Henning Wærp: Hamsun and nature

Apart from being considered some of the finest works from the author’s pen, Knut Hamsun’s three major novels from the beginning of the 1890s – Hunger, Mysteries and Pan – have been interpreted as three different perspectives exploring the individual’s dynamic between culture and nature.

2017-04-2609:20 Marianne Gjelseth

Hunger (1890) is a modern urban novel about anonymity, endless walks down the streets of the city, and a labyrinthine network imprisoning the individual in repetition and monotony. Mysteries (1892), on the other hand, takes place in a rural setting, where the woods of the vicarage represent a central idyll. While the first-person character of Hunger appears within the framework of the city, Nagel, the protagonist of Mysteries, continually alternates between the village and the woods. Thus, Hamsun introduces an antipode to civilization.

Pan (1894) continues this line of thought, moving from Lieutenant Glahn’s native city to a trading post in Nordland, with its local forests and mountains. A shift from the centre to the periphery: city – village – rural Norway. Whereas the main character of Hunger endures a fearful night outdoors in Bogstad forest, the woods of the vicarage seem alluring and enticing to Nagel; and in Pan, Lieutenant Glahn concludes his chronicle by writing: “For mine are the woods and the solitude.” The contrast between city and countryside that many readers associate with Hamsun’s works is here established.

The author explores three different perspectives of the dynamic between culture and nature, urban and rustic life – an impressive feat, especially considering that all three books were written in the short course of a few years.

All three novels exhibit a common feature: their protagonists are young men without a past, who, like other hypersensitive heroes of the 1890s, share a certain nervous state of mind. Lieutenant Glahn’s devotion to nature alternates with ecstasy, a pantheistic eroticism bound to nature. One might venture to say that Glahn is as much affected by his own imagination as he is by his senses. Hence, the novel’s diffuse transitions between reality on the one hand, and myth, dreams and fantasy on the other. A typical example occurs in chapter 13, when a specific biotope gradually glides over into a darker and more obscure type of flora: “At the edge of the wood I see ferns and wolf's bane, the trailing arbutus is in bloom [...] But now, in the hours of the night, great white flowers have suddenly begun to blossom [...] they are breathing [...] they are intoxicated.” The specific natural features of Nordland, which Hamsun knows so well and depicts with precision, are constantly on the verge of turning into a symbolic world. Pan, the God of the forest, for example, dwells not far from the country store where merchant Mack reigns supreme. Both nature’s secrets and the arrogance of power are explored in the same novel.

Hamsun’s Pan is associated with vitalism, an important movement in the arts at the end of the 19th century. Vitalism (from the Latin vita: life) is founded upon the belief of a “life force” in all living things, independent of physical or chemical forces. The movement had no agenda or prominent advocates, but Nietzsche’s criticism of the state of culture, his emphasis on irrationality and the Übermensch, are central features of vitalistic influence.

A direct line leads from Pan to Growth of the Soil, although the protagonist, Isak Sellanraa, is now a settler, rather than a fanciful hunter abandoning the city for a “respite” in the North. When the novel was published in late autumn of 1917, most critics focused on it as a “gospel of the land”, and the Norwegian Farmers’ Association (Landmandsforbundet) sent a telegram to Hamsun, thanking him for this “peculiar and warm-hearted work about the land” that had given “no end of joy to farmers far and wide.” Hamsun himself was partly to blame for the one-sided focus on the novel’s theme of farmers and farming. In an article in the Norwegian daily Aftenposten, “Man and the land”, he had encouraged readers to begin using “a hoe, a lever and a shovel.” Naturally, no such appeals had to be voiced in connection with the publication of the story about Lieutenant Glahn – here the sheer experience of nature suffices.

Later interpretations have focused on other aspects of Growth of the Soil, such as the novel’s wandering figure of Geissler, a roving daydreamer who, unlike Isak, shares a number of characteristics with earlier characters in Hamsun’s works. Furthermore, Growth of the Soil is the only novel in which Hamsun casts a farmer in the leading role.

Hamsun was a farmer himself, first at the farm property Skogheim on Hamarøy, later at Nørholm near Grimstad. But the wanderer was a constant companion, and today we know that much of Hamsun’s time was spent writing in hotels and guesthouses. His writings, rather than his crops, provided the means to carry on farming.

We meet this dichotomy between a deeply rooted and a wayfaring life in the Vagabond trilogy. When the first volume was published in 1927, Hamsun wrote in the newspaper Grimstad Adressetidende: “I pity the emigrants [...] a Norseman in his prime who settles there becomes homeless in the truest sense of the word.” But once again Hamsun has produced a work full of contradictions: while some critics considered the story of August and Edevart as a eulogy to frontiersmen and all who lived off the land and the sea, others saw it as a tribute to the life of the vagabond. Both interpretations are possible, inasmuch as a sense of unappeasable restlessness and constant yearning for home run like separates threads through the fabric of the novel. The Aspen grove in Polden, the “five small aspen trees near the ford”, function as a common point of reference. Again and again, Edevart returns to this spot after his unsuccessful journey to America, seeking to reconnect with all that has been lost. Edevart has become a vagrant.

In his final book, On Overgrown Paths (1949), Hamsun describes the periods he spent under house arrest due to the charges of treason against him, first at Grimstad hospital, later at a nursing home in Landvik. Nonetheless, he manages to sneak in short walks, during which he shows a remarkable awareness of his surroundings. He prefers to go off the beaten track, familiarizing himself with a certain area and thereby making it into his own. He described these trips into the hills during his stay at Grimstad hospital: “It was I who had discovered them, and there were trees and rocks that I recognized.”

While earlier novels such as Pan and Mysteries imbue nature with an ecstatic quality, an experience for the select few, On Overgrown Paths presents a more sober depiction of nature and landscape. But here, as well, the ability to observe is key. Still in connection with his internment at Grimstad hospital, he writes: “There is less to say about my surroundings. Nothing but barren hills [...] the weather is harsh, a gale is blowing nearly all the time.” But there is more to come. Others would possibly have written no more after such a statement, and abandoned their strolls in this type of environment. Certainly, they would have ceased to elaborate further on the subject. But Hamsun continues, directing his attention inwards, or downwards: “Oh, the world is beautiful here as well [...] There is an abundance of colour even in the rocks and the heath, there are ferns with unprecedented shapes, and a lovely taste still lingers on my tongue, after having taken a bite of wall fern, which I found.” Hamsun’s wanderings betray a unique sensibility. The barren hills are transformed into a place “abounding with colour”, with “unprecedented shapes”, even leaving behind a “lovely lingering taste”. This is neither the result of the imagination, as in the novels written during the 1890s, nor of self-suggestion or a state of ecstatic communion with nature, but of extreme attention to apparently insignificant detail. The spot unveils itself to anyone willing to observe.

At this point, it may be worth noting a term introduced in On Overgrown Paths: inntrykksømhet, a compound noun meaning “tender sensibility to impressions”, or perhaps “tender impressionability”. “We do not all share the same tender impressionability”, Hamsun notes, implying, of course, that he has more of it than others. This word, which will not be found in any dictionary, also occurs in an earlier article from 1890, “From the unconscious life of the spirit”. Here Hamsun writes: “My tender impressionability was now exceptionally susceptible, secretly aroused.” While “inntrykk” (impression) refers to external stimuli, “ømhet” (tenderness, gentleness) describes an inner quality: “warmth, sincerity, devotion, love, nurture” are some of the key words cited by the authoritative Norwegian dictionary Norsk Riksmålsordbok. Not only does the term apply to observation and intuition, but also to an active interest in the surrounding world.

This particular interest remained with Hamsun throughout his life. Although he would observe major events with indifference, Hamsun’s sensory presence is truly striking, such as in the following passage from On Overgrown Paths: “A branch is moving, with a small bird sitting on it. I halt at once.” A minor event, followed by an outburst: “Oh, the infinitely small amidst the infinitely large in this incomparable world.”

In her memoir Regnbuen (The Rainbow), published in 1953, Marie Hamsun – born and raised in the Østland region in south-eastern Norway – describes Nørholm and the countryside of Agder: “The landscape itself was, and still remains, unfamiliar to me […] I missed the long stretches of hills, the spacious views, everything seemed so close.” Yet there is little to indicate that Hamsun, a native of Nordland, felt correspondingly out of place on the southern coast of Norway. One finds utterances such as: “Open waters. It is March. And after the wonderful weather now during February and March, Nørholm Bay already has begun to open up. And more than that – alas, the ice is breaking up inside people as well.”

Here we witness the wanderer’s ability to take delight in what occurs right here and now. Neither the midnight sun nor the North Norwegian mountains of Pan are needed to feel intoxicated by nature. And no self-induced ecstasy as in Mysteries, or tilling of the land, as in Growth of the Soil. And one need not even return home as Edevart does in Wayfarers. A short stroll in the neighbourhood provides enough stimulus and joy – for all who can see. Here we find all the earlier mentioned perspectives, jointly illustrating Hamsun’s view of nature like pieces of a mosaic.

New readings afford us to see new things, as well. Ecocriticism found its way into literary criticism during the 1990s, focusing on literature that can show us how to live at one with nature in other and better ways than we do today. In a day and age when climate issues dominate the news, the hunt for answers throws up a corresponding number of solutions. Many of them focus on costly technological innovations, but also on changes in attitude. And attitudes come free of charge, but they must come from somewhere, and be driven by a powerful enough impulse to affect us to want to bring about change. This is where the arts come into play. Perhaps Isak Sellanraa is a man for our times, after all? He sees nature not merely as a resource, but as a value in its own right. The West has viewed nature as a mute entity, unlike indigenous peoples’ experience of nature as a living organism. Ecocriticism emphasizes the need to learn to listen to nature once again. For who would want to exploit nature when it talks to you?

For Isak, nature is not mute. Already at the beginning of the novel, as we meet him walking into the fields, we read: “Twilight is falling, but his ear catches the faint purl of running water, and it heartens him like the voice of a living thing.” We perceive Isak’s sensibility as he makes his way, an awareness that follows along every footstep: “Heather, bilberry, and cloudberry cover the ground; there are tiny ferns, and the seven-pointed star flowers of the winter-green.” Everything receives attention, everything is filled with meaning: “Even the big cow mushrooms are not altogether meaningless.”

Perhaps Growth of the Soil is not meant to be a lesson in agriculture. Not everyone can turn their back on the city. But everyone can develop an awareness of nature and respect for their natural surroundings – a kind of environmental sensitivity. Or to use Hamsun’s words: a tender impressionability. His literary ideas surrounding this notion will not go out of fashion for some time.


Henning Howlid Wærp is Professor of Scandinavian literature at the University of Tromsø.

English translation: Thilo Reinhard