Monika Zagar


On her book Knut Hamsun: The Dark Side of Literary Brilliance

Cover Interview of December 22, 2009

In a nutshell

Knut Hamsun: The Dark Side of Literary Brilliance explains how and why the extraordinary Norwegian novelist Knut Hamsun supported, enthusiastically and to the bitter end, the German occupation of Norway during World War II (1940-1945).  Hamsun was the recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1920, respected and revered by broad audiences and critics alike in Europe and beyond.  At home, Hamsun was a literary and cultural persona par excellence, helping establish the visibility of the new nation of Norway in 1905 after the dissolution of Norway’s union with Sweden.

In spite of the fact that in December 1947 he was tried and convicted by a municipal court in Norway for collaboration, the debate about Hamsun’s genius, crime, and punishment continues.  It is this fascinating mix, in one man, of brilliant art and repugnant politics that has compelled me to write this book.  I wanted answers to one simple question: how can a literary genius of his stature fall so low as to become a political collaborator with the National Socialist regime?  The numerous books written on the topic up to 2000 did not satisfy my curiosity.

My book analyzes the relation between Hamsun’s writing and his support for the politics of the Norwegian National Socialist party and, by extension, for the expansion of the Third Reich.  This goes against the mainstream Hamsun scholarship, in which Hamsun’s politics are dismissed as his private opinion, something separate from his fiction, or are proclaimed an enigma that will ultimately remain unanswered.

The Dark Side of Literary Brilliance starts out by situating Hamsun’s writing broadly within the identity politics of the newly independent nation of Norway.  Political independence led, in some circles, to an intensified glorification of the white Nordic race.  However, my book emphasizes Norway’s long history of interactions with other peoples at home and abroad, and establishes the discriminatory descriptions of other races in select Scandinavian and European texts—in the sagas, religious texts, letters from Scandinavian immigrants, missionary accounts, anthropological and medical articles, and in popular fiction—that influenced Hamsun’s own ideas about foreigners.  I show that Hamsun’s derogatory portrayal of other races in his texts is a crucial component of his distinct worldview that ultimately led him to believe in and support the expansion of the Third Reich, based as it was on the supremacy of the Aryan nation.

The early impetus for the present book emerged from my astonishment over the reception of the 1996 film Hamsun, which professed admiration and compassion for the frail old writer in spite of his support for the Third Reich.  This rather apologetic view of Hamsun was heavily indebted to Hamsun’s own version of the post-1945 events as he described them in his last book, On Overgrown Paths.  The movie essentially transforms Hamsun’s own obfuscations and silences into pure truth.  It is here, with Hamsun’s own text as the underpinning, that fiction takes over and becomes truth, pushing historical facts into oblivion.  As so often before, Hamsun’s collaboration was reduced to a regrettable misstep by an old deaf man, a writer isolated in his ivory tower.  His eloquence and his modernist art still reigned supreme, and the ways in which his personal political philosophy is reflected in his writing ignored.