Atle Kittang: Knut Hamsin's posthumous reputation

Knut Hamsun's obituary of Adolf Hitler is the single most provoking item of his writings and also the most difficult to understand. It was published in the Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten on 7 May 1945 – the day before the Norwegian Liberation Day. Hamsun praised the German dictator as a "warrior for humankind and a preacher of the gospel of justice for all nations" and "a first-rate reformatory figure" who had had the misfortune to work "in a time characterised by unparalleled brutality, which eventually overthrew him". Hamsun's conclusion underscores these opinions with its blind loyalty: "This is how the average Western European looks at Adolf Hitler. And we, his closest followers, all bow our heads at his death."

2017-04-2511:40 Marianne Gjelseth

The Hitler obituary will forever symbolise the dark stain in Knut Hamsun's posthumous reputation. In its crying absurdity it is also a part of the enigma that is Knut Hamsun. Why did Hamsun write what he did in the obituary – indeed, why did he write an obituary at all? We know that Hamsun hardly held Hitler in very high regard since the infamous meeting between the two in Berchtesgaden in 1943. So perhaps it was Hamsun's need to stubbornly cling to his persuasion until the very end that was expressed so uncompromisingly in the obituary? Or was it "out of chivalry", as Hamsun was alleged to have stated later on? He must have known that the obituary only would strengthen the image of him as an intransigent Nazi, and weaken his position in the post-war process that was bound to follow. Or could it be that we are witnessing the extreme naivety of a socially isolated old man?

Most actions have a complex causality, and we should probably include all these reasons in our attempt to explain why Hamsun acted as he did in May 1945. However, perhaps another desire came to the fore – the need to provoke. If we look at Hamsun's life and work as a whole, we may get the feeling that this impulse drove him like a beating pulse throughout much of his life. Parallels may be drawn from the provoking obituary back to 1920, when Hamsun won the Nobel Prize in Literature for his idyllic farming novel about Isak Sellanraa and his people. At the same time he presents a very special commentary to his own "soil growth", by giving his expectant readers one of his most acrid books: a novel about the gelding Oliver Andersen and his illusory family life in a little town so characteristically Hamsunesque. This is the same Hamsun who in 1879 managed to rile a whole village with his arrogant newspaper articles criticising the way the people in Hardanger sang their hymns in church, and who in 1891 dismissed all contemporary European literature in his literary lectures. Indeed, when Hamsun in 1892, at the end of the novel Mysteries, describes how Nagel ends his seductive violin performance at the charity bazaar with some "gruesome strokes, a desperate howl, a wail so impossible, so upsetting that no-one any longer knew where things were headed" – aren’t we seeing a kind of prophetic image of the discords that the Hitler obituary introduces to the euphoria in those May days of 1945?

Much remains unclear. However, Hamsun's obscurity isn't just found in a mix of provocation and seduction which, incidentally, characterises his style as well. His mystery comes from the often disquieting elements in his texts, which challenge our preconceptions of right and wrong, instil beautiful and home-loving emotions in us only to force us out of them at the very next opportunity, make us confront the unsafe and unpleasant aspects of our existence – and often they force us into self-defence and sheer resistance against their inherent power to provoke.

During the war and the hectic days immediately following the restoration of peace, people either destroyed Hamsun’s books or threw them away. After his trial and verdict, and following his death in 1952, most people probably felt that the writer and his works were at best confined to literary history. However, in 1954 the publishing house Gyldendal re-released his Complete Works, and when Hamsun's 100th anniversary was celebrated in 1959 with a festivity that would have been unimaginable only a decade earlier, his works were once again read as frequently as before the war. Up until this day his books have been reprinted, published in new editions, and devoured by new generations of readers. Author Johan Borgen once described how he had to fight to get out of the force field of Hamsun's style and find his own voice. Today, Hamsun's style still resonates in the pages of some of our most popular prosaists, even though an increasing number of young authors claim that his works are both shallow and despicable.

All of this forms part of Hamsun's posthumous reputation and shapes it in a classic paradoxical tangle of love and hate. Psychology has a word for this: ambivalence. More than fifty years after his death, Hamsun is our only international writer apart from Ibsen. However, he will never achieve a status as an uncontroversial icon. On the contrary: every time a proposition is submitted to honour his memory in some official way (by a bust, a street name, etc.), the collective grudge reawakens. Over the last few years, the debates around art and politics in his book have been given a new breath of life even among critics and academics. Many have put forward new and old arguments, both written and verbal, suggesting that Hamsun's authorship from beginning to end mirrors an author's path into Nazism. At a German conference in 1997, it was even claimed that Hamsun's "treason against literature" will be forever attached to him, in disgrace.

However, our ambivalence to Hamsun's books is not just a post-war phenomenon. Mysteries, which is one of the most important prose works in early European modernism alongside Hunger, received a mostly negative reception when the novel was first published in 1892. And as if that wasn't enough, the author himself was accused of being just as much of a charlatan and a conman as the main character. The poetry and the bittersweet love story in Pan might have seduced its contemporary readers, but the heavy-hitting novels Editor Lynge and Shallow Soil that were written around the same time, were received very unfavourably. Contemporary critics minimized the brilliant autobiographical fictions In Wonderland, Under the Autumn Star and A Wanderer Plays on Muted Strings. Hamsun then secured his grip upon critics and readers with the social satires known as the Segelfoss novels and the farming idyll Growth of the Soil. This success really ought to have made us more thoughtful than was the case, because it is in this type of books that Hamsun is at his most ideological. The Women at the Pump delivered yet another fist in the face to an expectant audience who felt they deserved better from a Nobel Prize Laureate. Only Thomas Mann realised that the novel also deals with the essential place of fantasy and art in human life. Hamsun seduced his readers once again with his novels about August. So why would he end his authorship with a novel so devoid of both satire, ideology and ideals as The Ring is Closed about the layabout 'hippie' Abel Brodersen?

Historically, the reception of Hamsun's books has been swinging like a pendulum between seduction and provocation; infatuation and disappointment. It was a long time before this ambivalence settled on a political-ideological front. From around 1910 onwards it became increasingly difficult to explain away the ferocity and the unacceptable views in many of Hamsun's contributions to newspaper debates (about infanticide, language policies or the damaging effects of tourism on the nation's health). His fondness of Germany was apparent long before World War I, as was his negative view of England. However, there were many who shared such opinions in neutral Norway – and elsewhere in the Nordic countries – back then. It wasn't until the labour movement gained momentum in the interwar period and the fronts within economic and social life were sharpened that the criticism became ideological. Even in this case, a provocation was needed before the precise direction of the criticism was visible. Hamsun's infamous attack on the German pacifist Carl von Ossietzky marked a turning point. And yet at this point, in the mid 1930s, another typical feature of the reception of Hamsun's books became apparent: the need to separate the social participant from the writer. "His self-aggrandisement is in the reaction, but the deepest parts of his poetry are not infected by it", wrote the communist and fellow author Nordahl Grieg in 1936. Do we not hear the whistle of the boomerang in characterisations such as these? Wasn’t the worship of nature and life that, in Grieg’s opinion, forms the deepest part of Hamsun's poetry the same natural ideology that the Nazis would use as bate in their successful hunt for followers – both in Germany and in other countries? Couldn't it even be said to be the ideological foundation for their civilisation-destroying activities? At least this was Leo Löwenthal's opinion when he published the first systematic ideological criticism of Hamsun's authorship in 1937. Since then, a number of these have been published, but few have reached Löwenthal's level of quality.

So this is the other paradox in our relationship with Hamsun – and thus to his posthumous reputation: what we love in his books is probably what we ought to approach with the most scepticism. And vice versa: what we initially experience as foreign and slightly unpleasant is probably what we ought to study most attentively. Why is this? Probably because it is only too human to seek what is safe and homely, and to back away from what is unsafe and un-homely. This is to do with the socio-psychological basis of the experience of art in general – as we experience of art not only subjectively, but also very much as social phenomena. It is also to do with morality – the morality of art, and our moral relationship with art.

There are many characters hiding behind the name Knut Hamsun. Which is the true one? The wandering peddler, the day labourer, the man who travelled to America, or the settled farmer and patriarch living at Skogheim or Nørholm? The teasing, provoking and publicity-seeking lecturer of his youth, or the moralising and reactionary preacher who later came to the fore? The anarchist or the Nazi? The questions are rhetorical. The author and person Knut Hamsun is just this – a collection of many contradictory personalities; the most important foundation for his poetic ability was probably the dynamic interaction between them. Occasionally, this interaction may be dominated by characters that it is hard to sympathise with. But even when Hamsun's reactionary preacher voice is at its strongest, in some strange way the story is still being penned by the rootless wanderer. This is the case with Growth of the Soil. The person that wrote the novel is more closely related to the paradoxical wanderer Geissler than to the steady Isak Sellanraa, even though Hamsun's preaching focuses on Isak.

Hamsun's epilogue, On Overgrown Paths, still vexes people today, sixty years later, because the writer doesn't do what we demand and expect of him – admitting his errors and repenting his sins. Instead he defines himself as a victim of the judicial system and psychiatry, or slips away, masks himself and muses on completely different and at times shamefully invented stories. In our moral self-justification, we call him to account in the role all good Norwegians in the post-war period would have loved to see him in: the role as a repentant sinner; in the two least memorable chapters in the book (the letter to the Public Prosecutor and his defence speech in court), Hamsun slips into the opposite and almost as welcome role as a self-justified Nazi without regrets. This is the aporia that encapsulates the entire moral quandary concerning Hamsun's posthumous reputation. And in this aporia, Hamsun's art is fighting a losing battle. The fact that it still survives – not only in On Overgrown Paths, but also for posterity, is a miracle in itself. When Hamsun starts inventing experiences, hiding his own wondering approach to love and life behind a Martin Enevoldsen, an Ol’Hansa, a Pat and a Nut, creating a fictitious dialogue between warring spouses in order to fake a reconciliation, which perhaps he was denied in real life – this is when he realises a freedom that makes life possible to live, even in the oldest age, the greatest humiliation, and in the utmost confusion about what is right and wrong.

Against our steady, self-confident and occasionally revengeful morality, another far frailer yet just as durable moral power is presented: the moral of poetry itself. Anyone who has read On Overgrown Paths focusing on things other than Hamsun's criticism of psychiatry and his defence speech has to admit to that. The moral challenge to us all is to allow such an admission to contribute as well to the writer's posthumous reputation.


Atle Kittang is a professor at the Department of Linguistic, Literary and Aesthetic Studies at the University of Bergen.

English translation: Nina Brevik