Tuesday, October 7, 2014

And strange moods are born within me and the blood rises to my head - loving the twigs, kissing the grass, flinging the shoes - Pan is odd

A little bit if Knut Hamsun weirdness.  Pan, like Hunger, is awful weird.

Also awful awful in some ways.  Pan’s story features some genuine shockers, horrible jaw-droppers. 

Then I did something that I regret and have not yet forgotten.  Her shoe slipped off; I seized it and hurled it far out over the water – whether from joy at her nearness or from some urge to assert myself and remind her of my existence, I do not know.  It all happened so quickly; I did not think, I just acted on an impulse.  (Ch. 15, 65)

Like that except much worse.  The above is part of the love story I mentioned yesterday, where gestures that in another context might be flirtatious or playful go wrong, so that whatever love there is curdles.

I’ll move earlier, when the cursed couple has just met, a happier time.  Note the change of tense.

The monotonous sighing of the wind and the familiar trees and stones mean much to me; I feel a strange sense of gratitude, everything reaches out towards me, blends with me, I love all things.  I take up a dry twig and hold  it in my hand as I sit there and think my own thoughts; the twig is nearly rotten, its meagre bark distresses me, and pity steals through my heart.  And when I get up to go, I do not fling away the twig but lay it down and stand and gaze fondly at it; finally, with moist eyes, I give it one last look before I forsake it.  (Ch. 6, 27)

The possibility of earthly love causes the narrator to becomes a transparent eyeball, or in Schopenhauer’s terms to catch a glimpse of Will as embodied in the beloved rotten twig, certainly among the greatest beloved twigs in the history of Western literature.

A later passage is even better.  I am giving away all the best parts of the book.  Spoiler alert, etc.  Note that this comes just after the narrator has thrown his girlfriend’s shoe into the sea.

If I could win her, I would become a good man, I thought.  I reached the forest and thought again: if I could win her, I would serve her tirelessly as no other would, and even if she showed herself unworthy of me, if she took it into her head to demand impossibilities of me, still would I do all in my power and rejoice that she was mine…  I stopped and fell on my knees; and in humility and hope I licked the blades of grass by the side of the path; then I stood up again.  (Ch. 15, 69, italics his, not mine)

Did you see that coming, the part with the grass?  Maybe I had over-prepared you with the twig.  It was a surprise to me.

The novel is narrated from the distance of two years, and is obviously self-serving, so anything the narrator writes is open to question from a number of angles.  The most unusual artistic effect, though, is a sort of layering of different levels of reality – are some parts invention?  Are some parts perhaps dreams or hallucinations?  Almost everything can be taken as real – when I had doubts it was really an effect of language, a shift in rhetoric, where the narrator describes an event as if it were not real, which, of course, nothing in the book is.  An explicit dream or forest fantasy in Chapter 20 (“And strange moods are born within me and the blood rises to my head,” 92) perhaps gives a clue to how some other scenes might be taken.

A crazy narrator, the senses heightened to the point of suffering, by hunger or passion – no surprise that the fictive reality of scenes in Hunger and Pan are often ambiguous, or that the much of the art of the novel depends on my confusion.


  1. "The novel is ... obviously self-serving so anything the narrator writes is open to question from a number of angles."
    I haven't read it yet, though I hope to catch up with you, but Hamsun is a writer where I wonder if he knows that his narrators are unreliable or if he himself takes them at face value. Perhaps an unconsciously (to the author) unreliable narrator is more convincingly unreliable than a consciously reliable one. The problem with Humbert Humbert is whether a man so intelligent and self-aware could be both so self-revealing and so ignorant of himself. Hamsun's characters don't give that problem.

  2. Roger, yes, I think you are right. In fact (aside from the one explicit fantasy I mention), I take everything the narrator recounts as "true." It is the way he writes about them that makes them sometimes seem unreal. The narrator's subjectivity transforms whatever parts of the objective world he feeds into it, and at times I am disoriented - how far does the subjectivity go here?

    Your distinction between these Hamsun narrators and the great Nabokov narrators is quite good.

  3. Spoiler alerts are particularly important when writing about Pan. Not to warn others about them beforehand would be as counterproductive as shooting yourself on the foot, so to speak.