Knut Hamsun: From Hunger to Harvest


Edwin Björkman

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Knut Hamsun: From Hunger to Harvest

Between “Hunger” and “Growth of the Soil” lies the time generally allotted to a generation, but at first glance the two books seem much farther apart. One expresses the passionate revolt of a homeless wanderer against the conventional routine of modern life. The other celebrates a root-fast existence bounded in every direction by monotonous chores. The issuance of two such books from the same pen suggests to the superficial view a complete reversal of position. The truth, however, is that Hamsun stands today where he has always stood. His objective is the same. If he has changed, it is only in the intensity of his feeling and the mode of his attack. What, above all, he hates and combats is the artificial uselessness of existence which to him has become embodied in the life of the city as opposed to that of the country.

Problems do not enter into the novels of Hamsun in the same manner as they did into the plays of Ibsen. Hamsun would seem to take life as it is, not with any pretense at its complete acceptability, but without hope or avowed intention of making it over. If his tolerance be never free from satire, his satire is on the other hand always easily tolerant. One might almost suspect him of viewing life as something static against which all fight would be futile. Even life’s worst brutalities are related with an offhandedness of manner that makes you look for the joke that must be at the bottom of them. The word reform would seem to be strangely eliminated from his dictionary, or, if present, it might be found defined as a humorous conception of something intrinsically unachievable.

Hamsun would not be the artist he is if he were less deceptive. He has his problems no less than Ibsen had, and he is much preoccupied with them even when he appears lost in ribald laughter. They are different from Ibsen’s, however, and in that difference lies one of the chief explanations of Hamsun’s position as an artist. All of Ibsen’s problems became in the last instance reducible to a single relationship — that between the individual and his own self. To be himself was his cry and his task. With this consummation in view, he plumbed every depth of human nature. This one thing achieved, all else became insignificant.

Hamsun begins where Ibsen ended, one might say. The one problem never consciously raised by him as a problem is that of man’s duty or ability to express his own nature. That is taken for granted. The figures populating the works of Hamsun, whether centrally placed or moving shadowlike in the periphery, are first of all themselves — agressively, inevitably, unconsciously so, In other words, they are like their creator. They may perish tragically or ridiculously as a result of their common inability to lay violent hand on their own natures. They may go through life warped and dwarfed for lack of an adjustment that to most of us might seem both easy and natural. Their own selves may become more clearly revealed to them by harsh or happy contacts with life, and they may change their surfaces accordingly. The one thing never occurring to them is that they might, for the sake of something or some one outside of themselves, be anything but what they are.

There are interferences, however, and it is from these that Hamsun’s problems spring. A man may prosper or suffer by being himself, and in neither case is the fault his own. There are factors that more or less fatally influence and circumscribe the supremely important factor that is his own self. Roughly these fall into three groups suggestive of three classes of relationships: (1) between man and his general environment; (2) between man and that ever-present force of life which we call love; and (3) between man and life in its entirety, as an omnipotence that some of us call God and others leave unnamed. Hamsun’s deceptive preference for indirectness is shown by the fact that, while he tries to make us believe that his work is chiefly preoccupied with problems of the second class, his mind is really busy with those of the first class. The explanation is simple. Nothing helps like love to bring out the unique qualities of a man’s nature. On the other hand, there is nothing that does more to prevent a man from being himself than the ruts of habit into which his environment always tends to drive him. There are two kinds of environment, natural and human. Hamsun appears to think that the less you have of one and the more of the other, the better for yourself and for humanity as a whole. The city to him is primarily concentrated human environment, and as such bad. This phase of his attitude toward life almost amounts to a phobia. It must be connected with personal experiences of unusual depth and intensity. Perhaps it offers a key that may be well worth searching for. Hamsun was born in the country, of and among peasants. In such surroundings he grew up. The removal of his parents from the central inland part of Norway to the rocky northern coast meant a change of natural setting, but not a human contact. The sea must have come into his life as a revelation, and yet it plays an astonishingly small part in his work. It is always present, but always in the distance. You hear of it, but you are never taken to it.

At about fifteen, Hamsun had an experience which is rarely mentioned as part of the scant biographical material made available by his reserve concerning his own personality. He returned to the old home of his parents in the Gudbrand Valley and worked for a few months as clerk in a country store — a store just like any one of those that figure so conspicuously in almost every one of his novels. The place and the work must have made a revolutionary impression on him. It apparently aroused longings, and it probably laid the basis for resistances and resentments that later blossomed into weedlike abundance as he came in contact with real city life. There runs through his work a strange sense of sympathy for the little store on the border of the wilderness, but it is also stamped as the forerunner and panderer of the lures of the city.

As a boy of eighteen, when working in a tiny coast town as a cobbler’s apprentice, he ventured upon his first literary endeavors and actually managed to get two volumes printed at his own cost. The art of writing was in his blood, exercising a call and a command that must have been felt as a pain at times, and as a consecration at other times. Books and writing were connected with the city. Perhaps the hatred that later days developed, had its roots in a thwarted passion. Even in the little community where his first scribblings reached print he must have felt himself in urban surroundings, and perhaps those first crude volumes drew upon him laughter and scorn that his sensitive soul never forgot. If something of the kind happened, the seed thus sown was nourished plentifully afterwards, when, as a young man, Hamsun pitted his ambitions against the indifference first of Christiania and then of Chicago. The result was a defeat that seemed the more bitter because it looked like punishment incurred by straying after false gods.

Others have suffered in the same way, although, being less rigidly themselves, they may not, like Hamsun, have taken a perverse pleasure in driving home the point of the agony. Others have thought and said harsh things of the cities. But no one that I can recall has equalled Hamsun in his merciless denunciation of the very principle of urbanity. The truth of it seems to be that Hamsun’s pilgrimage to the bee hives where modern humanity clusters typically, was an essential violation of something within himself that mattered even more than his literary ambition to his soul’s integrity. Perhaps, if I am right, he is the first genuine peasant who has risen to such artistic mastery, reaching its ultimate heights through a belated recognition of his own proper settings. Hamsun was sixty when he wrote “Growth of the Soil.” It is the first work in which he celebrates the life of the open country for its own sake, and not merely as a contrast to the artificiality and selfishness of the cities. It was written, too, after he had definitely withdrawn himself from the gathering places of the writers and the artists to give an equal share of his time and attention to the tilling of the soil that was at last his own. It is the harvest of his ultimate self-discovery.

The various phases of his campaign against city life are also interesting and illuminating. Early in his career as a writer he tried an open attack in full force by a couple of novels, “Shallow Soil” and “Editor Lynge”, dealing sarcastically with the literary Bohemia of the Norwegian capital. They were, on the whole, failures — artistically rather than commercially. They are among his poorest books. The attack was never repeated in that form. He retired to the country, so to speak, and tried from there to strike at what he could reach of the ever expanding, ever devouring city. After that the city, like the sea, is always found in the distance. One feels it without ever seeing it. There is fear as well as hatred in his treatment of it.

In the country it is represented not so much by the store, which, after all, fills an unmistakable need on the part of the rural population, as by the representatives of the various professions. For these Hamsun entertains a hostile feeling hardly less marked than that bestowed on their place of origin, whither, to his openly declared disgust, they are always longing. It does not matter whether they are ministers or actors, lawyers or doctors — they are all tarred with the same brush. Their common characteristic is their rootlessness. They have no real home, because to Hamsun a home is unthinkable apart from a space of soil possessed in continuity by successive generations. They are always despising the surroundings in which they find themselves temporarily, and their chief claim to distinction is a genuine or pretended knowledge of life on a large scale. Greatness is to them inseparably connected with crowdedness, and what they call sophistication is at bottom nothing but a wallowing in that herd instinct which takes the place of mankind’s ancient antagonist in Hamsun’s books. Above all, their standards of judgment are not their own.

From what has just been said one might conclude that the spirit of Hamsun is fundamentally unsocial. So it is, in a way, but only in so far as we have come to think of social and urban as more or less interchangeable terms. He has a social consciousness and a social passion of his own, but it is decentralized, one might say. He knows of no greater man than his own Isak of “Growth of the Soil”— a simple pioneer in whose wake new homes spring up, an inarticulate and uncouth personification of man’s mastery of nature. When Hamsun speaks of Isak passing across the yearning, spring-stirred fields, “with the grain flung in fructifying waves from his reverent hands,” he pictures it deliberately in the light of a religious rite — the oldest and most significant known to man. It is as if the man who starved in Christiania and the western cities of the United States — not figuratively, but literally — had once for all conceived a respect for man’s principal food that has colored all subsequent life for him and determined his own attitude toward everything by a reference to its connection or lack of connection with that substance.

Taking it all in all, one may well call Hamsun old-fashioned. The virtues winning his praise and the conditions that stir his longings are not of the present day. There is in him something primitive that forms a sharp contrast to the modernity of his own style. Even in his most romantic exaggerations, as in “Hunger” and “Mysteries,” he is a realist, dealing unrelentingly with life as it appears to us. It would hardly be too much to call his method scientific. But he uses it to aim tremendous explosive charges at those human concentrations that made possible the forging of the weapons he wields so skilfully. Nor does he stop at a wish to see those concentrations scattered. The very ambitions and Utopias bred within them are anathema to his soul, that places simplicity above cleanliness in divine proximity. Characteristically we find that the one art treated with constant sympathy in his writings is that of music, which probably is the earliest and certainly the one least dependent on the herding of men in barracks. In place of what he wishes to take away he offers nothing but peace and the sense of genuine creation that comes to the man who has just garnered the harvests of his own fields into his bulging barns. He is a prophet of plenty, but he has no answer ready when we ask him what we are going to do with it after we have got it. Like a true son of the brooding North, he wishes to set us thinking, but he has no final solutions to offer.

Edwin Björkman

This web edition published by:

eBooks@Adelaide
The University of Adelaide Library
University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005