‘I love three things,’ I say then. ‘I love a dream of love I once had, I love you, and I love this patch of earth.’
‘And which do you love best?’
Lieutenant Thomas Glahn, the eccentric, solitude-loving narrator of Pan, prefers the dream to flesh and blood, prefers it to the earth itself. At the end of the 19th century, the Norwegian writer Knut Hamsun’s passionate urge to articulate dreams, the dark shadows of the mind, the deviant and poetic dimensions of life, charged the European novel with a new energy – one that would power writers and artists into the next century, like Edvard Munch, Franz Kafka, Thomas Mann, Ernest Hemingway and Henry Miller.
In 1888, Hamsun caused a sensation when a fragment of his novel Hunger was published in the Danish literary journal New Earth. Hamsun’s lyrical, impressionistic tale of a young writer starving in Kristiania (now Oslo) electrified the literary world with its stark originality and subtle psychological perceptions. In his introduction to a later edition of Hunger, writer Isaac Bashevis Singer called Hamsun ‘the father of the modern school of literature in his every aspect – his subjectiveness, his fragmentariness, his use of flashbacks, his lyricism. The whole modern school of fiction in the twentieth century stems from Hamsun.’
Following the publication of the completed version of Hunger in 1890, Hamsun was celebrated across Europe. Three years later, he moved to Paris and there he began work on a cool, unnerving love story set in a remote mountain village in northern Norway, published in 1894 as Pan: From Lieutenant Thomas Glahn’s Papers. In Pan‘s intimate, first-person narrative, Lieutenant Glahn recalls his sumer holiday in the mountains two years earlier, accompanied by his dog Aesop. Hunting in the woods with Aesop, Glahn is filled with ecstatic joy, until one day he meets a tall girl with curved eyebrows – ‘someone who for a short while filled my thoughts’ and disturbs his solitude. The alluring, petulant girl, Edvarda, is in turn attracted to Glahn’s animal look. Their affair is awkward, intense and perverse, as ‘bewitching and ephemeral’ as the short Arctic summer, as beautiful and elusive as the lovers themselves.
I found a copy of Pan in a bookshop and was drawn by its cover and blurb: ‘The relationship between the awkward, introverted Lieutenant Glahn on his lone hunting holiday, and the lovely and spontaneous Edvarda has a mysterious dream-like quality which lifts it into the area of myth; a myth of the almost inevitable failure of love.’ Of its author it said merely that ‘Knut Hamsun has recently regained recognition as one of the greatest modern writers.’ Little did I wonder about why this recognition had been lost in the first place.
And so I bought Pan and read it in one sitting. I was spellbound by its tale of peculiar love and the clear-cut poetry of Hamsun’s prose, which is so spare, so pure and direct, and yet so suggestive of incandescent dreams and evocative of shifting moods. He writes beautifully about the mountains and forests of Norway, the long summer of daylight, the dark winter beyond: ‘Indian summer, Indian summer. The paths ran like ribbons in through the yellowing woods, every day a new star appeared, the moon showed dimly like a shadow, a shadow of gold dipped in silver …’ And Hamsun understands the human soul is irrational and untameable, that it is this that shapes our apprehension of the world and not the world itself, ‘For it is within ourselves that the sources of joy and sorrow lie.’
Only years later did I learn the story of its author’s later life. Hamsun was born Knut Pedersen in a remote mountain hamlet in the Gudbrandsdal Valley in central Norway. His family was of peasant stock and his father was a travelling tailor. When Hamsun was three they moved to an estate called ‘Hamsund’, near the Lofoten Islands north of the Arctic Circle, with its long winter darkness and months of summer daylight. Hamsun had little formal education but he became an avid reader and began writing his own stories. In 1877, not yet 20, he used his hard-earned savings to publish his first book, The Enigmatic One, which appeared under the name of ‘Knut Pedersen Hamsund’. A printer’s error later dropped the ‘d’ to make ‘Hamsun’, which the author liked and decided to adopt.
Inspired by Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche and Strindberg, determined to make a living as a writer, Hamsun quit his apprenticeship and spent the next 10 years on the road, embracing a precarious, itinerant life. In 1878 he moved to Kristiania and in 1882 he made the first of his two journeys to the United States, hoping America would offer him better prospects of becoming a writer than Europe. During his travels he worked as a teacher, a labourer, a journalist, a tram conductor in Chicago, and a farmhand in North Dakota. But he was disappointed in America and returned permanently to Europe in 1888.
The demands Hamsun made of his writing were exacting. He wrote: ‘Language must resound with all the harmonies of music. The writer must always, at all times, find the tremulous word which captures the thing and is able to draw a sob from my soul by its very rightness.’ In 1920 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for his novel The Growth of the Soil (1917) and became one of Norway’s most lauded citizens, celebrated for his literary genius and for his portrayal of the natural beauty of his country, a young nation which had only 15 years earlier achieved full independence from Sweden.
But Hamsun’s national celebrity was short-lived. In the 1930s he wrote a series of pro-Fascist articles and when the German forces occupied Norway during the Second World War, Hamsun gave them his full support. He even presented his Nobel Prize as a gift to the Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels. Following the war, Hamsun was taken into custody for collaborating with the Nazis. Owing to his old age – he was nearly 90 – the charges were dropped. Instead he was ordered to pay a large fine to the Norwegian government and was sent to a psychiatric clinic in Oslo. Hamsun remained unrepentant and died in 1952 aged 92.
Today Hamsun is a divisive figure in Norway and in the literary world more generally. Can we separate the writer from their writing, abhor the one while celebrating the other? Much was written about Hamsun in 2009 on the 150th anniversary of his birth, including this from his biographer Ingar Sletten Kolloen: ‘We can’t help loving him, though we have hated him all these years. That’s our Hamsun trauma. He’s a ghost that won’t stay in the grave.’