Friday, May 08, 2009

Knut Hamsun: Mysteries and the Lecture Tour (1890-1893)

The three lectures he [Knut Hamsun ] had prepared were on Norwegian literature, on psychological literature, and on cult literature; and they were delivered on separate evenings at a cost of two kroner for the series, or one krone per lecture. Published for the first time in 1960, they amount to a wide-ranging development of the points first made in From The Unconscious Life of the Mind. In his opening remarks Hamsun warns his audience that he will be 'as aggressive and destructive as possible this evening, but I will also make an attempt to build something as well'. He asks them not to be too insulted by his demolishing and clearing work, his aim is only to make room for something for which at present there is no place – psychological literature. Throughout the three long lectures, of which the second is the most considerable, he returns again and again to this point. The lectures are fundamentally a plea for tolerance in literature, a warning against the stupefying effects of 'schools' of writing, a warning against the state of cliché into which writers of fiction seem to fall with such relief. His strongest criticism is reserved for the kind of clichéd psychology which he accuses all his contemporaries, older and younger, of practising. No one is praised in these talks - just as in his book on America, praise is not the idea. Not even the previously admired Zola survives the fanatic upsurge of self-conscious certainty that invests these lectures, a sense that Hamsun was speaking from a vision of how literature ought to be. All the heroes of antiquity, ancient and modern, are dismissed, including Shakespeare, Plato and Dante, for Hamsun maintained that the work produced by these authors had passed beyond the state of literature, and become in effect not books, but symbols, and the authors themselves no longer writers, but authorities. As the tour progressed, and word-of-mouth reports of these heresies spread through the Norwegian literary establishment, the adverse reactions began. More outrageous even than the attacks on dead writers were the attacks on the living, particularly Ibsen. According to Hamsun, no other writer had dedicated himself more thoroughly to the creation of 'types', characters with a simple, static psychology, beings who were wholly explicable in terms of Taine's theory of the 'dominant character trait' to be found in each person. He regarded Ibsen as a creator of devices, representing concepts and ideas, and not of real human beings. He also detested Ibsen's self-importance, which he found as ridiculous as his reputation for being 'difficult' and 'enigmatic'.

Ibsen's great contemporaries were also criticized, including Björnson, and all were found wanting; old men standing still, tramping the earth on a well-worn track, repeating themselves over and over again. He rejected completely their insistence that an art should be democratic, and address itself to social problems. He rejected, too, the notion of writers as the moral doctors of their society, and preached the gospel of total individuality, with authors dedicated to the creation of works which - if necessary – would only be comprehensible to a tiny proportion of the population. An author was for him a thoroughly subjective being, a pair of eyes, a heart, someone who created from passion, not a pseudo-rational pseudo-scientist creating characters after the latest scientific theories of human personality. 'I will make my hero laugh, where sensible people think he ought to cry', he proclaimed, 'and why? Because my hero is no character, no "type" who laughs and cries according to the theories of some School, but a complex, modern being.'

This was all, of course, a passionate justification of his own work: if Hunger was 'not a novel', then the concept of the novel must be shattered and re-defined in order to admit Hunger. In a passage which gives the key to Hamsun's subjective and instinct driven work from the 1890S he declared:

I will therefore have 'contradictions' in the inner man considered as quite natural phenomena, and I dream of a literature with characters in which their very lack of consistency is their basic characteristic - not the only, not the dominating characteristic; but central, decisive.

(…) Hamsun's strong views, and the provocative way he expressed them, polarized people: the feminists from the first scented a deadly enemy - and yet over half the audience at Hamsun's lectures were women. His sexual charm was visible and powerful. Arne Garborg, soon to become an enemy, described him as 'a handsome man, dangerous for all women, interesting and striking', and when he wrote to Bolette Larsen in Bergen to ask how many conquests Hamsun had made there, 'God, he conquered them all,' Bolette replied, 'all the women, all of them were at his feet.' Not the least of his charms was openly on display in the lecture hall, a voice of great manly beauty which all who met him, men and women alike, commented on. Yet probably the most striking polarisations were into 'old' and 'young', and 'famous' and 'unknown': with great courage, Hamsun was affronting a whole establishment of old men with big reputations. Even lesser lights, middle-aged local successes like Amalie Skram, Christian Krohg and Hans Jaeger who might have provided useful moral support were cheerfully alienated by remarks to the effect that they were 'not real writers at all'. Those who really loved what Hamsun was doing were in the main powerless unknown writers much younger than himself, like Peter Egge and Arne Dybfest. But those who had been pleased to patronise an interesting, self-educated farm-boy, men like Björnson, the newspaper editor Ola Thommessen, and the Brandes brothers, found their protégé's breathtaking, arrogance and impudence a wholly unacceptable departure from the script, and were already separately planning their reactions.

Hamsun took a break in the summer, and for three months stayed in a hotel in Sarpsborg and worked hard on his new novel. Then he steeled himself in preparation for the climax of the tour in Christiania in October, at the famous Hals Brothers Auditorium, where he spoke on the 7th, 9th and 12th. With considerable cheek he had personally invited Ibsen to attend, and Ibsen, curious, no doubt, to find out what all the fuss was about, came to all three lectures, sitting prominently and magisterially in the first row, in company with Edvard and Nina Grieg. Fridtjof Nansen was there too. The house was full every night; the lectures had become social 'musts', and Hamsun, although visibly nervous, delivered the same implacable mixture of heresy, paradox and passion as he had done so many nights before in the course of the year. But the establishment was ready for him now, and the Christiania press turned on the new hero.


Hamsun's naïve courage had very quickly led him from the beaten tracks, and out into the wilderness. He was not choosing the easy way up. In fact, he could not, because he did not know the easy way. But if the establishment thought that a few thick ears might put him in his place, they had a great deal yet to learn. A young writer friend, Hans Aanrud, met him in Christiania around this time, and was at once struck by Hamsun's combative response. As they walked the streets of the city together late one night Hamsun talked a great deal about his career so far, how influential liberal people had patronized him after Hunger, and had tried to nurse him along, and give him good advice. Now when he had shown that he did not wish to be nursed along, did not wish to take well-meant advice, these same people had turned on him. 'They think they can break me', he told Aanrud, 'But when I am finished with the book I am writing now, they won't be able to get me any lower than on my knees.'

'The book I am writing now' was Mysteries, the second in the quartet of masterpieces Hamsun was to produce in the 1890s. More even than Hunger it is probably the book he had been dreaming of writing all along, the 'autobiography' of which he had spoken so often to friends in America. His son Tore confirms that it is as close to unadulterated self-portraiture as Hamsun ever came in fiction. An unpublished manuscript in Hamsun's hand in the library of the University of Oslo, dated 1894, contains his own description of Mysteries. The objective tone of the writing suggests that it was intended for promotional purposes, perhaps for inclusion in the catalogue of his German publisher Albert Langen:

The hero of Mysteries is a poseur, a pathological phenomenon who is part madman and part genius, pursued through 516 pages, never once out of sight. Every hour of his day is described. Hr Hamsun has both verbally and in writing attacked 'character' psychology ... He presents Nagel therefore as a split and divided person, bursting with contradictions, full of inconsistencies.... There are twenty characters in the book, but nineteen of them are there only to cast light on the poseur Nagel. The plot of Mysteries revolves round Nagel's love for Dagny, the daughter of a priest, a refined and educated flirt who ensnares him through her beauty. Disappointed in his love for this woman, torn apart by a sense that life is meaningless and banal, he goes mad, has visions, and loses all contact with life. He ends by drowning himself in the sea.

On every single page of this thick book Hamsun has tried to amass and compress meaning. But the book cannot be described in précis; it consists of subtleties.


Mysteries is an extraordinary novel. More than any comparable work of the last hundred years, perhaps more even than Joyce's Ulysses, It gives us a sensation of being actually and physically close to another consciousness; close enough to hear it whirring and ticking to register sudden explosions of light within it, and consuming surges of darkness and obscurity. There is a powerful naturalness about the novel, a careering inevitability, tremendous technical and psychological subtlety and withal a sense that the whole thing is in fact a dazzling and half-conscious act of literary Improvisation. Literature has no genuine equivalent to the primitive painter, but in the force with which Hamsun writes in the eerily successful ineptness with which he wields the third person in what is essentially a first-person story, one is reminded sometimes of a great primitive painter like Rousseau, imposing a vision on the world in defiance of all the known laws of technique out of a divine conviction that this is how it is. What upset Hamsun most about the criticism was that his critics made the simple equation Nagel=Hamsun, and accepted the weird foolery and mental games and double bluffs as simply showing-off. The extravagance of his ambition in trying to display consciousness itself as the hero of his novel, and the thrilling nature of the results, went completely over their heads.

Robert Ferguson, Enigma, The Life of Knut Hamsum,
Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, New York, 1987

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