Other literary forms

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

ph_0111200552-Hamsun.jpg Knut Hamsun. Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Although he always considered the novel his strongest genre, Knut Hamsun (HAHM-suhn) also wrote plays, poetry, and expository prose. Fra det moderne Amerikas aandsliv (1889; The Cultural Life of Modern America, 1969) is an impudent but witty survey of social and cultural conditions in the United States; Hamsun later repudiated it and would not allow it to be reprinted. Some of the poems in Det vilde kor (1904; the wild chorus) are among the best written in Norway during the period. Hamsun was a rather weak dramatist, although his trilogy comprising Vid rigets port (pb. 1895; at the gate of the kingdom), Livets spil (pb. 1896; the game of life), and Aftenrøde (pb. 1898; the red of evening) is interesting as a drama of ideas. His memoir På gjengrodde stier (1949; On Overgrown Paths, 1967), written when he was nearly ninety years old, is one of his finest books.


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

During his long career as a writer, Knut Hamsun was well known and highly regarded not only in his native Norway but also in the rest of Scandinavia, continental Europe, and the English-speaking world. He was one of the first to introduce the modern psychological novel into Scandinavian literature; his Hunger is a classic example of the genre. Later, he created works in which analysis of the development of society played an equally important role; one of them, a celebration of agrarian values titled Growth of the Soil, earned for him the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1920.

Because he was accused of collaborating with the Germans during World War II, Hamsun suffered a period of neglect in the postwar years. This is no longer the case; both Norwegian and foreign critics now consider him his country’s greatest novelist. He appeals both to a general audience and to academic critics; a number of his novels have been reissued in new English translations, and his works are frequently taught in literature courses in both Scandinavia and the United States.

Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

To what extent and in what manner is hypersensitivity used as a motif in Hunger and Pan?

Why has Knut Hamsun given many of his protagonists, such as those in Hunger, Pan, and Growth of the Soil, outsider status?

Why is the protagonist in Hunger depicted as having a very dysfunctional relationship with food?

What is the role of art in the life of the protagonist of Hunger?

Why has Glahn, the protagonist in Pan, come to Sirilund to spend the summer?

What is the relationship between love and power in Pan?

How do the farm and the copper mine in Growth of the Soil represent different attitudes toward life?

Why is Isak, the protagonist in Growth of the Soil, depicted as a heroic person?


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Brown, Berit I., ed. Nordic Experiences: Exploration of Scandinavian Cultures. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1997. See essay 21, “The Ocean of Consciousness Novel I: Hunger by Knut Hamsun—Progenitor of Modernism.” Also see essay 22, “Knut Hamsun in His Letters.”

Buttry, Dolores. “Knut Hamsun and the Rousseaunian Soul.” Scandinavica 19 (1980): 121-138. Useful as a different approach, emphasizing the Romantic as well as the realistic elements in Hamsun’s fiction.

Ferguson, Robert. Enigma: The Life of Knut Hamsun. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1987. An excellent, unflinching look at the ambiguities and complexities of Hamsun’s life. This illustrated biography falls into three parts: Hamsun’s picaresque early life, the middle period with its back-to-the-earth emphasis, and the later years of Hamsun’s involvement with Hitler. Includes a bibliography (only a handful of the entries are in English) and a chronological list of Hamsun’s works.

Gustafson, Alrik. “Man and the Soil: Knut Hamsun.” In Six Scandinavian Novelists. Minneapolis: The American-Scandinavian Foundation, 1940. An admiring and sentimental look at Hamsun’s life before World War II, with a generous look at the early years and a novel-by-novel account of Hamsun’s greatest works.

Hamsun, Knut. Overgrown Paths. Translated by Carl Anderson. New York: Paul S. Eriksson, 1967. A memoir writen between 1945 and 1948, while Hamsun was interned on suspicion of aiding the Nazis. As he awaits his trial, Hamsun reflects on his life, his politics, his books, and his importance as a writer.

Hamsun, Knut. Selected Letters. 2 vols. Chester Springs, Pa.: Dufour Editions, 1990-1998. These selections from Hamsun’s correspondence are translated from Norwegian into English. Includes bibliography and index.

Humpál, Martin. The Roots of Modernist Narrative: Knut Hamsun’s Novels “Hunger,” “Mysteries,” and “Pan.” Oslo: Solum forlag, 1998. Critical study points out the modernist elements in Hamsun’s novels.

Mazor, Yair. The Triple Cord, Agnon, Hamsun, Strindberg: Where Scandinavian and Hebrew Literature Meet. Tel Aviv, Israel: Papyrus, 1987. Six chapters exploring Hamsun’s influence on Hebrew literature, with extensive notes but no bibliography. This work is more wide-ranging than its title suggests. It draws on the best scholarship in both literatures, exploring the fundamental problems of representation in literature and the development of modern fiction.

Næss, Harald S. Knut Hamsun. Boston: Twayne, 1984. A good introductory study, with chapters on Hamsun’s life and on all of his major novels. Includes chronology, notes, and bibliography.