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Knut Hamsun: Dreamer & Dissenter
Knut Hamsun: Dreamer & Dissenter
Ingar Sletten Kolloen
Yale University Press, 2009
384 pp., $45.00

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Alf Walgermo


Split Mind

The enigmatic life of Knut Hamsun.

How can a great writer also be an ideological and political idiot? This question will probably always stick to Knut Hamsun's name, and the Nobel Prize-winner still provokes debate in his homeland.

Hamsun wrote his way into the history of world literature with outstanding works such as Hunger (1890), Mysteries (1892), Pan (1894) and Growth of the Soil (1917). In 1920, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, becoming the most internationally recognized Norwegian writer next to playwright Henrik Ibsen.

In Norway itself, Hamsun had been a great celebrity since the turn of the 20th century. With the Nobel Prize, he became the Norwegian face outward to the world. And thus a whole nation felt betrayed when Hamsun sided with the Nazi regime during World War II. The wounds inflicted on Hamsun's reputation when he argued against Norwegian resistance to the Nazis and, in an infamous obituary, bowed his head at Hitler's death, were slow to heal.

Still, last year, the national celebrations marking Hamsun's 150th anniversary—he was born on August 4, 1859—showed that the Norwegian people are finally willing to forgive: Queen Sonja and crown princess Mette-Marit participated in the ceremonies. Or, to put it differently: It's widely acknowledged that Hamsun was a great writer, even though his political views are not to be excused.

Ingar Sletten Kolloen's biography, Knut Hamsun: Dreamer and Dissenter, released in time for the anniversary, is a compressed English version of the biographer's more expansive Norwegian original. Kolloen follows Hamsun's life chronologically, from birth until death, and gives us small clues along the way suggesting how Hamsun could end up supporting Nazism and Adolf Hitler.

Even so, only the fifth of five chapters, where Kolloen describes the war years and the case against Hamsun, focuses on this part of the writer's life. If you thought that Hamsun's Nazism was everything there was to him, outside his books, think again. In fact, Hamsun's biographer ...

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