Knut Hamsun

Martin Humpal (Charles University)
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Generally considered to be the most important Norwegian prose-writer of all time, Knut Hamsun was born August 4, 1859 as Knut Pedersen in central south Norway. Until quite recently Hamsun's birthplace was assumed to have been the municipality of Lom, but his biographer Lars Frode Larsen has documented that the writer was born in the neighboring Vågå (29). However, Hamsun grew up in the county of Hamarøy in Northern Norway where his family moved when Knut was less than three years old. His father acquired a small farm there at Hamsund, the settlement whose name Knut later used to create his artistic pseudonym. The extraordinary countryside of Northern Norway left indelible marks on his soul: in his childhood years he developed a deep love for nature, which is one of the most characteristic features of his oeuvre.

Before Hamsun became a successful writer, he made his living by taking various odd jobs. In the 1880s he spent in total almost four years in the United States. His impressions of the U. S. served him as a material for, among others, the essay Fra det moderne Amerikas Aandsliv [On the Cultural Life of Modern America, 1889].

Hamsun's breakthrough came with his novel Sult [Hunger, 1890], which still remains his most famous work. It portrays the life of a starving writer in Christiania (today's Oslo). The book caused quite some stir on the contemporary Scandinavian literary scene, because it was written in a style that was completely new and original. From today's perspective it is clear that the text's literary aesthetics were several decades ahead of its time. Both in terms of form and content, Hunger is one of the earliest – if not the earliest – modernist European novels. The storyline concerns the starving artist's struggle for survival at a time when he is destitute and his attempts at publishing usually get rejected. Despite some rather naturalist descriptions of the anonymous protagonist's situation, the text as a whole is far from being naturalist. The hunger which is the central focus of the novel should be understood primarily in figurative terms: the text depicts the main character's existential emptiness, his desire for an authentic way of life and for artistic success.

The novel is, at the same time, a strong manifesto of artistic individualism. One can argue that the protagonist has, at least to some degree, himself to blame for his physical suffering, because he refuses to compromise with the demands of the book- and newspaper market. Simultaneously, his starvation seems to be a self-inflicted experiment. The hero is well aware of the fact that his hunger stimulates his imagination: his at times hallucinatory perception resembles a drug-induced state, and it is during such states that he produces his most interesting pieces of writing.

This search for (artistic) identity under extreme conditions finds its corresponding expression in the form of the novel. The narrative concentrates fully of the workings of the protagonist's mind, and his mind is split in more than one way – his views and feelings constantly change. The often mutually contradictory emotions are presented by an unusually high percentage of interior monologue and stream of consciousness, sometimes in the first person, at other times in free indirect discourse. The ratio of such presentation of consciousness in this text is so high that it can only be compared to that in later modernist novels, such as James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and those written by Franz Kafka and Virginia Woolf (Humpál 58-73). Dorrit Cohn has also pointed out that Hunger is an exceptional case among first-person narratives in world literature in that it almost completely effaces the narrating self (155-158). Moreover, the city in which the main character wanders aimlessly should also be considered part of the novel's modernist aspects. The city becomes a half-hallucinatory labyrinth that is more of a reflection of the protagonist's psyche rather than a realist/naturalist backdrop for the action.

Hamsun's emphasis on the exceptional individual in Hunger, as well as on incalculable behavior and the self-contradictory manifestations of the split mind, continues in the author's other major novels of the 1890s, Mysterier [Mysteries, 1892], Pan [1894], and Victoria [1898].

Mysteries is an undiscovered gem of world literature and an extraordinary formal experiment. The novel both fascinates and baffles readers and critics alike to this day. Already Hunger was written according to Hamsun's conviction that contemporary realist and naturalist novels rendered the human mind superficially. If Hunger is in many ways an attack on the realist literary idiom, Mysteries takes this attack one step further. The novel portrays the protagonist Nagel as a complete psychological mystery, in other words as a person without identity. The text is constructed in such a way that Nagel does not seem to have one single stable characteristic trait. All of the traits are sooner or later contradicted in the text, and the meaning of any element in the text that could potentially capture the essence of Nagel's character is endlessly deferred. Besides having this overall anti-realist design, the text also contains other modernist elements, notably two extremely long, (almost) uninterrupted streams of consciousness in chapters 4 and 18. In this Hamsun is yet again ahead of his time.

Mysteries is essentially an anti-novel, and as such it did not fare well with the readers of its time. Hamsun's next novel Pan, in contrast, received an almost unanimous acclaim, and one can argue that it definitively established Hamsun as an accomplished contemporary writer. The text is both a contemplative, lyrical piece of nature-worshipping literature and a dramatic psychological power game between the main characters. On the surface, the novel tells a simple love story, but its presentation by a self-deluding narrator imbues it with great deal of ambiguity and psychological complexity. The carefully woven net of themes and motifs makes this text Hamsun's perhaps most tightly constructed novel. Victoria is also a story of unrequited love. It is a slightly more sentimental novel than Pan, but, in terms of style, it is still one of the author's early masterpieces.

Around the turn of the century Hamsun travels to Finland, Russia and Turkey and tries his hand at several different genres: travelogue, short stories, drama and poetry. In 1904 he publishes the novel Sværmere [Dreamers] with which a new phase in his authorship begins. From now on the protagonists' inner conflicts are no longer as pronounced as earlier, and the individualism of the main characters is also less extreme. At the same time, Hamsun abandons his experiments with form, and his novels begin to move slowly toward a more realist aesthetics. These novels include the so-called wanderer trilogy, which consists of Under Høststjærnen [Under the Autumn Star, 1906], En Vandrer spiller med Sordin [A Wanderer Plays on Muted Strings, 1909] and Den siste Glæde [The Last Joy, 1912], as well as two novels that take place in Northern Norway – Benoni [1908] and Rosa [1908]. While the trilogy is more on the melancholy side, Benoni and Rosa combine melancholy with folksy humor.

The third phase of Hamsun's authorship begins with the novel Børn av Tiden [Children of the Age, 1913]. From now on Hamsun writes realist novels about Norwegian country people and shows how the coming of modernity to Norway affects their lives. All these works are broadly conceived: they have a large number of characters and several plots and subplots. Hamsun's biographer Robert Ferguson calls these novels, quite appropriately, “Dickensian” (227). All these texts are third-person narratives. The authorial narrator has a firm grip on the characters and treats them with a great deal of humor and irony. At the same time, all these latter novels are rather critical of the materialistic development of Western society; the implied author appears to favor a simple, rustic life in harmony with nature over modern industrialization and mechanization. These novels include, among others, the already mentioned Children of the Age, its companion volume Segelfoss By [Segelfoss Town, 1915], Konerne ved Vandposten [The Women at the Pump, 1920] and Siste Kapitel [Chapter the Last, 1923]. The most acclaimed of these late works are Markens Grøde [Growth of the Soil, 1917], for which Hamsun received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1920, and Landstrykere [Vagabonds, 1927], the first part of the so-called vagabond trilogy.

By the 1930s Hamsun was considered to be one of the greatest living world writers, but he was soon to lose this reputation. During the Second World War he openly supported Germany in his newspaper articles and public speeches. From an author who had been loved and respected by the entire nation, within a short time Hamsun became the most hated cultural personality in Norway. After the war he was acquitted of the accusation of high treason on the basis of a dubious psychiatric examination. The physicians declared Hamsun a person of “varig svekkede sjelsevner” [permanently impaired mental faculties]. Nonetheless, the civil court ruling stripped him of nearly all of his possessions.

There is not a single simple answer to the question as to why Hamsun supported Nazi Germany. Like some of the protagonists of his own literary works, Hamsun was a relatively little educated self-made-man whose likings and preferences were often irrational, based more on subjective emotions rather than on rational analysis of facts. Therefore the motivation for his behavior during the Second World War is a complex web of interrelated issues. Two of the most frequently given reasons are as follows. Hamsun's life-long hatred of England (and, to a lesser degree, the Anglo-American world as such) as the cradle of modern industrialization and thus also a threat to the traditional way of life Hamsun preferred, is well-documented. The other reason is that he became world-famous through Germany, which he therefore loved, whereas he never really became as successful in the English-speaking countries as in other parts of the world.

Despite the fact that he had stopped writing fiction in 1936, and despite the diagnosis of “permanently impaired mental faculties”, the author took everyone by surprise by publishing a new book when he turned 90. By no means the work of a senile mind, Paa gjengrodde Stier [On Overgrown Paths, 1949] is a generic hybrid hovering between diary, memoir and fiction. It focuses on Hamsun's own life from his being arrested in 1945 until the ruling of the Norwegian High Court in 1948. Rather than being an apology, the text portrays the writer as a person beyond good and evil.

Already before the Second World War Hamsun had influenced a great number of modern twentieth-century writers from various parts of the world, although his works found most admirers in German-speaking countries. To name just a few authors who were clearly influenced by him, one can mention, among others, Hemingway, Kafka, Thomas Mann and I. B. Singer. Hamsun's support of Germany during World War Two caused the readers' interest in his works to subside for some time. However, the majority of readers agree that his fiction is mostly unaffected by his political views. Only some of his works are tendentious, and then only in the sense of favoring certain conservative views of life and society, not a concrete ideology or political program. Although some scholars have tried to find fascist streaks in everything Hamsun wrote, it is more common to view the relationship between his fiction and his political preferences during the Second World War as Sverre Lyngstad does: “There is no denying, of course, that Hamsun's fiction evidences conservative, even reactionary, ideas and attitudes, but to conclude from this that his total production is an expression of a fascistic ideology is absurd” (xii). Thus, despite his behavior during the war, Hamsun continues to be one of the most admired nineteenth- and twentieth-century writers. In his native Norway he is again one of the most popular authors. In literary history he is primarily significant as an influential early modernist. His contribution to the development of modernist prose is, unfortunately, often overlooked in scholarly writing outside of Scandinavia because he wrote in a minor language.

Works Cited

Cohn, Dorrit. Transparent Minds: Narrative Modes for Presenting Consciousness in Fiction. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1978.
Ferguson, Robert. Enigma: The Life of Knut Hamsun. New York: Farrar, 1987.
Humpál, Martin. The Roots of Modernist Narrative: Knut Hamsun's Novels Hunger, Mysteries, and Pan. Oslo: Solum, 1998.
Larsen, Lars Frode. Den unge Hamsun (1859-1888). Oslo: Schibsted, 1998.
Lyngstad, Sverre. Knut Hamsun, Novelist: A Critical Assessment. New York: Peter Lang, 2005.

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Citation: Humpal, Martin. "Knut Hamsun". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 12 September 2008 [, accessed 01 June 2023.]

1966 Knut Hamsun 1 Historical context notes are intended to give basic and preliminary information on a topic. In some cases they will be expanded into longer entries as the Literary Encyclopedia evolves.

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