Monday, April 30, 2012

Hamsun, Hitler, Marie and the war

We shall live together in peaceful intercourse with all peoples working together with them, exchanging goods, art and intellectual ideas.  We shall create a society in mutual development with others, enter a world, a system based on helping - in short, national socialism. (Hamsun)

All lands, all peoples in the world would be welcome in this new epoch - even the Russians, even the English, even the Americans. 'This', he  [Hamsun] wrote, 'is more or less how I understand it.' In conclusion he claimed that  'so much has been written by so many about our future - but above all, it is Hitler who has spoken to my heart. Confronted with this, it is as well to recall the remark made in the earlier  'A Pauline Word’, about the abusive letters he has been receiving  - 'I have not read them, but just seen what they are about.' He had not read Hitler either.            

As the war continued, and became a fact of daily life, its fascination wore off for Hamsun. The rather sensational nature of his war gives it, in a sense, an unwarranted prominence in relating the story of his life during these years. On 30 April he wrote a letter to Fritt Folk firmly asking them to stop applying to him for contributions. Death, and his marriage, occupied his thoughts more. In February 1940, ten weeks before the German invasion, he  had written in a letter to Harald  Grieg that soon he would be very old indeed, and that he would not mind too much if he could leave all of life's troubles behind  him. 'I have had a good disposition', he wrote,  ‘but now I feel it is beginning to crack’.

Part of the problem was Marie. At home he had been feeling old and unwanted for some time.  Now over eighty years of age, the twenty-two year gap between him and his wife was never greater. With each passing month he grew deafer and wearier and sadder while she, in her late fifties, was still an attractive woman who looked fifteen years younger than her real age. Undoubtedly the war came to her as a kind of liberation after a lifetime of being wife to the artist and mother to the dictatorial child in Hamsun, as well as mother to their own four actual children. As Hamsun did not finally stop writing books until he was seventy-seven, Marie was also never entirely free from the responsibility of the day-to-day running of Nørholm. A bitterness had welled up in her over the years and the long involvement with psychoanalysis did not help their relationship. As she wrote bitterly not long afterwards, Hamsun's books were his only real love and it was this bitterness which made her receptive to the strange mixture of idealistic dreams and over-realism of the Fascist philosophies that proliferated in Europe in the 1930s. Hamsun's own view of life had ended in a similar mixture.  But Marie could not, and did not follow the line that Hamsun took all his life, of burning for a cause while contriving to avoid complete commitment to it. He acted like a member of NS. He wrote trumpet-blasting newspaper articles at its behest. He was everywhere believed to be a member of the party, but as regards membership card and subscription, attending meetings and registering votes, he had never joined. Marie joined, though. She was the local organiser at Eide, and threw herself into the social and political side of party political life with a desperate abandon. She used this involvement as a tool to break open the hermetic seal that Hamsun had set around their lives.

Now it was her turn to travel extensively. For four winters in succession, between 1939 and 1943, she was abroad on personal appearance tours of Germany, Denmark, and Austria.   She brought greetings from Knut Hamsun and Norway  to large audiences, sometimes of soldiers, sometimes of women and the elderly    She read from Hamsun's books and from her own children's books, and on her return to Norway gave interviews to newspapers in which she described her triumphal progress. The same papers now printed long and glowing birthday tributes to her, though they were always careful to mention her husband somewhere or other 'Like her husband, Fru Marie Hamsun is of incalculable value for the NS movement in Grimstad. She is one of the leading lights there in the struggle for the new Norway’ Aftenposten's correspondent wrote on the occasion of her sixtieth birthday.

It was her war, and she worked hard to keep Hamsun out of it. Deafness made it impossible for him to hear the radio, so that he was dependent for his information on the newspapers, and on what Marie would tell him of what she heard on the radio. The strain of coping with his interest wearied her, and she seems to have kept him willfully underinformed. Once Sigrid Stray, travelling with the couple on the coastal boat to Oslo, overheard a conversation between them. Marie replied to something Hamsun said by telling him that things were going badly for the Germans in Africa. 'But they have Rommel there', protested Hamsun. It was long after Rommel had withdrawn from North Africa, but Marie did not enlighten him.

Her respect for Hamsun was gone. She had broken the tremendous power that he had, from the beginning of their marriage, worked so hard to exercise over her with his personality. Hamsun realized what had happened, and it broke down some of the pride in him, too. He could even reveal himself to a stranger like Gustav Smedal when he wrote  'My wife has gone abroad. As for her, I understand her when she doesn't yell.' The contact between them was so bad that he did not even know whether she had actually left the country yet, or was still living in the Søstrene Larsens Hotel in Oslo. The family as a whole also tended to ignore him and exclude him from things. Back in 1940 Tore had even written a book on him for the German market which he knew nothing about.

Robert Fergusom, Enigma, The Life of Knut Hamsun, Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, New York, 1987

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