Atle Skaftun: Hamsun's flea circus revisited

In 1917 Henrik Pontoppidan wrote an article on the relationship between Danish literature and that of its neighbouring countries Norway and Sweden

2017-04-2708:58 Marianne Gjelseth

The conclusion includes his lament that

… our esteemed criticism, which may often assume a mumbling tone when applied to Danish literary works, turns into the shouts of the director and the beats of the drum for Hamsun’s world famous flea circus.1

Pontoppidan sent the article to his Norwegian colleague, the poet Kinck, who replied:

Hamsun’s flea circus – brilliantly put! I chuckle to myself every time I think of it. And I don’t think it’s just sour grapes because his book has sold 10,000 copies and mine hardly 1,000.2

Pontoppidan’s characterisation of Hamsun’s work still stands, as often is the case with linguistic flukes of this kind. And it is a most apt and vivid characterisation that may be meaningful from different viewpoints – from the spontaneous chuckling of Kinck to the straighter faces of those who can discern misanthropy in the imbalanced relationship between the theatre director and the powerless performers in the novels and who view ideological manipulation as a feature of the relationship between the director and the audience. Initially these critical perspectives may appear as clarifications or as embellishments of the flea circus image, in which the logic of the image is made more explicit. In my view, the main problem with such approaches is that the Hamsunian laughter is forgotten and a solemn way of reading is assumed that does not suit Hamsun’s occasional morbid humour and that translates all observations into ideological signs and symptoms. Pontoppidan’s characterisation is a parody that encompasses both a fairly loyal description of Hamsun’s fictional universe and a caricature of it. The laughter originates from precisely this tension. However, it is the caricature alone that has remained as the meaning of the flea circus metaphor.

When I say that the parody of Hamsun is loyal, it is because it captures Hamsun’s striking way of relating to his own fictitious characters and their fictitious life worlds. Hamsun often compares people with ants, and the environment around them with an anthill. It is tempting to link such characterisations directly to the flea circus image: regarding the fictional universe as fully comprehensible entails the writer demonstrating explicitly that he himself possesses the total overview. Elaborating on this, it is reasonable to speak of Hamsun’s bird’s-eye view and his diminishment of human toil on earth to something very small and trivial compared with ideas of meaningfulness and human worth, particularly in the novels after the turn of the century.

But the question is what type of authority we should assign to this sort of statement. Is it really here that we find the true message of the novels, or their intention? My answer to that is “No”. The reason is that throughout his entire works Hamsun is setting the stage so that he can make his own statements about the fictional universe, his position as author.3 He takes an active approach to individuals, events and environments, and includes this approach in his writing as an essential part of the novels. The characters may be insignificant, and they may at times be exposed to more or less reasonably subjective diatribes from the author, but the author’s observations, comments and speculations are situated at the same level as all this. What is very characteristic of Hamsun is that he moves – smoothly and surreptitiously – from making allegations formulated from an assumed supreme position above and beyond everything to vanishing into details that seldom substantiate the assertion in the claim. They are more likely to contribute to the impression that the narration is propelled forward by the author’s own associations, rooted in characters and the environment. If we say that Hamsun scales down human life in his novels, we must not forget that it is precisely these low and small elements that he exaggerates and makes worthy of relating. In other words, if we focus on Hamsun’s bird’s-eye view, we must not forget or overlook the frog perspective, the worm’s-eye view. And if we want to discuss message and ideology in his novels, we must provide a proper explanation of the issue of author-ity: What status has the author’s voice in Hamsun’s works? Are there authoritative intentions in his novels? And if so, what sort of authoritative intentions?

I have already partly answered the first question. In my view an essential feature of Hamsun’s narrative technique is that the author’s voice is positioned in the borderland between the world of fiction and the external world of the author. Hamsun has an active and subjective approach to his own imaginary characters, events and environments as if he is observing them there and then. The text of the novel thereby becomes like a discursive field where the author’s voice enters into active dialogue with fictitious characters. The proximity of the voice both undermines and counteracts the bird’s-eye perspective since comments and speculations are based on observations of detailed phenomena rather than on a total overview. The bird’s-eye perspective and the frog perspective contradict – or comment on – each other and also entail a dialogue between various authorial positions: the author as an outsider and a creator of coherence who is responsible for the work as one whole, and the positioned, participatory author who passes sentence without taking into account the work as a continuous whole. The author is thus in dialogue with his characters at the same time as he is in dialogue with himself.

The same dialogical relationship between the observer and the observed applies from the portrayal of the life of consciousness of the hero of Hunger via depictions of society to the clearest self-biographical platform of the centre of observation and speculation in On Overgrown Paths (1949). Observation and speculation are the key processes of this way of working – or in Hamsun’s own words:

I build on my personal impressions and on intuition, on both, I build on episodes, facts and what I may possess of a psychological sense.

The shift from a supreme and definitive insight into the whole to a dissolution of the overall picture is also characteristic. In the essay entitled "The Neighbouring Town" Hamsun tells us that it is not as easy as he first thought to judge life in the neighbouring town since the plain and simple lines are not there.4 This is a text that gives us many keys to what I have called Hamsun’s dialogical realism: Hamsun relates to his speaking characters and the discursive fellowship they form part of, and the texts can yield a great deal when read as being permeated by relationships between voices – between the fictitious figures’ voices understood as ideological positions. Regardless of how small and everyday the values and perspectives in question are, it is nonetheless these conflicts between voices and values that Hamsun intervenes in when he places himself in dialogues with characters on their own level.

"The Neighbouring Town" is a perfect example of this poetic method, but far from the only one. On Overgrown Paths and the sketch entitled "Just an ordinary fly of average size"6 demonstrate the method with all the desired clarity, the latter in addition being related to the insect world. Hunger (1890) has the same structure, even though the perspective of the surroundings is extremely subjective. In Children of the Age (1913) we find an exemplary frame story in which the narrator, who is close to the author or is the author himself, is positioned as an explorer of sources in the environment the novel depicts. This frame story is easily overlooked, but once it has first been noticed it is also easier to recognise the relationship between the author and the hero in the other novels with a third-person narrator.

To the extent that there is a message or a clearly-defined overarching intention in Hamsun’s work, I will maintain that it must be discerned within the dialogical tension between authoritative statements and intimations of an explanatory plot on the macro level and the subjective author’s observations and speculations on the micro level. The truth of the work is thus that truth is not only formulated in big words. On the macro level Hamsun regrets the decay and loss of human greatness and adventurousness, while on the micro level he creates fascinating mysteries and puzzles based on the small, the trivial and the everyday. As a thinker he is attracted by sweeping dimensions and the majestic, as a poet he relates to undergrowth, bushes, insects, minor details and daily toil. “Flea circus” is an apt characterisation of Hamsun’s fictional universe – as long as we do not forget that it is in fact also possible to become involved in what is happening on such a tiny stage.7



1 Source.
2 Source, see note 3.
3 The term ‘author’ refers to the originator of the utterance, i.e. the person who says the words we hear or read. Mikhail Bakhtin uses this term for the authorial agent in novels, as long as it is not a fictionalised narrator figure who is speaking. In my view this paves the way for a sensible handling of the relationship between the writer and his work.
4 In Articles 1889–1928, selected by Francis Bull.
5 cf. Atle Skaftun 2003: Knut Hamsuns dialogiske realisme (Knut Hamsun’s dialogical realism), and Atle Skaftun 2006: "'Shadows of Time': Tidsrepresentasjon og dialogisk åpenhet i Hamsuns prosa" (Time representation and dialogical openness in Hamsun’s prose).
6 In Siesta (1897).
7 Hamsun’s dialogue method is demonstrated in an exemplary and enjoyable manner in the small sketch from the writer’s desk entitled "Just an ordinary fly of average size", cf. Skaftun 2006.


Atle Skaftun is an Adjunct Associate Professor in the Department of Cultural Studies and Languages at the University of Stavanger.

English translation: Ruth Johnson