Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Why I read Knut Hamsun, and why I don't

Here's a Sven Birkerts review of two Knut Hamsun novels, Hunger (1890) and The Growth of the Soil (1917).

Hunger is a first-rate novel, narrow but original and rich in ideas. It's about a starving writer who wanders the streets of Christiana (Oslo) thinking, about his writing, or about what he can sell to get money (for example, can he sell his buttons but keep the rest of his coat?). Over four chapters, his situation becomes worse and worse. But he refuses to surrender his integrity, however he defines it. The tension and hallucinatory, hysterical tone sometimes resembles Dostoevsky, but the attention to detail and the intellectual concerns of the novel are in a different world. A great book.

Growth of the Soil is an "agrarian" novel that won Hamsun the Nobel prize, but I haven't read it, for the simple reason that the Nazis liked it. This hasn't kept me from enjoying Wagner or Nietzsche, so there's no consistency here. I could be convinced. But for now, no.

Two movie recommendations:

1. Hamsun, in his old age, was a Nazi collaborator, actively supporting the Quisling government in Norway. The movie Hamsun (1996) covers this terrible story. Hamsun is played by Max von Sydow, reason enough to see the movie.

2. There's a Danish version of Hunger (1966) starring another superb Swedish actor, Per Oscarsson. The movie is a serious adaptation, trying to recreate the internal state of the character. Really well done.

These are both available through Netflix, amazingly.


  1. I have never read Hamsun before. He's on my radar but always as a 'someday' read. Though your post is making me reconsider!

  2. Isn't (wasn't, I think) Christiana an idealistic socialist commune in Denmark or have I got that wrong...fascinating setting for someone who would later become a Nazi.

    Hunger sounds like something I would really enjoy. Will look for it on Bookmooch today!

  3. Oops, just realized my mistake - Sweden not Denmark! Never mind my first comment...

  4. Well that's very interesting. Christiana, or Freetown Christiana, is a neighborhood in Copenhagen, run along socialist principles. I did not know that. Trusting wikipedia on this.

    But Oslo, Norway, was known as Christiana, or Kristiana, until 1924. That's where "Hunger" is set.

    Just looking at its contemporaries, I think "Hunger" ranks with "The Death of Ivan Ilych", or "Effi Briest", or "Ward No. 6" - a great book.

  5. Hamsun was not a Nazi:

    Re. Christiania - yes, it's both a free port in Denmark and the old name for "Oslo" (in Norway)

  6. I agree. Knut Hamsun, in his old age, was not a Nazi. He was a Nazi collaborator.