Look Back on Happiness, by Knut Hamsun

Chapter XXII

I muse on all this, and understand that her staying here is somehow connected with her carnal desires, with the fact that Solem is still here. How muddled it all is, and how this handsome girl has been spoiled! I saw her not long ago, tall and proud, upright, untouched, walking intentionally close to Solem, yet not replying to his greeting. Did she suspect him of complicity in the death of the lawyer and avoid him for that reason? Not in the least; she avoided him less than before, even letting him take her letters to the post office, which she had not done previously. But she was unbalanced, a poor thing that had lost her bearings. Whenever she could, she secretly defiled herself with pitch, with dung; she sniffed at foulness and was not repelled.

One day, when Solem swore a needlessly strong oath at a horse that was restless, she looked at him, shivered, and went a deep red. But she mastered herself at once, and asked Josephine:

“Isn’t that man leaving soon?”

“Yes,” Josephine replied, “in a few days.”

Though she had seized this opportunity to ask her question with a great show of indifference, I am certain it was an important one to her. She went away in silence.

Yes, Miss Torsen stayed, for she was sexually bound to Solem. Solem’s despair, Solem’s rough passion that she herself had inflamed, his brutality, his masculinity, his greedy hands, his looks — she sniffed at all this and was excited by it. She had grown so unnatural that her sexual needs were satisfied by keeping this man at a distance. The Torsen type no doubt lies in her solitary bed at night, reveling in the sensation that in another house a man lies writhing for her.

But her friend, the actor? He was in no sense the other’s equal. There was nothing of the bull in him, nothing of action, only the braggadocio of the theater. . . .

Here am I, growing small and petty with this life. I question Solem about the accident. We are alone together in the woodshed.

Why had he lied and said the Dane wanted to climb the Blue Peak that unfortunate Sunday morning?

Solem looked at me, pretending not to understand.

I repeated my question.

Solem denied he had said any such thing.

“I heard you,” I said.

“No, you didn’t,” he said.

A pause.

Suddenly he dropped to the floor of the shed, convulsed, without shape, an outline merely; a few minutes passed before he got up again. When he was on his feet once more, pulling his clothes to rights, we looked at each other. I had no wish to speak to him further, and left him. Besides, he was going away soon.

After this, everything was dull and empty again. I went out alone, aping myself and shouting: “Bricks for the palace! The calf is much stronger today!” And when this was done, I did other nothings, and when my money began to run out, I wrote to my publisher, pretending I would soon send him an unbelievably remarkable manuscript. In short, I behaved like a man in love. These were the typical symptoms.

And to take the bull by the horns: no doubt you suspect me of dwelling on the subject of Miss Torsen out of self-interest? In that case I must have concealed well in these pages that I never think of her except as an object, as a theme; turn back the pages and you will see! At my age, one does not fall in love without becoming grotesque, without making even the Pharaohs laugh.


But there is one thing I cannot finish doing, and that is withdrawing to my room, and sitting alone with the good darkness round me. This, after all, is the last pleasure.

An interlude:

Miss Torsen and her actor are walking this way; I hear their footsteps and their voices; but since I am sitting in the dark of the evening, I cannot see them. They stop outside my open window, leaning against it, and the actor says something, asks her to do something she does not want to do, tries to draw her with him; but she resists.

Then he grows angry.

“What the devil did you send for me for?” he asks roughly.

And she begins to weep and says:

“So that’s all you’ve come for! Oh, oh! But I’m not like that at all. Why can’t you leave me alone? I’m not hurting you.”

Am I one who understands women? Self-deception. Vain boasting. I made my presence known then because her weeping sounded so wretched; I moved a chair and cleared my throat.

The sound caught his attention at once, and he hushed her, trying to listen; but she said:

“No, it was nothing. . . . ”

But she knew very well this was not true; she knew what the sound was. It was not the first time Miss Torsen used this trick with me; she had often pretended that she thought I was not within hearing, and then created some such delicate situation. Each time I had promised myself not to intervene; but she had not wept before; now she wept.

Why did she use these wiles? To clear herself in my eyes — mine, the eyes of a settled man — to make me believe how good she was, how well-behaved! But, dear child, I knew that before; I could see it from your hands! You are so unnatural that in your seven and twentieth year, you walk unmarried, barren and unopen!

The pair drifted away.

And there is something else I cannot finish doing: withdrawing into solitude in the woods, alone with the good darkness round me. This is the last pleasure.

One needs solitude and darkness, not because one flees the company of others and can endure only one’s own, but because of their quality of loftiness and religion. Strange how all things pass distantly, yet all is near; we sit in an omnipresence. It must be God. It must be ourselves as a part of all things.

What would my heart, where would I stray?

Shall I leave the forest behind me?

It was my home but yesterday;

now toward the city I wend my way;

to the darkness of night I’ve resigned me.

The world round me sleeps as I tarry, alone,

soothing my ear with its quiet.

How large and gray is the city of stone

in which the many all hopes enthrone!

Shall I, too, accept their fiat?

Hark! Do the bells ring on the hillside?

Back to the peace of the forest I turn

in the nightly hour that’s hoarest.

There’s a sweet-smelling hedgerow to which I yearn;

I shall rest my head on heather and fern,

and sleep in the depths of the forest.

Hark, how the bells ring on the hillside!

Romantic? Yes. Mere sentimentality, mood, rhyme — nothing? Yes.

It is the last happiness.


Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55