Shallow Soil, by Knut Hamsun

Translator’s Preface

In the autumn of 1888 a Danish magazine published a few chapters of an autobiographical novel which instantly created the greatest stir in literary circles throughout Europe. At that time Ibsen, Björnson, Brandes, Strindberg, and other Scandinavian writers were at the height of their cosmopolitan fame, and it was only natural that the reading world should keep in close touch with the literary production of the North. But even the professional star-gazers, who maintained a vigilant watch on northern skies, had never come across the name of Knut Hamsun. He was unknown; whatever slight attention his earlier struggles for recognition may have attracted was long ago forgotten. And now he blazed forth overnight, with meteoric suddenness, with a strange, fantastic, intense brilliance which could only emanate from a star of the first magnitude.

Sudden as was Hamsun’s recognition, however, it has proved lasting. The story of his rise from obscurity to fame is one of absorbing interest. Behind that hour of triumph lay a long and bitter struggle, weary years of striving, of constant and courageous battle with a destiny that strewed his path with disappointments and defeats, overwhelming him with adversities that would have swamped a genius of less energy and real power.

Knut Hamsun began life in one of the deep Norwegian valleys familiar to English readers through Björnson’s earlier stories. He was born in August, 1860. When he was four years old his poverty-stricken parents sent him to an uncle, a stern, unlovely man who made his home on one of the Lofoten Islands — that “Drama in Granite” which Norway’s rugged coast-line flings far into the Arctic night. Here he grew up, a taciturn, peculiar lad, inured to hardship and danger, in close communion with nature; dreaming through the endless northern twilight, revelling through the brief intense summer, surrounded by influences and by an atmosphere which later were to give to his production its strange, mystical colouring, its pendulum-swings from extreme to extreme.

At seventeen he was apprenticed to a cobbler, and while working at his trade he wrote and, at the cost of no one knows what sacrifices, saved enough money to have his first literary efforts printed and published. They consisted of a long, fantastic poem and a novel, “Björger”— the latter a grotesque conglomeration of intense self-analytical studies. These attracted far less attention than they really deserved. However, the cobbler’s bench saw no more of Knut Hamsun.

During the next twelve years he led the life of a rover, but a rover with a fixed purpose from which he never swerved. First he turned his face toward Christiania, the capital and the intellectual centre of the country; and in order to get there he worked at anything that offered itself. He was a longshoreman on Bodö‘s docks, a road-labourer, a lumberjack in the mountains; a private tutor and court messenger. Finally he reached the metropolis and enrolled as a student at the university. But the gaunt, raw-boned youth, unpractical and improvident, overbearing of manner, passionately independent in thought and conduct, failed utterly in his attempts to realise whatever ambitions he had cherished. So it was hardly strange that this the first chapter of his Odyssey should end in the steerage of an American-bound emigrant steamer.

In America, where he landed penniless, he turned his strong and capable hands to whatever labour he could find. He had intended to become a Unitarian minister. Instead of doing so he had to work as a farm-hand on the prairie, street-car conductor in Chicago, dairyman in Dakota; and he varied these pursuits by giving a series of lectures on French literature in Minneapolis. By that time he probably imagined that he was equipped for a more successful attack on the literary strongholds of his own country, and returned to Christiania. Disappointments and privations followed more bitter than any he had ever known. He starved and studied and dreamed; vainly he made the most desperate attempts to gain recognition. In despair he once more abandoned the battle-field and fled to America again, with the avowed purpose of gaining a reputation on the lecture platform.

Once more he failed; his countrymen resident in the Northwest would have none of him. Beaten back in every attempt, discouraged, perhaps feeling the need of solitude and the opportunities for introspective thought which he could not find in the larger cities, he exiled himself to that most desolate of existences, a life on a Newfoundland fishing-smack. Three long years he spent as one of a rude crew with whom he could have nothing in common save the daily death-struggle with the elements. But these years finished the preparatory stage of Hamsun’s education. During the solitary watches he matured as an artist and as a man. In his very first effort upon his return to civilisation he proved that the days of aimless fumblings were over: in “Hunger” he stands suddenly revealed as a master of style and description, a bold and independent thinker, a penetrating, keen psychologist, a realist of marked virility.

Since “Hunger” was written Hamsun has published over thirty large works — novels, dramas, travel descriptions, essays, and poems. Every one of them is of a high order. Each is unlike the rest; but through them all flash in vivid gleams a dazzling witchery of style, a bewildering originality, a passionate nature-worship, and an imagination which at times takes away the breath.

“Shallow Soil,” in some respects the most contained of Hamsun’s works, is perhaps best suited as a medium for his introduction to Anglo-Saxon readers. In a very complete analysis of Hamsun’s authorship the German literary critic, Professor Carl Morburger, thus refers to “Shallow Soil”:

“Not only is this book Knut Hamsun’s most significant work, but it gives the very best description available of life in Christiania toward the close of the century. A book of exquisite lyric beauty, of masterly psychology, and finished artistic form, it is so rich in idea and life that one must refrain from touching on the contents in order to keep within the narrow limits of this essay. A most superbly delicate delineation of the feminine soul is here given in the drawing of Hanka and Aagot; nowhere else is woman’s love in its dawn and growth described with such mastery, with a deftness and sureness of touch which reminds one of the very greatest passages in that Danish classic, ‘Niels Lyhne.’”

Hamsun is now in his fifty-fourth year. The expectations aroused by his first book have been more than fulfilled; the star that was born overnight still shines with undimmed brilliance — nay, with a purer, warmer, steadier flame. The volcanic violence of earlier days has been mellowed and subdued; the “red eruptions of flame-tongued, primeval power” have all but ceased. In one of his latest works Hamsun himself notes this change in saying: “When a wanderer reaches fifty years he plays with muted strings.” But with or without the sordine Hamsun’s production is equally seductive, equally entrancing and compelling. All over the continent of Europe he is known and his writings treasured; in Russia his popularity exceeds that of many of its own inimitable writers. It is to be expected that the English-speaking world will accord him that appreciation which is the natural tribute to genius, irrespective of language or clime.


NEW YORK, December, 1913.

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