Wednesday, March 03, 2004

"Time takes it. Time takes everything and everyone..."

A short biography of a great author, Knut Hamsun.

Brought to you by your friends at the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Knut Hamsun

(1859 - 1952)

Knut Hamsun was born on 4 August 1859 in Garmo, a remote mountain hamlet on the western shore of Lake Vågå. He died at his country estate Nørholm, near Grimstad, during the night of 19 February 1952. A life of 92 years and 6 months, stretching from the age of horse-drawn carriages to that of the atom bomb. A life full of restlessness and complications, yet at the same time a life rich in experiences. And, most important of all, a life in the service of words.

By Lars Frode Larsen

One is tempted to ask whether it is at all possible to find a leitmotiv through this life, something which can bind all the individual events into a meaningful whole. Some commentators have tried to reduce the marathon of Hamsun's life to a mere 100-metre Nazi sprint, thinking that in this way they would be able to forge a key which could be used to unlock the "enigma" Knut Hamsun. It is a rather worthless key: it fits the lock too poorly. 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. 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. Oscar Wilde wrote in a letter that "to the artist, expression is the only mode under which he can conceive life at all". As for Wilde so for Hamsun; writing became a sort of affirmation that he was still alive.

From his early youth, Hamsun was absorbed by the opportunities of expression afforded by words and language, and by their secret lives. In 1888, two years before his breakthrough came with "Hunger" (Sult), he wrote in an article:

"Language 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."

The preacher and writer Kristofer Janson, who had known Hamsun as a young man, wrote of him that he had never met a person with the same "pathological passion for aesthetic beauty" as Hamsun. "He could jump for joy and wallow in delight for a whole day over an original, particularly expressive adjective he had found in a book or made up himself..."

On Knut Hamsun from Odin

I would suggest starting with his classic work Hunger, then Mysteries, then Victoria, then Pan...and on and on.

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