Knut Hamsun (August 4, 1859 – February 19, 1952) was a major Norwegian writer, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1920. Hamsun’s work spans more than 70 years and shows variation with regard to the subject, perspective and environment. He published more than 20 novels, a collection of poetry, some short stories and plays, a travelogue, and some essays.
The young Hamsun objected to realism and naturalism. He argued that the main object of modernist literature should be the intricacies of the human mind, that writers should describe the “whisper of blood, and the pleading of bone marrow”. Hamsun is considered the “leader of the Neo-Romantic revolt at the turn of the 20th century”, with works such as Hunger (1890), Mysteries (1892), Pan (1894), and Victoria (1898). His later worksin particular his “Nordland novels”were influenced by the Norwegian new realism, portraying everyday life in rural Norway and often employing local dialect, irony, and humour.
Hamsun is considered to be “one of the most influential and innovative literary stylists of the past hundred years” (ca. 1890-1990). He pioneered psychological literature with techniques of stream of consciousness and interior monologue, and influenced authors such as Thomas Mann, Franz Kafka, Maxim Gorky, Stefan Zweig, Henry Miller, Hermann Hesse, and Ernest Hemingway.Isaac Bashevis Singer called Hamsun “the father of the modern school of literature in his every aspecthis subjectiveness, his fragmentariness, his use of flashbacks, his lyricism. The whole modern school of fiction in the twentieth century stems from Hamsun”.
Knut Hamsun was born as Knud Pedersen in Lom in the Gudbrandsdal valley of Norway. He was the fourth son (of seven children) of Tora Olsdatter and Peder Pedersen. When he was three, the family moved to Hamsund, Hamary in Nordland. They were poor and an uncle had invited them to farm his land for him.
At nine Knut was separated from his family and lived with his uncle Hans Olsen, who needed help with the post office he ran. Olsen used to beat and starve his nephew, and Hamsun later stated that his chronic nervous difficulties were due to the way his uncle treated him.
At 17 he became a ropemaker’s apprentice; at about the same time he started to write. He asked businessman Erasmus Zahl to give him significant monetary support, and Zahl agreed. Hamsun later used Zahl as a model for the character Mack appearing in his novels Pan (1894), Dreamers (1904), and Benoni and Rosa (1908).
He spent several years in America, traveling and working at various jobs, and published his impressions under the title Fra det moderne Amerikas Aandsliv (1889).
Working all those odd jobs paid off, and he published his first book: Den Gaadefulde: En Kjrlighedshistorie fra Nordland (The Enigmatic Man: A Love Story from Northern Norway, 1877). It was inspired from the experiences and struggles he endured from his jobs.
In his second novel Bjrger (1878), he attempted to imitate Bjrnstjerne Bjrnson‘s writing style of the Icelandic saga narrative. The melodramatic story follows a poet Bjrger and his love for Laura. This book was published under the pseudonym Knud Pedersen Hamsund. This book later served as the basis for Victoria: En Krligheds Historie (1898; translated as Victoria: A Love Story, 1923).
World War II, arrest and trial
During World War II, Hamsun put his support behind the German war effort. He courted and met with high-ranking Nazi officers, including Adolf Hitler. Nazi Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels wrote a long and enthusiastic diary entry concerning a private meeting with Hamsun; according to Goebbels Hamsun’s “faith in German victory is unshakable”. In 1940 Hamsun wrote that “the Germans are fighting for us”. After Hitler’s death, he published a short obituary in which he described him as “a warrior for mankind” and “a preacher of the gospel of justice for all nations.”
After the war, he was detained by police on June 14, 1945, for the commission of acts of treason, and was committed to a hospital in Grimstad (Grimstad sykehus) “due to his advanced age”, according to Einar Kringlen (a professor and medical doctor). In 1947 he was tried in Grimstad, and fined. Norway’s supreme court reduced the fine from 575,000 to 325,000 Norwegian kroner.
After the war, Hamsun’s views on the Germans during the war was a serious grief for the Norwegians, and they tried to separate their world-famous writer from the “Nazi”-person. At the trial Hamsun had pleaded ignorance. Deeper explanations involve his contradictory personality, his distaste for the hoi polloi, his inferiority complex, a profound distress at the spread of indiscipline, antipathy toward the interwar democracy, and especially his anglophobia.
Knut Hamsun died on February 19, 1952, aged 92, in Grimstad. His ashes are buried in the garden of his home at Nrholm.
Thomas Mann described him as a “descendant of Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Friedrich Nietzsche.” Arthur Koestler was a fan of his love stories. H. G. Wells praised Markens Grde (1917) for which Hamsun was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Isaac Bashevis Singer was a fan of his modern subjectivism, use of flashbacks, his use of fragmentation, and his lyricism. A character in Charles Bukowski‘s book Women referred to him as the greatest writer to have ever lived.
Hamsun first received wide acclaim with his 1890 novel Hunger (Sult). The semiautobiographical work described a young writer’s descent into near madness as a result of hunger and poverty in the Norwegian capital of Kristiania (modern name Oslo). To many, the novel presages the writings of Franz Kafka and other twentieth-century novelists with its internal monologue and bizarre logic.
A theme to which Hamsun often returned is that of the perpetual wanderer, an itinerant stranger (often the narrator) who shows up and insinuates himself into the life of small rural communities. This wanderer theme is central to the novels Mysteries, Pan, Under the Autumn Star, The Last Joy, Vagabonds, Rosa, and others.
Hamsuns prose often contains rapturous depictions of the natural world, with intimate reflections on the Norwegian woodlands and coastline. For this reason, he has been linked with the spiritual movement known as pantheism (“There is no God,” he once wrote. “Only gods.”). Hamsun saw mankind and nature united in a strong, sometimes mystical bond. This connection between the characters and their natural environment is exemplified in the novels Pan, A Wanderer Plays on Muted Strings, and the epic Growth of the Soil, “his monumental work” credited with securing him the Nobel Prize in literature in 1920.
A fifteen-volume edition of his complete works was published in 1954. In 2009, to mark the 150-year anniversary of his birth, a new 27-volume edition of his complete works was published, including short stories, poetry, plays, and articles not included in the 1954 edition. For this new edition, all of Hamsun’s works underwent slight linguistic modifications in order to make them more accessible to contemporary Norwegian readers. Fresh English translations of two of his major works, Growth of the Soil and Pan, were published in 1998.
Hamsuns works remain popular. In 2009, a Norwegian biographer stated, “We cant help loving him, though we have hated him all these years … Thats our Hamsun trauma. Hes a ghost that wont stay in the grave.”
Along with August Strindberg, Henrik Ibsen, and Sigrid Undset, Hamsun formed a quartet of Scandinavian authors who became internationally known for their works. Hamsun pioneered psychological literature with techniques of stream of consciousness and interior monologue, as found in material by, for example, Joyce, Proust, Mansfield and Woolf.
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In 1898, Hamsun married Bergljot Gpfert (ne Bech), who bore daughter Victoria, but the marriage ended in 1906. Hamsun then married Marie Andersen (1881-1969) in 1909 and she was his companion until the end of his life. They had four children: sons Tore and Arild and daughters Elinor and Cecilia.
Marie wrote about her life with Hamsun in two memoirs. She was a promising actress when she met Hamsun but ended her career and traveled with him to Hamary. They bought a farm, the idea being “to earn their living as farmers, with his writing providing some additional income”.
After a few years they decided to move south, to Larvik. In 1918 they bought Nrholm, an old, somewhat dilapidated manor house between Lillesand and Grimstad. The main residence was restored and redecorated. Here Hamsun could occupy himself with writing undisturbed, although he often travelled to write in other cities and places (preferably in spartan housing).
In younger years, Hamsun had leanings of an anti-egalitarian, racially conscious bent. In The Cultural Life of Modern America (1889), he expressed his fear of miscegenation: “The Negros are and will remain Negros, a nascent human form from the tropics, rudimentary organs on the body of white society. Instead of founding an intellectual elite, America has established a mulatto studfarm.”
Following the Second Boer War, he adopted increasingly conservative views. He also came to be known as a prominent advocate of Germany and German culture, as well as a rhetorical opponent of British imperialism and the Soviet Union. During both the World War I and World War II, he publicly expressed his sympathy for Germany.
His sympathies were heavily influenced by the impact of the Boer War, seen by Hamsun as British oppression of a small people, as well as by his dislike of the English and distaste for the US. During the 1930s, most of the Norwegian right-wing newspapers and political parties were sympathetic in various degrees to fascist regimes in Europe, and Hamsun came to be a prominent advocate of such views. During WWII, he continued to express his support for Germany, and his public statements led to controversy; in particular, in the immediate aftermath of the war. When World War II started, he was over 80 years old, almost deaf, and his main source of information was the conservative newspaper Aftenposten, which had been sympathetic to Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany from the beginning. He suffered two intracranial hemorrhages during the war.
Hamsun wrote several newspaper articles in the course of the war, including his notorious 1940 assertion that “the Germans are fighting for us, and now are crushing England’s tyranny over us and all neutrals”. In 1943, he sent Germanys minister of propaganda Joseph Goebbels his Nobel Prize medal as a gift. His biographer Thorkild Hansen interpreted this as part of the strategy to get an audience with Hitler. Hamsun was eventually invited to meet with Hitler; during the meeting, he complained about the German civilian administrator in Norway, Josef Terboven, and asked that imprisoned Norwegian citizens be released, enraging Hitler.Otto Dietrich describes the meeting in his memoirs as the only time that another person was able to get a word in edgeways with Hitler. He attributes the cause to Hamsun’s deafness. Regardless, Dietrich notes that it took Hitler three days to get over his anger. Hamsun also on other occasions helped Norwegians who had been imprisoned for resistance activities and tried to influence German policies in Norway.
Nevertheless, a week after Hitler’s death, Hamsun wrote a eulogy for him, saying He was a warrior, a warrior for mankind, and a prophet of the gospel of justice for all nations. Following the end of the war, angry crowds burned his books in public in major Norwegian cities and Hamsun was confined for several months in a psychiatric hospital.
Hamsun was forced to undergo a psychiatric examination, which concluded that he had “permanently impaired mental faculties,” and on that basis the charges of treason were dropped. Instead, a civil liability case was raised against him, and in 1948 he had to pay a ruinous sum to the Norwegian government of 325,000 kroner ($65,000 or 16,250 at that time) for his alleged membership in Nasjonal Samling and for the moral support he gave to the Germans, but was cleared of any direct Nazi affiliation. Whether he was a member of Nasjonal Samling or not and whether his mental abilities were impaired is a much debated issue even today. Hamsun stated he was never a member of any political party. He wrote his last book Paa giengrodde Stier (On Overgrown Paths) in 1949, a book many take as evidence of his functioning mental capabilities. In it, he harshly criticizes the psychiatrists and the judges and, in his own words, proves that he is not mentally ill.
The Danish author Thorkild Hansen investigated the trial and wrote the book The Hamsun Trial (1978), which created a storm in Norway. Among other things Hansen stated: “If you want to meet idiots, go to Norway,” as he felt that such treatment of the old Nobel Prize-winning author was outrageous. In 1996 the Swedish director Jan Troell based the movie Hamsun on Hansen’s book. In Hamsun, the Swedish actor Max von Sydow plays Knut Hamsun; his wife, Marie, is played by the Danish actress Ghita Nrby.