Knut Hamsun: Dreamer & Dissenter
Ingar Sletten Kolloen
Yale University Press, 2009
384 pp., 45.0
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 portrays him as being almost as fragmented as his own fictional characters.
Reading the English version, it strikes me how suitable Hamsun's life was for a biographical account. Biographies about writers often tend to be far less interesting than the writers' literary works. Not so with Hamsun. Kolloen's account of Hamsun's life is driven by the great contrasts in his character; this is a biography that actually feels like a novel.
The early years were frenetic, marked by a poor boy's battle for life, knowledge, and recognition. Kolloen shows us how Hamsun drew on his own experiences writing his masterpiece, Hunger. The writer's youth and young manhood were occupied with writing, writing, reading, reading, and gaining and spending money, which he was constantly out of. And these obsessions continued to rule even after Hamsun was an established writer with a family. He could not be described as a caring husband and father. He neglected his (second) wife, Marie, and to some extent his children also.
Kolloen gives considerable attention to the Nobel triumph, which spurred enormous sales for Hamsun's books both in Norway and abroad. And finally, the biographer turns his attention to Hamsun during World War II. Here, as always, Hamsun's split mind is apparent: He supported Germany and its ideas, but he hated the Reichskommissar of Norway, Joseph Terboven. Hamsun managed to gain an audience with Hitler in 1943, under the illusion that he could persuade the Führer to remove Terboven. Of course he failed.
Hamsun was a very stubborn man. But Kolloen makes clear that the writer was no old fool during his last years. And more than anybody, Hamsun himself made that clear, writing On Overgrown Paths when he was almost ninety. Here he struck back at the psychologists who had judged him to be "a person with permanently impaired mental faculties," a conclusion that Kolloen speculates could have been decided even before the psychological examination, to avoid charging the great writer with treason.
At the same time, Hamsun says something essential about his fragmented mind: "I do not think that in all my work, from the moment I began, I have created a single person with such a straightforward governing attribute. They are all without so-called 'character,' they are split and fragmented, neither good nor bad, but both things, nuanced, changeable in mind and action. As undoubtedly I am myself."
In the end, Hamsun was convicted for being a member of the Norwegian Nazi-friendly NS Party, even though historians still are unsure whether he actually was a member.
Does Kolloen trace the roots of Hamsun's infamous love affair with Nazi Germany to his earliest days, as it says on the back of the book cover? I'm not sure. But he succeeds in showing that Hamsun had Nazi ideas long before the Nazi regime. Or, at least, that such ideas were expressed through his writing. When Sigrid Undset, Norway's third Nobel laureate, was asked after the war if she had expected this of Hamsun, she said: "Yes, this was exactly what I expected. He has never written about anything apart from his own inferiority complexes, the English nation of shopkeepers and the master race of Germany."
Harsh words, but Hamsun's first play, At the Gates of the Kingdom (1895), makes a disturbing impression. The protagonist, Ivar Kareno, a 29-year-old philosopher, espouses obstinacy, vengeance, and hatred as his ideals. "Let war come," he declares: "it matters less to preserve this or that number of lives; since life's source is boundless in its supply, what matters is to keep humankind standing tall within us." And Kareno declares his belief in "the born leader, the natural despot, the commander, the man who is not elected but crowns himself leader of the masses of earth. I believe in, and hope for, one thing: the return of the great terrorist, the essence of man, Caesar." The play was later to become popular in Nazi Germany.
In Kolloen's telling, Hamsun is both a repellent and a sympathetic figure. And I like the way the biographer finds room for the literary works in his narrative: his concise discussions of Hamsun's works cast new light on the writer's life, and vice versa.
I'm less enthusiastic about Kolloen's tendency to use wordplay for dramatic effect, especially in the last parts of the book. For example: "They had lost the war together. But the battle between husband and wife was far from over." Kolloen indulges in such devices quite often, and the effect is grating.
More substantively, I wish that Kolloen had given fuller attention to Hamsun's faith. In his early days, while living in his uncle's house, Hamsun was introduced to a fierce, punitive God. He lived in terror of the Old Testament deity while continuing to pray to the Jesus of the New Testament. The local pastor ignored reports about how Hamsun was beaten by his uncle, and as a result he developed a hatred for the clergy. Still, in 1884, when he was in his mid-twenties, he worked some months as secretary and deacon for Kristofer Janson, a pastor serving the Norwegian Unitarian Church Society in Minneapolis. Kolloen skips over this period too quickly, mostly dwelling on a single episode: Hamsun became very ill and, believing he was on his deathbed, brooded over the thought that he had never possessed a woman. He desperately exclaimed his wish to "go to the bordello, sin, whisper his ecstasy and expire in the act," causing Janson's wife to offer her services. (He refused her.)
The same man who said he would "spit in God's eye" for the rest of his life—he had just lost a fortune at the casinos—wrote to his troubled daughter, Ellinor, when he was 88 years old: "It's your old papa writing this to you again: go to God in your sorrows, tell your brother Jesus Christ how you suffer, and ask the Holy Spirit for the guidance to endure it. Rest assured, I have been through it myself, otherwise I would not offer you this advice. It might seem quite strange to you, as it did to me. But you can be sure it will bring you solace and peace."
These complaints should not detract from the achievement of a biography that is consistently rewarding—and one that is likely to send many readers in search of Hamsun's own books.
Alf Walgermo is a Norwegian writer and critic. He has published four books, most recently the children's book "Mom and Dad in Heaven," about a girl who prays to God after losing her parents in a traffic accident. The short story collection "Master Meetings" is about the 100 individuals who met Jesus according to the Gospels. Walgermo was Acting Chairman of the Norwegian Critics' Association, and works for the Norwegian national daily newspaper VåLand. firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright © 2010 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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