Tackling Knut Hamsun

(Yale University Press)

Knut Hamsun

Dreamer and Dissenter

Ingar Sletten Kolloen

Yale University Press: 378 pp., $40

Knut Hamsun

The Dark Side of Literary Brilliance

Monika {Zcaron}agar

University of Washington Press: 344 pp., $30 paper

In the spring of 1891, 31-year-old Knut Hamsun, penniless and hounded by debtors, embarked on a lecture tour of his native Norway. He had recently published his first successful novel, “Hunger”; now, he hoped to bolster his reputation with a public assault on the old guard of Norwegian writers, including playwright Henrik Ibsen. Hamsun padded lecture halls with friendly artists and publishers, and in Oslo, at the majestic Hals Brothers auditorium, he gave Ibsen a front row seat.

“We have grown so used to believing what the Germans say about Ibsen that we read him assuming we will find words of wisdom,” Hamsun said in Oslo, looking directly at his chosen target. In fact, Hamsun continued, Ibsen had never offered any insight into the modern condition; he was a writer of the most shallow social drama, hobbled by an “indefensibly coarse and artificial psychology.” The playwright sat impassively through the tirade. But as Ingar Sletten Kolloen writes in his incisive new biography, “Knut Hamsun: Dreamer and Dissenter,” he may have been threatened by the young upstart, and for good reason.

Hamsun, the coarse son of a shareholder, represented everything that Ibsen did not. He had no use for what he termed the “rigidity” of Ibsen’s writing, and he sought to establish a new literature, sharpened by anger, political turbulence and existential unrest -- a literature, in short, to match the realities of the modern age.

“Hunger,” based in part on Hamsun’s experiences, traces a man’s descent into a madness that is religious in ardor; the man wishes to prostrate himself on the floor of the world. He ponders suicide. He wanders around the streets of Oslo. He starves. He attempts to chew off his own finger and then, a few hundred pages later, he leaves without explanation on a ship bound for foreign shores. There is nothing in the book but madness -- Hamsun skips the periods when his protagonist has food and comfort.

In an 1890 essay, Hamsun wrote that a true portrait of the human spirit could never be conceived linearly or politely. Life was not a story, but a scattershot series of episodic flashes, fast-burning and painful to remember. To thrive, an artist must leave the city for the rough living of the country. He must immerse himself in “the unpredictable chaos of perception, the delicate life of the imagination held under the microscope; the meanderings of these thoughts and feelings in the blue, trackless, traceless journeys of the heart and mind, curious workings of the psyche, the whisperings of the blood, prayers of the bone, the entire unconscious life of the mind.”

In his prime, Hamsun always wrote like this -- beautifully, poetically and savagely. Within a decade of the Oslo speech, he had finished two additional novels, the naturalist ode “Pan” and the disorienting “Mysteries,” which, together with “Hunger,” count as cornerstones of contemporary literature. “The whole school of fiction in the 20th century stems from Hamsun,” Isaac Bashevis Singer once proclaimed, and it is no stretch to say that there would never have been Kafka’s “A Hunger Artist” without “Hunger.”

And yet Hamsun, personally and politically, was a monster. He berated his friends and cheated on his wives; he could be horrible to his children. He was possessed from an early age by a rage he never managed to shake, which came from fears of inadequacy -- fiscal, sociological and above all intellectual -- and the certainty that he was misunderstood. Famously, he was a fascist. Less famously, he was a career racist, who called blacks in America, which he visited in the 1880s, “a people without a history, without traditions, without a brain.”

He allied himself early with the Nazis. He met with Adolf Hitler and shipped his 1920 Nobel Prize for Literature to Joseph Goebbels as a tribute. He saw salvation in the Third Reich, which would finally unite, “in kinship and blood,” the people of Northern Europe. Meanwhile, Hamsun was happy to ignore the means. “If the [German] government have gone so far as to set up concentration camps,” he wrote in a letter to the organization War Resisters International, “then you and the world have to understand it must be for good reason.”

When the war ended, he was found guilty of crimes against Norway; he remained, to the end, scathingly unrepentant. He wrote one more book, “On Overgrown Paths,” in which he reprinted the entirety of his defense speech to a civilian court, and died in 1952, at 92, deaf, near-blind and dressed in rags.

What to make of such a man? The answer is by no means clear. This year marks the 150th anniversary of Hamsun’s birth, and in Norway, a yearlong national commemoration is underway. A six-story Hamsun Center has been unveiled, along with a 7-foot-tall statue of the man, dressed dapperly in a top hat; the queen of Norway even appeared publicly with the remnants of the Hamsun clan.

Clemency for Hamsun hasn’t come quickly. It’s taken decades -- and the fading memory of the post-war years -- and still, not everyone is on board. In February, a former member of the Norwegian parliament told the New York Times that Hamsun’s work “is completely overshadowed by his behavior as a Hitler lackey.”

The great strength of “Knut Hamsun: Dreamer and Dissenter” is Kolloen’s willingness to tackle the Hamsun paradox. He details, often at excruciating length, the vitriol Hamsun continually spewed and ably navigates the excuses that have been made for the disgraced Nobel Laureate. In the end, Kolloen presents a nuanced, dynamic analysis: Hamsun had a lifelong hatred of England; he believed in the primacy of the Germanic people; he delighted in provocation; and he was enchanted with the anti-intellectual spirit of Nazism, which also ran deeply through his work.

Strangely, for the first of the modern novelists, Hamsun, like Wagner, “succeeded in arousing antipathy towards the ideals and values of modernity, as well as a yearning for a return to the earth and a natural way of life,” Kolloen writes. “The dream of a golden age. A paradise.” Koellen never forgives Hamsun -- for either his anger or his irrational fear. Instead, he shows how the author’s prejudices aligned with, and made him perfectly susceptible to, the “Nazi ideal.”

It’s an intriguing explanation for a set of choices that have long seemed inexplicable, and the scholar Monika {Zcaron}agar explores it further in her superb new academic study, “Knut Hamsun: The Dark Side of Literary Brilliance.”

Unlike Kolloen, {Zcaron}agar takes a circuitous approach to her subject -- each chapter filters Hamsun’s work through a different lens, from his obsession with race to his 1947 trial. “My study is offered as a corrective to studies that treat Hamsun’s Nazi support as a peripheral and unimportant detail in an otherwise literary life of achievement,” she explains.

Here, one imagines, {Zcaron}agar is pointing not to Kolloen, who doesn’t shy away from Hamsun’s most dangerous impulses, but to the type of critic who has sought to pry the accomplishments of “Hunger” from the moral failings of its creator. The same impulse can be found in recent writings on Ezra Pound and Louis-Ferdinand Celine: a separation undertaken not necessarily in the name of postmodernism -- the “reclaiming” of the text -- but simply because it makes it easier on the reader. Such a strategy belies the challenges of any of these writers: to see them whole, their lives and work as part of the same continuum, which makes for an uncomfortably complicated moral and aesthetic response.

In this way, “The Dark Side of Literary Brilliance” and “Dreamer and Dissenter” are daring, frightening books. What if instead of attempting to separate Hamsun’s politics and his art, Kolloen and {Zcaron}agar seem to be hinting, we took it for granted that the two were inextricably intertwined -- that one would never have been possible without the other? Where would we be then?

Shaer writes regularly about books for the Washington Post and Bookforum, among other publications.