TRANSLATED FROM THE NORWEGIAN
LEONARD SMITHERS AND CO
5 OLD BOND STREET W
Ten years ago a little book on "Intellectual Life in the America of To-day" appeared in Norway. The intense individuality of its (it must be admitted often wrong-headed) point of view aroused interest and curiosity as to its author. It was followed shortly by his first novel "Sult" ("Hunger"). It made a great sensation; was as the flash of some strange meteor, holding perhaps a menace to social life, across the firmament. It met with much adverse criticism; indeed, it demanded some courage in those days to declare oneself an admirer of "that dreadful Hamsun!"
There was something mysterious, challenging—something alike magnetic and repellent, in the man's personality, as in his work; something that invoked opposition. He was an unknown quantity in the society and literature of his country. "Hunger" was followed by a course of lectures, in which he beheaded the literary idols of the day (not a few were amongst his audience),—executed them with an audacious, genial impudence, an irritating self-assurance, that made his addresses the sensation of the year. One book after the other appeared—"Mysterier" (Mysteries), "Pan," "Redaktör Lynge," "Nyjord" (Fresh Soil), "Siesta" (short stories),—and the critics scourged him alternately as poseur and blageur, poet and genius, creative artist and impudent imitator. Hamsun went his own way, with a genial laugh at his critics, as a schoolboy caught at some trick. This son of the people, this self-taught man, whose art was congenital—a growth of his very innermost being, not a graft from outside—had a superb contempt for everything that was not of aesthetic value in his own eyes. Of one thing he convinced them—that, as stylist, he was second to none in his own country. Consciously or unconsciously, every young writer in Norway owes Hamsun a debt. He introduced an absolutely new note into his native language, established a new scale of word values, pointed to fresh uses for the older one. The effect was startling, as one of his critics aptly said: "Hamsun had brought something 'American' into the language—a lightning smartness, an audacious trick of phrase, a troll-like humour hitherto unknown." In a word, he leavened the heaviness in some marvellous way; it was as if the spirit of Mark Twain had suddenly obsessed the sober discourse of a meeting of serious elders.
Words were gold in his hands, to be tossed about rough as unwashed nuggets, or beaten into a delicate, fantastic filigree; language became a plastic material, capable of expressing the most elusive half-thoughts, the most unrecorded emotions. No translation can give any idea of the magic of his word-treatment; it has to be sacrificed to a bald rendering of the spirit of the original.
Each of his books was attention-compelling, baffling the critics to define his exact place as a writer. Perhaps Hamsun himself was only seeking; as yet a sort of literary freebooter, fighting a place for his individual art through the ranks of conservative prejudice. There was trace of struggle in much of his work; his method was peculiar, and his personality jumped up and down through all his books in many disguises. It tantalised whilst it compelled to laughter, whether as brilliant jester who held all things up to ridicule, or fantastic juggler tossing up the old-world values as if they were jingling balls of no particular worth; who could pause suddenly, casting aside his motley, to scourge his listeners with a sermon on the "superstitions" of the day, with a truly sardonic humour. No one, no thing escaped him; he pilloried Gladstone as gaily as Carl Marx; "Novelist Maupassant" as "Missionary Tolstoy." Sometimes one had to shut the book, with flaming cheeks, as one was met by an episode so coarse, a jest so unseemly, a blasphemy so surprising as only a wanton irresponsible peasant lad could tell it; but one opened it again to discover an exquisite lyrical word-painting of some mood in nature, or emotion in man, that made one's heart warm and one's eyes wet.
Hamsun has proved himself a master at probing into the unexplored crannies in the human soul, the mysterious territory of uncontrollable, half-conscious impulses. He has no consideration for the weak places in humanity; he is merciless in his exposure of dark places of all that borders on the abnormal, the insane. It takes strong will and sound intellect, and an iron tenacity of purpose to psychologise in Hamsun's manner. Then he is not afraid, and gives rein to every mood. To quote Herr Gerhard Gran—"Knut Hamsun gives the impression of being a downright sportsman in this territory. He hunts through the soul with a kind of jocund eagerness; and if he finds the 'spraint' of a troll, he sets after it with the halloo of a hunter. They are precious finds to him, these seemingly irresponsible divagations off the beaten track. And it must be conceded to Hamsun that he is an indefatigable hunter. When he is in full cry he does not quit the scent."
This year he has completed his fine Trilogy, composed of three distinct plays, dealing with the life and development of one man: "On the Eve of Fortune" ("Ved Rigets Port"), "The Game of Life" ("Livet's Spil") "Sunset," ("Aftenrödet"); besides an exquisite love-story, in which his art is at its finest, called "Victoria." One lays these books down, and says: "Hamsun has served his apprenticeship; he has come into his own; and his own is a distinguished place in the estate of letters."
It must be remembered that "Hunger" was his first book, and that the style of the original is necessarily sacrificed. None the less it a psycho-pathological study of the hunger of soul and body, the "art of hungering with beauty." Hamsun is above all genie-mâle, and for that one cannot be sufficiently grateful.a shriek of hunger in all its moods,