The Norwegian author Knut Hamsun (1859 – 1952) was thoroughly deserving of the Nobel Prize in Literature awarded to him in 1920. A handsome and debonair gentleman, Hamsun was described as the Soul of Norway by the venerable King Haakon XII of Norway.
Hamsun penned more than twenty novels. A prolific poet and writer; philosophy was his life-long driving passion. His stories were turned into motion pictures. An ardent Northern European he believed implicitly that writers should ‘describe the whisper of blood and the pleading of bone marrow.’
Hamsun is considered one of the most influential and innovative literary stylists of the past hundred years. The Norwegian literary giant’s writings influenced the great writers, correspondents and thinkers of the 20th Century.
The great literati, whose writing careers blossomed as a consequence of Hamsun’s intellect and style, include Franz Kafka, Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Mann, Maxim Gorky, Stefan Zweig, Henry Miller, and Hermann Hesse.
Of him Isaac Bashevis Singer described him as ‘the father of the modern school of literature in every aspect.’ He went on to say, ‘the whole modern school of fiction in the twentieth century stems from Hamsun.’ Ernest Hemingway surmised, ‘Hamsun taught me to write.’
Thomas Mann described Hamsun as, ‘a descendant of Fyodor Dostoevsky and Friedrich Nietzsche.’ Arthur Koestler was a great fan of Hamsun’s romantic tales. The great American writer H. G Wells praised the Norwegian writer’s Markens Grøde (1917). It was for this novel that Hamsun was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Charles Bukowski described Hamsun as ‘the greatest writer to have ever lived.’
It is futile to compare any writer with other literary giants but the controversial writer is considered in the same light as England’s Shakespeare or Charles Dickens, America’s Jack London and H. G. Wells, Russia’s Dostoevsky or Maxim Gorky; Germany’s Goethe.
Like many others of a period that polarised politics, Knut Hamsun is the spectre who simply will not go away. Despite his undeniable standing in history his memory stays to haunt Norway. Today’s politically correct Norway with its sensitivities on the topic of miscegenation has no wish to be reminded of their philosopher father’s dire warnings.
To many Hamsun is an irritating dilemma; they despise the man but find it difficult if not impossible to refute his views. The celebrated Norwegian detested British oppression and was a fervent champion of the more unfortunate nations long before the term Third World was dreamed up.
The reason for the ostracism stems primarily from when in 1943 Hamsun sent Reich Minister Joseph Goebbels his cherished Nobel Prize for Literature as a gift. He was later to meet Adolf Hitler.
Throughout the war, he was unwavering in his support for Hitler’s Germany and despite the outcome refused to alter his views. A day after Adolf Hitler’s death, Hamsun wrote: ‘I am not worthy to speak aloud of Adolf Hitler. And his life and work do not invite sentimental words. He was a warrior for mankind and a herald of the gospel of justice for all nations. He was a reformative figure of the highest rank, and it was his historic fate that he had to work in a time of unprecedented baseness, which in the end brought him down.
Thus, I suppose, must the ordinary Western European look upon Adolf Hitler. And we, his closest followers, now bow our heads before his immortal shroud.’ Aftenposten, May. 1945.
In 1945 the then revered old gentleman was 86 years of age. The father of Norwegian writing was by this time almost deaf and had suffered two minor strokes.
The Norwegian government was almost certainly under pressure from the allied perspective to rid itself of the Hamsun legend. Under the circumstances there were few options; these narrowed down to the assassination of the philosopher’s standing and reputation.
Arrested June 14, 1945, he was charged with treason and confined to a psychiatric hospital for many months. Forced to undergo psychiatric examination the results were tediously predictable. He was found to have ‘permanently impaired mental faculties.’
This will be regarded by some as a psychiatrist’s cop-out because taken at their literal meaning the analysis is in fact meaningless in its ambiguity.
The medical report gave the Norwegian authorities with its much needed get out of jail option; or rather Hamsun’s gaol option. He was instead fined the ruinous sum of 325,000 kroner. This begs the question; if a defendant is too mentally impaired to be put on trial is he not too mentally deficient to be subject to a fine. This sum would bankrupt him and deprived him and his family of their family possessions and inheritance.
Of course, there is still heated debate as to his being charged, the guilty verdict and the penalties handed down. Is it is still too early for the rehabilitation of Knut Hamsun
Despite his advanced years he wrote his last book, Paa giengrodde Stier (On Overgrown Paths) in 1949.It deals scathingly about his psychiatrists and the judges leave no doubt as to his fully functional mental faculties.
Opinion is still sharply divided. Danish author Thorkild Hansen believed implicitly that the Norwegian writer’s fate was similar to that of writers persecuted by the Soviets. He wrote the book The Hamsun Trial (1978). Hamsun was a man who didn’t mince his words. ‘If you want to meet idiots,’ he had penned; ‘go to Norway.’ A motion picture called simply Hamsun was based on Hansen’s book.
Knut Hamsun’s works remain as popular as ever in his home country and elsewhere. In 2009 a Norwegian biographer stated: ‘We can’t help loving him, though we have hated him all these years. That is our Hamsun trauma. He is the ghost that won’t stay in his grave.’
The physical form but not the ghost of Knut Hamsun passed away on February 19, 1952, aged 92. His ashes are interred at his home’s gardens in Norholm, Norway.
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