Addicted to Unpredictability

James Wood

  • Knut Hamsun. Selected Letters. Vol. II: 1898-1952 edited by Harald Næss and James McFarlane
    Norvik, 351 pp, £14.95, April 1998, ISBN 1 870041 13 5
  • Hunger by Knut Hamsun, translated by Sverre Lyngstad
    Rebel Inc, 193 pp, £6.99, October 1996, ISBN 0 86241 625 6

A young man, hectic and dirty, sits on a park bench in a cold city. He is wild, nervous, seems to fiddle with his soul. Beside him, an old man is holding a newspaper. The young man begins a conversation. In its course, the old man reveals that he is blind. He asks the young man where he lives. The young man decides to lie, and names a pleasant square, somewhere he could not afford in his present circumstances. The blind man knows the square, knows the building, in fact. What is the name of the landlord again, asks the blind man. The young man says the first word that comes into his head: ‘Hippolati.’ Ah yes, says the blind man, Hippolati, that’s right, he knows the name, it was on the tip of his tongue. The young man is enjoying this; he froths his lies up into greater extravagances. He reminds the old man that Hippolati is something of an inventor, that he invented an electric prayer book. Yes, says the blind man, he recalls hearing some thing like that. And, Hippolati was for seven years a cabinet minister in Persia, adds the young man. Ah yes, says the old man.

Now the young man, who is clearly unstable, begins to get angry. Why is the old man so blandly gullible? Why is he agreeing to these ridiculous lies? But instead of accusing him of being a dupe, he does the opposite, and bizarrely accuses him of not believing his stories. He yells at him:

Perhaps you don’t even believe that a man with the name Hippolati exists! What obstinacy and wickedness in an old man – I’ve never seen the likes of it. What the hell is the matter with you? … Let me tell you sir, that I’m not at all accustomed to such treatment as yours, and I won’t stand for it.

The old man looks frightened, and moves away as fast as his legs will take him, running with his small, geriatric steps.

Knut Hamsun’s greatest novels – from which this is a typical scene – throttle reason. In Hunger (1890), Mysteries (1892) and Pan (1894), the Norwegian writer founded the kind of Modernist novel which largely ended with Beckett – of crepuscular states, of alienation and leaping surrealism, and of savage fictionality. He took from Dostoevsky the idea that plot is not something that merely happens to a character, but that a really strange character leads plot around like an obedient dog. He took from Strindberg the idea that the soul is not a continuous wave but a storm of interruptions – something ‘patched together’, in Strindberg’s words. In Hamsun, characters provoke apparently pointless encounters which they then disown or annul at whim. They are epistemological brawlers, always challenging meaning to a fight. They invent the scenes through which they move, and thus invent themselves afresh on every page. More than most fictional heroes, the hero in Hamsun writes the novel we read, plots it for us. Yet, like escaped convicts, these heroes erase their tracks as they proceed, and this seems to be hapless rather than willed: they carry no continuous memory of what they have said or done from scene to scene. They seem only to be escaping themselves.

Thus it is that although these characters are tissues of fictionality, they are not tediously weightless, or unreal, in the way that we know from the Nouveau Roman or other avant-gardisms. They never say: ‘I am fictional, I was created by Knut Hamsun.’ That would be redundant. On the contrary, their fictionality is very real to them, and very real to us: it is all they have. Their pathos is the pathos we feel for real humans, however madly assembled their selves seem to be. In particular, Hamsun extracts a pathos from his heroes’ obvious delusion that they are in control of their unpredictability. We can see that this is not the case. And thus it is that Hamsun, although he is virtually the inventor of a certain kind of modern fictionality, is also the great refiner of the stream of consciousness, that mode of writing that is in some ways the culmination of novelistic realism, of the novel’s traditional devotion to human beings, that represents the soul’s stutter. His heroes are souls, not fictive figments.

Some writers refuse to lay their heads peaceably on the pillow of literary history in order to give posterity good dreams. In this century, Céline is such a writer; and so is Céline’s great influence, Knut Hamsun, who is the greatest Norwegian writer since Ibsen, but who ended his life, in 1952, in disgrace. Hamsun’s life is surely one of the strangest in modern literature. The writer who wrote the great books of the 1890s, the autodidact who won the Nobel Prize in 1920, and who, in the Twenties, was probably the world’s most admired living novelist, is now known mainly for being a Nazi, and for his painful trial in 1946 – the 86-year-old man, who had argued that Norwegians should surrender to the friendly invading Germans, essentially on trial for treason, now almost completely deaf, but bonily imperious, his huge smooth head tilted angrily towards his defence lawyer, Sigrid Stray, a woman who had been arrested by the Germans during the Occupation, and for whose release Hamsun the Nazi had agitated. If his novels are not much read in English, it is probably less to do with his Nazism than with the difficulty of finding good translations, and perhaps also because the generation he influenced – Gide, Kafka, Musil, Lawrence, Bely – superseded him by smoothly manufacturing his inventions as if they were not inventions. Yet his Fascism must partly explain his contemporary eclipse. It drained, and almost abolished, his name while he was still alive. One can trace the anorexia of his reputation. In 1929, on his 70th birthday, he received a Festschrift, with tributes from Thomas and Heinrich Mann, Musil, Schoenberg, Herman Hesse, Gorky, the first President of Czechoslovakia, Tomás Masaryk, and Gide. Five years later, in 1934, he received tributes only from Goebbels and from a crowd of lesser German writers who are now forgotten outside Germany. In 1939, for his 80th birthday, he received tributes only from Goebbels, Alfred Rosenberg – and Hitler.

This new edition of his letters, finely selected and edited by Harald Næss and James McFarlane, allows us to judge Hamsun’s entire life and work. He was born in 1859 and grew up in Hamarøy, in the far north of Norway, about two hundred miles north of the Polar Circle. This was a sharp landscape, of mountains, valleys and brief flowers, one that he would describe often in his fiction, perhaps most beautifully in Pan, which begins (in James McFarlane’s 1955 translation): ‘These last few days I have thought and thought of the Nordland summer’s endless day.’ Villages were tiny naked compounds of wooden huts and cabins, with a school and a church. Dour and close, these communities were cold nets of righteousness; they existed for the entrapment and maintenance of propriety. In Hamsun’s best fiction, the outrageous and mendacious hero strops his dangerous individuality against the leathery norms of the community. Watching a peasant wander past, the hero of Mysteries, Johan Nilsen Nagel, reflects that for such people there was ‘nothing but lice, peasant cheese and Luther’s catechism’. And in town, thinks Nagel bitterly, it was just burghers ‘eating and drinking to survive, filling their leisure with alcohol and politics, earning their living from laundry soap, metal combs and fish. And at night when there was thunder and lightning, they lay abed trembling and read Johann Arndt.’ (Arndt was the late 16th-century Lutheran pastor whose religious writings influenced Pietism.)

Hamsun was born into poverty. His father, an impoverished tailor and smallholder, had moved north to Hamarøy with the hope of starting again. At the age of nine, Hamsun was essentially ‘sold’ to his uncle, Hans Olsen, who lived nearby. Olsen was suffering from a degenerative illness and could no longer write. In return for his board and lodging, the young Hamsun acted as his scribe. He stayed there for five years. The atmosphere was darkly religious and punitive. Uncle Hans enjoyed beating his nephew with his walking stick. Hamsun was sometimes suicidal, and once hacked at his own leg with an axe. Although his fiction is generally read through the screen of Existentialism (he is praised as the creator of the solitary outcast, the absurdist wanderer), his most radical novels represent struggles with, and indeed perversions of, traditional Christian pieties. (He counted Nietzsche one of his influences.) His uncle was a fervent Pietist, and very likely owned books by Johann Arndt. Hamsun was often asked to read Biblical passages to friends of Olsen’s, worshippers who followed an evangelist from Stavanger called Lars Oftedal. A decade later, in 1889, Oftedal stood for the Norwegian Parliament and Hamsun avenged himself by writing a series of newspaper articles against him. Indeed, one of his earliest pieces of journalism, in June 1880, was an attack on an elderly lay preacher for his joyless and dim-witted bigotry. He never forgot the misery of his time with Hans, and claimed, in 1946, that he still bore the scars.

Hamsun’s schooling was sparse (it ended at 15, if it ever really began), but he was a furious reader. He was always self-conscious about his peasant origins, and tried to drown them out with a noisy extravagance of opinion, and by proclaiming a Nietzschean aristocracy of spirit. From adolescence, he was obsessively determined to become a great writer; his late teens and twenties, in which he wrote fiction but without success, were dedicated to a slow siege of greatness. During this time, he travelled twice to America, where there were sizeable Scandinavian communities, in the Dakotas, in Wisconsin and in Minneapolis. In Minneapolis, he worked as a secretary for a Unitarian priest and Norwegian writer, Kristofer Janson. Hamsun told him that he ‘had no religious beliefs whatsoever’. During his second stay in America, between 1886 and 1888, he worked as a navvy and for nine months as a tramconductor in Chicago. He was known for his habit of reading Aristotle and Euripides between stops. He was very poor and weathered the deep winter of Chicago by wearing newspaper under his clothes; his colleagues liked to touch him to make him crackle.

When Hamsun returned from the States he was 29, and although he had had no real literary success, he had already made himself something of an obstacle in the narrow continuum of Norwegian literary culture. In America he had lectured in defence of the flamboyant and allegedly irreligious Norwegian writer, Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, and was criticised by a pastor for doing so. His occasional journalism was hammeringly polemical and generally anti-religious. People were impressed by his physical presence: he was tall, granitic, handsome and exuberantly confident. He was also hysterical, skittish, often rudely eccentric. A friend said that he ‘repelled many because of his eccentricities. He could of course conduct himself in an extremely refined and considerate fashion when he wished to; but his behaviour could also on occasion arouse contempt.’ A letter from this period suggests that Hamsun resembled his neurasthenic heroes: ‘The kind of oddities Dostoevsky has written about in the three books by him I have read … are something I live through daily.’

Thirty pages of Hunger, Hamsun’s first novel, appeared in 1888, in a journal called Ny Jord (‘New Earth’). It caused a sensation in Denmark and Norway. Its author was put on ragged probation – told to go away and write the rest of the book. He left Copenhagen, where he had been living, and moved to a poor district of Kristiania (now Oslo). Hunger was published in 1890, and its flashing power has not faded. ‘It was in those days when I wandered about hungry in Kristiania, that strange city which no one leaves before it has set its mark upon him …’ From its first incomplete sentence (quoted here from Sverre Lyngstad’s superbly fresh new English translation), with that ropy, mortal ellipsis, the most peculiar atmosphere jerks into being. A young writer, whose name we fumblingly learn about halfway through the book to be Andreas Tangen, is struggling to survive in the city of Kristiania. He is desperately poor and hungry, feverish and grandiloquent. He tells the reader that he is planning a three-part monograph on philosophical cognition that will demolish Kant. But he never writes it. Instead, for no apparent reason, he sits on a park bench and writes the date 1848 on sheet after sheet. Occasionally, he goes to a newspaper office and sells an article, but it is not enough to keep him well fed and well housed. The editor tells him that his essays are too highly-strung and too involved. Tangen ends the novel trying to write a play set in the Middle Ages about a whore who has sex at the foot of an altar, out of ‘a voluptuous contempt of heaven’. Once or twice, Tangen’s work goes well and he writes very fast, in a kind of trance. But more often, he is distracted by his own nervous sensitivity: ‘Flies and gnats stuck to the paper and disturbed me; I blew on them to make them go away, then blew harder and harder, but it was no use. The little pests lean back and make themselves heavy, putting up such a struggle that their thin legs bend.’

Tangen wanders around town on the lookout for something to eat, or for some kind of regular work. But it soon becomes apparent to the reader that he is plotting his own demise. He thwarts himself, destroying opportunities that come his way. He keeps up a continuous, muttering dialogue with himself as he walks through town. He chides himself for his moral shabbiness: ‘as time went on I was getting more and more hollowed out, spiritually and physically, and I stooped to less and less honourable actions every day. I lied without blushing to get my way, cheated poor people out of their rent … all without remorse, without a bad conscience.’ More strangely still, Tangen invents falsehoods, and then makes them real in his mind, mentally chewing on them again and again. He lies to the blind man on the bench (in the passage quoted earlier), then explodes with anger because the man believes his lies. He rings the bell at a strange door, and asks the lady who answers if she is the person who advertised for a nurse to wheel around an old man. Of course, Tangen has invented the job. When she tells him that no such job exists, Tangen leaves in a fury. The invention has become real for him: ‘The lady’s words to the effect that she had nothing to give me today had struck me like a cold shower.’ He invents a new word – Kuboå – and immediately suspects that someone else will hear him speak it and steal it from him. He goes up to a policeman and tells the policeman that it is ten o’clock. No it isn’t, says the policeman, it is two o’clock, and can he help the young man home? Tangen insists that it is ten o’clock. He is overcome by the policeman’s friendliness: ‘I cried because I didn’t have five kroner to give him.’ Again, he attacks himself for his own self-induced poverty: ‘I reviled myself for my poverty, shouted epithets at myself, invented insulting names …’ Yet when the newspaper editor, having turned down an article, notices Tangen’s ragged clothes and emaciated appearance, and offers him a loan, Tangen, full of false pride, feels humiliated and brusquely rejects it.

Hunger was Hamsun’s first strike against the novelistic representation of coherence. For Hamsun, such coherence was factitious. He wrote articles and lectures against Ibsen in 1890 and 1891, attacking him as a writer who created only ‘types’, characters with a single pressing element. Compared to Hamsun, Ibsen was always tying the moral bootlaces of his subjects, correcting them and dressing them in the public themes of the moment. (Chekhov, in his milder way, was opening literature up at the same time, and also attacking Ibsen. ‘Ibsen is not a playwright,’ Chekhov said. ‘In life it is nothing like that.’) ‘I dream of a literature with characters in which their very lack of consistency is their basic characteristic,’ Hamsun wrote. The heroes of Hunger, Mysteries and Pan are all self-unravellers. In Pan, Lieutenant Glahn goes up to a doctor, a man he knows, and who sees him approaching, and says, rudely: ‘I gave no greeting.’ Later in the novel, the doctor says to Glahn, ‘Why are you really doing all this?’ – which would be a fair question for all of these characters. Hunger ‘is not a novel about marriages and country picnics and dances up at the big house’, Hamsun wrote to Kristofer Janson in 1890. ‘I cannot go along with that kind of thing. What interests me is the infinite susceptibility of my soul, what little I have of it, the strange and peculiar life of the mind, the mysteries of the nerves in a starving body.’ He wrote to his publisher in the same year, that ‘it is nevertheless a book which has never been written before, one which is more or less unique.’

Hamsun could be as bewilderingly stochastic in person as his characters were. Robert Ferguson, his intelligent biographer, tells a story of Hamsun visiting a hotel in Nice. Barking at staff in Norwegian and refusing to tip, he was quickly the most unpopular guest in the hotel. Then at the end of his stay, he delighted everyone by dispensing enormous tips. Like his characters, he was addicted to unpredictability, and to self-destruction. He gambled heavily, drank stormily (one binge lasted a week) and attitudinised wildly. He loved to scratch at the margins; he was the kind of man who wanted to be thrown out of parties. His Nazism was a kind of anarchism, based more on his irrational hatred of England than on any natural Fascism; he and his wife may have been the only people in the whole of Norway who wanted Germany to ‘bring England to its knees’, as he madly implored in one wartime newspaper article.

The heroes of Hamsun’s novels of the 1890s are wrongly seen, in most criticism, as ‘outcasts’. In fact, they cast themselves out, as Hamsun did during the German Occupation, on the enormous centrifuge of their own pride. The brilliance of the novels is that Hamsun sees this pride, and then the gnarled dialectic that makes it both a choice and a compulsion. Almost the first encounter Tangen has in Hunger is with a tramp, to whom the starving artist wants to give a coin or two. With Nietzschean acuity, Hamsun shows how our charity rides on gusts of egotism and self-flattery. Tangen wants to feel good by giving money to a tramp, even though he has no money himself. When the tramp looks Tangen up and down and refuses his money out of pity for the writer, Tangen’s pride is stirred and he is angry.

Hamsun’s novels of this period, and in particular Hunger, are deliberate perversions of the Christian system of reward and punishment, confession and absolution, pride and humility. It is common to see Tangen as a precursor of Kafka’s ‘hunger-artist’, consuming himself with his art. But it would be more accurate to see his behaviour as a grotesque parody of the traditional Christian posture of martyrdom, of fasting and solitude. Tangen is trapped in a continual tilting between pride and humility. Take his encounter with the blind old man on the bench. It is hard not to see the ghost of a religious temperament here. Tangen, one feels, would like the old man not to believe his lies. He wants to be rebuked for lying, exposed for what he is. Then, guiltily, he attacks the old man for what he should be feeling – he should be disbelieving. In other words, Tangen wants to be punished. He has lied in order to be punished, is angry when he isn’t punished and proceeds to punish the old man for not punishing him.

Hamsun suggests that sin and punishment exist for each other. Tangen slopes through Kristiania, mentally rewarding himself for wholly fictitious acts of charity, and mentally reviling himself for wholly fictitious acts of pride. ‘Faster, you lout, I’ll teach you,’ he growls at himself, as passers-by stare at him. When he goes into a shop to beg for a candle, he cringes with humility: ‘I say it very softly and humbly so as not to irritate him and spoil my chances of getting the candle.’ But this same crawling insect of humility refuses to take the newspaper editor’s loan. Tangen’s discourse to himself is saturated with the worst kind of masochistic Lutheran Christianity, the kind that makes Kierkegaard so deeply unhealthy a thinker. Tangen denounces God: ‘I say to you, you Holy Baal of heaven, you do not exist, but if you did exist I would curse you until your heaven trembled with the fires of heaven.’

If Hunger showed only this, it would be a considerable exercise in Nietzschean revaluation. But the especial beauty of Hamsun’s early writing is that we are able to see how his characters delude themselves in thinking they control their destinies. In particular, Tangen appears to believe that if he can bring his wild actions within the categories of piety – sin, pride, humility – he can explain himself to himself and account for his actions, precisely as sins. Yet we, the readers, know that these actions are not really sins. They are either invented, or so mysterious as to lie quite outside the dominion of morality, even though Tangen continually berates himself for sinning and continually attempts to bring himself into line. Hamsun shows us not only that a structure of sin and punishment impels and determines Tangen’s actions, not only that Tangen in turn tries to use this structure of sin and punishment to seize a control he can never possess, but also that such a structure is a wholly inadequate means of explaining a human being’s motives, or our judgment of those motives.

Hamsun shows us that, just as his hero invents his sins and therefore his punishments for those sins, so he also invents his relations with God: ‘you do not exist, but if you did exist I would curse you.’ Religion is neurasthenic fantasy in Hamsun. We need to be in an invented relationship with God. And it seems likely that Hamsun himself, though he did not believe as a practising Christian, needed a similar imaginary relationship. In 1900, after losing a large amount of money at the casino in Ostend, he wrote to his wife: ‘Now I spit in His face for the rest of my life. He gave me this mind, it’s His responsibility.’ Clearly, this is childish and wilful. To lose at the gaming tables is hardly proof that God doesn’t, or shouldn’t, exist. But Hamsun, like his hero, is trapped in his own battered circuitry of belief: on the one hand, God exists but he is nothing and I spit in His face; on the other hand, I exist, and I am proof, just by existing, that He shouldn’t, or doesn’t, exist (‘He gave me this mind, it’s His responsibility’).

It is in this dour, Christian light that we must see Tangen’s willed starvation – as a mistaken Christian attempt to discipline the soul through denial. When Tangen, driven almost mad with hunger, puts a stone into his mouth – Beckett borrowed this scene and made Molloy do the same – we are reminded of Jesus’s refusal to accede to Satan’s temptation, and turn stones into bread. Jesus chose exactly Tangen’s denial, and chose for mankind. Let them eat stones, not bread, was Jesus’s reply, in effect, and Hamsun had read Dostoevsky’s denunciation of Jesus, in The Brothers Karamazov, for cruelly deciding that people need spiritual, rather than actual, food. It is entirely logical, in the logic of Christian perversion, that Tangen would begin to eat himself, as he does in one of the most shocking scenes in Hunger, when he puts his finger in his mouth and bites: ‘What if I gave a bite? And without a moment’s hesitation I squeezed my eyes shut and clenched my teeth together.’ It is logical, because if an infinite humility is the soul’s aim – and this appears to be Tangen’s – one can always be more humble. But to be truly humble is not to exist, is to be consumed, as some celebrated martyrs did consume themselves. By the same token, if to be utterly humble is not to exist, then the self, however reduced, is always not humble, is always resistant. The self, even in religious chains, is proud – and is always therefore somewhat secular.

Hamsun’s next novel, Mysteries, which he completed in 1892, is as great as Hunger. Both it and Pan extend a parody of the Christian pieties, particularly the idea that proper devotion to Christ logically entails the abolition of the self, entails death. In his journals, Kierkegaard wrote that one must be ‘quite literally a lunatic’ to want to become a Christian. Hamsun’s characters are lunatics who are trying to escape from Christianity’s lunacy, but who always end up entangling themselves. In Mysteries, for example, Johan Nilsen Nagel seems to think that when we confess our sins to people, they like us more than they did before, even if they now know about our sins. In Nagel’s case, this urge to confess amounts to a madness of the most self-destructive kind, but it may proceed out of a twisted Christian inheritance. Jesus himself said that heaven looks more kindly on the sinner who turns to Christ than on the merely faithful.

Nagel appears one morning at a small Norwegian coastal town. He is a stranger in a loud yellow suit. Almost immediately, he starts behaving oddly. He walks to a nearby town and sends himself a telegram, which offers to buy a piece of land for a large sum. He leaves this telegram open on the table in his hotel room, where the chambermaid sees it. The rumour is spread that Nagel is a rich man. But later in the novel, when the town doctor asks him if it is true that he is selling some property for a lot of money, Nagel denies it. Later still, when Nagel is trying to woo the parson’s daughter, Dagny Kielland, with whom he has become infatuated, he tells her that he sent himself the faked telegram. He exposes himself, confesses, like Tangen in Hunger, but more explicitly, to ‘sins’ he had no reason to commit. Similarly, he has a violin case in his hotel room. When someone in town asks him if it is indeed true that he plays the violin, he explains that he cannot play, that the case contains only dirty linen. ‘But I thought it would look good to have a violin case as part of my baggage; that’s why I got it.’ A little later, he contradicts himself, and admits that he once learned how to play the violin. And so on . . . Dagny Kielland complains that she cannot tell whether Nagel is lying or not. When, in exasperation, she asks him why he persists in telling bad stories about himself, he says, calmly: ‘To make an impression on you, Miss Kielland.’ But one also sees the ghostly tyranny of a Christian system of confession and absolution in Nagel’s compulsion to dirty his soul in public.

It is impossible for the reader, like Dagny Kielland, to tell whether Nagel is lying or not. And this is the point at which Hamsun’s development of the stream of consciousness becomes particularly beautiful. For the stream of consciousness is essentially a mode of truth-telling. Its origins lie in the stage soliloquy. The character steps up to the audience, and reveals the flurry of his soul. Even when a character uses the stream of consciousness to deceive himself, (as, say, Emma Woodhouse does in Austen’s novel, or as Faulkner’s characters frequently do), the mode serves truth, because it allows us to see that the character is mistaken. Such characters are knowable to us, if not to themselves, and the stream of consciousness is the optic through which we can spy on their dishevelled knowability.

But Hamsun’s characters are suspicious of themselves, and use the stream of consciousness to lie both to themselves and to us. Hamsun’s characters are so theatrical that they have no interest in being knowable. At the beginning of Mysteries, Nagel awakes from his thoughts with a violent start. He is alone in his room, but Hamsun comments that this sudden start was ‘so exaggerated that it didn’t seem genuine; it was as if the gesture had been made for effect, even though he was alone in the room’. Such a character has become his own audience, and the reader is now both the audience and the character. For the reader is as much in the dark about the character as he is himself. In Hamsun’s early novels, a character can neither lie to us nor to himself, for that would imply some kind of stable deceived self. These characters speak to us in streams of consciousness, but these may represent self-conscious fantasies. There is no way of knowing, and this contradicts the essential premise of these inner monologues, which is that they enable us to get closer to, or burrow deeper into, a soul. In Hamsun, the soul is bottomless. Hamsun exploded the stream of consciousness at the very moment of developing it further than any other writer had yet done.

But what do you do after you have founded and dissolved the novel at the same moment? What is your second act? Melville and Gogol were both defeated by this question. After the first part of Dead Souls, Gogol worked on a second volume, and then destroyed it. Like a kind of Andreas Tangen, he essentially fasted to death. After Moby-Dick, a novel which, like Hunger, is unique, Melville wrote the unreadable Pierre, which represents a kind of vandalism against the novel. In it, Melville editorialises that great and strange writers can only offer ‘imperfect, unanticipated and disappointing sequels’. This is exactly what Hamsun went on to write. He withdrew from the bounding radicalism of his early novels and began to draw characters who were entirely stable essences. He clipped the anarchism of his youth and, from the 1910s onwards, espoused a conservative agrarianism. He self-consciously accepted a role as Norway’s sage and told Norwegians that if they did not renounce modernity and go back to the soil, their country would be no better than Switzerland, a tiny, modern, plush tourist attraction, overrun by hated English travellers. The novel in which he proposed this solution was Growth of the Soil (1917), for which he won the Nobel Prize three years later. It has magnificent passages, particularly in its opening; but it is also terribly ‘magnificent’ – grandiloquent, didactic, symphonic.

Hamsun’s Nazism has been acutely analysed by Robert Ferguson, and is ably shaded in by Harald Næss and James McFarlane in their connecting notes. His personal strangeness was the real engine of his politics; there was almost no theoretical fuel. (In this, he was the opposite of T.S. Eliot, say.) He was not anti-semitic, despite the odd Jewish caricature in his fiction, and angrily implored the Norwegian Attorney-General, in 1946, to ‘search through my collected works to see if he can find any attack on Jews’. His senseless hatred of England – he never supplied any reason for this prejudice – drove him into a mindless veneration of Germany. He truly believed that German soldiers, in occupying Norway, were saving the country from English invasion. During the war, he was almost completely isolated (as well as deaf); when he said in 1946 that he knew nothing about the German atrocities against the Jews, he was telling the truth.

Perhaps the isolation was deeper still. There is a sense in which Hamsun’s irresponsibility – the trait which makes the early novels so exciting, so novel – was total. People did not exist for him. Nobody was ever very close to Hamsun. In 1928 his wife wrote a secret letter to a friend of hers: ‘he has not a single so-called friend . . . he cannot be bothered to write letters to friends, and . . . in the course of time all people have become a matter of indifference to him. This may be a fault, but it is simply how Hamsun is . . . His work is his only friend, his only love, and the rest of us just have to accept this.’ Such a man, one thinks, could not have begun to appreciate what a responsible politics would be. We are used to the idea that a contrarian politics, of the far left or right, is a deeply pondered, intellectual formation, or at least a bristle of fiercely held prejudices. But Hamsun, as ever, shows us his back parts, poses the rude negative. Suppose, instead, that a contrarian politics is not thought at all, and not even a rusty instinct, but simply an enormous irresponsibility, an irresponsibility towards politics itself? When, in 1943, Hamsun made his infamous visit to Hitler, the meeting was a farcical disaster. Hamsun showed no respect for Hitler. Almost completely deaf, he lectured the Führer in Norwegian, loudy complaining about Josef Terboven, Hitler’s representative in Norway, whose vicious administration Hamsun disliked. Hitler was furious. An aide later recalled that Knut Hamsun was the only man he had ever seen thwart Hitler.

Nevertheless, Hamsun praised both Goebbels and Hitler as reforming idealists, and there is a particular beauty in the simple letter that Harald Grieg, Hamsun’s loyal publisher, wrote to him in 1946. Hamsun had asked Grieg if he was ignoring him because of his ‘treason’. Grieg, who had been arrested by the Germans during the Occupation, wrote: ‘In a battle for life and death we stood on different sides – and still do. There are few people I have admired as much as you, few I have loved so. None has disappointed me more.’

Is Hamsun’s a Fascist art? Are the novels that matter, the great radical novels of the 1890s, tainted? First, and practically, they were written years before Hamsun’s swerve to conservatism, at a time when he still considered himself a man of the left. Second, and more deeply, though they are novels in which the self is seen to invent itself, novels in which a lie is just an ordinary day in truth’s working week, novels that foam with fictionality, they are not novels which tell us, fascistically or any other way, that human beings do not exist or do not matter. On the contrary, it is because the souls of Hamsun’s heroes are bottomless that they so fiercely exist. That they are not knowable, that they so earnestly resist knowability, only increases their mysteriousness and increases our respect for their soiled privacies. Monsters of self-consciousness, they are also damaged heroes of selfhood, painfully assembling and dismantling an individuality so extreme that it is uncontainable.