In Norway, a publicly financed commemoration of Nobel Prize Winner in literature, Knut Hamsun’s 150th birthday is taking place during 2009. Last week Queen Sonja opened the yearlong festivities, called Hamsun 2009. As part of the opening, the queen spent a highly symbolic half-hour with Hamsun family members at the National Library.
Knut Hamsun was a brilliant author who strongly influenced world literature, and whose writing is probably more loved than that of Henrik Ibsen in Norway. However, he was also – and to some extent still is – strongly hated by some and detested by many others because of his collaboration with the Germans and support of Nazism during World War II. As New York Times writes:
Norwegian novelist Knut Hamsun, who welcomed the brutal German occupation of Norway during World War II and gave his Nobel Prize in Literature as a gift to the Nazi propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels. Hamsun later flew to meet Hitler at Hitler’s mountain lair in Bavaria.
Why the festivities, then? Call it reconciliation therapy, or a national airing out.
And Norwegians can not continue to hate him, at least not to only hate him. After all, he was the creator of beautiful, revered novels like Hunger, Mysteries, Pan,Victoria, August, and Growth of the Soil. Even so, the sales of Knut Hamsun’s books dropped off sharply after the war and remained low for a long time. During the last decades they have increased again, both in Norway and internationally.
Hunger was the novel that first placed Hamsun on the literary map. As NYT writes:
With typical bombast the young Hamsun declared at the time that he had outwritten Dostoyevsky and annihilated the social realism of Ibsen.
The author Isaac Bashevis Singer basically agreed. “The whole school of fiction in the 20th century stems from Hamsun,” Singer wrote in 1967, citing in particular “his subjectiveness, his fragmentariness, his use of flashbacks, his lyricism.”
Knut Hamsun’s books broke with the predominant style of his time (see also this old artcle from New York Times, from 1921, in pdf!). They brought new, provocative and inspiring writing techniques and styles into the limelight, and he has been a great source of inspiration ever since. But Knut Hamsun (see our Knut Hamsun biography) was also ironic, full of humor and warmth, and wrote with a lyrical, poetic, at times very catching style.
Regardless of what one thinks about Knut Hamsun’s politics – and I assume most, like me strongly disagree with it – it is hard not to love his writing. I hope the festivitees will contribute to a better understanding of Hamsun the writer and make more people read him in the future!