Arne Melberg: in wonderland

”I sit down and am at home here, that’s to say, away, meaning, in my element”.

2017-04-2609:11 Marianne Gjelseth

Knut Hamsun is travelling in a strange country: he is in Moscow which is making a huge impression on him, and he has been out and about trying to have a button mended and ends up in a restaurant where he is in his "element". At least this is how he remembers it when writing his travel journal, which was published in 1903 under the title In Wonderland. The subheading Experienced and Dreamt in the Caucasus reveals where he travelled and shows that Hamsun's memories are interspersed with fantasies. In the Moscow restaurant where he is “in his element", there is an uncommon amount of fantasy and adventure mixed in with real memories. The troublesome button puts the Hamsun reader (and perhaps even Hamsun himself) in mind of Nagel's troubles in Mysteries. The mending of the button and the protracted restaurant scene have qualities that are reminiscent of both Kafka and surrealism: it is impossible for the reader to separate Hamsun's real Moscow from his fantasy and it is just as difficult to determine whether the memoir is a nightmare or wishful thinking.

Hamsun is away when he is home, home when he is away. This indicates a restlessness that characterises all of Hamsun's works, where the ideology of deep-rootedness is perforated by the ideology of mobility. It also implies a modern predicament, in which identity and belonging is always somewhere else, always "away". In Wonderland is also in many ways a modern travelogue, almost modernist. Hamsun tells the story in a present tense that he only breaks out of occasionally to admit that the trip was well-planned and that the story is being edited as it is written down. The travelling Hamsun resembles Nagel in Mysteries: he charms people with gallantries and then swindles them using fake business cards. In fact, the travelling Hamsun is quite reminiscent of the hero in Hunger, who lives in a constant present tense and wanders around in a reality driven by his impulses and fantasies, and who would have found himself “in his element" had he only been able to eat at a Moscow restaurant. Hamsun is as alone and outcast in the world as the hero in Hunger: the fact that he actually has the company of Mrs Hamsun is only marginally important to the story, which depicts Hamsun, the traveller, as being as rootless and restless as Hamsun would like people not to be.

This modern impression is intersected, as so often is the case with Hamsun, with literally reactionary features. The trip to the Caucasus is a return trip: Hamsun is returning to the source, and perhaps he is hoping for a rebirth ex oriente? He sees the Caucasus as the gate to the Orient; home to everything he is missing in modern 'Americanised' civilisation. There you can find poetry and authenticity. "Oh Caucasus, Caucasus! It is no coincidence that the biggest poets the world has ever known, the great Russians, have visited you, east of the springs..." The road to the source goes through the Russia of the slaves. "Slaves! I think, and look at them, the people of the future; the victors of the world second to the Germans!” Hamsun doesn't just appeal to what is slavish and Oriental, but also includes a small essay about the Russian authors, in which he repeats his well-known praise of Dostoevsky and his reluctant admiration for Tolstoy, at the expense of Ibsen and other Europeans who are just "putting on an act": "Standing on one leg is a pose; the natural position is to stand on both legs without putting on an act." The Orientals are nothing but "natural". They are naturally fatalistic and have a propensity for "this old tried and tested philosophy with its simple and absolute system". Obviously, they are not affected by our modern ideas and they reject our lack of identity and roots. "And they don't have human rights, suffrage and unions. And they don't walk around with Vorwärts (Forwards) in their pockets. Oh you poor Orient, we Prussians and Americans really do pity you! …"

Hamsun obviously makes enemies on his way to the Orient: his coachman and guide turns out to be unreliable, and a helpful officer is revealed to be a fraud. Hamsun writes quite an extensive piece of fiction about this fake officer. His "Jewish conk is unbearable", which made Hamsun suspicious about him from the very start. In his view, the Jews are an unpleasant and foreign element that is an obstacle on the road to what is truly different – the authentically Oriental. The Jews are also associated with erotic fantasies, which Hamsun rejects: in his Orient, women are as marginal as his own travelling companion.

Unfortunately, even the Orient turns out to be infiltrated by modernism. Tbilisi is European through and through, even if its old Asian quarter is an Oriental enclave. In Baku, Hamsun found that "America reared its head" and "roared" – the city's oil industry does not fit in with his Oriental fantasy. Hamsun reaches his destination, the Black Sea, but discovers that his goal does not exist – at least not in the sense of being the authentic source he had expected. However, he is not defeated. When he has returned home to write down his travel journal, he simply adds to his experiences with liberal doses of fantasies of a world beyond this world, a source and a fatalistic permanence that surpasses modern impermanence. The reader is allowed to share in both his experiences and his dreams. We are treated to glimpses of Russia and the Caucasus before the turn of the century, and are given a mixed, but strong impression of Knut Hamsun as the main character of his own story.


Arne Melberg is Professor in literature at the University of Oslo.

English translation: Nina Brevik