Knut Hamsun
Growth of the Soil.
Penguin, 352 pages, $13

Nazi collaborator, Nobel laureate: the Norwegian writer Knut Hamsun was both. Hamsun, born in 1859, died penniless and disgraced in 1952, shortly after he was heavily fined by the state for his activities during the war. His Deutsches Reich sympathies as an elderly man obscured for decades what had once been world-wide literary recognition; to this day his fellow Norwegians revile his name, but new translations of his writing have fueled interest in Hamsun’s texts, some of which have never before been translated into English.

Among his better known works is Hunger, a ground-breaking psychological tale of its first-person, desperately starving narrator. Mysteries and Pan, two other early works from the 1890s, along with Hunger, considerably influenced Kafka’s writings as well of those of other significant modernist writers. They are charming in their poetic language and subversive wit. Foreshadowing the modern psychological novels of the twentieth century, they steer away from depicting the physical conditions and morals of their ne’er-do-well narrators. Instead, they portray what Hamsun called “a bundle of changing emotions, soul, rising and sinking moods.”

Stylistically and thematically, Growth of the Soil represents a major departure from his earlier works. It is the account of Isak, an Adam-like pioneer who appears in the harsh wilderness of Norway to clear the land and eke out his existence: “Man, a human being, the first one who came here. There was no path before him.” His Eve-like female counterpart, Inger, emerges shortly after, welcomed into a bleak Paradise that they build for themselves with optimism and diligence. The two are physically as far from the beauty of the original Adam and Eve as two ogres: Isak is a troll of a man, and Inger’s face and speech are severely marred by a grotesque harelip. Their downfall seems imminent, and yet, when Inger spoils their Eden in predictable fashion—she is imprisoned for killing their third child who is disfigured similarly with a harelip—this misfortune, as all their tribulations do, has its silver lining: she receives an education and surgery that removes her deformity.

The knowledge taught to Inger during her incarceration leads to more mischief and sadness after her release, though this, too, rights itself in the end. Geissler, the manic-depressive former sheriff who brings nothing but good fortune to the Sellanrå clan, sums it up best in what is akin to a Nietzschean declaration: “There you are, living together with heaven and earth, at one with them … in the midst of a great kindliness … it is without measure. You are vital to the earth. You sustain life. What do you get in return? An existence that’s just and strong, an existence based on a true and trusting relationship to everything.”

Growth of the Soil retains Hamsun’s earlier wit and humor, with the marvelous new translation by Sverre Lyngstad capturing the Zarathustra-like exclamations and sweeping tone as well as the essence of the narrator’s sly asides (“after all, being both a builder and his own boss, [Isak] was a real big shot”), although this time humor as bestowed by a kindly over-being watching the saga play out. Isak’s love for his wife, even after her misdeeds, is stern and undemonstrative yet touching in its singularity and earthiness, and remains a constant source of hilarity throughout.

Regardless of Hamsun’s support of the Nazi regime, there can be little doubt about his immense talent. As Brad Leithauser puts it in his excellent introduction, “Hamsun being Hamsun, it’s hardly surprising that even Growth of the Soil, the most earthbound of his novels, glows here and there with touches of the numinous … a sort of mystical vision.” Growth inspires, even as it gently winks at those “human, all too human” qualities of one and all.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 26 Number 2, on page 79
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