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Art and Ugliness

The story of the abusive, alcoholic writer is a familiar one, and we generally make allowances for such a figure. He may have been a bum, but he wrote like an angel. We can forgive a great deal if the work is good enough. But what happens if a writer is something worse than a bum? How does a work of literary art stand in relation to its author if its author is truly abhorrent?

Few writers represent as vivid an illustration of this problem as Knut Hamsun, a tailor’s son from Norway who was once considered one of the greatest novelists in the world. His books sold in great numbers in the 1920s and 1930s, he was awarded a Nobel Prize, he was fiercely admired by other writers, and he was also an unflinching supporter of the Third Reich. His support was so vocal that he was convicted of treason after the war. Since then, Hamsun’s massive literary output has existed in quarantine. We read Hunger if we read anything, and we read it with circumspection. We certainly do not include his name in the roll call of great modernist writers (many of whom, needless to say, had despicable political beliefs of their own). But Hamsun remains a big problem for anyone who cares about the history of the European novel. He can be said to have invented a new kind of writing—a “psychological” novel that prefers chaos and disorder to introspection and intention. In many ways it is hard to imagine literary modernism without him.

So how do we reconcile the villain with the artist? We try, in the first place, to get our facts straight. This is what Ingar Sletten Kolloen has done in his new biography of Hamsun, which is an impressive work of scholarship that manages to address, unobtrusively and responsibly, all the important questions: How bad was Hamsun? Was he always bad? Is there a way to forgive him and salvage some of his writing?

In the beginning, Hamsun’s behavior was more outlandish than appalling. One night, when Hamsun was a young man living in the American Midwest, his roommate returned home to find him asleep. The lamp was still lit, and on the table there was a cigar, a knife, and a note that read: “Smoke the cigar and stick the knife into my heart. Do it quickly, decisively and as a friend, if you value my affection… P.S. This note will be your defense in court.” Hamsun had painted an angel of death on the ceiling.

He would set his landlord’s curtains on fire and bash a ceramic stove to pieces with his bare hands. When his father died, he refused to go to the funeral and instead composed a speech in which he argued that the fourth commandment was “outdated” and that parents should honor their children instead. He invited Ibsen to a lecture he was to give in Oslo, and the subject of that lecture turned out to be Ibsen’s failures as an artist. Hamsun’s principal grievance was that Ibsen was old, that his plays were “scraped together with quivering hands.”

It is true that Hamsun’s early life was unpleasant, but not everyone who has a difficult childhood behaves as badly as he did later in life. At times he appears cartoonish in his vast wrongdoing. The story of his first marriage, to Bergljot Bech Göpfert, is a typical example. Hamsun had persuaded Bergljot to leave the man she had been living with for years and with whom she had a daughter, but then he decided that he wanted nothing more to do with her. At the same time, however, the police were investigating a woman who had been writing defamatory letters to Hamsun’s acquaintances. These letters cautioned women against believing too deeply in Hamsun’s professions of love. Since it would not do to prove the letter-writer correct, he decided to marry Bergljot.

A marriage begun in this spirit is not likely to be a happy one, but it seems that Hamsun did his best to make things even worse than they might have been. He stole all his wife’s money and gambled it away in Belgium. He was willing to admit that “I am not the most temperate person,” but later he blamed all of this on God: “He made me who I am, and bears the responsibility.”

If these anecdotes have an uncomfortable and dissolute charm, it dissolves quickly before the truly awful spectacle of Hamsun’s nastiness. He treated his second wife, Marie, even worse than he treated Bergljot. At one point he suggested that he would like to throw nitric acid in her face to disfigure her and prevent other men from looking at her. It should not be hard to form a judgment of this man’s character, but that judgment is complicated by the fact that he wrote extraordinary books that were admired the world over. He broke new ground with Hunger and Mysteries. He became Norway’s national bard. The Nobel committee thought his epic novel, The Growth of the Soil, was worthy of the prize in literature.

And yet, in light of what followed, the alibi of genius isn’t enough. Hamsun had been pro-German during World War One, and he became increasingly fanatical in his support as Germany struggled to rebuild. He wrote letters and articles on this subject throughout the 1920s and 1930s. He was overjoyed when the Nazis invaded Norway. He believed in the Thousand Year Reich, and he longed to see England destroyed. He urged Norwegian resistance fighters to lay down their arms; he gave his Nobel medal to Joseph Goebbels; he said many times, in many ways, that Hitler spoke to his heart.

After the war, Hamsun’s publisher told him, “In a battle of life and death we stood on opposite sides—and still do. There are few people I have admired as much as you, and few I have been as fond of. None has disappointed me more profoundly.” The Norwegian government understood very well that to brand Hamsun a traitor—a charge punishable by death, although that sentence was withheld in consideration of his age and stature—would be to repudiate the writing that remained central to the country’s identity. Since they could not avoid a trial, the prosecution attempted to establish that he was incompetent or insane when he made his most damning remarks.

That is how admirers of Hamsun’s work have explained the situation ever since. Writers argue that his conduct in wartime was exceptional—the behavior of a senile old man, an insane man, a man deaf to reality. Some have tried to argue that Hamsun’s support of the Nazis should be considered less offensive because it was motivated not by anti-Semitism, but by a hatred of the British. Kolloen’s great accomplishment in his new biography is to show not only that Hamsun’s behavior during the war was consistent with his character, but also that accusations of mental frailty were unfounded. He includes transcripts of the preliminary hearings, which speak for themselves. Hamsun’s lucidity would be remarkable in a man of any age, and it is no less than miraculous in a man of eighty-six. Maybe it was Hamsun’s misfortune that history gave him the opportunity to show the world what he was, but that is what he was.

What this means for our experience of his writing is not easy to say. Hunger and Mysteries are wonderful books, but they are not representative of his work as a whole. Hunger is the story of a destitute and starving young writer who wanders the streets of Oslo chewing on rocks and submitting to every impulse but the impulse to do hack-work in order to support himself. Mysteries is about a dangerous, nihilistic stranger who appears one summer in a Norwegian fishing village. Both books are concerned almost entirely with the instability of their principal characters. It is worth considering why these, and not his later novels—monumental bestsellers at the time—are appealing to contemporary readers. The problem is this: as Hamsun got older, he abandoned the close confessional mode and wrote with greater and greater fervor about the evil of the modern world, the beauty of rural life, the cleansing power of violence, the glory of youth, and the primacy of the will. And all this, of course, was also the Nazi agenda. Some writers at the time tried to argue that there was no significant political content in Hamsun’s writing, or even that a close reading of his work revealed a mind at variance with the politics he professed, but others saw the problem clearly. Alf Larsen wrote that “Hamsun [was] Nazism before it arrived.”

Hunger and Mysteries are stories about ambivalence, or rather they are stories that dramatize ambivalence. It was Hamsun’s feeling that the human psyche is a shifting, fragmented, and contradictory thing. When asked to describe his own character traits to the doctor charged with determining whether he was competent to stand trial, he replied that “I do not think that in all my work, from the moment I began, I have created a single person with such a straightforward governing attribute. They are all without so-called ‘character,’ they are split and fragmented, neither good nor bad, but both things, nuanced, changeable in mind and action. As undoubtedly I am myself.” This is the man he was, from the very beginning until the very end.

Hunger and Mysteries do not seem infected by fascist ideas, but they are the work of a man who became a fascist. Whether or not this makes them fundamentally unpalatable is a question all readers must answer for themselves. It is a question of personal comfort rather than intellectual principle, but no one who admires Hamsun’s work is likely to feel comfortable after reading this biography.

Aaron Thier is a freelance writer.