Saturday, November 1, 2014
not a continuous wave but a storm of interruptions
James Wood, discussing Hamsun in the LRB, compares the behaviour of the protagonists of Hunger, Mysteries and Pan to that of “escaped convicts, these heroes erase their tracks as they proceed, and this seems to be hapless rather than willed: they carry no continuous memory of what they have said or done from scene to scene.” The self is “patched together,” Wood writes, quoting Strindberg, but the word he uses is “soul.” “[Hamsun] took from Strindberg the idea that the soul is not a continuous wave but a storm of interruptions.” Where does Woolf's work fall in that continuum, I wonder, but more pressingly I ask myself why Wood should describe the acts of these characters as the behaviour or experience of souls rather than selves, unless he is thinking of Strindberg's title-in-translation, Growth of a Soul (1914).
(Myself, if I tried to imagine a soul, I would describe it as a supernature that does not act, it is not decisive and changeful or impressed: it is, as Gormenghast castle essentially is, regardless of its damaged walls, the snow around it, the sun in summer, or other eventualities.)
“Hamsun’s novels of this period, and in particular Hunger, are deliberate perversions of the Christian system of reward and punishment, confession and absolution, pride and humility,” writes Wood, who was raised in an Evangelical household, like Ruskin; his one work of fiction is called The Book Against God (2003), and he sees religion, souls, souls, but I, thinking about Hamsun some more, I see houses; and the narrator of Hunger (1890) is unhoused, the protagonist of Mysteries (1892) has to pay to house himself for a while in a rented room (where he stays in bed during the day and roams around at night but more on that later); and the one in Pan (1894) has troubles with his housing because it doesn't belong to him; then you have the author's dream-travel memoir (1903), you have Knud Pedersen roaming the Norwegian backwoods in the Wanderer books (1906, 1909, 1912); you have this restlessness.
Homes are likes twigs in a stream: they touch and snag the characters, they do not keep them still; even the miller's son who remains in love throughout Victoria (1898) (which makes him unusually steady for Hamsun since the reader always knows what he wants) -- even he will shift from the country to the city and back again several times as if locations make him itch.
By the time Hamsun writes Growth of the Soil in 1917 (why is the translated title so similar to the Strindberg?) the transcendent spirit that represents all of the main characters in his novels is ready to try a different tack. It goes out on the first page into the wilderness and finds a place for a house. “He nods, to say that he has found himself a place to stay and live: ay, he will stay here and live” (tr. W.W. Worster).
But he is still stubborn and not-sensible -- the sensible citizens only come along after he has shown them that it is possible to live here -- the not-sensible protagonists in the earlier books who will do this or that because a whim has told them which way to go are still in the soil-man who stays in one spot, for if he decides to move a rock now then he will move it, and he doesn't know why he feels compelled to say one thing or another; his memory is scaled to seasons rather than humans; it is instinctive feeling rather than thought, and he has no particular background, like the others -- is he an escaped criminal? wonders the narrative voice on page one -- “or a philosopher, maybe, in search of peace”? -- the author suspecting that the reader expects a character to have a chronological background and likewise chronological thoughts -- but refusing to let them have those things, no, they'll have something else.