Monika Zagar

 

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

Cover Interview of December 23, 2009

The wide angle

While searching for answers to Hamsun’s support for the Third Reich, I was struck by several things.  First, I felt that the critical texts about Hamsun were too narrowly focused on his standard set of novels, that is, on Hunger, Mysteries, Pan, his so-called August trilogy, and Growth of the Soil.  Hamsun wrote so much more: not only other novels, but also plays, travel narratives, poems, articles about contemporary events, book reviews, and six thick volumes of letters.  The following themes drawn from his work—investigated and mapped in my book—reveal some of Hamsun’s pre-occupations that are pertinent to a study of his character and the works he created: modern life and contemporary changes; women’s sexuality; children and families; racial or religious differences; life in the newly independent Norway.

Second, I found that Norway was treated by most of these studies as if it existed in isolation and not as part of a modern global world.  I wanted to explore how increased mobility during the last decades of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries affected people’s lives, including Hamsun’s.  As a seafaring nation, a nation of immigrants, Norway had long been in touch with other peoples.  There existed folklore, travel reports, immigrant letters, colonial stories and novels—even Viking sagas—that recounted interactions with such peoples as the Sami, the Inuit, Native Americans, and Africans.  Hamsun, an avid if unsystematic reader, certainly came across many of these accounts, which then became part of his intellectual baggage even before he traveled to the United States in the 1880s.  He wrote disparagingly about other races; his descriptions of blacks and their allegedly animalistic sexuality were especially repulsive.

Lastly and most importantly, women’s growing demands for economic, political, and cultural power, and for independence and control over their own pregnancies, became a hallmark of the same period.  For Hamsun, women became the scapegoats for everything that went wrong with modern progress.  While he created a vast array of strong and interesting women protagonists, his ideal remained a woman tamed in marriage, a mother with many children.  Hamsun, as an advocate of natural fertility, consistently lobbied against women’s rights in the modern enlightened sense.  In his novels he imagined a vision of an erotic woman who is ultimately fulfilled only within a relatively simple and basic family life—as a mother.  The racial and cultural foreigners he invented as lovers brought to light and reinforced the raw disruptive force women possess by virtue of being women.

In Hamsun’s opinion, it was women who were the primary contributors to modern social disintegration, especially those who refused to have children, who fled the farms and found jobs in the cities, who became educated, who embraced modern fashion, or who deviated from the patriarchal norm in some other way.  Modern life had replaced an ideal organic universe where every family member has an indispensable place and role.  Hamsun advocated such an ideal organic universe in several of his articles and in his Nobel Prize-winning novel, Growth of the Soil.  His novels can often be read as portraits of the state of affairs after the collapse of the organic community.

These feelings and opinions, including those concerning the dangerous non-European races as well as healthy sexuality, were axiomatic in Nazism.  These commonalities drew the Nazis to Hamsun and Hamsun to the Nazis.  Nazi-produced propaganda treated Hamsun’s masterpiece Growth of the Soil as an integral part of their education campaign.

Hamsun considered the post-World War I Versailles Treaty, which changed Germany’s borders and lost its overseas colonies, extremely unfair to Germany.  In his view, the Third Reich would revitalize Germany and the New Europe.  Indeed, he understood the Nazi takeover as a positive Cultural Revolution.  The Nazi expansion into the fertile steppes of the East was a legitimate move to neutralize the Bolshevik threat and to secure territory for future German generations.  In this project, women were extremely important.  The Nazi expansionist policies mandated increasing birth rates by the master race and prohibited miscegenation.

Hamsun’s hatred of the Anglo-Saxon worldview and his gratitude towards Germany, where he enjoyed early literary success, certainly contributed to his stance.  Yet Hamsun’s broader cultural worldview, one that rejected the accomplishments of enlightenment and modern progress, reveals so many contact points with the Nazi ideology that it is no wonder that Hamsun openly embraced Hitler’s call for a New Europe.  Thus my book is offered as a corrective to studies that treat Hamsun’s Nazi support as a peripheral and unimportant detail in an otherwise illustrious literary life.