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"The whole modern school of fiction in the twentieth century stems from Hamsun," writes Isaac Bashevis Singer in his introduction to Hamsun's first novel Suit (1890; Hunger ). Although Knut Hamsun was also a poet, short-story writer, and dramatist, Singer and other writers and critics think of him first and foremost as the creator of a new type of novel, what Hamsun himself described as "a book without marriages, country picnics or dances up at the big house. A book about the delicate vibrations of a sensitive human soul, the strange and peculiar life of the mind, the mysteries of the nerves in a starving body."
At the same time sad and humorous, Hunger is the first-person account of a young writer in Kristiania (now Oslo) whose periodic experiments with hunger act as a mind-expanding drug. In Hamsun's next novel, Mysterier (1892; Mysteries ), the influence of Friedrich Nietzsche and Fedor Dostoevskii is noticeable in the novel's treatment of pride and humility. The hero is involved in a double project of the will---to gain the hand of a beautiful young girl and restore a sense of pride in a local outcast---and he fails on both counts. The long novel, written during short intervals between travels, suffers from a lack of structure, but its intriguing characters, many beautiful passages, and pioneering stream-of-consciousness technique have made it a favorite with Hamsun lovers. The short novel Pan (1894), about the tragic love relationship between a proud hero and heroine, is set in the land of the midnight sun and contains nature descriptions of great beauty and a story line that unwinds in short chapters of passionate prose. In Victoria (1898) the social difference between the lovers is more clearly marked. He is the son of a poor miller, she the daughter of a great estate owner, and their life story is unusual for Hamsun in that it includes their childhood. Also unusual are the tales and allegories scattered through the text---Hamsun's hero this time is a professional poet. Less striking than Pan, Victoria has sweetness and charm, and Arthur Koestler has called it "one of the great love stories in World Literature."
Although it is generally agreed that Hamsun's novels from the 1890s are his greatest, Hamsun wrote 15 more novels during the next 40 years, many of them masterworks. In some, the love story is less important than the social setting. In Konerne ved vandposten (1920; The Women at the Pump ) Hamsun writes with humor and irony about the transformation of country communities into urban areas: "Ah, that little ant hill! Everyone busy with his own affairs, crossing each other's path, elbowing each other aside, sometimes even trampling on each other. That's the way it is, sometimes they even trample on each other ... " . Best known of these novels from the middle period is Markens grode (1917; The Growth of the Soil ), about an anonymous character, Isak, who wanders into the wilderness to clear new land for himself and his family. H.G. Wells' enthusiasm for the book--- "It impresses me as among the very greatest novels I have ever read. It is wholly beautiful; it is saturated with wisdom and humour and tenderness" ---may be a reaction against the senselessness of World War I. Hamsun's back-to-nature program also impressed the Swedish Academy, which awarded him the Nobel prize for literature in 1920.
Deeply disillusioned over World War I and its outcome, Hamsun wrote two of his most pessimistic novels in the early 1920s. Then, after undergoing psychoanalytic treatment, he regained his writing ability and some of the humor of his first social novels. The trilogy about the good companions Edevart and August (1927-33) contains many elements of his earlier work---the tragic love story and the back-to-nature message, for example---but it is first and foremost a novel about 20th-century emigration and general rootlessness. The first volume in the trilogy, Landstrykere (1927; Wayfarers ), is Hamsun's longest novel and one of his best. Hamsun's last novel, Ringen sluttet (1936; The Ring Is Closed ), is the first part of a book that was never completed, but even as a torso it is one of his great works. The hero, Abel Brodersen, is a hippie long before the time of hippies. A sailor who has lived in a commune in Kentucky, Brodersen returns to the home of his childhood, disillusioned, but totally without social ambition and, in that limited sense, a free man. A stoic, like many of the author's earlier heroes, Abel Brodersen is more than any other Hamsun protagonist a man of our own time.
During World War II, Hamsun sided with Germany and wrote articles defending its actions in occupied Norway. When the war was over he was arrested and was found by a psychiatrist to suffer from "permanently reduced mental faculties." Hamsun was tried and found guilty and sentenced to surrender everything he owned to the state of Norway. Despite his advanced age, Hamsun was able to include these and many other experiences into a charming and moving memoir, På gjengrodde stier (1949; On Overgrown Paths ), published after his 90th birthday.
Hamsun was above all an aesthete, a stylist, a writer more concerned with his medium than with his message. Typical of his style is a strong reliance on rhythm and repetition, which he employed until the end of his days, even though his lyricism gradually gave way to a more epic manner of presentation. Strangely, Hamsun's lifelong theme of alienation is always accompanied by a message of joy. Henry Miller responded to that message when he wrote, "It was from ... Knut Hamsun that I derived much of my love of life, love of nature, love of men."
Harald S. Naess


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Born Knut Pedersen in Lom, Norway, 4 August 1859. Apprenticed to a shoemaker in Bodö, then a road worker; lived in the United States, 1882-84, 1886-88; streetcar conductor in Chicago, farm worker in North Dakota, and secretary and lecturer in Minneapolis; lived in Paris for several years, early 1890s; traveled in Finland, Russia, and Denmark during the 1890s and 1900s; writer after 1890, and farmer after 1911. Openly supported Quisling's pro-German party during World War II; arrested, tried and found guilty, and ordered to surrender all his belongings to the state of Norway after the war (also briefly confined to a mental institution). Awarded Nobel prize for literature, 1920. Died 19 February 1952.

Selected Novels by Hamsun
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Sult , 1890; as Hunger , translated by George Egerton, 1899; also translated by Robert Bly, 1967, and by Sverre Lyngstad, 1996

Mysterier , 1892; as Mysteries , translated by Arthur G. Chater, 1927; also translated by Gerry Bothmer, 1971

Pan , 1894; as Pan , translated by W. W. Worster, 1920; also translated by James McFarlane, 1955

Victoria , 1898; as Victoria , translated by Arthur G. Chater, 1923; as Victoria: A Love Story , translated by Oliver Stallybrass, 1969

Under hoststjoernen , 1906; as Autumn , translated by W. W. Worster, in Wanderers , 1922; as Under the Autumn Star , translated by Oliver and Gunnvor Stallybrass, in The Wanderer , 1975

En vandrer spiller med sordin , 1909; as With Muted Strings , translated by W.W. Worster, in Wanderers , 1922; as A Wanderer Plays on Mute Strings , translated by Worster, 1922; as On Muted Strings , translated by Oliver and Gunnvor Stallybrass, in The Wanderer , 1975

Segelfoss by , 1915; as Segelfoss Town , translated by J.S. Scott, 1925

Markens grode , 1917; as The Growth of the Soil , translated by W.W. Worster, 1920

Konerne ved vandposten , 1920; as The Women at the Pump , translated by Arthur G. Chater, 1928; also translated by Oliver and Gunnvor Stallybrass, 1978

Landstrykere , 1927; as Vagabonds , translated by Eugene Gay-Tifft, 1930; as Wayfarers , translated by James W. McFarlane, 1980

August , 1930; as August , translated by Eugene Gay-Tifft, 1931

Ringen sluttet , 1936; as The Ring Is Closed , translated by Eugene Gay-Tifft, 1937

Other Writings:

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plays, short stories, poetry, travel writing, essays, autobiography, and letters.

Further Reading
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Baumgartner, Walter, Knut Hamsun , Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1997

Ferguson, Robert, Enigma: The Life of Knut Hamsun , New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and London: Hutchinson, 1987

Hansen, Thorkild, Prosessen mot Hamsun , Oslo: Gyldendal, 1978

Kittang, Atle, Luft, Vind, Ingenting: Hamsuns desillusjonsromanar frå "Sult" til "Ringen sluttet ," Oslo: Gyldendal, 1984; 2nd edition, 1996

McFarlane, James W., "The Whisper of the Blood: A Study of Knut Hamsun's Early Novels," PMLA 71 (1956)

Naess, Harald S., Knut Hamsun , Boston: Twayne, 1984

Nettum, Rolf Nyboe, Konflikt og visjon: Hovedtemaer i Knut Hamsuns forfatterskap 1890-1912, Oslo: Gyldendal, 1970

Nilson, Sten Sparre, En orn i uvoer , Oslo: Gyldendal, 1960

Ostby, Arvid, Knut Hamsun (bibliography), Oslo: Gyldendal, 1972

Popperwell, Ronald, "Critical Attitudes to Knut Hamsun, 1890-1969" (bibliography), Scandinavica 9 (1970)

View Select Bibliography for the Encyclopedia of the Novel

View List of Contributors for the Encyclopedia of the Novel

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Found in Literature Online, the home of literature and criticism. Copyright © 1996-2009 ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Article Text:


In The Western Canon (1994), Harold Bloom offers a provoking definition of the great novel as that which bears an uncanny relation to tradition: "When you read a canonical work for a first time you encounter a stranger, an uncanny startlement rather than a fulfillment of expectations." Just such a stranger, Knut Hamsun's first novel is arguably also the first modern novel in the Western canon. Hunger is a first-person narrative that recounts the mostly dire experiences of an anonymous young man trying (and just as often not trying) to make a living from writing, while having (or choosing) to go without food or fixed address, in the city of Kristiania. A mixture of ecstatic, traumatic, and delirious events concludes with the narrator leaving town on a ship bound for England. Hamsun's book resembles other 19th-century works of fiction, and yet it startles and eludes every conventional generic classification. One of his more recent biographers, Harald Naess, cites a letter in which Hamsun states simply, "My book is not to be looked upon as a novel" (see Naess, 1984). Perhaps such a claim can be made of any great novel, but Hunger is nevertheless a remarkable instance of historical originality and elusiveness.
A reliable English translation has become available only very recently. Sverre Lyngstad's 1996 translation of the original Norwegian is in innumerable respects more accurate and complete than that of either Mary Dunne (alias George Egerton) in 1899 or Robert Bly in 1967. It may be that this new translation will help to bring Hunger to a wider audience. In the foreword to Lyngstad's new translation, Duncan McLean likens the novel to Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting (1993) and other innovative contemporary fiction, a parallel that is at once insightful and misleading. No doubt the uncanny elusiveness of the novel does reside partly in its peculiar resonances with current writing: it is difficult, for example, to read the work of Paul Auster without a recurrent awareness of the lurking presence of Hunger , and indeed Auster's 1970 essay on Hamsun's novel remains one of the best critical accounts in recent years. But Hunger is also a text that locates itself very specifically in late 19th-century Oslo (or Kristiania, as it was then called) and that "belongs" to its time both in sociocultural and literary historical terms.
Some of its literary and philosophical precursors can be readily, if inadequately, named: Poe (for perversity), Dostoevskii (for narrative delirium), Twain (for frivolity), Nietzsche and Strindberg (for fragmented and multiple identity). But the originality of Hamsun's work can perhaps best be understood in two ways. First, it is a novel in which narrative time itself disintegrates. As John Vernon puts it: "a pure narrative present, a sense of time continuously billowing and literally getting nowhere, for the first time fully occupies fiction" (see Vernon, 1984). Second, it is a novel explicitly concerned with writing and the desire or need to fail. As Auster points out: "it would be wrong to dismiss the hero of Hunger as a fool or a madman. In spite of the evidence, he knows what he is doing. He does not want to succeed. He wants to fail. Something new is happening here, some new thought about the nature of art is being proposed in Hunger " (see Auster, 1990). In its elaboration of the links between writing and failure, between writing, hunger (in various forms), and self-annihilation, Hamsun's novel seems uncannily to "project" the writings and voices of Franz Kafka, Maurice Blanchot, Georges Bataille, and Samuel Beckett. One may hear the tragicomic tonalities of Beckett, for example, in "I sat down once more on a bench near the Church of Our Saviour and dozed with my head on my breast, limp after my last excitement, sick and worn-out with hunger. Time passed. ... I had picked up a little stone, which I brushed off and stuck in my mouth to have something to munch on. Otherwise I didn't stir, didn't even move my eyes. People came and went." Or one may hear the strangeness of the narrative voice of Blanchot's "The Madness of the Day," in such an exchange as the following:

I began ... running my head against the lampposts on purpose ... and biting my tongue in frenzy when it didn't speak clearly, and I laughed madly whenever it fairly hurt.

"Yes, but what shall I do?" I asked myself at last. I stamp my feet on the pavement several times and repeat, "What shall I do?" A gentleman just walking by remarks with a smile, "You should go and ask to be locked up."

What this last passage also brings out---and the Lyngstad translation does this with a precision and consistency lacking in earlier translations---are the eerie temporal dislocations generated by the novel's delirious shifting between past and present tenses ("I asked," "I stamp," and so on). Such shifts testify to the singular writtenness of this text about the aporias and impossibilities of satisfying the intoxicating, deathly hunger of writing itself.

Nicholas Royle

See also KNUT HAMSUN 1859-1952 (NORWEGIAN)

Further Reading
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Auster, Paul, "The Art of Hunger," in Ground Work: Selected Poems and Essays 1970-1979, London: Faber, 1990

Buttry, Dolores, "The Passive Personality: Hamsun's Hamlets," Symposium 36:2 (1982)

Ellmann, Maud, The Hunger Artists: Starving, Writing and Imprisonment , London: Virago, and Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1993

Ferguson, Robert, Enigma: The Life of Knut Hamsun , New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and London: Hutchinson, 1987

McFarlane, James W., "The Whisper of the Blood: A Study of Knut Hamsun's Early Novels," PMLA 71 (1956)

Naess, Harald S., Knut Hamsun , Boston: Twayne, 1984

Riechel, Donald C., "Knut Hamsun's 'Imp of the Perverse': Calculation and Contradiction in Sult and Mysterier ," Scandinavica: International Journal of Scandinavian Studies 28:1 (1989)

Vernon, John, Money and Fiction: Literary Realism in the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries , Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1984; London: Cornell University Press, 1985

View Select Bibliography for the Encyclopedia of the Novel

View List of Contributors for the Encyclopedia of the Novel
This mail has been sent by Graeme Macdonald.
Found in Literature Online, the home of literature and criticism. Copyright © 1996-2009 ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Article Text:

Hamsun, Knut (1859-1952)

Norwegian novelist, dramatist and poet, was born in Lom, Gudbrandsdalen. He is the major prose writer of Norwegian literature and after Henrik Ibsen, its most widely known literature figure. Hamsun grew up in Nordland county, and its landscape and social structure are mirrored in most of his work. As a young man he spent several years in the United States, working at odd jobs, as a streetcar conductor in Chicago, farmhand in North Dakota, and secretary and public lecturer in Minneapolis. The stay had a profound influence on his political views and literary style. Its immediate result was Fra det moderne Amerikas Aandsliv (1889; Eng. tr., The Spiritual Life of Modern America, 1969), a sarcastic depiction of what he considered America's spiritual poverty. He later, in an article in 1928, modified his views and expressed his indebtedness to American optimism and work ethic. After years of bohemian existence, Hamsun married for the second time in 1909 and settled down as a farmer-writer, first in Nordland, and later (1917) at Norholm near Grimstad, where he lived until his death. Around the turn of the century, Hamsun published an important volume of poetry Det vilde Kor (1904; The Chorus) and several plays that enjoyed considerable popularity, particularly in Russia. He is now chiefly remembered, however, as the author of a dozen significant novels that fall into three major categories: the romantic works of the 1890s, the social novels from the World War I period, and the Vagabond trilogy from the years 1927-33.
Hamsun's early romantic works include his greatest novels: Sult (1890; Eng. tr., Hunger, 1899), Mysterier (1892; Eng. tr., Mysteries, 1927), Pan (1894; Eng. tr., 1920), and Victoria (1898; Eng. tr., 1929). Hunger ---partly based on Hamsun's own experiences during several unhappy stays in Norway's capital city---describes a few fall and winter months in the life of an impoverished young writer trying to survive in Christiania (now Oslo). Forced and prolonged neglect of his body gradually affects his mind to a point where he can no longer collect his thoughts, and he seeks his escape, not in death---the Hamsun hero's usual way out---but as a deckhand on a small ship bound for England. Throughout the novel, hunger affects the hero's temperament like a mind-expanding drug: against starkly realistic surroundings, Hunger juxtaposes colorful fantasies and humorous scenes that are unparalleled in Hamsun's production. Some critics consider this first novel his most powerful work.
The hero of Hunger sometimes experiences a splitting of his personality, a motif that Hamsun developed further in other works. In Mysteries, the protagonist appears as two separate characters: the charlatan hero Nagel, and the Midget, his alter ego in whom he sees his own exhibitionism mercilessly caricatured. The two watch each other suspiciously, like the antagonists of a detective story. In Pan, written during three restless years in Paris, Hamsun expressed his yearning for the peace and natural beauty of Nordland, his childhood county. This short novel, written in the form of a hunter's diary, contains the most exquisite descriptions of nature in Norwegian literature. Victoria is Hamsun's sweetest love story. It includes charming pictures of the lovers, Victoria and Johannes, as innocent children, as well as a sentimental ending involving Victoria's fatal tuberculosis and her final confession of undying love.
In spite of their individual differences, however, Hunger, Mysteries, Pan, and Victoria all feature a Byronic hero, a tragic love story, and an emphasis on what Hamsun, in an important early essay "Fra det ubevidste sjæleliv" (1890; "From the Unconscious Life of the Mind"), referred to as "the whisper of the blood." Rather than employing the typical characters and utilitarian philosophy of novels from the naturalistic period ( see Norwegian literature), he wished to illustrate the strange psychology of exceptional people. During this stage of his career, Hamsun's work recalls the art and outlook of Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Friedrich Nietzsche. The influence of the former is reflected in his heroes' fluctuations between towering arrogance and deep humility, the latter in Nagel's view of woman and supermen, as well as in the Apollonian-Dionysian conflict of a character such as Lieutenant Glahn in Pan. At the same time, however, one can see, particularly in a more realistic early novel like Ny Jord (1893; Eng. tr., Shallow Soil, 1914), a certain impatience with the youthful Byronic hero.
After a transitional stage in which he wrote poetry, plays, and a couple of lyrical first-person novels, Under hoststjernen (1906) and En vandrer spiller med sordin (1908; both novels published together in Eng. tr., as Wanderers, 1922), Hamsun turned to large-scale social novels in which the old artist-hero is reduced to a secondary character, whose comments often reflect Hamsun's opinions. These novels include Born av tiden (1913; Eng. tr., Children of the Age, 1924) and Segelfoss by (1915; Eng. tr., Segelfoss Town, 1925), humorously ironic descriptions of the decline and fall of a small Norwegian community, and Hamsun's poetic eulogy of the practical farmer, Markens grode (1917; Eng. tr., Growth of the Soil, 1921). For Markens grode, Hamsun's most monumental, best-known work, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1920. Yet critics who welcomed the optimistic note in this novel were soon disappointed. Hamsun's next two novels are misanthropic, reflecting the author's disillusionment with the outcome of World War I. Then, after a severe crisis followed by psychoanalytic treatment (the first of its kind in Norway), Hamsun produced the three lively novels Landstrykere (1927; Eng. tr., Vagabond, 1930), August (1930; Eng. tr., 1931), and Men livet lever (1933; Eng. tr., The Road Leads On, 1934), in whom the old artist-protagonist reemerges on a deromanticized level as August, a slightly ridiculous, but very human, charlatan.
In later years, Hamsun's romanticism led him astray politically. His apprentice years in the United States (1882-84, 1886-88) had robbed him of his belief in democracy as a power for advancing the cultural and moral ennoblement of man. Furthermore, his early heroes all reject scientific progress and industrialization and recommend a return to nature and to the values of the old aristocratic society. Hamsun, however, seeing the preservation of a feudal system as anachronistic, slowly came to accept the rugged individualist farmer as his new hero. This trend, coupled with an old admiration of Germany (and an equally old dislike of the English), finally led Hamsun into the camp of the Norwegian Nazis, whom he supported during the German occupation of Norway in 1940-45. During the post-World War II period, that mistake cost him his considerable fortune and, for a number of years, his popularity as a writer. In the two decades following his death in 1952, however, the reissue of his collected works, the publication of his moving memoirs of political imprisonment, På gjengrodde stier (1949; Eng. tr., On Overgrown Paths, 1967), and the appearance of biographies by his wife and son gradually regained for Hamsun his old position as Norway's most widely read novelist.

See: H. A. Larsen, Knut Hamsun (1922);

J. W. McFarlane, "The Whisper of the Blood," PMLA Publications of the Modern Language Association of America 71 (1956): 563-94;

R. Popperwell, "Critical Attitudes to Knut Hamsun 1890-1969," Scandinavica: An International Journal of Scandinavian Studies 9 (1970): 1-23;

A. Ostby, Knut Hamsun: en bibliografi (1972);

H. S. Naess, Knut Hamsun og Amerika (1969).

Harald S. Naess

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