Some writers write because they decided at some point in their lives that they wanted to be writers; that is, there was a conscious decision to write. Others write because they cannot help themselves; writing is simply part of who they are. Hamsun, apparently, was of the latter party. He thought of himself as a farmer, a tiller of the soil, and his writings, in one way or another, center on characters who are much like himself. They are lonely or simply alone, isolated figures who have their own sometimes tortured vision of what life is and who live consistently within that vision, regardless of whether they suffer from the conditions they create. In this way the characters are like their creator; indeed, many of the characters are explicitly autobiographical.
Hamsun knew deep within himself that life was hard and that people were basically alone in the world, solely responsible for their own well-being. Thus, he worked the soil because it was the basic element of life on earth and because success or failure depended primarily on his own work, his own dedication. Nevertheless, a part of him simply sang, regardless of how hard life became. His first widely known novel, Sult (1890; Hunger, 1899), grew out of his experiences as a starving writer roaming the streets of Oslo. Hamsun condensed and heightened his own experiences, but the hunger the main character feels is remembered, not invented. Similarly, On Overgrown Paths grew out of Hamsun’s difficulty; this autobiographical memoir is as fully an expression of its author’s trouble as the earlier novels were. Hamsun himself seems to be at the mercy of his urge to write, as he clearly indicates:I know that I must not bother anyone with my speculations and recollections and perceptions; I cannot stand it in others. But my head sings with them, or perhaps it is my body or my soul singing thus. It is not the beginning of a cold or something I can cure by putting on more clothes or taking them off; hush, it is something angelic, with many violins. That is it exactly!
One should be extremely cautious about taking any writer’s words completely at face value, but in this case Hamsun has apparently written for exactly the reason he claims: He cannot help himself. In fact, in another sense, Hamsun could not realistically have hoped to help himself by writing On Overgrown Paths. Public outrage over Hamsun’s wartime activities had forced his publisher, Gyldendal, to remove all of his works from print; according to Harald Grieg, the firm’s director, booksellers were simply not ordering Hamsun’s books. Hamsun therefore knew that as a writer he was dead. He had no audience, no source of income from writing, and no time. Approaching ninety, deaf, and in declining health, Hamsun states over and over that he is a walking dead man, that he has no hope of reaching anyone with this, his last book.
This conclusion shows itself most clearly in the way Hamsun deals with his trials, or rather in the way he does not deal with them. This memoir of his imprisonment deals only glancingly with what must have been its central events, the several court proceedings that took place during the three years included in the book. This fact is understandable, since Hamsun’s deafness must have precluded him from making much of the events in the courtroom itself, but he relates far less than he must surely have known. He includes several letters he wrote to prosecutors and a very sketchy account of his own testimony; that is all. He spends a considerable amount of space reminiscing about events from his past: his life in the United States during the 1880’s, life in Helsinki in the late 1890’s. He also devotes much attention to several encounters with one Martin, from Hamary, who wanders the countryside, scratching out his living by praying at religious meetings. As a whole, then, this memoir contains no real justification of Hamsun’s actions; instead, he simply admits that he did what he did and presents himself as he is, implicitly demanding that people judge the man, not his actions.
The man presented in the writing is characteristic of Hamsun’s fictional characters. In one way or another, Hamsun’s protagonists are cut off from the world around them. They may be isolated by poverty, like the protagonist in Hunger, or they may isolate themselves as the fictional Knut Pedersen does when he chooses to wander the countryside rather than settle in one place. As he wanders, he transforms himself from carefree vagabond to prophet, converting his adventure from a lark into an isolation Pedersen imposes on himself because of his special vision. In On Overgrown Paths Hamsun appears in much the same light. Certain circumstances—age, poverty, deafness, infamy—have almost accidentally set him apart from the rest of humanity. Yet Hamsun’s own vision of life is the real separating factor. He is alone because he has always been alone; he is not terribly upset that the world has come to agree with his own self-imposed isolation.
At the same time, Hamsun grieves over the loss of his literary standing, for he sees his writings as separate from their writer; thus, punishing the books seems to him an injustice. The writing has a life of its own, and the writer fears that he will not live long enough to rescue the writing’s reputation from the damage done to it by the writer’s other and, Hamsun would argue, irrelevant activities. Thus, On Overgrown Paths is suffused with a melancholy tone as it traces the physical decline of its author. By the end of the book, Saint John’s day, 1948, Hamsun is deaf and almost blind; he is afflicted with gout and hardened arteries. Still an active walker, he describes a life that he lives increasingly by himself. He is a pitiable figure and a harmless one, one who is easy to forgive. That may ultimately be the main point of the book.
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