Regret is a shabby thing

Bernard Porter

  • Knut Hamsun: Dreamer and Dissenter by Ingar Sletten Kolloen, translated by Deborah Dawkin and Erik Skuggevik
    Yale, 378 pp, £25.00, September 2009, ISBN 978 0 300 12356 2
  • Knut Hamsun: The Dark Side of Literary Brilliance by Monika Zagar
    Washington, 343 pp, £19.99, May 2009, ISBN 978 0 295 98946 4

If Knut Hamsun is remembered at all in Britain – he never really caught on here – it is as the Nobel Prize-winning Norwegian writer who became a Nazi, and a betrayer of his country during the Second World War. For the majority of his compatriots, suffering under the German occupation and yet still, many of them, courageously resisting it, this fall from national hero to traitor was hard to fathom, and even harder to stomach. Ways were found around it. It was attributed to senility: Hamsun was 80 in 1939. Isolated during the war years, and profoundly deaf, he simply didn’t realise what Nazism was like. Some blamed his second wife, Marie, who was certainly more active in Nasjonal Samling (i.e. Nazi) circles than he was. Or maybe it was in part a pretence; a guise he assumed to enable him to use his influence to save at least some resisters from execution.

It was also argued – and still is – that none of this matters when set against his huge literary achievement. ‘His Nazism was after all only one streak in him,’ the writer Sigurd Hoel said just after the war. ‘His writing flowed from quite different sources.’ ‘The stigma of his politics will one day be separated from his writing, which I regard very highly,’ Thomas Mann said in 1955, but when asked to support the setting up of a Knut Hamsun Society in Germany he replied that ‘the wretched, and really wicked things he constantly said, wrote and did are too fresh in my mind.’ The idea of the society was in one sense not inappropriate, though perhaps insensitive: almost from the beginning of his writing career Hamsun had been able to count on the support of German publishers and readers, in stark contrast to the indifference he met with in Britain. (The Ring Is Closed, for example, is now appearing in English translation for the first time, 74 years after it was written.)[*] This, he wrote to his Munich publisher Albert Langen in 1898, after receiving a generous advance, showed that ‘Germany is a great country.’ This could be offered as another excuse, though hardly a proud one, for his pro-Nazism in the 1930s and 1940s, as well as for his Anglophobia, which was correspondingly extreme. He felt he owed Germany, literally.

Monika Žagar was provoked to write Knut Hamsun: The Dark Side to counter the ‘whitewashing’ of Hamsun which, as she sees it, continues to this day. Included in her indictment are Jan Troell’s 1996 biopic of his later years, Hamsun, with Max von Sydow playing the elderly author, on the whole sympathetically; Ingar Sletten Kolloen’s first, two-volume version of his biography (2003-4) which has now appeared, abridged and translated, as Knut Hamsun: Dreamer and Dissenter; and Robert Ferguson’s Enigma: The Life of Knut Hamsun (1987). Žagar’s assessment doesn’t seem fair to Ferguson and Kolloen (unless the latter’s original version differs substantially from this one), neither of whom pulls many punches, though she aims a few more, directed mainly at Hamsun’s racism and his views on gender. Reading both these new books, as well as Hamsun’s own early novels, one can be in no doubt that he was a thorough Nazi in the 1930s and 1940s, and a proto-Nazi before then. He was also, I think (though I’m not an expert in these things), a great writer. He was not alone, after all, in harnessing sublime art to vile opinions. The devil does occasionally get some of the best tunes.

Hamsun’s tunes began (after some false starts) with Hunger in 1890, which follows the delirious thoughts of a young writer who deliberately (it must seem to the reader) starves himself, as he wanders around the city. It remains his best-known work, certainly outside Norway. According to Isaac Bashevis Singer, ‘the whole modern school of literature in the 20th century stems’ from it. Its novelty derived from its intense psychological subjectivity, reminiscent of Dostoevsky, and at times of Joyce. Being subjective, it is bound to be autobiographical, as indeed are the leading characters in his next few novels, which means that using them as guides to his own thoughts is more reliable than it is with many other writers. In any case, the same thoughts turn up in his journalism and polemical writings. After Hunger, many of the novels are overtly political, the politics usually taking Nietzschean (or what Hamsun thought to be Nietzschean) forms. Nagel, for example, the main protagonist of Mysteries (1892), is obsessed with the notion of a ‘wielder of supreme power’, the sort of man (always men) whom ‘we may see only once in a thousand years’, the ‘super-mind’, capable of perpetrating ‘extraordinarily vicious and terrifying’ villainies, ‘none of your minor transgressions!’ ‘A great man,’ Nagel says, ‘does things on a large scale! He doesn’t just live in Paris, he occupies Paris.’ ‘I believe in the born leader, the natural despot, the master, not the man who is chosen but the man who elects himself to be ruler over the masses,’ the hero of Hamsun’s play At the Gates of the Kingdom (1895) announces. ‘I believe in and hope for one thing, and that is the return of the great terrorist, the living essence of human power, the Caesar.’

These of course are selective quotations, taken out of context. Besides which, Mysteries always leaves open the possibility that Nagel might not entirely mean what he says. He has this trick, he says, of deliberately shocking people (especially women) so that they’ll like him more when they find out he isn’t so bad. Hamsun’s own diatribes against democracy, socialism, ‘worker scum’, God (‘I shall spit in his eye for the rest of my life’), the fourth commandment (he believed parents should honour their children), goodness, peace, all forms of liberalism, and almost every writer with a social agenda, but especially Ibsen (whom he once invited to a lecture in order to insult him; Ibsen behaved with commendable dignity), could be seen in the same light. This may be the reason his readers disregarded them – until the 1930s revealed that he’d been in deadly earnest all along.

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[*] The Ring Is Closed is translated by Robert Ferguson (Souvenir, 352 pp., £12.99, April, 978 0 285 63868 6).