Saturday, November 8, 2014

built in one

I'm going to begin this post with a list of other people who have been writing about Hamsun -- so --

- Séamus at Vapour Trails
- Jean at Howling Frog Books
- Tom at Wuthering Expectations
- Richard at Caravana de recuerdos
- Scott G.F. Bailey at Six Words for a Hat

“A storm of interruptions,” in Wood's description of Hamsun, is also a storm of truncations. What is being truncated? Not the book. A book is never truncated or interrupted. Every mystery is a truncation and the solution at the end is a shot at de-truncation in retrospect. From now on I'm going to have it in my head that Mysteries is called Truncations, or else Interruptus. The seasonal rolling-round chronology described by Hamsun in Growth of the Soil isn't able to be truncated: you can't clip half the winter months out of a year.

Hamsun loves the natural world* but his stories do not behave like nature, like bees or flowers. They behave in an opposite way, and the people in these stories, by virtue of being people, are forced to move around and speak (turning this over in my head after a response to Richard in the comments) -- they are not permitted to be treelike, which, I think, would solve all of their problems, poor muddled lambkins, why not dole out a pat and a hand of grass from the godlike clouds, unless we're enjoying their angst -- see -- for example -- Isak in Growth, that trunkish man, “enormous, with a torso that seems built in one to the knees. A certain pomp and splendour about him; his equator was astounding” (tr. W.W. Worster) -- how elemental he is, and how satisfied, "a worker," and he always acts like one; he is not the narrator in the Wanderer books, who has run away from another life in the city, of some kind.

Is he a philosopher? asks the narrative voice on the first page, is he a criminal? but on the second page the author lets you know that the question doesn't matter. Isak is what he is. He is what he appears to be. “Only a worker, and a hardy one.”

In Mysteries you can spend the whole book asking, "What is this person, who is this man?" but in Growth you are answered and answered: "A tiller of the ground, body and soul; a worker on the land without respite." "Isak could not work a mine, being a farmer and a clearer of forest land." "A broad-shouldered man, well filled out, nothing astral about him at all." He is solid and whole, says the author. Even historically, he is intact. "A ghost risen out of the past to point the future, a man from the earliest days of cultivation, a settler in the wilds, nine hundred years old, and, withal, a man of the day." (Meanwhile the narrator in Hunger is shuddering on the spot. Is he a man of now or then, or only of the moment in which he makes his decisions?)

Hamsun's proactive blocking in fact echoes or mimics the tactics of his own characters. Nagel is still present, but he is the author. You thought I wrote about men who wander? Here is a man who absolutely does not. You thought you knew who I was -- ha --

The book itself, though, comes with the sense of truncation or lacuna; the mining company barges in with its equipment as if it's about to dominate the local naïfs (this set-up has been brewing for a while, with Hamsun dropping hints) but the showdown never happens, the company peters out and wanders off, the farmer keeps going as he must … it's very strange. You think: shouldn't something have happened there?

Nagel and his violin case are figures in a similar trick.

It's people, in Hamsun's books, who are the avatars of truncation. The tremors in Pan begin to spread when Edvarda comes to visit the narrator in his hut at the edge of the forest and afterwards “a breath of something strange met me; it was as though I were no longer alone there.”

From then on people are always popping their heads in. It's like Flinders Street Station in that hut.

* Many examples. Here's one: "I walked through the forest, I was moved to tears of rapture, I kept saying, Dear God, to be here again!" (Under the Autumn Star, tr. Oliver and Gunnvor Stallybrass). Another: "I thank God for every heather flower I have seen; they have been like tiny roses on my path and I weep for love of them" (Pan, tr. James W. McFarlane).


  1. I can see this. Nagel seems to yearn for moments of ecstatic reverie, and try to stretch them, which is doomed to failure. He seems to want to fuse with the natural world. (I am thinking of Dylan Thomas: "The force that through the green fuse drives the flower / Drives my green age")
    I would argue though, that nature too, is full of of truncations, not just the semi-permanence of trees and seasons.

    1. I agree and yet Hamsun doesn't describe it that way; his characters go to nature and drink and drink. Not so much in Mysteries or in Hunger -- it's not a massively relevant point to bring into a discussion of Mysteries unless you want to make something out of the fact that he goes to the trees and the sea when he wants to die -- but in his other books. "I look at a single blade of grass, perhaps it is trembling a little and that seems to me to mean something. I think to myself: that blade of grass stands here trembling. And if it is a fir tree I am looking at, then perhaps it has a branch that also makes me think a little," says the narrator in Pan. And speaking of himself autobigraphically after the Second World War Hamsun says: "When I'm tired of myself and empty and good for nothing, I take to the woods [...] I can see the branches swaying, and that alone is something to be happy about."

  2. It seems that in Mysteries, Hamsun is using nature as a way to show the perversity of man, man being quite separate from it. Nagel has ecstatic experiences alone in nature, but he also uses nature as a place to hide while stalking a woman, he hacks her name into a tree in a fever of sexual frustration, he poisons a dog, etc. There's also the suicide (or maybe murder, I guess) of the spurned lover, his body discovered on a forest path. So it's like Nagel wants to feel some great thrumming of nature through his bones when he's lying in a meadow, but he doesn't; he's just there hiding behind a stone while Miss Kielland walks back to the parsonage.

    1. I've begun thinking of those three early books as a series of steps into nature-sympathy. First you have the city story, Hunger, then you have the town book that pokes itself out into the woods a bit in an ambivalent way, not completely committed, Mysteries; and finally you have the one that takes the narrator away from the urban world into a forest hut. The tempo slows down; the protagonist in Pan isn't calm but he's not as helplessly agitated as the narrator in Hunger.

      In the middle you have Shallow Soil, which is another city novel, but it's not like the others -- it's not part of that trajectory -- he's detouring away to vent spleen at his fellow authors. Everybody ignores it, poor Soil.

  3. I'll try to stay more attuned to the natural world--perhaps I won't be able to help it!--when I take on Hunger. Until then, this discussion has been edifying and I really liked the line "his equator was astounding." Hamsun's all right.

    1. That's possibly my favourite line in Growth. I want to see it used in dating ads. Refined single gentleman, 6ft 3in tall. loves romantic poetry, long walks along the beach, has astounding equator. Please call this number.

  4. These comments are argument enough for these little coordinated reading events. Thanks to all.

    1. Absolutely. I still haven't had time to really look at Scott's post yet, but I'm hoping to say something there once I do.