Joe Pearce looks at the life and works of Knut Hamsun, one of Norway's greatest writers
ERNEST HEMINGWAY tried to write like him. Henry Miller called him ‘the Dickens of my generation'. Thomas Mann said the Nobel Prize never went to a worthier recipient. André Gide thought him arguably superior to Dostoevsky. Isaac Bashevis Singer reckoned that the whole school of modernist fiction stemmed from his example.
The subject of these plaudits was the Norwegian Knut Hamsun ― a name which elicits blank looks nowadays even in bookish circles. The spectacular collapse of Hamsun's reputation is ascribable to his politics. He supported Hitler during the war, and was indicted for treason after it.
For my part, I have never been an apologist for Hitler and my sympathies vis-à-vis the German National Socialist movement have always lain squarely with Gregor and Otto Strasser, the former being murdered at the behest of Hitler on the infamous 'Night of the Long Knives'. Nonetheless, it is outrageous that someone's literary and artistic merits should be blemished in any way by that person's political outlook. Yet, as we have seen time and time again, this is what invariably happens.
Thus the writing of Henry Williamson, with the exception of Tarka The Otter, are disgracefully undervalued because of his flirtation with fascism. Likewise, the multitude of work by both Hilaire Belloc and G.K.Chesterton is similarly undervalued, not so much because of their sympathies with fascism but because of their resolute and undaunting opposition to political Zionism.
With this cynical censorship of 'dissident' literary talent in mind, it is encouraging to see the publication of the first ever full-length biography of Knut Hamsun in the English language (ENIGMA: The Life of Knut Hamsun by Robert Ferguson).
Knut Hamsun was born into a peasant family in the wilds of Norway. He was brought up by an uncle who beat and starved him.
Hamsun's first hand experience of starvation was to help him immensely in the writing of Hunger which, to my mind, is one of the greatest works of literature to emerge in the twentieth century. A friend of long-standing was kind enough to send this book to me whilst I was in prison, under the Race Laws, last year.
I was struck immediately by the harsh realism of Hamsun's writing. Somehow he managed to get inside the book's central character to such a degree that the reader seems to actually share in the hunger pangs and the desperation of the destitute character wandering the streets scavenging for food.
Quite simply, Hunger, although a novel, is one of the most starkly realistic social commentaries I have ever read, deserving a place beside such books as The Road To Wigan Pier and Down And Out In Paris And London by George Orwell. It is also reminiscent of the novels of Dickens in its brutal realism and implicit condemnation of social conditions, making Henry Miller's appraisal of Hamsun as 'the Dickens of my generation' even more appropriate.
Neither was my admiration for Hunger prejudiced in any way by the knowledge of Hamsun's political persuasions because, at the time of reading the book, I was totally unaware of his political convictions and no hint of his latent Nazism is present in the book. Thus, if anything, my appraisal of Hunger as a masterly work of social commentary was made in spite of Hamsun's politics rather than because of them. Quite simply, Hunger is a classic of urban alienation, pre-dating Kafka's work on a similar theme, The Castle, by nearly forty years. Deservedly, it was much acclaimed and made him famous. As Robert Ferguson's biography points out, however, prior to Hunger Hamsun continued to experience real hunger. The struggles of his early manhood involved scratching a living as a pedlar, apprentice shoemaker, navvy and farmhand. In the 1880s he toured America as a tramp, tram-conductor and pig-minder.
On one farm in Dakota where he laboured, the heat was so intense the mules died of sunstroke. Coincidentally, this penniless perambulation across America parallels the experience of Hilaire Belloc in the same country ten years later.
But what of Hamsun's intellectual and political convictions? What were his philosophical roots that were to come to fruition in Nazi form in later years?
From his harsh experience in early life he came to view liberal-capitalism with contempt. He was, at root, a rebel who positively enjoyed outraging established opinion. Thus, he caused a furore in liberal circles by a newspaper campaign demanding that a young mother who had killed her child should be hanged.
Nonetheless, not all Hamsun's political beliefs were quite so basic. For instance, like Ruskin, William Morris, and other Victorian sages, he attacks machine civilisation; like D.H.Lawrence he extols the superior wisdom of 'blood' over intellect. Machine man, he preaches, must leave the cities and return to nature. This was the message of his novel Pan, the tale of a hunter in the Norwegian forests who derives spiritual satisfaction from communing with the trees and living with nature.
Another parallel between Hamsun and D.H. Lawrence arises from their shared adherence to a view of veneration towards youth, health and strength. This view later became a central part of Nazi ideology, something which must have predisposed him towards a sympathy for Hitler.
Lawrence had not, it seems, read Hamsun. They were simply individualists who happened to react against mass civilisation on parallel lines.
In later years Hamsun paid dearly for his expressions of sympathy towards the Nazis. After the war the Norwegians quailed at the prospect of putting their greatest living writer on trial for treason. Consequently, in time-honoured totalitarian fashion, more in keeping with the methods attributed to the recently defeated Nazis than with the self-styled image of the allies as 'liberators', the Norwegian authorities had Hamsun 'examined' by two psychiatrists. These psychiatrists pronounced him 'insane' thus saving the Norwegian government the embarrassment of putting him on trial.
However, Ferguson contends that the charge of insanity is nonsense, claiming that Hamsun's beliefs had led him quite naturally to Nazism. According to Ferguson, Nazism satisfied his contempt for liberal democracy and, above all, it was a natural outlet for his racialism. For example, in 1941 Hamsun urged the Norwegians to recognise that they were, at a deep level, Germans, 'united in a brotherhood of blood'. They should throw down their rifles before their advancing brothers, whereupon Hitler would usher in 'a rich golden age of culture'.
In spite of this sycophantic attitude towards Hitler, he never bothered, Ferguson points out, even to read Hitler's public utterances. He preferred to trust his intuition which told him, as his defiant obituary of the Fuhrer declared, that Hitler's was 'a reforming nature of the highest order'.
Perhaps, it may be argued, a closer perusal of the integral nature of Hitler's regime may have led Hamsun to the opinion that Hitlerite Nazism was, in itself, a negation of the very individualism which he cherished so dearly. Either way, such thoughts are mere conjecture.
The central point at issue is still the fact that Knut Hamsun deserves to be read in the light of his literary genius, regardless of his political persuasions. The world of literature must once more be bathed in the light of Knut Hamsun's genius and, for this to happen, he must be brought out of the Nazi shadow.