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Linda Hamrin Nesby: Hamsun's places

The importance of location for love in Pan and Wayfarers

2017-04-2609:22 Marianne Gjelseth

Much of Hamsun’s life was spent wandering and rootless. His childhood was dramatically ushered in when the family moved from Lom to Hamarøy. And in Hamarøy, when the nine-year-old boy left the family’s farm at Hamsund to live at a parsonage in Presteid, this further move entailed a dramatic separation from parents and siblings. While these departures were beyond Hamsun’s control, his subsequent journeys out into the world were the result of personal desires and initiatives. It is also symptomatic of Hamsun that he would not be able to find peace and stability upon returning to his native Hamarøy as a celebrated author.

For five years, Knut Hamsun and his wife Marie lived at Skogheim farm before leaving the place for good, at Hamsun’s own wish. Perhaps already then, Hamsun was aware of the connection between wandering and his own authorship? For although he bought Nørholm Farm outside Grimstad in 1918, remaining there for the rest of his life, the roaming continued. He must leave in order to write, witnessed by the countless hotels and guesthouses on the southern coast of Norway that can boast of having been visited by Hamsun. Not until the publication of his final novel, The Ring is Closed (1936), does Hamsun truly settle down at Nørholm. In the years 1936–45 he mostly keeps to his farm, with the exception of two ill-fated trips to Germany. When the post-war treason settlements force him to move once again, his creative powers are awakened one final time.

The theme of wandering is a recurring motif in Hamsun’s works as well. Countless roving characters inhabit his writings, from the unnamed first-person narrator of Hunger (1890) to the autobiographical portrait in On Overgrown Paths (1949). Wandering as an expression of artistic pursuit and existential rootlessness has been a frequent topic of disussion, and has, among others, been explored by Øystein Rottem and Allan Simpson in connection with Wayfarers (1936), the first volume in Hamsun’s August-trilogy.

It can be tempting to overemphasise the link between a roving life and the quest for artistic and existential values. But wandering also means seeking out new places, meeting new people and confronting new values and ways of life. The theme of wandering allows us to gain a better understanding of the importance of location in Hamsun’s works. What is the implication of moving from one place to another? Do these places merely act as a backdrop for the portrayal of characters, or do they play a part in terms of development or stability?

Just as important as the journeying itself are the places Hamsun’s characters visit – or where they choose to stay. Location is more than just a metaphorical device to describe stations in life, markers of rootlessness. A place is more than just a place, a backdrop and a setting for the storyline. Every place has an intrinsic value and represents an important device in the portrayal of characters, not least by virtue of the specific values and temporal aspects associated with it. A place says something about the people who choose to stay there – or abandon it. I will here draw on two of Hamsun’s most famous novels – Pan (1894) and Wayfarers (1927) – to demonstrate the importance of location for the characters and the relationship between them.

Pan is set in a northern Norwegian location. There can be no doubt that this is of importance for the novel. The romantic ambience of Mack’s trading post, the landscape and surrounding islands provide a perfect setting for telling the ultimate love story. Not surprising, then, that love does indeed ensue. Thomas Glahn, the first-person narrator, gives a detailed account of the place he has come to in North of Norway. Particularly poetic are his descriptions of the northern landscape, which provides the framework for his blossoming love for Edvarda, the trader’s daughter. In the course of a few hectic summer months, Glahn and Edvarda live out their romantic love with nature as an idyllic backdrop. But nature is in fact more than merely a “backdrop”. Glahn realises that not only he, but others as well, are affected by nature’s course: when Henriette, a shepherd girl he has been involved with, walks past without noticing him, he reasons that “it was winter, her senses asleep already.”

However, once the relationship between Glahn and Edvarda begins to falter and they eventually go their separate ways, an interpretation such as this falls short. Instead, it becomes apparent that Glahn’s portrayal of the romantic northern landscape has laid the groundwork for the relationship growing between the lovers. Glahn’s former lieutenant title and current position as a hunter falls well in line with the romantic setting, and the portrayal of Edvarda as a child of nature, young, unruly and spontaneous, also seems to fit. But is this really who she is?

Glahn’s insistent first-person narrative and his way of transforming nature into a romantic environment form the basis of our perception of Edvarda. If, on the other hand, we look at how Edvarda herself interacts with the same natural environment, a different picture emerges. Her view of the northern Norwegian setting is at odds with Glahn’s, and a major cause of the breach between them.

In creating a love idyll, Glahn establishes an arena for self-realization, and by living in accordance with the conventions of this idyll, his existence gains meaning. Glahn’s world, as represented by this romanticised perception of nature, is meaningful in the literal sense of the word and affords him a sense of tranquillity, harmony, contemplation and pantheistic unity. Problems arise when he attempts to involve others in his idyll, and they reject (or are unaware of) the role they are intended to play. Both Henriette, the shepherd girl, and Eva, the smith’s wife, conform to Glahn’s unuttered expectations and desires.

While Glahn’s view of the natural environment around him is that of a mythical place transposed to a bygone era, Edvarda’s view is progressive, and she herself a tentative incarnation of the “modern woman”. Thus, although nature provides a common meeting ground for Glahn and Edvarda, it represents different things to them. Edvarda organises festivities and social events out in nature, while at the same time incorporating elements of nature into her cultural sphere. At one point, when she mentions her future dream of breaking away from Sirilund, she does so at a festive occasion on one of the trading post’s surrounding islands. Hamsun’s depiction of the landscape of Nordland as dominating, seductive and grandiose envelops both of them, but the consequences of inhabiting this environment are entirely different. Thomas Glahn’s longing to engage in an idyll is conveyed with single-minded insistence, and he nearly succeeds in convincing us that his own perception of nature also applies to the novel’s female protagonist, Edvarda. Only by viewing the world through Edvarda’s eyes and by listening to her voice does it become clear that this idyllic environment has other implications for her than for him. The use of a common location may partly explain the frequently recurring question of what went wrong between Glahn and Edvarda – the two characters project widely differing perceptions onto one and the same place.

Location plays a similar role in Wayfarers as it does in Pan. The relationship between Edevart and Lovise Magrete begins with their first meeting at her homestead, Doppen, which is described as an idyll:

In Fosen country they took into a green cove to refresh themselves with water, a waterfall roaring towards them from up in the woods. A lonely farm lay at the bottom of the cove, and from here, two children came down to the river, standing and looking at the strangers with the boat. A little later, a young woman came running down to them as fast as her legs would carry her; she was barefooted and scantily dressed, wearing only an undergarment and a skirt.

Doppen represents the love idyll in the universe of Wayfarers, depicted as a place of peace and harmony. It is this idyll Edevart will long to return to, the place he envisions as the basis for his relationship with Lovise Magrete. Her dreams, in turn, are different altogether: she wishes to rebuild her family life together with her husband, Håkon, and longs to leave for America. For Lovise Magrete, Doppen is synonymous with drudgery and poverty. The same place involves entirely different expectations and obligations for Edevart and Lovise Magrete. August, however, embodies the link between wandering from one place to another on the one hand, and the pursuit of writing on the other, that we find in so many of Hamsun’s works. August visits places without becoming attached, approaching them in a contemplative and rational manner. This distanced, but at the same time inquisitive role of the observer eventually culminates in the description of August and Edevart’s exploration of Trondheim: “They even visited churches and museums, they explored the entire city with keen eyes. When they walked along the waterfront, August was able to point out certain features of the various dock buildings.” Today, this can remind us of how tourists seek out places in a non-committal, simple, experiential and restless way. One of the most important aspects of August’s roamings is the extent to which they fuel his imagination. His journeys are the source of the extravagant stories he tells. In addition to being socially inclusive and extroverted, his storytelling completes the world of wandering, voyaging, enterprise and hustle-bustle that he represents. Through his tales, August gathers his experiences into a whole, and his role as a storyteller emphasises his outgoing and convivial nature.

Both in Pan and in Wayfarers, the same place connotes different things to different characters. This difference in the perception of a location causes a series of misunderstandings, and eventually a breach in the erotic relationship between the lovers.

The importance of location for a plot centring on gender and eroticism has received little attention in the study of Hamsun’s novels. Women and men ascribe different meanings to places, and contrary to what one might expect, it is the man who pursues the bygone and regressive ideals associated with a location, while the woman wishes to inject it with a sense of freedom and modernity. While studies of Hamsun’s innumerable roaming characters have emphasised their restlessness, search for freedom and independence, it is interesting to note that the two romantic relationships established by the wanderers in Pan and Wayfarers represent values at odds with these characteristics. Both Thomas Glahn and Edevart perpetuate an archaic model of love that not only traps them in an antiquated state of existence, but also entails that the women they love must adopt the same conservative attitude. With great subtlety, Hamsun has avoided letting his characters state their values explicitly. Instead, the places they seek out, or depart from, become indicators of their basic ideals and values.

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Linda Hamrin Nesby received her Ph.D. with the dissertation An analysis of Knut Hamsun’s novels Pan, Growth of the Soil and Wayfarers, based on the concept of chronotopes. University of Tromsø, 2009.