Thursday, August 04, 2005

Who said it had to mean cattle show?

Today is Norwegian author Knut Hamsun's birthday. If he were to rise from his grave to blow out his candles, he would be 146 years old and a bit out of breath.

Hamsun is problematic (perhaps that's an understatement) because of his admiration for Hitler and Germany; he was a Quisling during WWII, and was put in a psychiatric hospital for evaluation after the war. But his novels are strange and often brilliant. In Hunger (originally published as Sult in the Norwegian), he chronicles the thought-processes of a starving writer on the streets of Christiania (as Oslo was then called). Three times the narrative is broken when the protagonist manages to scrape up some food, either by selling his writing or pawning his belongings or through the kindness of others. But Hamsun only shows us what happens when his alter-ego (for Hamsun himself spent some time living penniless on the streets) is starving, as if by doing so he were making a sort of vision quest, an expedition into the unknown. A shamanic experience, perhaps; at one point, unable to sleep in the rented room he is about to lose, he "discovers" a new word (from the translation by Robert Bly):

I got back in bed to try to sleep, but actually I started again to fight against the darkness. The rain outdoors had stopped and I could not hear a sound. For a long time I lay listening for footsteps on the street, and listened hard until I had heard one passer-by, a policeman, to judge by the sound. All at once I snapped my fingers a couple of times and laughed. Hellfire and damnation! I suddenly imagined I had discovered a new word! I sat up in bed, and said: It is not in the language, I have discovered it--Kuboaa. It has letters just like a real word, by sweet Jesus, man, you have discovered a word! . . . Kuboaa . . . of tremendous linguistic significance.

The word stood out clearly in front of me in the dark.

I sat with wide eyes astonished at my discovery, laughing with joy. Then I fell to whispering: they could very well be spying on me, and I must act so as to keep my invention secret. I had arrived at the joyful insanity hunger was: I was empty and free of pain, and my thoughts no longer had any check. I debated everything silently with myself. My thoughts took amazing leaps as I tried to establish the meaning of my new word. It needn't mean either God or the Tivoli Gardens, and who had said it had to mean cattle show? I clenched my fists hard and repeated again: Who said it had to mean cattle show? When I thought it over, it was in fact not even necessary that it mean padlock or sunrise. In a word like that it was very easy to find meaning. I would just wait and see.

There's more, and it's deliciously mad and disturbing. Hamsun was one of the first Modernists; Isaac Bashevis Singer said that "the whole modern school of fiction in the twentieth century stems from Hamsun . . . They were all Hamsun's disciples: Thomas Mann and Arthur Schnitzler . . . and even such American writers as Fitzgerald and Hemingway."

Not all of Hamsun has been translated, but Pan and Mysteries are both must-reads. The former is Hamsun's explosion of the Romantic view, while the latter is almost a novel of manners; both have socially retarded (almost infantile, in fact) protagonists who struggle with societal expectations and rebel against them almost in spite of themselves. But these are not Naturalistic stories of great social changes wrought by individuals, and Glahn and Nagel's actions leave no mark. Hamsun's view of the world, at least in his literature, is not so hopeful as that.


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