Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 869
At the end of World War II, Knut Hamsun, then eighty-six years old, presented a sensitive problem for the Norwegian government. During the war, Hamsun had supported the Nazis. He had believed that Adolf Hitler and the Germans, as neighbors and members of Germanic peoples, would best protect Norway’s integrity and neutrality. A determined isolationist, Hamsun did not trust—indeed, had never liked—the British, and he had regarded an English incursion in support of the Norwegian underground as an example of British imperialism. Nevertheless, he had thought that Norway would have to rely on some other power, and he chose to support Germany as a kind of champion against England. If Germany defeated England, Hamsun had believed, then a great threat against his homeland would be removed. Hamsun therefore had chastised the king and his cabinet for leaving Norway and for mobilizing Norway’s armed forces against Germany. He went on to appeal to Norwegians fighting for the Allies, even as late as 1944, to desert the anti-Nazi cause and return to Norway.
The Germans and the Norwegian Nazi Party took full advantage of the prestige that Hamsun’s name lent to their cause in Scandinavia. Hamsun was at that time the grand old man of Scandinavian letters, a 1920 Nobel laureate whose literary career had begun in 1877. Before the war, this reclusive writer, who regarded himself as a farmer, a worker of the soil, had been a kind of national treasure; in the postwar furor against Nazi collaborators, however, his actions in support of Hitler could not be overlooked. Too many people had read his articles or listened to his radio addresses and too many people resented his acceptance of an award from Hitler’s own hand. Thus, Hamsun was caught up in a wave of reaction against Nazi collaborators such as Vidkun Quisling, the notorious founder of the Norwegian Nazi Party, and against Nazi atrocities in Norway and elsewhere.
Yet even Hamsun’s support of Hitler and Quisling could not erase his literary reputation. Though his publisher dared not publish his books, Hamsun himself was still regarded as a somewhat tarnished treasure and officials did not wish to treat this venerable man as harshly as they had other sympathizers. Instead, they arrested him, confined him first in a home for the elderly and then in a mental hospital, pronounced him to have “permanently impaired faculties,” and finally fined him heavily and released him, a virtual pauper. On Overgrown Paths chronicles these three years of confinement. The book restored Hamsun’s popularity among Europeans, and Gyldendal, his publisher, was able shortly thereafter to rerelease his other works. Before his death in 1952, Hamsun saw his standing as an author largely restored.
For all of its importance to Hamsun’s reputation, On Overgrown Paths is a difficult book to classify. Insofar as it contains an account of three important years in its author’s life, it is an autobiography, though it is limited to those three years. Insofar as it gives some account of Hamsun’s position with regard to his collaboration, it is an apologia, though it contains no apology for and little in the way of an explanation or justification of his pro-Nazi actions. Insofar as it follows the musings of an old man’s mind on a variety of subjects, it is a meditation. Yet the book is somehow all these things at once and none of them. Its primary attraction is hardly the biographical information it gives about its author, nor does Hamsun give any kind of satisfactory account of his wartime activities. In his seemingly random musings on a variety of subjects, however, Hamsun manages to convey the essential qualities that pervade his fiction, the qualities that are also his own primary character traits. The book therefore acts implicitly as an apologia, for in understanding Hamsun’s character, readers were apparently able to accept, if not forgive, his actions.
The formlessness of the book allowed Hamsun to foster these multiple intentions. The book’s narrative comprises 176 pages not divided into chapters. Shifts in thought are signaled by white space and an asterisk, which may occur as often as once per page or not for pages at a time. Hamsun’s thought follows his gaze; he may remark on the condition of his galoshes or muse repeatedly about who might have left a copy of a book for him to read or who might own a clasp knife he has found in his quarters. Sometimes his musings reach back decades to his youthful adventures in the United States; sometimes he relates the day-to-day events of his confinement. Many of the encounters Hamsun describes are unpleasant, for people know who he is and of what he is accused, and he is, after all, confined, even though his imprisonment is little more than a house arrest. Yet many other encounters are pleasant, for even though he is in trouble, many people he meets remain grateful for his books, despite the trouble surrounding their author. Thus, while the book belongs to the genre of autobiography, its organization is meditative. Thus, Hamsun involves the reader in his thought processes, a strategy which forces a close identification between writer and reader.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 52
Ferguson, Robert. Enigma: The Life of Knut Hamsun, 1987.
Jacobs, Barry. Review in The New York Times Book Review. LXXII (July 16, 1967), p. 5.
Lowenthal, Leo. “Knut Hamsun,” in Literature and the Image of Man, 1957.
Naess, Harald. Knut Hamsun, 1984.
Updike, John. “My Mind Was Without a Shadow,” in The New Yorker. XLIII (December 2, 1967), pp. 223-232.