Thursday, September 22, 2011

Old books, new insights

The Nobel Prize for literature in 1920 was awarded "to the Norwegian novelist Knut Hamsun for his work, Markens Grøde (1917) [Growth of the Soil]," as Harald Hjärne, Chairman of the Nobel Committee of the Swedish Academy, put it on December 10, 1920. My reading group just met to discuss the novel last weekend. The copy I found in a used bookstore was printed in 1926. Talk about late to the party ...

Speaking of parties, between the time Hamsun took home the 200g gold medal (worth about $12,000 today for the shiny yellow stuff alone) and the time I bought a used copy of his novel for six bucks at Berkeley's Shakespeare & Co. Books, Hamsun took a shine to the Nazis. Matter of fact, he sent his Nobel medal to Joseph Goebbels as a gift. I only found out about Hamsun's Nazi sympathies at our meeting ... I hadn't looked into the author's history before we talked about the book (for a summary and links, see Hamsun's entry on Wikipedia).

His biography on the Nobel Prize website summarizes beliefs that underlie Hamsun's work, and certainly undergirds the novel my reading group just discussed:
Hamsun's work is determined by a deep aversion to civilization and the belief that man's only fulfilment lies with the soil. This primitivism (and its concomitant distrust of all things modern) found its fullest expression in Hamsun's masterpiece Markens Grøde (1917) [Growth of the Soil]. [a]

The novel's distance from anything I might think to write today seemed remarkable to me as I read it, even though my generally pessimistic outlook has some relation to Hamsun's primitivism -- I too think that, give-or-take, modernity and its technologies will be the end of human civilization as we know it.

One remarkable distance from more recent fiction was psychological. Though the author carefully controls and paces the novel's action to sharpen focus and meaning of the slow and subtle development of events, his characters are almost entirely devoid of self-consciousness, let alone introspective insight. Isak, the novel's hero, is "a barge of a man," closer in temperament to his ruminant livestock than to the modern city-dwellers among whom I live, and who populate much of current litscape. His wife, Inger, is similarly insensate ... at least until she spends five years in prison for infanticide, where she is taught to read and to sew as part of her rehabilitation.

Hamsun must and does therefore rely entirely on external observation to paint Isak, Inger, their children, and the neighbors who surround Sellanraa, the homestead Isak has claimed from the Norwegian wild. None of his characters speaks directly of feelings or psychological state. Even the narrator is sparing in his exegesis. Quoting directly, "It was not the way at Sellanraa to show one's feelings overmuch..."

Nothing much happens. No kings are supplanted. Love in mid-19th century Norway is practical, not romantic. Even the novel's infanticides -- there are two of them -- are reported as incidents that tell of circumstances and social dynamics rather than indicate moral state.

Crops grow. Buildings are built. Flocks flourish. Copper is discovered and land is mined, which has no effect more pronounced than disruption of the slow, brute, yet (to the protagonist Isak, and his younger son Silvert) profoundly satisfying work of turning wild land to the service of human need. Toward the middle of the novel Isak acquires a mowing machine, a frightening assemblage, "a heap of teeth and a heap of knives, with joints and arms and screws and wheels." I turned the pages tensed with dread, certain that Isak or his wife or one of his sons would lose a limb or worse to this mechanical helpmeet. Nope. No drama there either: the machinery worked, broke, was fixed again, taking its place and contributing its part to the slow transformation of Isak's landholding.

The miracle here? In my reading it was pretty eye-opening to see that this subtlety and indirection is both compelling and touching. Here, from the Project Gutenberg text of the novel, is a passage in which Inger apologizes to Isak for her adulterous fling with Gustaf, a sweet-voiced Swede who came into the district as a miner, and stayed for a time at Sellanraa after the mining operation is shut down. Isak and Inger are lying together in bed:
"Isak?"

"What is it?" says Isak.

"Are you awake?"

"Ay."

"Nay, 'twas nothing," says Inger. "But I've not been all as I ought."

"What?" says Isak. Ay, so much he said, and rose up on his elbow in turn.

They lay there, and went on talking. Inger is a matchless woman, after all; and with a full heart, "I've not been as I ought towards you," she says, "and I'm that sorry about it."

The simple words move him; this barge of a man is touched, ay, he wants to comfort her, knowing nothing of what is the matter, but only that there is none like her. "Naught to cry about, my dear," says Isak. "There's none of us can be as we ought."

"Nay, 'tis true," she answers gratefully. Oh, Isak had a strong, sound way of taking things; straightened them out, he did, when they turned crooked. "None of us can be as we ought." Ay, he was right.

Does it work in isolation? Having immersed myself in Isak and Inger's world for hundreds of pages by the time I came to this passage I can't be an impartial judge. When I read it the first time through this barge of a novel I nearly wept, for all the passage's understatement.

Sometimes it's worth reading an old novel, in a categorically different style from what one might write today, just to be reminded that there's more than one way to skin a story.

What have you read recently that's out of your usual habit but that knocked your socks off?




[a] From Nobel Lectures, Literature 1901-1967, Editor Horst Frenz, Elsevier Publishing Company, Amsterdam, 1969



Thanks to Nasjonalbiblioteket, the National Library of Norway for the image oF Knut Hamsun in 1895, shared via Flickr.

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