Critical Context

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

Hamsun’s works published before 1890 are of little interest. Beginning with the publication of Sult (1890; Hunger, 1899), however, he became recognized as one of Europe’s foremost innovators in a new genre later to be called the lyrical novel. Rebelling against the prevailing rationalism of his day and against the convention of novels focused on society, Hamsun explored the terrain of the human psyche in all its complexity and inconsistency. With Mysterier (1892; Mysteries, 1927) and Pan, he continued to fashion a series of attractive, somewhat tragic nonconformists. The nihilistic spirit of these works aligns him with the work of Friedrich Nietzsche, the great German philosopher. In fact, Nietzsche’s conception of the contrast between the Apollonian and Dionysian spirits provides a handy orientation for understanding the tensions in Pan.

Hamsun’s poetry and his later novels maintained but did not surpass the high standard of the 1890’s, a period of high achievement which concluded with Victoria (1898; English translation, 1929). The one exception is Markens grode (1917; Growth of the Soil, 1920), for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1920. By the time Hamsun had written this work, his heroes were no longer rootless vagabonds but people wedded to their labors.

Hamsun’s work has been widely praised by Andre Gide, Thomas Mann, and other giants of modern world literature who recognized Hamsun as a towering, iconoclastic genius both in his perception of the human spiritual condition and in his crafting of a flexible, highly evocative style. Pan is the novel in which this genius was fully realized for the first time. Though far less known than these writers in England and the United States, Hamsun stands with them.