Norway, Nazis and a novel

BBC Radio 4 can be a source of surprising finds. Or maybe I just know very little – the more I listen to Radio 4, the more I think that is a reasonable conclusion. I “discovered” Brandi Carlile via some programme that was on as I passed through the kitchen and heard one song that I then had bought a nanosecond later. That happens very rarely. Not only because our broadband is sooooo slow that nothing happens online in a nanosecond, but I also rarely hear a song and fall in love with it immediately. The Story was a happy exception.

And then I had the radio on while I was emptying the dishwasher and there was a book programme on, one which I initially thought had completely escaped my attention until then, although it did later dawn on me that I did already know of its existence. I was tuning in and out (no pun intended but sorry anyway) as I had missed all of the context, who was speaking and what they were speaking about. Apart from that, it all made perfect sense. Then they started talking about a Norwegian author who, later in his life, developed strong Nazi sympathies and became a pariah in his own country as a result. But apparently what he wrote was both groundbreaking and very good (they are not always the same in my experience as a reader). And then the programme was over. And I was intrigued and wanted to find out more.

Knut Hamsun was born in Norway in the mid 1800s and went on to write enough to fill what became 27 volumes of novels, short stories, plays and poems. And he won the Nobel prize in literature in 1920. And I had never even heard of him. In fairness, there are a lot of winners of that prize that I have never heard of.

One of the underrated virtues of writers from that long ago is that their books are now available for nothing (legally, to be clear) because they are long since out of copyright. So while you can still buy a physical copy of their work, you can often also read them on an e-reader thanks to Project Gutenberg. So I did just that and got myself a copy of Hunger, which was the book mentioned on the radio programme, albeit not the one for which he won his Nobel prize.

Hamsun Hunger

As physically attractive as a hardback the free Kindle version is not…

I was more than a little impressed. It didn’t quite read as something which might have been written this year, but it was much more modern than I had expected, much more unpredictable, and generally maddening in the way the central character behaves. And it focuses more on the psychology of the character rather than the sequence of events. This is not one for plot junkies.

The story is of a man who is hungry. He has no money and is trying to make a living as a writer having had a series of jobs over the years (like Hamsun himself). And when he does manage to earn some money, he constantly gives it away in fits of extreme generosity or stupidity. The story is told in the first person and we never even learn the man’s name, we just live inside his head, with all the random, inconsistent thoughts, intentions and motivations that we all have flying around at the same time. He appears to have periods of what feels like madness along the way and he seems never to learn from any of his previous experiences. He lies, he steals, and he considers himself an honourable man. This approach to writing, apparently, was groundbreaking at the time – when you think of Dickens, you can see that they don’t have much in common in their writing style. And I could see why Kafka found inspiration in Hamsun’s writing – nothing is resolved, loose ends are not tied up, there is a sense of growing frustration with this man who behaves bizarrely throughout. And it was probably the most remarkable book I’ve read in quite a while.

But then we have his politics. He was a prominent supporter of the Nazis during their occupation of Norway. He gave his Nobel Prize medal to Joseph Goebbels, met with Hitler (although that didn’t go so well, apparently, and Hitler was angry for three days afterwards), and even shortly after Hitler’s death, wrote a eulogy to him. You can see why many in Norway regarded him as a traitor.

Does this matter in connection with what he wrote? I think my starting point here is that we can distinguish between the personal views of a writer and what they have written, unless what they write is an expression of those views. So Hitler’s Mein Kampf would be an example of a book which reflects his political viewpoint and which has become inseparable from what those views led to, but there is nothing remotely political in Hamsun’s Hunger. So I am happy to be appalled at Hamsun’s views on Nazism but see those as unrelated to his writing as long as the two are not connected. And of course (other) fiction can be a wonderful vehicle for trying to understand historical facts in a different light, but that’s a topic for another day.

We could ask a similar question about actors. We’re going through a spate of the Waltons right now, lots of family, wisdom, hard work, good honest values and so forth. And then you find out about the actors who played these characters… polar opposites doesn’t even cover it in some cases. Does that matter? Again, I think they are unconnected. On screen, the actors are taking on a role. They might do it well or poorly in our opinion, but their personal lives are just that, personal. There are more than enough writers, actors and many other people I doubt I would want to know personally, but whose work I can appreciate and value.

Where I can see this can all get immediately murkier is if you have been affected by what that writer or actor did in their personal life. If you suffered under Nazi occupation, I doubt you would want to give Hamsun much by way of sympathy or understanding even if you did agree with the principle of separating the man from his writing. It’s a lot easier for those of us with decades of distance who can appreciate his work and acknowledge his very public failings at the same time. And I have already got hold of Growth of the Soil, for which he won his Nobel Prize. Maybe I’m going to have a Scandinavian reading period next, Ibsen is another person whose writing I know nothing about, and who was a contemporary of Hamsun. Just without the political baggage. As far as I know. He certainly seems to be more socially acceptable in Norway as I have a lovely sweater from there which commemorates part of the Peer Gynt drama he wrote including a scene about a “buck ride” that seems to involve a reindeer hunt that went awry. As it’s my favourite sweater, I should probably also read the story behind it at some point! I’m hoping it’s a happy end for the reindeer.

Ibsen sweater

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