Under the Autumn Star, by Knut Hamsun

Introduction

This introduction is from "The Wanderers", which published this work and "A wanderer plays on muted strings" as a single volume. — Editors note.

An autobiographical element is evident in practically everything that Hamsun has written. But it is particularly marked in the two volumes now published under the common title of “Wanderers,” as well as in the sequel named “The Last Joy.” These three works must be considered together. They have more in common than the central figure of “Knut Pedersen from the Northlands” through whose vision the fates of Captain Falkenberg and his wife are gradually unfolded to us. Not only do they refer undisguisedly to events known to be taken out of Hamsun’s own life, but they mirror his moods and thoughts and feelings during a certain period so closely that they may well be regarded as diaries of an unusually intimate character. It is as psychological documents of the utmost importance to the understanding of Hamsun himself that they have their chief significance. As a by-product, one might almost say, the reader gets the art which reveals the story of the Falkenbergs by a process of indirect approach equalled in its ingenuity and verisimilitude only by Conrad’s best efforts.

The line of Hamsun’s artistic evolution is easily traceable through certain stages which, however, are not separated by sharp breaks. It is impossible to say that one stage ended and the next one began in a certain year. Instead they overlap like tiles on a roof. Their respective characters are strikingly symbolized by the titles of the dramatic trilogy which Hamsun produced between 1895 and 1898 —“At the Gate of the Kingdom,” “The Game of Life,” and “Sunset Glow.”

“Hunger” opened the first period and “Pan” marked its climax, but it came to an end only with the eight-act drama of “Vendt the Monk” in 1902, and traces of it are to be found in everything that Hamsun ever wrote. Lieutenant Glahn might survive the passions and defiances of his youth and lapse into the more or less wistful resignation of Knut Pedersen from the Northlands, but the cautious, puzzled Knut has moments when he shows not only the Glahn limp but the Glahn fire.

Just when the second stage found clear expression is a little hard to tell, but its most characteristic products are undoubtedly the two volumes now offered to the American public, and it persists more or less until 1912, when “The Last Joy” appeared, although the first signs of Hamsun’s final and greatest development showed themselves as early as 1904, when “Dreamers” was published. The difference between the second and the third stages lies chiefly in a maturity and tolerance of vision that restores the narrator’s sense of humour and eliminates his own personality from the story he has to tell.

Hamsun was twenty-nine when he finished “Hunger,” and that was the age given to one after another of his central figures. Glahn is twenty-nine, of course, and so is the Monk Vendt. With Hamsun that age seemed to stand principally for the high water mark of passion. Because of the fire burning within themselves, his heroes had the supreme courage of being themselves in utter defiance of codes and customs. Because of that fire they were capable of rising above everything that life might bring — above everything but the passing of the life-giving passion itself. A Glahn dies, but does not grow old.

Life insists on its due course, however, and in reality passion may sink into neurasthenia without producing suicides. Ivar Kareno discovers it in “Sunset Glow,” when, at the age of fifty, he turns renegade in more senses than one. But even then his realization could not be fully accepted by the author himself, still only thirty-eight, and so Kareno steps down into the respectable and honoured sloth of age only to be succeeded, by another hero who has not yet passed the climacteric twenty-ninth year. Even Telegraph-Rolandsen in “Dreamers” retains the youthful glow and charm and irresponsibility that used to be thought inseparable from the true Hamsun character.

It is therefore with something of a shock one encounters the enigmatic Knut Pedersen from the Northlands, who has turned from literature to tramping, who speaks of old age as if he had reached the proverbial three-score and ten, and who time and again slips into something like actual whining, as when he says of himself: “Time has worn me out so that I have grown stupid and sterile and indifferent; now I look upon a woman merely as literature.” The two volumes named “Under the Autumn Star” and “A Wanderer Plays on Muted Strings” form an unbroken cry of regret, and the object of that regret is the hey-day of youth — that golden age of twenty-nine — when every woman regardless of age and colour and caste was a challenging fragment of life.

Something more than the passing of years must have characterized the period immediately proceeding the production of the two volumes just mentioned. They mark some sort of crisis reaching to the innermost depths of the soul it wracked with anguish and pain. Perhaps a clue to this crisis may be found in the all too brief paragraph devoted to Hamsun in the Norwegian “Who’s who.” There is a line that reads as follows: “Married, 1898, Bergljot Bassöe Bech (marriage dissolved); 1908, Marie Andersen.” The man that wrote “Under the Autumn Star” was unhappy. But he was also an artist. In that book the artist within him is struggling for his existence. In “A Wanderer Plays with Muted Strings” the artist is beginning to assert himself more and more, and that he had conquered in the meantime we know by “Benoni” and “Rosa” which appeared in 1908. The crisis was past, but echoes of it were heard as late as 1912, the year of “Last Joy,” which well may be called Hamsun’s most melancholy book. Yet that is the book which seems to have paved the way and laid the foundation for “The Growth of the Soil”— just as “Dreamers” was a sketch out of which in due time grew “Children of the Time” and “Segelfoss Town.”

Hamsun’s form is always fluid. In the two works now published it approaches formlessness. “Under the Autumn Star” is a mere sketch, seemingly lacking both plan and plot. Much of the time Knut Pedersen is merely thinking aloud. But out of his devious musings a purpose finally shapes itself, and gradually we find ourselves the spectator of a marital drama that becomes the dominant note in the sequel. The development of this main theme is, as I have already suggested, distinctly Conradian in its method, and looking back from the ironical epilogue that closes “A Wanderer Plays on Muted Strings,” one marvels at the art that could work such a compelling totality out of such a miscellany of unrelated fragments.

There is a weakness common to both these works which cannot be passed up in silence. More than once the narrator falls out of his part as a tramp worker to rail journalistically at various things that have aroused his particular wrath, such as the tourist traffic, the city worker and everything relating to Switzerland. It is done very naively, too, but it is well to remember how frequently in the past this very kind of naiveté has associated with great genius. And whatever there be of such shortcomings is more than balanced by the wonderful feeling for and understanding of nature that most frequently tempt Hamsun into straying from the straight and narrow path of conventional story telling. What cannot be forgiven to the man who writes of “faint whisperings that come from forest and river as if millions of nothingnesses kept streaming and streaming,” and who finds in those whisperings “one eternity coming to an understanding with another eternity about something”?

EDWIN BJORKMAN

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/h/hamsun/knut/h23u/introduction.html

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