Knut Hamsun: Norway’s Controversial Novelist

“I suffered no pain, my hunger had taken the edge off; instead I felt pleasantly empty, untouched by everything around me and happy to be unseen by all. I put my legs up on the bench and leaned back, the best way to feel the true well-being of seclusion. There wasn’t a cloud in my mind, nor did I feel any discomfort, and I hadn’t a single unfulfilled desire or craving as far as my thought could reach. I lay with open eyes in a state of utter absence from myself and felt deliciously out of it.–from Knut Hamsun’s Hunger.

When I tell people my favorite novelist is Knut Hamsun, I usually get a blank stare. Who? In fact, I probably would never have read his work if I hadn’t become interested in my family’s Norwegian heritage. I studied Norwegian language and culture at the University of Washington, then also studied and lived in Oslo and Bergen. My first exposure to Hamsun’s writing was the novel Hunger (1890), a fascinating tale of a starving writer in Kristiania (Oslo) who is unable to care for himself and spends much of the novel in a delirious state of mind.

It’s difficult to read Hunger and believe it was actually published in 1890. So much of Hamsun’s writing during this time of his life was quite modern, some would say a precursor to 20th century fiction. Other novels during this time period include Mysteries and Pan. Writer Isaac Bashevis Singer wrote the following about Hamsun in 1967: “The whole school of fiction in the 20th century stems from Hamsun,” … “his subjectiveness, his fragmentariness, his use of flashbacks, his lyricism.” Hamsun is said to be a major influence on many 20th century authors including Ernest Hemingway, Franz Kafka, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Herman Hesse. Hemingway himself even once stated “Hamsun taught me to write”.

Later in his career Hamsun rejected modern literature devices and returned to straight narrative storytelling, often focusing on rural Norwegian life. His epic novel Growth of the Soil (1917) won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1920. Growth of the Soil later became a favorite in Nazi Germany, and the novel can very easily be interpreted in a “blood and soil” manner. Most of Hamsun’s later novels have similar themes as Growth of the Soil. They focus mainly on rural life, humanity and man’s relationship to nature.

Hamsun’s literary career is often viewed through a darker prism, however. Hamsun was an unapologetic Nazi supporter during World War II. He wrote a number of pro-Nazi articles and manifestos and had at least some marginal political participation in the Norwegian Nazi Party (Nasjonal Samling). In Hamsun’s view both World Wars were justified as a means to limit British imperialism. Hamsun had a very personal justification for German support that may have made sense to himself and to others at the time, but which is difficult to understand for a modern audience.

Hamsun is perhaps most criticized for his Hitler obituary, written a week after Hitler’s death and published by the conservative Aftenposten. The obituary read in part: “Hitler was a warrior, a warrior for humankind and a preacher of the gospel of justice for all nations. He was a reforming character of the highest order…” Hamsun was tried for treason after the war and was made to spend some time in a mental hospital. He was fined the sum of 325,000 kroner, which was an enormous sum of money at the time. He took this all as a direct insult and chose to return to writing by publishing his memoir On Overgrown Paths (1949) at the age of 90.

On Overgrown Paths reads as neither an apology nor a justification for his actions during World War II, but rather a stubborn effort to defend his personal honor and his legacy, and perhaps most of all to prove his sanity. It has many beautiful passages and is remarkable for the work of someone at such an advanced age. Hamsun remains controversial to this day, but is widely regarded as one of the most important Norwegian authors. Hunger alone should be read by all aspiring journalists and writers and is a great starting point for those unfamiliar with his work.

Sources: New York Times, Time Magazine, Wikipedia

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