By Christopher Zoukis
It is summer and the sun is shining. Off to the east rugged mountain peaks serrate against a soft blue sky. A breeze strong enough to be annoying shoves steadily at plants, animals and human beings. On the plus side, though, the air is fresh and tastes of salt and smells of pine.
The tombstone is made of white granite with gray and black flecks in it. Oblong in shape, it stands four feet tall. On the top sits a gray cast iron bust, wearing an armless coat and tie. A handlebar moustache banners under a flaring nose, and the iron head has no hair. I wonder if he went bald, or shaved his head? A photograph of him at age thirty shows a full head of hair, wire rim glasses and a solid, handsome face.
His ashes are in a small wooden box, and the box sits encased within the cast iron bust. The box is decorated with mythological beasts, one being a unicorn.
Nearby sits his manor house, which, when he first bought it, was near to falling down from neglect. He had it restored and redecorated.
From good breeding stock, he remained healthy until his death at age ninety-two. They say, though, that he had “permanently impaired mental capabilities” in his last years. But it was pure speculation. No, it was more than that – it was judgment palmed off as fact. It was what they wished were true. And they hoped that by saying it, it would come true. For they were embarrassed by him, even scandalized by him.
And in the end, despite his magnificent health, they hounded him to death.
The location is Nordhom, near Grimstad, in Norway. They buried him on his property, engraved his name in the granite: Knut Hamsun. His real name was Knud Pedersen. Knut Hamsun was his nom de plume, the name he chose to put on the books he wrote.
Born in Lom, Dudbrandsdal, Norway, for most of his youth, he lived with his family in Hamaroy in Nordland. Impoverished described the family’s circumstances. At age seventeen he was apprenticed to a ropemaker, a hard, dismal job. To reduce the gloom, to find some sense of self-worth and self-expression, he began to write.
Somehow, through luck, grit and sheer boredom, he ended up in America, working at menial jobs, traveling from job to job as he crossed the country. He recorded his impressions in a journal, later publishing them as The Intellectual Life of Modern America, his first book. Ultra-conservative by nature, Hamsun disliked American democracy, believing that most people couldn’t handle such freedom. This kind of freedom led to moral and spiritual decay like that of the last days of Rome. Hamsun believed in a very strong and aggressive central government, almost a police state.
Hamsun’s next book was a novel, Hunger. Published in 1890, it was the story of a wandering writer’s spiral into the anteroom of insanity because of physical hunger and poverty. Like the works of Kafka and Joyce, its style was largely stream-of-consciousness aided and abetted by weird philosophical pronouncements.
Hunger sold well and gained Hamsun fame and removed him from the clutches of poverty.
Continuing to write, Hamsun produced his novels Mysteries, Pan, Under the Autumn Star, The Last Joy, Vagabonds and many others. In all, he wrote forty novels, six plays, a book of poetry and his memoir.
1917 saw the publication of his novel The Growth of the Soil, in which he exposed his personal dissatisfaction with the innate corruption of modern society, and urged the return of mankind to a more natural, traditional way of life. This was in keeping with the general moral and political upheavals of his time. In effect, then, Hamsun was nothing more than a product of the surging energies of his environment.
The Growth of the Soil was selected for the 1920 Nobel Prize for Literature. This crystallized and increased Hamsun’s fame as a major literary figure.