Knut Hamsun: Dreamer and Dissenter
by Ingar Sletten Kolloen
Knut Hamsun, the 1920 Nobel Prize winner, was an argumentative, money-grabbing, womanising, drunken control freak with a chip on his working-class shoulders about the chattering classes, who saw him variously as an uneducated lout with pretensions to be Norway’s greatest writer, a Nietzsche-like fascist who made no apology for supporting Hitler and a man uncomfortable with his success.
This is the portrayal Hamsun’s latest biographer, publisher, journalist, commentator, professor and editor Ingar Sletten Kolloen, paints in Dreamer and Dissenter, a biography that won the Norwegian Readers Award in 2004 in its original two volume form.
The Gyldendal Norsk editions must have been vastly superior to this English language edition, which if nothing else will put Hamsun in the demonised place the Americans and the British believe he deserves, that of a Nazi-loving, flawed writer who should never have been awarded the Nobel Prize.
Despite the author’s insistence that this biography is built around ‘twenty thousand items of research’ it is not the literary masterpiece it might have been in different hands. Kolloen is clear in the opening paragraph of his preface how he wants to present Hamsun to the reader. Hamsun was a ‘poor country boy’ with ‘only 252 days of schooling’ who ‘chose to support a totalitarian regime’. Kolloen goes on to explain his aims, which, he states six paragraphs into the preface, are ‘to depict as truthfully as possible the life of Hamsun the writer, Hamsun the politician and Hamsun the private person’. The reason? ‘Along the way I have continually had to ensure that the storytelling urge has not disrupted the factual base. This book has thus been created in the fertile space between the factual and the artistic poles.’
Another reason. ‘Hamsun used the complex workings of his subconscious in his work, which we nor anyone else can have full insight into, while the more rigid, logical workings of his political development are easier to map.’
That last sentence is called an excuse, but what we have here is a warts-and-all biography or, in Hamsun’s case, haemorrhoids and all. To put it bluntly, Editor Kolloen’s biography is a hatchet job, albeit much more subtle than the dismembering of Hamsun’s work by newspaper editors, not least Verdens Gang editor Olaf Thommessen, who drove Hamsun to write Editor Lynge in an attempt to expose the workings of superior thinking journalists.
Editor Kolloen is much cleverer than editors Thommessen and Lynge. For a start he is no mere hack. Dreamer and Dissenter is fast-paced, tightly written and full of those facts he talks about in his preface. Every now and then Editor Kolloen tries to explain the inner workings of Hamsun’s literary mind. ‘He had learned to capture the distorted images he glimpsed of himself and the workings of his mind,’ Kolloen writes of Hamsun at the age of 56, summarising in one short paragraph his body of work, which by the beginning of 1916 totalled 30 projects, including 16 novels, 5 stage dramas, and 2 books of verse as well as a travelogue.
‘After Mysteries [Hamsun’s second mainstream novel], in books like Dreamers, Benoni and and Rosa, he began to weave the rich fabric of northern Norway into his work. The artistry was in his portrayal of characters bedecked in this fine fabric, using the rich dialect, the peculiar names, the unique scenery and the stories he had heard in his youth. With each book the distance between narrator and narrated had widened and became safer.’
But the editor in him comes out and before the reader can settle down to a long passage of analysis and insight, elucidating the points he has made, Kolloen moves the story on quickly to Hamsun’s next personal dilemma.
Kolloen returns to the subject of Hamsun’s method and motivation but not until he is covering the period after the Nobel Prize award in 1920 for Growth of the Soil. ‘Hamsun had also stopped waiting for great waves of creativity to wash over him, settling instead for incremental progress, step by step, word by word. Large sections of The Women at the Pump  and Chapter the Last  had been written in this way, but they still required huge concentration.’
The book is coming to its close when Kolloen finds the space to revisit the author’s motives. He is describing Hamsun’s sudden burst of writing in September 1945, which would produce On Overgrown Paths, a kind of memoir and his final book. ‘He revived the double viewpoint that he had used in Hunger, shifting continually between himself as object and subject. In doing so, Hamsun claimed a pre-eminent position from which to view both his actions and his motives. Subjectivity held no fear for Hamsun. It never had. He had always drawn his own conclusions about the world and judged it through his own senses.’
Anyone without much knowledge of Hamsun’s life and work except perhaps for a reading of Hunger, his breakthrough novel, or Pan, one of his early novels that stayed in English translation for years, or the Nobel Prize winning novel The Growth of the Soil will not understand this criticism and deem it harsh.
On the other hand a reader with knowledge of his essays and stories about his time in the USA, published in Knut Hamsun Remembers America, or of his travelogue In Wonderland, translated into English by Sverre Lyngstad, or the two volumes of the English language translations of selected letters between 1879 and 1952, or On Overgrown Paths, another translation by Lyngstad, plus the English language translations of many of his novels, significantly The Wanderer, The Women at the Pump, Wayfarers and not least The Growth of the Soil, might understand the Nordlander better than his latest biographer.
Let’s be specific. Despite having Hamsun’s private archive available to him Kolloen cannot get his head around the intense ambition and desperate desire that drove Hamsun to want to be a writer, despite his lowly beginnings. It’s not a difficult task. He has Hamsun’s own explanations, but he doesn’t use them to produce an insightful literary biography in the manner of Richard Ellmann, writing about James Joyce, or Peter Ackroyd, writing about Charles Dickens.
Take his section on Hunger for example. Kolloen describes in detail the sequence of events that took Hamsun from America on June 30, 1888 to Copenhagen and into the literary circles of Scandinavia’s cultural centre. First Hamsun pawned his raincoat for 6 kroner and rented a room for 5 kroner a month. A few weeks later he sold an article to Carl Behrens, the editor of Ny Jord (New Ground), for ‘a respectable fee’. Almost immediately Hamsun wrote to Yngvar Laws in Minneapolis enthusiastically describing how he wanted to present his ‘wild theory of this mathematics of the psyche in a novel’. Hamsun told Laws that he wanted to ‘unearth the spirit’s most extreme manifestations. I want to let them listen to the breath of mimosa – each word like dazzling white wings – a spoken mirror of movement’. As the summer turned to autumn and the bitter cold chilled his unheated attic room, Hamsun worked on his novel. By October, according to Kolloen, Hamsun had given a fragment of the novel to Behrens and in early November it was published in Ny Jord.
To be fair, Kolloen is not alone in believing that Hamsun drew on his own experiences earlier in Oslo and in Copenhagen in the weeks after he left the ship from America in mid-July. He told publisher Johan Sørensen in December that critic Edvard Brandes had ‘saved’ him several times in the summer when he ran out of food. But, a careful reading of Hamsun’s letters to Sørensen show that he is describing his situation in November and December, not September and October when he wrote the first pages of Hunger, yet Kolloen does not tell us this in context until a few pages later. ‘As September moved into October,’ Kolloen writes, ‘hunger, biting cold, gloom and the pressures of writing were tearing at his nerves.’
Contrast this with the passage in the letter Hamsun wrote to Sørensen on December 2 in a plea for money to help him finish his work on Hunger. ‘I am sitting here in a garret with the wind blowing through the walls. There is no stove, almost no light, only one small pane in the roof. Nor can I very well go out now, now that it is becoming so cold ...’
Six days later Hamsun thanked Sørensen for the loan of 200 kroner and told him that ‘for the last six weeks I have had to wrap a handkerchief around my left hand whilst I was writing, because I couldn’t bear my own breath on it ... you can’t imagine what I have sometimes lived off when I was poor. A 20 øre rye loaf normally served me for two days when I was poor, but last summer it wasn’t always even that. A few times I was completely finished. I had pawned everything I possessed. I didn’t eat for four days at a stretch and sat here chewing on spent matchsticks, and it was also really bad at times in Kristiania (Oslo) too. But then some way out would offer itself in one way or another.’
Six weeks back from December 8 is the last week in October, and sometime in November Hamsun, with 100 kroner from Gustav Philipsen, the publisher of Hunger, went on a trip over øresund in Sweden. Therefore Hamsun was not in his attic all that time.
Nowhere does Kolloen suggest that Hamsun’s begging letters were carefully constructed to elicit the maximum response. There is no doubt, from Hamsun’s own correspondence, that he lived in an attic room (‘at 5 kroner this attic is a bargain, sheer daylight robbery,’ he told Sørensen on December 18) with no stove (‘I have a splendid bed so there is no question of my being freezing cold at night’) and that for periods he had no money for food, but did he exaggerate?
Kolloen doesn’t even consider such a scenario, but then neither does he delve into the ambition, desire and motivation that drove Hamsun to produce Hunger. Nowhere does Kolloen consider the possibility that Hamsun chose to see what life would be like living a solitary existence in a hovel without money to pay for food, so that he could write about the experience? Kolloen pays more attention to Hamsun’s plight when he was preparing and writing Hunger than the reasons why the writer had chosen to write about such a difficult subject.
After all, Hamsun was very good at getting money out of people when he needed it. And it was clear from his correspondence with Laws that Hunger was not a spur of the moment project brought about by his own misfortune. Hamsun calculated his moves and in the summer, autumn and winter of 1888 he knew exactly what he was doing.
‘Language,’ Hamsun wrote in 1886, ‘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. A word can be transformed into a colour, light, a smell. It is the writer's task to use it in such a way that it serves, never fails, can never be ignored. The writer must be able to revel and roll in the abundance of words. He must know not only the direct but also the secret power of a word. There are overtones and undertones to a word, and lateral echoes, too.’
Hamsun was also very clear to everyone he wrote to when he described his state of mind about Hunger. ‘I am applying myself,’ he told Philipsen. ‘And I am so happy working, nobody in the world could be happier.’ He wanted the novel to be published anonymously ’if the publisher does not object’ he told Swedish translator Gustaf af Geijerstam and several other recipients of his letters. You don’t need to be a genius to work out the reason why, yet Kolloen doesn’t bother.
Hamsun told af Geijerstam he had ‘tracked a sensitive human soul whose infinite susceptibility has interested me’ for a book without ‘the usual fictional inventions ... in an attempt to describe the strange and peculiar life of the mind and mysteries of the nerves in a starving body’.
The narrator in Hunger, Hamsun explained, is ‘not a type, he is an individual, made up of absurd bagatelles [and is of] a detached nature, with delicate nerves, singular, sensitive, impressionable’.
Kolloen does not consider this kind of information pertinent, whether Hamsun’s journey is autobiographical, a product of his subconscious soul-searching, or the creation of a mind filled with new ideas about how modern literature should progress during his own literary odyssey. Hamsun’s social analysis of other writers should have alerted Kolloen and steered him cautiously into the depths of the country boy’s mind, but the biographer doesn’t want to go there.
For a book that is the product of twenty thousand items of research it is remarkable how few are referenced, but then the sources are messy anyway. Shuttling from source to source throughout the text is not a criminal offence, but attributing the wrong source to a quote in a volume of this magnitude is unacceptable, as Kolloen does when a quote from a letter to Edvard Brand in Copenhagen is attributed to Yngvar Laws in Minneapolis.
Editor Kolloen does not deserve the title biographer. He is an editorial judge and whoever appointed him judge of Knut Hamsun needs to look in the mirror. ‘We can’t help loving him,’ Kolloen said in 2005, speaking for the Norwegian people, ‘though we have hated him all these years. That’s our Hamsun trauma.’
So is this book. As a literary biography it fails. As a social or political biography it misses the point. As a personal biography it hits the mark, like a bullet to the brain. Readers expecting the Ellmann treatment should approach this book with caution. It does not provide an understanding of Hamsun’s literary genius, why Isaac Bashevis Singer wrote in 1967 that ‘the whole school of fiction in the 20th century stems from Hamsun’ and why Lyngstad, introducing his translation of Hunger in the mid-1990s, placed Hamsun among the proto-modernists of the late 19th century/early 20th century.
Instead the reader might consider the assessment of Hamsun by Lars Frode Larsen, who didn’t need twenty thousand sources. ‘The only tool of any real potential use to someone wishing to fathom Hamsun and his work is an understanding of his relationship with words. To use as a point of departure the theory that Knut Hamsun wrote his books in order to further a particular ideology or to earn his livelihood is to set off on the wrong track.’
Larsen, author of three volumes about Hamsun – The Young Hamsun, The Radical and Outsider to Society, has an understanding of the motivation behind Hamsun’s work that Kolloen lacks or chooses not to develop. ‘His motive was not the great pleasure he could obtain from entertaining his fellow human beings with good stories; not moral indignation and a sense of commitment, not vanity, social ambition, the desire to be feted and famous, either. All these elements may have played their part in determining Hamsun's “choice” of career, they may also have been of varying consequence at different times in his career.
‘None, however, was the most important driving force behind his activity as a writer. Rather than choosing the career of man of letters, Hamsun probably felt that he had been chosen for it. He succumbed to an inner necessity, an imperative, which doomed him to a perpetual labour of writing. If ever in the history of Norwegian literature the use of the word “vocation” is justified, it must be in the case of Hamsun. His creative talent, his very ability to write was, then, of crucial significance to Hamsun; it was his alpha and his omega.’
Editor Kolloen says he set out to ‘find out how Hamsun became the great writer he was’. Sadly, as hard as he tries, Kolloen doesn’t achieve that task, in the end ruining what should have been a ‘great’ biography of a ‘great’ writer, because he lets his own prejudices, not his storytelling urge, get in the way.
Knut Hamsun in English translation
English language biographies:
Enigma – Robert Ferguson, (1987)