solem, who has been put to carting manure, then drift on down through the wood to the cotters’ houses. Neat, compact houses, barns with room for two cows and a couple of goats in each, half-naked children playing homemade games outside the barns, quarrels and laughter and tears. The men at both places cart manure on sleighs, seeking a path where the snow and ice still lie on the ground, and doing very well with it. I do not descend to the houses, but watch the work from my point of vantage. Well do I know the life of labor, and well do I like it.

It was no small area these cotters had broken up; the homesteads were tiny but the fences surrounding the land included a good section of forest. When the ground was cleared all the way to the fence, this would be a farm with five cows and a horse. Good luck!

The days pass, the windowpanes have thawed, the snow is melting away, green things grow against south walls, and the leaves break out in the woods. My original intention to make great irons hot within me is unchanged; but if I ever thought this an easy task I must be an incredible fool. I do not even know with any certainty if there are irons in me still, or whether I can shape them if there are. Since the winter, life has made me lonely and small; I idle and loiter here, remembering that once things were different. Now that I have reached daylight and men again, I begin to understand all this. I was a different person once. The wave has its feathered crest, and so had I; wine has its fire, and so had I. Neurasthenia, the ape of all the diseases, pursues me.

What then? No, I do not mourn this. Mourn? It is for women to mourn. Life is only a loan, and I am grateful for the loan. At times I have had gold and silver and copper and iron and other small metals; it was a great delight to live in the world, much greater than an endless life away from the world; but pleasure cannot last. I know of no one who has not been through the same thing; but I know of no one who will admit it. How they have declined! But they themselves have said:

“See how everything is better!”

At their first jubilee, they left life behind and began a vegetating existence; once one is fifty, the seventies begin. And the irons were no longer red-hot; there were no irons. But by heaven, how stubbornly Simplicity insisted the irons were there, insisted that they were red.

“See the irons!” Simplicity said. “See how red they are!”

As though it mattered that death can be kept off for another twenty years from one who has already begun to perish! I have no use for such a way of thinking; but you have, no doubt, you with your cheerful mediocrity and school education. A one-armed man can still walk; a one-legged man can lie down. Has the forest taught you nothing, then? What have I learned in the forest? That young trees grow there.

In my footsteps walks youth, youth that is shamelessly, barbarously scorned, merely because it is young, scorned by stupidity and degeneration. I have seen this for many years. I know nothing more despicable than your school education and your school-education standards. Whether you have a catechism or a compass by which to guide your life is all the same; come here, my friend, and I will give you a compass made of my latest iron.

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