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Ståle Dingstad: Hamsun and politics 1880-1945

Knut Hamsun was a political man. Throughout his life he was interested and engaged in all aspects of society, and closely followed the momentous changes that shaped Norway during this period. Through various types of work, travels and social activities, and through what he read and wrote, Hamsun made his mark on the world around him. He was no politician, however. He took no part in any type of regular political activity, and had only minor influence on political decision-making processes, of which he knew little. Rather than help form modern society directly, his contribution lies in the particular light he shed on it through his own views.

2017-04-2610:36 Marianne Gjelseth

His writings may well be seen in the context of the social development he himself was a part of, but not all of his writings are equally relevant from a political point of view. Hunger (1890) was hardly intended as a contribution to social debate, even though the novel rests on the naturalist premise of writing straight from one’s own life. Nor is Mysteries (1892) a typical contribution to social debate, despite the protagonist Nagel’s discussions of politics and his attempts to convince others of his political views. But already the next two novels, Shallow Soil (1893) and Editor Lynge (1893), belong to the genre of “novel with a purpose” in the tradition of critical realism, whose tendencies and representative types were to distinguish Hamsun’s later novels.

His political engagement, however, is most evident in his essays. In the course of 70 years, Hamsun authored many articles in the myriad genres and mazes of factual prose, from the modest “Kirkesangen i Vikør” (Church Singing in Vikør) in the newspaper Søndre Bergenhus Folkeblad (1879) to the speech in Sand Magistrate’s Court, which was incorporated into the book On Overgrown Paths (1949). He wrote letters to the editor, public commentaries, travelogues, reviews, essays, feature articles, obituaries, appeals, speeches, lectures, prefaces, portraits, leaflets and more. His themes range from lyrics and poetry to language disputes, infanticide, tourism, agriculture, industry and Norway as a nation among other nations. Accordingly, he aligns himself politically along the entire scale of political stances, from radical through liberal and conservative to intensely reactionary.

Until the dissolution of the union in 1905, Hamsun made use of practically every literary genre. He wrote romantic novels, a number of dramas, poetry, short works of prose and essays on a multitude of subjects in books, newspapers and magazines. His literary toolkit was well-stocked, but his audience remained marginal, and he had to publish frequently in order to generate sufficient income. In due time, Hamsun begins to focus on two literary forms, namely the novel and the essay. These complement and mutually shed light on one another. But the tendency is clear: in the years following the turn of the century, the novel becomes Hamsun’s medium. Here he invests his artistic and intellectual abilities, here he observes, reflects upon and criticises the society he himself belongs to, and here he finds his central themes about the developments he views with ever growing scepticism.

Hamsun had a distinguished predecessor in Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, whom he occasionally held up as an ideal. It has been suggested that Hamsun was expected to assume a similar role as author and politician in Norwegian society. But presumably Hamsun was more like his literary nemesis Henrik Ibsen. In part he was a poor democrat, a fact he admitted himself, in part a merciless critic and satirist. He had inherited little of Bjørnson’s idealism, and directed his criticism above all against the emergence of all things new, against the changes that were taking place and against corruption brought on by modern ideas. Furthermore, Hamsun and Ibsen shared a common trait, in that they put themselves and their own interests first. Both strove to advance their professional careers, establish a large audience, and ensure financial independence. Both succeeded in their goals, but at the same time toned down their direct political involvement.

Indirectly, however, Hamsun’s novels are clearly political, taking up current topics that he also dealt with in his articles. But more importantly, they do so by virtue of being inclusive. Hamsun focuses neither on specific literary issues, nor on the eternal or universal aspects of art. He writes about deeply human concerns, concentrating on concrete issues, the here-and-now, matters that are relevant to ordinary people and that affect them the most. Hamsun writes his way through the entire gamut of experiences from childhood and adolescence to his own present day. In his final novel, The Ring is Closed (1936), we can therefore read about such commonplace events as picture shows with robbers and races and trained dogs, about black people on tour with their jazz orchestras, about cars racing off into the distance, about press photographers at the right place at the right time, about shares suddenly losing their value, about bankruptcies in familiar style, about unemployment threatening family life, about church robberies, drunkenness, divorce, infidelity, smuggling and murder, in short about the whole of modern life in a small Norwegian coastal town.

Once again the tendency is clear: Hamsun takes a critical view of the development of modern society, doing so by exposing those who are at the forefront of that development. He views modern Norwegian society through an inverted telescope and portrays the building of a nation by turning things inside-out. The clearest example of this may be found in August, the Don Quixote of Norwegian literature and protagonist of Hamsun’s three novels Wayfarers (1927), August (1930) and The Road Leads On (1933). They are satires about human vanity and folly, and the entire period personified by August. More than anything, August wants action rather than stagnation. His own actions, however, lack moderation. He creates much of a stir, but his efforts sooner or later turn into a farce. He has an idea about progress and development that he preaches, but fails rather miserably as an orator and evangelist. Therefore he must set an example and prove himself a man of action. August knows about modern life, but lacks insight into the essential workings of modern society, which to him exist only in their external trappings. When August returns home, taking with him his ideas about modern industrial society without any understanding of the mechanisms behind it, the outcome is a lesson in utter futility.

There is no direct connection between Hamsun’s socially critical novels and his political affiliation before and during the war. Neither is there necessarily any link between his novels and the views he propounded in his political articles during the same period. But all of it was written by the same man. And there is much to indicate that Hamsun looked upon Hitler and the Nazi Party’s rise to power in Germany in 1933 as a genuine opportunity to change the course of a society he was unable to embrace, and that he considered incapable of changing in any other way, such as by democratic means. Whatever the case may be, Hamsun clearly spoke out in favour of Hitler and his politics in a number of articles, and continued to adhere to these views in later life. Even after the war, Hamsun hesitated to acknowledge that this was a mistake, an unfortunate position for himself, and a tragedy for others. Instead, he did everything he could to rationalise and make light of the entire situation. Hamsun was not alone in handling the problem in this way. Many sided with him in his endorsement of Hitler, and almost as many during the difficult period of trials and purges following the war.

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Ståle Dingstad is Associate Professor at the Department of Linguistics and Scandinavian Studies, University of Oslo.

English translation: Thilo Reinhard