Look Back on Happiness, by Knut Hamsun

Chapter V

I fill the fireplace with pine wood, hoist my belongings to my back, and leave the hut. “Farewell, Madame.”

That was the end.

I feel no pleasure at leaving my shelter, but a touch of sadness — as I always do on leaving a place that has been my home for some time. But all the world stands outside calling to me. Indeed I am like all lovers of the woods and fields; wordlessly we had agreed to meet, and as I sat there last night, I felt my eyes being drawn to the door.

Several times I look back at the hut, with the smoke rising up from the chimney; the smoke billows and waves to me, and I wave back.

The silky pallor of the morning refreshes me; in a long blue haze over the forest, a slow dawn rises. It looks like a cheerful piratical coast in the sky before me. The mountains are all on my left.

After a few hours’ march I am like new from top to toe, and I press on swiftly. I beat the air with my stick, and it says “hoo” as it swishes; whenever I think I deserve it, I sit down and give myself food.

No, you have not my pleasures in the town.

I beat my legs with my stick from the sheer exuberance of living, and nearly cry out. I behave as though the burden on my back had no weight, taking needless leaps, and overexerting myself a little; but an overexertion to which one is driven by inner content is easy to bear. In my solitude, many miles from men and houses, I am in a childishly happy and carefree state of mind, which you are incapable of understanding unless someone explains it to you. I play a little game with myself, pretending to have discovered a remarkable kind of tree. At first I pay little attention, then I stretch my neck and contract my eyelids and gaze.

“What!” I say to myself. “Surely it couldn’t be —”

I throw down my burden and approach, inspect the tree and nod sagely, saying it is a strange, fabled tree that I have discovered. And I take out my notebook and describe it.

Merely jest and happiness, a queer little impulse to play. Children have done it before me. And here comes no postman to surprise me. As suddenly as I have begun the game, I end it again, as children do. But for a moment I was transported back to the dear, foolish bliss of childhood.

Perhaps it was the anticipation of soon seeing men again that made me playful and happy!

Next day, just as a raw mist descends on mountain and forest, I reach the Lapp’s house. I enter. But though I meet with nothing but kindness, a Lapp hut contains little that is interesting. There are spoons and knives of bone on the peat wall, and a small paraffin lamp hangs from the roof. The Lapp himself is a dull nonentity who can neither tell fortunes nor conjure. His daughter has gone across the field; she has learned to read, but not to write, at the village school. The two old people, husband and wife, are fools. The whole family share a sort of animal dumbness; if I ask them a question, I may or may not get half a reply: “Mm-no, mm-yes.” I am not a Lapp, and so they distrust me.

All the afternoon the mist lay white on the forest. I slept a while. In the evening, the sky was clear again, and there were a few degrees of frost. I left the hut. The moon stood full and silent above the earth.

Heigh-ho — what untuned strings!

But where are the birds all gone away,

and what kind of place is this?

Here where I stand nothing moves or stirs,

in this world that is dead, no event occurs;

I stand in a silvermine.

My eyes sweep round, but I sorely miss

a homely, well-known outline.

And so he came to a silver wood —

thus ran an ancient tale.

Here rests a song of shimmering fire

as though it were sung by a starry choir.

And swift in my youth, I leap

to bind fast the troll, the cunning male,

and awaken a maid from her sleep.

Today I smile at childish tales,

old age has made me wise.

Once proudly in prodigal youth I trod,

now by age my foot is heavily shod;

yet my heart — my heart would fly.

I am driven by fire and bound by ice,

no rest nor repose have I.

A shuddering chill falls on the night,

like a cloud from the lungs in the cold.

There passed a great gust through the silver lace

of the woods, like a lion’s royal pace

on paws that are soundless and still.

It may be a god on his evening stroll.

The roots of the forest thrill.

When I returned to the hut, the daughter had also returned home, and sat eating after her long march. Olga the Lapp, tiny and queer, conceived in a snowdrift, in the course of a greeting. “Boris!” they said and fell on their noses.

She had bought red and blue pieces of cloth at the draper’s shop in the village, and no sooner had she finished eating than she pushed the cups and plates away and began to embroider her Sunday jacket with pretty strips of the cloth. All the while she never spoke a word, because a stranger was in the room.

“You know me, Olga, don’t you?”


“But you look so angry.”


“How’s the snow track across the fjeld?”

“All right.”

I knew there was a deserted hut the family had once lived in, and asked:

“How far is it to your old hut?”

“Not far,” said Olga.

Olga Lapp has someone to smile at surely, even if she will not smile at me. Here she sits in the great forest, pandering to her vanity and sewing wonderful scrolls on her jacket. On Sunday, no doubt, she will wear it to church and meet the man whose eyes it is meant to gladden.

I was not anxious to stay any longer with these small beings, these human grains of sand. As I had slept enough in the afternoon and the moon was bright, I prepared to leave. After laying in a further supply of reindeer cheese and whatever other food I could get, I left the hut. But what a surprise: the bright moonlight was gone, and the sky was overcast; there was no frost, only mild weather and wet woods. It was spring.

When Olga Lapp saw this, she advised me against leaving; but why should I listen to her chatter? She came with me a little way into the woods to direct me, then turned and went back, tiny and queer, her feathers ruffled like a hen’s.


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