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.

There are other tell-tale signs in these early works. His view of women was an elevated one – so long as they stuck to their primary role in life, which was to bear and bring up children in the Nazi ‘Kinder, Küche’ way. (His own very ill-used wives gave him five.) He believed native Americans were ‘simply half-apes’, and ‘the Negroes … a people without a history, without traditions’, and ‘with intestines for brains’. He denied being anti-semitic, regarding the Jews as a people ‘of high intellectual prowess’, unrivalled in the arts of poetry and music – which, as he saw it, justified the creation of a new land for them where they could ‘use their best qualities to benefit the entire world’, without subjecting the ‘exclusive white race’ to any ‘further mixing of blood’. His hostility to ‘England’ long predated the British lack of interest in his work, and is supposed to have originated in tales of perfidy – the naval bombardment of Copenhagen in 1807, for example (which the Danes still remember, but not so bitterly); in resentment at British ‘imperialism’, but not imperialism per se (he thought Germany should have more colonies) and in the ubiquitous presence of British tourists in Norway. There can be no doubt that British tourists could be problematic: in the 19th century there was a whole genre of novels ridiculing them. None, however, went quite so far as Hamsun’s The Last Joy (1912), which features a couple of Englishmen ‘performing an obscene act in the goat shed’, so illustrating England’s ‘degeneracy’, which the narrator hopes ‘Germany’s healthy destiny shall punish with death one day’.

Hamsun had almost no direct knowledge of England. The only time he set foot there was to catch the train from Hull docks to Liverpool, on his way from Oslo to America in the 1880s. But it may well be that had he known the country better it would have made little difference; On the Cultural Life of Modern America (1889) is full of gross inaccuracies, though he worked in the US as a young man and got to know the country pretty well. Where he got Britain and America roughly right was in seeing them as the vanguard of ‘modernisation’, meaning industrialism, urbanisation, the rise of the common people, unsettling change, and the general flight of man away from his ‘roots’ in the countryside and the social structures that grew ‘naturally’ out of them; this flight was exemplified for him by the massive emigrations of rural Norwegians (and other Scandinavians) to their own towns and cities, and then to America, emigrations he himself found guiltily seductive at certain periods of his life. Britain had gone through the same process much earlier, which is why it was easy to pin the responsibility on the British for its spread to Norway. ‘The Anglo-Saxon,’ Hamsun wrote in 1910, ‘has imported his modern, warped view of existence; the Anglo-Saxon has derailed life.’ If it had not been for England, he might have blamed capitalism, as his British predecessor Carlyle had done. This essentially romantic-reactionary view of politics is implied in Hunger, which Ferguson describes as ‘one of the great novels of urban alienation’, and is explicit in most of Hamsun’s later novels, starting with Under the Autumn Star (1906) and including his Nobel Prize-winning Growth of the Soil (1917). It also came to dominate his personal life: his own return to the ‘soil’ in 1911, for instance, and then (after one farming failure) in 1918; and was the main factor – surely more important than the royalties he received – in turning him towards Germany, whose ‘youth’ as a nation and a race, he felt, carried the promise of the renewal he craved. None of these notions was intrinsically or inevitably proto-Nazi; but there was food for Nazism there.

Just as significant as the ideas was the way he arrived at them. Hamsun was not a thinker. All the biographies stress the poor, abused peasant boy’s lack of formal education (252 days of schooling in his entire life, Kolloen estimates): this was an embarrassment for him early on, but later he came to regard it as a strength. He always put feeling and instinct ahead of learning; they governed the way he wrote, and may form the vital link between his writing and his Nazi beliefs. According to one witness he rarely read books properly, but merely glanced at them, explaining that ‘he had a peculiar intuitive capacity to come directly to the essence of a book’s content and its author’s ideas.’ He liked argument, which for him usually meant ranting, but couldn’t abide discussion, refusing the customary question and answer sessions after the notorious public lectures of 1890 in which he lambasted Ibsen and just about every other European author. He was cavalier in his use of facts, but saw nothing wrong in this; caught out by a professor in 1914 (the mistake had to do with relative birthrates in Germany and England), he was quite untroubled: ‘no matter how much he or I “know” about this matter, in the final analysis it is a question of intuition and understanding. And even though Herr Collin has read a million more books than I, in a matter like this my understanding has a greater value for me than his.’ If that sort of response failed him he had other positions to fall back on – like doubting the importance of truth. ‘What really matters is not what you believe but the faith and conviction with which you believe’ – this in defence of popular religious faith, even in doctrines he knew to be false. This assertion is made by the Hamsun-Nagel character in Mysteries, who elsewhere describes himself as ‘a philosopher who has never learned to think’. Which was maybe the thing that freed Hamsun up to write his great ‘psychological’ novels, sensitising him to what he once described as ‘the whisperings of the blood, prayers of the bone’.

That he became so involved in public life was partly the result of the unusual prominence Norway afforded its writers in the 19th and early 20th centuries, with the leading writer of a given generation being seen as its fører (‘guide’), representing the ‘collective conscience of the nation’, as Ferguson puts it. Hamsun was expected to assume this mantle after the death of the poet Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson (another Nobel laureate) in 1910; and clearly took it seriously. It gave him an opportunity to influence Norwegian society. So all those novels about the flight from the countryside and the corruption brought about by city life and the English were more than explorations of the psyche: they were intended as ‘a warning to my generation’. From 1910 at the latest, Hamsun was always an overtly political writer. He was also – thanks to ideas and attitudes that went back many decades, about greatness, leadership, ‘the soil’, nature, women, race, and the primacy of instinct over reason – ideally situated to greet the arrival of the ‘great terrorist’, when he finally appeared on the horizon in 1932.

So the idea of a sudden ‘swerve to conservatism’ in the 1930s (James Wood’s phrase, in a review of Hunger and Hamsun’s Selected Letters in the LRB of 26 November 1998), when it could in theory be attributed to old age and a manipulative wife, doesn’t stand up. From the 1890s at the latest, all the elements that would attract him to Hitler were already embedded in his novels, whether that makes the latter essentially ‘Nazi’ or not. ‘Hamsun is Nazism before it arrived,’ is how his compatriot Alf Larsen put it. Indeed, it is at least arguable, if one bears in mind the popularity of his novels and plays in Germany in the prewar years, that he was present at the birth of the movement, helping to create the German world-view that would eventually take the Nazi name. ‘Just as you created your characters for the world out of an indestructible will,’ the Nazi theoretician Alfred Rosenberg wrote to Hamsun on his 80th birthday, ‘you have released many similar feelings in the German people.’ The issue then is not so much Nazism’s influence on Hamsun as his influence on Nazism. That being so, he could hardly be expected to disown his own child.

His involvement with the Nazis from the 1930s right through the war years was committed and (almost) unquestioning. He was pro-Vidkun Quisling from the start, pleased with the way Quisling was supposed to have smashed an industrial strike in 1931 by bringing in troops, seeing in him the ‘great terrorist’ he had been waiting for, or at least the John the Baptist who would come before. Whether or not he was technically a member of Quisling’s Nasjonal Samling, which became an important issue at the time of his postwar trial (he was not a great joiner: the likelihood is that his wife Marie paid his subscription without his knowledge), he certainly supported it. (Kolloen has a photograph of him wearing its pin.) He believed Norway would inevitably become Fascist in time. (Hamsun had a happy knack of spotting ‘inevitabilities’ in politics – Britain’s ultimate defeat by Germany, for instance – which he put down to his extraordinary ‘historic intuition’.) Mussolini was another hero: ‘what a man in the midst of these confused times.’ Hitler, however, was the genuine article: ‘a crusader, a reformer’. He would create ‘a New Age, a New Life’. He was ‘a miracle of will’. ‘Hitler has spoken to my heart.’

The two men met in 1943, at the Berghof, though the meeting was not a happy one. Hamsun ranted, which Hitler was not used to, and may have been drunk. (The occasion features in the Jan Troell film.) He got on better with Goebbels, partly because Goebbels so admired him, in return for which Hamsun made him a present of his Nobel medal, no less. In the Norwegian press he stoutly defended the Nazis’ ‘terrorist’ methods, including the (pre-Holocaust) concentration camps. His line was that ‘Germany is in the middle of a process of recuperation. When the government decides to introduce concentration camps, then you and the rest of the world ought to understand that it has its good reasons for doing so.’ And later: ‘was it any wonder that they [the Nazis] resorted to methods like the bullet through the back of the neck?’ This was the price that had to be paid to ‘bring back the old Germany’ from its capture by Brüning (chancellor between 1930 and 1932), the Communists and the Jews. He also spoke for Hitler and against Britain – ‘England must be brought to her knees!’ – in speeches in Germany and Austria, which boosted the Nazis tremendously. ‘Can we think of anything more encouraging,’ the author Edwin Dwinger wrote in 1943, ‘than the knowledge that the greatest living writer in our time stands on our side?’ Goebbels naturally milked Hamsun for all the propaganda value he could. Hamsun’s admiration for Hitler even survived the Führer’s squalid death, which he commemorated with what must be one of the most extraordinary of all obituaries: ‘I am not worthy to speak Hitler’s praises … He was a warrior, a warrior for all mankind and a preacher of the gospel of rights for all nations.’ In the end he had been ‘felled’ only by the ‘unparallelled brutality’ of the age. (He didn’t mean that of the Nazis.) ‘We, his closest supporters, bow our heads at his death.’

Hamsun realised that most of his compatriots felt differently, though he claimed he was at a loss to know why. They probably first became aware of his Nazi leanings in 1935, after a newspaper article in which he attacked the German peace activist Carl von Ossietzky, whose incarceration by Hitler in a concentration camp had provoked an international outcry. Hamsun was also suspected of influencing the Norwegian Nobel Peace Prize committee against him. (The next year Ossietzky was awarded the prize retrospectively: Hitler’s response was to forbid Germans from accepting the Nobel Prize.) Hamsun was convinced his stand was good for Norway. In the short term the country needed Germany’s protection against Britain, the real oppressor. But it went deeper than that. Germany had always been particularly kind to Norway; ‘every single great and proud name in Norwegian culture’, he said, had had to go ‘through Teutonic Germany in order to win the acclaim of the world at large’. The connection between them, he declared, was ‘rooted in kinship and blood. We are all Germans.’ This would ultimately be sealed in a great Teutonic alliance, in which a renewed Norway would play a ‘radiant’ role. It was another of Hamsun’s ‘inevitabilities’, ‘not a prophecy’ but ‘solid knowledge and historical intuition’ (again). So, he wrote in his notorious public appeal to resistance fighters, issued in May 1940: ‘NORWEGIANS! Throw down your rifles and go home again. The Germans are fighting for us all.’ For those who didn’t heed him and were arrested he felt little sympathy – they had put themselves in this position, after all – though he did try to intercede on behalf of some individuals. All this made him pretty unpopular in Norway. There were stories – some may have been counter-propaganda – of people tossing his books over the fence of his house at Nørholm, and of his local post office having to take on extra staff to deal with the flood of books being contemptuously sent back. It was inevitable that he would come under scrutiny for his ‘treason’ at the end of the war: inevitable, but also deeply upsetting for a nation that placed such trust in its literary fører.

It was then that the ‘conspiracy’ began to have him declared senile or at least manipulated by his wife, both of which excuses Hamsun angrily rejected, against a board of psychiatrists who eventually ruled that, though he was not insane, his ‘mental faculties’ were ‘impaired’. (What did they know about psychology with all their books, by comparison with the superior intuition of the artist, he sneered.) This meant he could not face the criminal charge of treason, but only a lesser civil one, which he seemed to regard as an insult. Still, he mounted a defence. (The core of it formed the centrepiece of his last book, the memoir or quasi-novel On Overgrown Paths, published in 1949.) He insisted that Hitler had been right, that he himself had nothing to apologise for, that his conscience was clear, that he stood by ‘every word’ he had written during the war and everything he had done. At the back of this lay the conviction that apology was weak and ‘unmanly’, irrespective of the circumstances, or the rights and wrongs of a particular case. ‘I think regret is a shabby thing … I am a man after all, and will not back-pedal in any way.’ He did not regard himself as a traitor – and would not have been one technically if the war had turned out differently. Though he respected public opinion and the law, he trusted his ‘own guiding principles’ (or subjectivity) more. ‘He had lost,’ as Kolloen puts it, ‘but he had not yielded.’ To anyone familiar with most of his works, this shouldn’t have come as a great surprise. ‘I’ll never give up – never!’ (This is Nagel in Mysteries.) ‘I grit my teeth and harden my heart because I’m right. I’ll stand alone against the world and I will not yield!’ Hamsun obviously got a buzz from this kind of feeling, which may be why he was so annoyed not to have the chance to be further battered by a criminal court.

So, on the one hand, firm, masculine, even heroic resistance; but weakened in its effect by the numerous excuses he offered for his conduct, many of them immediately followed by weasel words like ‘I do not say this to defend myself,’ which will have fooled no one. Some of his excuses were plausible. One of the motives behind his pronouncements probably was, as he said, to dissuade young Norwegians from risking their lives. ‘I never informed against anyone,’ he insisted, and there is no reason to doubt that. When approached, he interceded with the occupying authorities to try to get death sentences commuted, and he implied that this happened on numerous occasions. ‘I sent telegrams night and day,’ he said, though he admitted that he had no idea what effect these had. Intercession, indeed, was the chief motive behind his visit to Hitler in 1943, on that occasion to try to get the brutal Josef Terboven, Hitler’s Reichskommissar in Norway, replaced by a government of Norway’s own Nazis. ‘We believe in the Führer, but his will is being corrupted.’

All this rings true; but it comes to appear a little disingenuous when he implies (in On Overgrown Paths) that this explains the degree at any rate of his collaboration: he wanted to be able to help his compatriots from within the system. ‘I was surrounded the whole time by German officers … they were not particularly pleased with me. They had expected more of me than they received … I had to strike a balance.’ As to his ‘Nazism’: ‘I have tried to grasp what National Socialism means, I have tried to understand what it stands for, but it came to nothing. But it may well be that now and then I did write in a Nazi spirit. I do not know, for I do not know what the Nazi spirit is.’ And then he goes into a whole rigmarole about being isolated up there on his farm, deaf, a simple farmer, ‘tilling the soil as best I could in the midst of those hard times’; with ‘no one’ to tell him ‘that it was wrong that I sat there and wrote’, and never receiving a single ‘bit of good advice from the world about me’. If that isn’t meant as an ‘excuse’, I can’t imagine what would be.

Hamsun undoubtedly had the means of knowing a great deal of what was going on under the Nazis, even if he chose not to listen. Some of his information came from his youngest daughter, who was living in Germany, and at the age of 16 displaying worryingly liberal tendencies: ‘Cecilia,’ Hamsun wrote to her in 1934, ‘you are living in a great country now … You mustn’t go writing to the maids about this or that person committing suicide, they will think it is awful in Germany. Write about the things Hitler and his government are achieving, despite the whole world’s hatred and hostility.’ He knew what was happening in occupied Norway, too, from those who petitioned him on behalf of their condemned sons and lovers, as well as from friends and others who told him quite openly that he was ‘wrong’. Indeed, this is implicitly admitted in his complaint to Hitler at that notorious meeting of theirs: ‘the Reichskommissar’s methods do not suit our country, his Prussian ways are intolerable. And then all the executions. We can’t take any more!’ As for not understanding National Socialism: well, that just might be difficult if you are in the habit of relying on ‘intuition’ rather than book learning for your knowledge; but Hamsun did read the right-wing Norwegian newspapers every day, and, as we have seen, had quite enough of the ‘Nazi spirit’ in his bones to have a sense of what it was. In fact, the image he seems to be trying to establish here of the poor old innocent did not become him. To use his own word: it does not seem very ‘manly’.

If his extreme old age was responsible for anything, it was probably this weakness and confusion, rather than any ‘swerve’ in his political views. There is some poetic justice in this. In his youth he had expressed contempt for anyone over 50: ‘the old have been people once; now it’s over.’ He may not have expected to grow old himself. At 60 he tried to reverse the process by means of an operation intended to divert male hormones from his testes into his blood. But, by his own way of thinking, he should have shut up then. If he had, the full implications of his earlier proto-Nazism would not have been so obvious, and he would have been spared the obloquy of those awful octogenarian years. We could have concentrated on his writing, instead of attending to this constant controversy over whether he was a ‘genuine’ Nazi or not (of course he was), and whether, if so, his writing was infected by his politics, or ‘transcended’ it. (I think both.) These two books would have been very different, but far less interesting. For in many ways Hamsun’s greatest and most tragic work was his long life.

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