Growth of the Soil/Knut Hamsun

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Knut Hamsun  (December 1920) 
by W.W. Worster

Knut Hamsun is now sixty. For years past he has been regarded as the greatest of living Norwegian writers, but he is still little known in England. One or two attempts have been made previously to introduce Hamsun's work into this country, but it was not until this year, with the publication of Growth of the Soil, that he achieved any real success, or became at all generally known, among English readers.

Growth of the Soil (Markens Gröde) is Hamsun's latest work. Its reception here was one of immediate and unstinted appreciation, such as is rarely accorded to a translated work by an alien author practically unknown even to the critics. A noticeable feature was the frankness with which experienced bookmen laid aside stock phrases, and dealt with this book as in response to a strong personal appeal. To the reviewer, aged with much knowledge, hardened by much handling of mediocrity, it is a relief to meet with a book that can and must be dealt with so.

Those readers are, perhaps, most fortunate who come upon such a book as this without foretaste or preparation. To the mind under spell of an aesthetic or emotional appeal, the steps that went to make it, the stages whereby the author passed, are as irrelevant as the logarithms that went to build an aeroplane. Yet it is only by knowledge of such steps that the achievement can be fully understood.

Growth of the Soil is very far indeed from Hamsun's earliest beginnings: far even from the books of his early middle period, which made his name. It is the life story of a man in the wilds, the genesis and gradual development of a homestead, the unit of humanity, in the unfilled, uncleared tracts that still remain in the Norwegian Highlands. It is an epic of earth; the history of a microcosm. Its dominant note is one of patient strength and simplicity; the mainstay of its working is the tacit, stern, yet loving alliance between Nature and the Man who faces her himself, trusting to himself and her for the physical means of life, and the spiritual contentment with life which she must grant if he be worthy. Modern man faces Nature only by proxy, or as proxy, through others or for others, and the intimacy is lost. In the wilds the contact is direct and immediate; it is the foothold upon earth, the touch of the soil itself, that gives strength.

The story is epic in its magnitude, in its calm, steady progress and unhurrying rhythm, in its vast and intimate humanity. The author looks upon his characters with a great, all-tolerant sympathy, aloof yet kindly, as a god. A more objective work of fiction it would be hard to find — certainly in what used to be called "the neurasthenic North."

And this from the pen of the man who wrote Sult, Mysterier, and Pan.

Hamsun's early work was subjective in the extreme; so much so, indeed, as almost to lie outside the limits of aesthetic composition. As a boy he wrote verse under difficulties — he was born in Gudbrandsdalen, but came as a child to Bodö in Lofoten, and worked with a shoemaker there for some years, saving up money for the publication of his juvenile efforts. He had little education to speak of, and after a period of varying casual occupations, mostly of the humblest sort, he came to Christiania with the object of studying there, but failed to make his way. Twice he essayed his fortune in America, but without success. For three years he worked as a fisherman on the Newfoundland Banks.

His Nordland origin is in itself significant; it means an environment of month-long nights and concentrated summers, in which all feelings are intensified, and love and dread and gratitude and longing are nearer and deeper than in milder and more temperate regions, where elemental opposites are, as it were, reciprocally diluted.

In 1890, at the age of thirty, Hamsun attracted attention by the publication of Sult (Hunger). Sult is a record of weeks of starvation in a city; the semi-delirious confession of a man whose physical and mental faculties have slipped beyond control. He speaks and acts irrationally, and knows it, watches himself at his mental antics and takes himself to task for the same. And he asks himself: Is it a sign of madness?

It might seem so. The extraordinary associations, the weird fancies and bizarre impulses that are here laid bare give an air of convincing verisimilitude to the supposed confessions of a starving journalist. But, as a matter of fact, Hamsun has no need of extraneous influences to invest his characters with originality. Starving or fed, they can be equally erratic. This is seen in his next book, Mysterier.

Here we have actions and reactions as fantastic as in Sult, though the hero has here no such excuse as in the former case. The "mysteries," or mystifications, of Nagel, a stranger who comes, for no particular reason apparent, to stay in a little Norwegian town, arise entirely out of Nagel's own personality.

Mysterier is one of the most exasperating books that a publisher's reader, or a conscientious reviewer, could be given to deal with. An analysis of the principal character is a most baffling task. One is tempted to call him mad, and have done with it. But, as a matter of fact, he is uncompromisingly, unrestrainedly human; he goes about constantly saying and doing things that we, ordinary and respectable people, are trained and accustomed to refrain from saying or doing at all. He has the self-consciousness of a sensitive child; he is for ever thinking of what people think of him, and trying to create an impression. Then, with a paradoxical sincerity, he confesses that the motive of this or that action was simply to create an impression, and thereby destroys the impression. Sometimes he caps this by wilfully letting it appear that the double move was carefully designed to produce the reverse impression of the first — until the person concerned is utterly bewildered, and the reader likewise.

Mysterier appeared in 1893. In the following year Hamsun astonished his critics with two books, Ny Jord (New Ground) and Redaktör Lynge, both equally unlike his previous work. With these he passes at a bound from one-man stories, portrait studies of eccentric characters in a remote or restricted environment, to group subjects, chosen from centres of life and culture in Christiania. Redaktör Lyngeredaktör, of course, means "editor" — deals largely with political manoeuvres and intrigues, the bitter controversial politics of Norway prior to the dissolution of the Union with Sweden. Ny Jord gives an unflattering picture of the academic, literary, and artistic youth of the capital, idlers for the most part, arrogant, unscrupulous, self-important, and full of disdain for the mere citizens and merchants whose simple honesty and kindliness are laughed at or exploited by the newly dominant representatives of culture.

Both these books are technically superior to the first two, inasmuch as they show mastery of a more difficult form. But their appeal is not so great; there is lacking a something that might be inspiration, personal sympathy — some indefinable essential that the author himself has taught us to expect. They are less hamsunsk than most of Hamsun's work. Hamsun is at his best among the scenes and characters he loves; tenderness and sympathy make up so great a part of his charm that he is hardly recognizable in surroundings or society uncongenial to himself.

It would almost seem as if he realized something of this. For in his next work he turns from the capital to the Nordland coast, reverting also, in some degree, to the subjective, keenly sensitive manner of Sult, though now with more restraint and concentration.

Pan (1894) is probably Hamsun's best-known work. It is a love-story, but of an extraordinary type, and is, moreover, important from the fact that we are here introduced to some of the characters and types that are destined to reappear again and again in his later works.

Nagel, the exasperating irresponsible of Mysterier, is at his maddest in his behaviour towards the woman he loves. It is natural that this should be so. When a man is intoxicated his essential qualities are emphasized. If he have wit, he will be witty; if a brutal nature, he will be a brute; if he be of a melancholy temper, he will be disposed to sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings.

We see this in Pan. The love-making of the hero is characterized by the same irrational impulses, the same extravagant actions, as in Sult and Mysterier. But they are now less frequent and less involved. The book as a whole is toned down, so to speak, from the bewildering tangle of unrestraint in the first two. There is quite sufficient of the erratic and unusual in the character of Glahn, the hero, but the tone is more subdued. The madcap youth of genius has realized that the world looks frigidly at its vagaries, and the secretly proud "au moins je suis autre" — more a boast than a confession — gives place to a wistful, apologetic admission of the difference as a fault. Here already we have something of that resignation which comes later to its fulness in the story of the Wanderer with the Mute.

The love-story in Pan takes the form of a conflict; it is one of those battles between the sexes, duels of wit and esprit, such as one finds in the plays of Marivaux. But Hamsun sets his battle in the sign of the heart, not of the head; it is a marivaudage of feeling, none the less deep for its erratic utterance. Moreover, the scene is laid, not in salons and ante-chambers, but in a landscape such as Hamsun loves, the forest-clad hills above a little fishing village, between the höifjeld and the sea. And interwoven with the story, like an eerie breathing from the dark of woods at dusk and dawn, is the haunting presence of Iselin, la belle dame sans merci.

Otto Weininger, the author of Sex and Character, said of Pan that it was "perhaps the most beautiful novel ever written." Weininger, of course, was an extremist, and few would accept his judgment without reserve. It is doubtful whether any writer nowadays would venture to make such a claim for any book at all.

Pan is a book that offends against all sorts of rules; as a literary product it is eminently calculated to elicit, especially in England, the Olympian "this will never do." To begin with, it is not so much a novel as a novelle — a form of art little cultivated in this country, but which lends itself excellently to delicate artistic handling, and the creation of that subtle influence which Hamsun's countrymen call stemning, poorly rendered by the English "atmosphere." The epilogue is disproportionately long; the portion written as by another hand is all too recognizably in the style of the rest. And with all his chivalrous sacrifice and violent end, Glahn is at best a quixotic hero. Men, as men, would think him rather a fool, and women, as women, might flush at the thought of a cavalier so embarrassingly unrestrained. He is not to be idolized as a cinema star, or the literary gymnastic hero of a perennial Earl's Court Exhibition set to music on the stage. He could not be truthfully portrayed on a flamboyant wrapper as at all seductively masculine. In a word, he is neither a man's man nor a woman's man. But he is a human being, keenly susceptible to influence which most of us have felt, in some degree.

Closely allied to Pan is Victoria, likewise a story of conflict between two lovers. The actual plot can only be described as hackneyed. Girl and boy, the rich man's daughter and the poor man's son, playmates in youth, then separated by the barriers of social standing — few but the most hardened of "best-sellers" catering for semi-detached suburbia would venture nowadays to handle such a theme. Yet Hamsun dares, and so insistently unlike all else is the impress of his personality that the mechanical structure of the story is forgotten. It is interspersed with irrelevant fancies, visions and imaginings, a chain of tied notes heard as an undertone through the action on the surface. The effect is that of something straining towards an impossible realization; a beating of wings in the void; a striving for utterance of things beyond speech.

Victoria is the swan-song of Hamsun's subjective period. Already, in the three plays which appeared during the years immediately following Pan, he faces the merciless law of change; the unrelenting "forward" which means leaving loved things behind. Kareno, student of life, begins his career in resolute opposition to the old men, the established authorities who stand for compromise and resignation. For twenty years he remains obstinately faithful to his creed, that the old men must step aside or be thrust aside, to make way for the youth that will be served. "What has age that youth has not? Experience. Experience, in, all its poor and withered nakedness. And what use is their experience to us, who must make our own in every single happening of life?" In Aftenröde, the "Sunset" of the trilogy, Kareno himself deserts the cause of youth, and allies himself to the party in power. And the final scene shows him telling a story to a child: "There was once a man who never would give way...."

The madness of Sult is excused as being delirium, due to physical suffering. Nagel, in Mysterier, is shown as a fool, an eccentric intolerable in ordinary society, though he is disconcertingly human, paradoxically sane. Glahn, in Pan, apologizes for his uncouth straightforwardness by confessing that he is more at home in the woods, where he can say and do what he pleases without offence. Johannes, in Victoria, is of humble birth, which counts in extenuation of his unmannerly frankness in early years. Later he becomes a poet, and as such is exempt in some degree from the conventional restraint imposed on those who aspire to polite society. All these well-chosen characters are made to serve the author's purpose as channels for poetic utterance that might otherwise seem irrelevant. The extent to which this is done may be seen from the way in which Hamsun lets a character in one book enter upon a theme which later becomes the subject of an independent work by the author himself. Thus Glahn is haunted by visions of Diderik and Iselin; Johannes writes fragments supposed to be spoken by one Vendt the Monk. Five years after Victoria, Hamsun gives us the romantic drama of Munken Vendt, in which Diderik and Iselin appear.

Throughout these early works, Hamsun is striving to find expression for his own sensitive personality; a form and degree of expression sufficient to relieve his own tension of feeling, without fusing the medium; adequate to his own needs, yet understandable and tolerable to ordinary human beings; to the readers of books. The process, in effect, is simply this: Hamsun is a poet, with a poet's deep and unusual feeling, and a poet's need of utterance. To gain a hearing, he chooses figures whom he can conveniently represent as fools. Secretly, he loves them, for they are himself. But to the world he can present them with a polite apology, a plea for kindly indulgence.

It is not infrequent in literature to find the wisest and most poignant utterances thus laid in the mouths of poor men clad in motley. Some of the most daring things in Shakespeare, the newest heresies of the Renaissance, are voiced by irresponsibles. Of all dramatic figures, that of the fool is most suited to the expression of concentrated feeling. There is an arresting question in a play of recent years, which runs something like this: "Do you think that the things people make fools of themselves about are any less real and true than the things they behave sensibly about?"

Most of us have at some time or another felt that uncomfortable, almost indecently denuding question which comes to us at rare moments from the stage where some great drama is being played: What is higher, what is more real: this, or the life we live? In that sudden flash, the matters of today's and tomorrow's reality in our minds appear as vulgar trifles, things of which we are ashamed. The feeling lasts but a moment; for a moment we have been something higher than ourselves, in the mere desire so to be. Then we fall back to ourselves once more, to the lower levels upon which alone we can exist. And yet it is by such potentials that we judge the highest art; by its power to give us, if only for a moment, something of that which the divinity of our aspiring minds finds wanting in the confines of reality.

The richness of this quality is one of the most endearing things in Hamsun's characters. Their sensitiveness is a thing we have been trained, for self-defence, to repress. It is well for us, no doubt, that this is so. But we are grateful for their showing that such things are, as we are grateful for Kensington Gardens who cannot live where trees are everywhere. The figures Hamsun sets before us as confessedly unsuited to the realities of life, his vagabonds, his failures, his fools, have power at times to make us question whether our world of comfort, luxury, success, is what we thought; if it were not well lost in exchange for the power to feel as they.

It has been said that life is a comedy to those who think, a tragedy to those who feel. Humanly speaking, it is one of the greatest merits of Hamsun's work that he shows otherwise. His attitude towards life is throughout one of feeling, yet he makes of life no tragedy, but a beautiful story.

"I will be young until I die," says Kareno in Aftenröde. The words are not so much a challenge to fate as a denial of fact; he is not fighting, only refusing to acknowledge the power that is already hard upon him.

Kareno is an intellectual character. He is a philosopher, a man whose perceptions and activity lie predominantly in the sphere of thought, not of feeling. His attempt to carry the fire of youth beyond the grave of youth ends in disaster; an unnecessary débâcle due to his gratuitously attempting the impossible.

Hamsun's poet-personality, the spirit we have seen striving for expression through the figures of Nagel, Glahn, Johannes, and the rest, is a creature of feeling. And here the development proceeds on altogether different lines. The emotion which fails to find adequate outlet, even in such works as Sult, Mysterier, Victoria, and Pan, might well seem more of a peril than the quixotic stubbornness of Kareno's philosophy. Such a flood, in its tempestuous unrest, might seem to threaten destruction, or at best the vain dispersal of its own power into chaos. But by some rare guidance it is led, after the storm of Munken Vendt, into channels of beneficent fertility.

In 1904, after an interval of short stories, letters of travel, and poems, came the story entitled Svoermere. The word means "Moths." It also stands for something else; something for which we English, as a sensible people, have no word. Something pleasantly futile, deliciously unprofitable — foolish lovers, hovering like moths about a lamp.

But there is more than this that is untranslatable in the title. As a title it suggests an attitude of gentleness, tenderness, sympathy, toward whomsoever it describes. It is a new note in Hamsun; the opening of a new motif.

The main thread of the story bears a certain similarity to that of Mysterier, Vicioria, and Pan, being a love affair of mazy windings, a tangled skein of loves-me-loves-me-not. But it is pure comedy throughout. Rolandsen, the telegraph operator in love with Elsie Mack, is no poet; he has not even any pretensions to education or social standing. He is a cheerful, riotous "blade," who sports with the girls of the village, gets drunk at times, and serenades the parson's wife at night with his guitar. Svoermere is the slightest of little stories in itself, but full of delightful vagaries and the most winning humour.

The story of Benoni, with its continuation Rosa, is in like vein; a tenderly humorous portrayal of love below stairs, the principal characters being chosen from the class who appear as supers in Pan; subjects or retainers of the all-powerful Trader Mack. It is as if the sub-plots in one of Shakespeare's plays had been taken out for separate presentment, and the clown promoted to be hero in a play of his own. The cast is increased, the milieu lightly drawn in Pan is now shown more comprehensively and in detail, making us gradually acquainted with a whole little community, a village world, knowing little of any world beyond, and forming a microcosm in itself.

Hamsun has returned, as it were, to the scene of his passionate youth, but in altered guise. He plays no part himself now, but is an onlooker, a stander-by, chronicling, as from a cloistered aloofness, yet with kindly wisdom always, the little things that matter in the lives of those around him. Wisdom and kindliness, sympathy and humour and understanding, these are the dominant notes of the new phase. Svoermere ends happily — for it is a story of other people's lives. So also with Benoni and Rosa at the last. And so surely has the author established his foothold on the new ground that he can even bring in Edvarda, the "Iselin" figure from Pan, once more, thus linking up his brave and lusty comedies of middle age with the romantic tragedies of his youth, making a comprehensive pageant-play of large-hearted humanity.

Meantime, the effect upon himself is seen — and avowed. Between Svoermere and Benoni comes the frankly first-personal narrative of a vagabond who describes himself, upon interrogation, as "Knut Pedersen" — which is two-thirds of Knut Pedersen Hamsund — and hailing from Nordland — which embraces Lofoten.

It does not need any showing of paper, however, to establish the identity of Knut Pedersen, vagabond, with the author of Pan. The opening words of the book ("Under Höststjaernen") are enough. "Indian summer, mild and warm ... it is many years now since I knew such peace. Twenty or thirty years maybe — or maybe it was in another life. But I have felt it some time, surely, since I go about now humming a little tune; go about rejoicing, loving every straw and every stone, and feeling as if they cared for me in return...."

This is the Hamsun of Pan. But Hamsun now is a greater soul than in the days when Glahn, the solitary dweller in the woods, picked up a broken twig from the ground and held it lovingly, because it looked poor and forsaken; or thanked the hillock of stone outside his hut because it stood there faithfully, as a friend that waited his return. He is stronger now, but no less delicate; he loves not Nature less, but the world more. He has learned to love his fellow-men. Knut Pedersen, vagabond, wanders about the country with his tramp-companions, Grindhusen, the painter who can ditch and delve at a pinch, or Falkenberg, farm-labourer in harvest-time, and piano-tuner where pianos are. Here is brave comradeship, the sharing of adventures, the ready wit of jovial vagrants. The book is a harmless picaresque, a geste of innocent rogue-errantry; its place is with Lavengro and The Cloister and the Hearth, in that ancient, endless order of tales which link up age with age and land with land in the unaltering, unfrontiered fellowship of the road that kept the spirit of poetry alive through the Dark Ages.

The vagabond from Nordland has his own adventures, his bonnes fortunes. There is a touch of Sterne about the book; not the exaggerated super-Sterne of Tristram Shandy, with eighteenth-century-futurist blanks and marbled pages, but the fluent, casual, follow-your-fancy Sterne of the Sentimental Journey. Yet the vagabond himself is unobtrusive, ready to step back and be a chronicler the moment other figures enter into constellation. He moves among youth, himself no longer young, and among gentlefolk, as one making no claim to equal rank.

Both these features are accentuated further in the story of the Wanderer with the Mute. It is a continuation of Under Höststjaernen, and forms the culmination, the acquiescent close, of the self-expressional series that began with Sult. The discords of tortured loveliness are now resolved into an ultimate harmony of comely resignation and rich content. "A Wanderer may come to fifty years; he plays more softly then. Plays with muted strings." This is the keynote of the book. The Wanderer is no longer young; it is for youth to make the stories old men tell. Tragedy is reserved for those of high estate; a wanderer in corduroy, "such as labourers wear here in the south," can tell the story of his chatelaine and her lovers with the self-repression of a humbler Henry Esmond, winning nothing for himself even at the last, yet feeling he is still in Nature's debt.

Hamsun's next work is Den Siste Gloede (literally "The Last Joy"). The title as it stands is expressive. The substantive is "joy" — but it is so qualified by the preceding "last," a word of overwhelming influence in any combination, that the total effect is one of sadness. And the book itself is a masterly presentment of gloom. Masterly — or most natural: it is often hard to say how much of Hamsun's effect is due to superlative technique and how much to the inspired disregard of all technique. Den Siste Gloede is a diary of wearisome days, spent for the most part among unattractive, insignificant people at a holiday resort; the only "action" in it is an altogether pitiful love affair, in which the narrator is involved to the slightest possible degree. The writer is throughout despondent; he feels himself out of the race; his day is past. Solitude and quiet, Nature, and his own foolish feelings — these are the "last joys" left him now.

The book might have seemed a fitting, if pathetic, ending to the literary career of the author of Pan. Certainly it holds out no promise of further energy or interest in life or work. The closing words amount to a personal farewell.

Then, without warning, Hamsun enters upon a new phase of power. Börn av Tilden (Children of the Age) is an objective study, its main theme being the "marriage" conflict touched upon in the Wanderer stories, and here developed in a different setting and with fuller individuality. Hamsun has here moved up a step in the social scale, from villagers of the Benoni type to the land-owning class. There is the same conflict of temperaments that we have seen before, but less violent now; the poet's late-won calm of mind, and the level of culture from which his characters now are drawn — perhaps by instinctive selection — make for restraint. Still a romantic at heart, he becomes more classic in form.

Börn av Tilden is also the story of Segelfoss, in its passing from the tranquil dignity of a semi-feudal estate to the complex and ruthless modernity of an industrial centre. Segelfoss By (1915) treats of the fortunes of the succeeding generation, and the further development of Segelfoss into a township ("By").

Then, with Growth of the Soil, Hamsun achieves his greatest triumph. Setting aside all that mattered most to himself, he turns, with the experience of a lifetime rich in conflict, to the things that matter to us all. Deliberately shorn of all that makes for mere effect, Isak stands out as an elemental figure, the symbol of Man at his best, face to face with Nature and life. There is no greater human character — reverently said — in the Bible itself.


These, then, are the steps of Hamsun's progress as an author, from the passionate chaos of Sult to the Miltonic, monumental calm of Growth of the Soil. The stages in themselves are full of beauty; the wistfulness of Pan and Victoria, the kindly humour of Svoermere and Benoni, the autumn-tinted resignation of the Wanderer with the Mute — they follow as the seasons do, each with a charm of its own, yet all deriving from one source. His muse at first is Iselin, the embodiment of adolescent longing, the dream of those "whom delight flies because they give her chase." The hopelessness of his own pursuit fills him with pity for mortals under the same spell, and he steps aside to be a brave, encouraging chorus, or a kindly chronicler of others' lives. And his reward is the love of a greater divinity, the goddess of field and homestead. No will-o'-the-wisp, but a presence of wisdom and calm.