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Ane Farsethås: Knut Hamsun and literary merit

It is no secret that an author’s view of literary merit is usually intimately tied to his or her own ambitions and literary agenda.

2017-04-2511:52 Marianne Gjelseth

This is particularly evident during Hamsun’s early years as a writer. His famous lecture tour with its forceful condemnation of realism in general, and Ibsen in particular, heralded a new type of literature. Moreover, the attack on the status quo was clearly suited to generating publicity around Hamsun’s own budding authorship. In this case the PR-hype was so obvious, and the author’s personality and appearance as a public speaker so suited to the media and the marketplace, that both contemporaries and later commentators have observed that the issues Hamsun addressed in his speeches were not necessarily motivated by the “claim of the ideal” alone.

The literary modernism that developed around the turn of the previous century, and which Sult was a part of, largely succeeded in establishing its stories about the past as truths. “On or about December 1910, human character changed”, Virginia Woolf wrote famously and succinctly. And later commentators of literary history frequently seem to have taken this expedient assertion somewhat more literally than Woolf’s rhetorical hyperbole suggests.

Looking back, one realizes that 19th century literary realism was not quite as square, plain, superficial and formulaic as Woolf or Hamsun would have it, for example when the latter claimed that “such writing, chiefly concerned with deeds and actions, must by its very nature result in light literature.” On the contrary – in the hands of its leading practitioners, realism affords nuances of character depiction, psychology and the portrayal of the environment that one does not find in this type of caricature. To a certain extent, however, the modernist rebels were justified when pointing out that realism at its worst could stiffen into shallow display and melodrama.

It is an apparent paradox that, subsequent to his creative surge during the 1890s, Hamsun was to turn out far more works within the bounds of traditional realism than urban portrayals about the human psyche – “the whispering of the blood and the prayer of the bone”. Stories about the rise and fall of families, small-town gossip by the water pump, “funerals and festive balls, prayer meetings, suicides and the herring trade in all its diversity” – subjects he previously had ridiculed – were to make up the literary path he pursued during most of his life as a writer, including the occasional touch of melodrama. As a mature author, Hamsun wrote works that his younger self would have despised, and over the years his aesthetic preferences changed as well – in keeping with his own development.

Nevertheless, one detects a hint of doubt in the ageing author, and the fear that his writings now have become “the dreary and endless ramblings of an old man”, no longer a young and promising author in opposition to the world around him.

Hamsun’s mature novels confirm that his earlier caricature of the criteria for literary merit was precisely that: a caricature. Does not the trilogy about August or Segelfoss Town consist of far more than square and ready-made modules – despite of funerals, festive balls, trips to the countryside or the herring trade? From this point of view, the older Hamsun avenged the arrogance of the younger author. Not only have the later novels gained a large readership, but have in recent years also led to renewed interest in literary research on the national level, including a number of fresh interpretations. Sebastian Hartmann’s acclaimed 2007 production of Growth of the Soil at the National Theatre in Oslo has shown, that a novel about a bold and daring settler can form the basis for innovative theatre today.

Meanwhile, there is no escape from the fact that Hamsun’s early works attract the bulk of literary interest on the international scene. In the end, the old rabble-rouser was right after all: in the eyes of the world, Hamsun the modernist outrivals the traditionalist.

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Ane Farsethås is a literary critic and author. She earned her Cand. Philol. degree with the thesis: The dilemma of self-reflection. A reading of Knut Hamsun’s Hunger (Selvrefleksjonens dilemma. En lesning av Knut Hamsuns Sult. Universitetet i Oslo, 2000).

English translation: Thilo Reinhard