Tuesday 18 September 2012

“Hamsun Was a Nutcase”: Why It’s Not Always Necessary to Agree With Someone’s Politics to Enjoy Their Work

Hamsun on the cover of "Hunger" ("Sult")
Most modern Norwegians have an uneasy relationship with Knut Hamsun, a man who should’ve been one of the nation’s cultural darlings.

For many years, Hamsun – an author often cited as the originator of the modernist movement and an undeniably brilliant and innovative writer – was shunned as a Nazi sympathiser and his work largely ignored by a country still scarred by the effects of German occupation during the Second World War.

Now attitudes are changing. Hamsun’s work is gradually creeping back into the classrooms and libraries of Norway and is slowly but surely becoming a more acceptable subject for discussion or even appreciation.

But does this softening of attitudes represent a natural and sensible view of the work of a man now consigned to the annals of history? Or does it symbolise an apathetic response to the sorts of far-right views and extremist politcal values that Anders Breivik has brought back onto the national agenda?

History does not record Hamsun as a particularly good person. Attempts to play down the Nazi ravings that characterised Hamsun’s later life as the baseless ramblings of someone deep in the grips of mental illness are discredited by his description of the USA as “a mulatto studfarm” as early as 1889, when the author was only 30 years old and in the first flushes of his creative brilliance.

Hamsun’s view of himself as a member of an intellectual elite led him to despise the egalitarian politics of the left and instead embrace the cause of the fascists during World War I. He became a member of the notorious Nasjonal Samling party that would later seize power in Norway during World War II and even wrote a passionate eulogy for Hitler after his death in 1945, only escaping execution for treason after the war by being declared psychologically unsound.

So no, Hamsun was no angel. In fact, the man was downright abhorrent. But does this render works like “Hunger” (published in 1890) worthy of deletion from literary history?

“Hunger” is an exceptional piece of work. Following a struggling journalist as he traipses around Oslo in search of food, work and self-respect, this short, searing and devastatingly visceral novel represented a step away from the realist traditions of the 19th century and laid the groundwork for what would become the modernist movement.

Hamsun’s literary manifesto is clear: writers should only concern themselves with a character’s own, inherently flawed perception of the world around them; presenting that world in terms of cold hard fact is boring and disingenuous. Without Hamsun, it’s debateable whether the work of Joyce, Woolf, Faulkner or any of the other totemic writers of the first half of the twentieth century could have developed in the way it did.

Hunger remains a stunning portrayal of the strange experiences and bizarre rationale of a man on the edge. Think “Post Office” transposed to Scandinavia in late Victorian times on you’re on the right track. Whether or not you agree with the class politics or racial prejudices of its author – none of which are touched on in the novel – Hunger remains a fascinating book.

As human beings, we should trust ourselves enough not to be so swayed by the argument of another that we lose touch with our own principles and convictions. We should be able to expose ourselves to views we do not agree with, without fear of succumbing to some sort ideological radiation poisoning.

When we specifically select our reading material based upon what we think our principles are, we are in serious danger of prejudicing ourselves and reinforcing the rigidity of our thought processes. Strong convictions will stand up to any test; reading Knut Hamsun will not turn you into a fascist. Unless you are one already, of course.

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