by Nina Frang Høyum
Knut Hamsun was born as Knud Pedersen in the Gudbrandsdalen district of Norway on 4 August 1859. Three years later the family moved to Hamarøy in Nordland. Hamarøy became Hamsun’s childhood realm: here he grew up, and here the feeling of home took root – patriotism on a small scale.
Hamsun left Nordland when he was 20 but returned to Hamarøy as an established author, living at Skogheim farm from 1911 to 1917 with his wife Marie and their children. The landscape and environment in Nordland became the source of many of his stories.
One of the first European modernists
But Hamsun was a vagabond on earth. With his literary pursuit of the unconscious life of the mind, of “the meanderings of thoughts and feelings in the blue”, he was to achieve recognition as one of the first great modernists in European literary history.
His literary breakthrough came in 1890 with Hunger – a book that many regard as one of the most important novels of Norwegian and European literary history.
Constantly on the move
Hamsun’s literary characters have gone restlessly astray in their lives – existentially, socially and geographically. The wanderer is a key theme of his works, and is perhaps one of the clearest expressions of Hamsun’s modernity.
Hamsun himself was also constantly on the move, either of necessity or from pure adventurousness, with his roots in tow. Even though his home district was a source of great inspiration – from Pan (1894) to On Overgrown Paths (1949) – it was just as often his travels to places such as Copenhagen, Christiania (now Oslo), America and Caucasus that made him artistically productive.
Hamsun the farmer
At times the vagabond was just a farmer. In 1920 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for Growth of the Soil, a myth of creation and a critique of civilisation which when it was published was read as a gospel of peace wherein people live in an eternal cycle of generations and in harmony with nature.
Germany and the war
But as we know, Hamsun’s patriotism had fatal consequences. His advocacy of Germany and German culture led to him sympathising with the Germans – including during the Second World War. He expressed his support for the national socialist party in Norway in several articles, and in his post-war trial he was ordered to pay compensation of 325,000 kroner. What was worse for Hamsun, however, was that in an attempt to avoid a court case he had first been placed under psychiatric observation, and it was maintained that he had “permanently impaired mental abilities”.
Debate on the role of the artist
Hamsun’s sympathy with the occupation forces during the war has meant that he has for long been a national, cultural trauma. Hamsun’s current relevance therefore not only stems from his greatness as an artist but also from the fact that he generates constant public debate on the relationship between fiction and society, and on the role of art and the artist.
Hamsun had an enormous influence on European and American literature: Thomas Mann, Hermann Hesse, Franz Kafka, Ernest Hemingway and Isaac Bashevis Singer are among those who have expressed their debt to Hamsun’s authorship.
Today Hamsun is read as one of the most talented writers from the end of the 19th century. His sensitive portrayals of love, his vitality and irony, his satirical critique of civilisation and humoristic descriptions of everyday life, and his enthralling way with words have drawn readers from all over the world.
Knut Hamsun died on 19 February 1952 in his home, Nørholm, near Grimstad.
English translation: Ruth Johnson