Monika Zagar


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

Cover Interview of December 22, 2009

A close-up

Hamsun’s actions in the few short summer months of 1943 define him, clarifying his unreserved support of the Nazi program. He writes an admiring letter to Joseph Goebbels and sends him his Nobel Prize medal as a gift; he delivers a speech at the Press Internationale in Vienna in June of 1943 in which he expresses a worldview consistent with the Nazi politics of the day, his racist rhetoric identical to that of the congress organizers, and his personal voice intertwined with the prevailing propaganda; and he has a personal meeting with Hitler at the Fuhrer’s Eagle’s Nest sanctuary, arranged by high party functionaries after Hamsun’s supportive speech in Vienna.  The above facts, for all the mitigating circumstances one would wish to consider, confirm that Hamsun indeed believed in the project of the Third Reich.

Two years later, on the occasion of Hitler’s death, Hamsun wrote a glowing obituary.  By extension, it is also interesting how the official 1946 psychiatric report on Hamsun avoided dealing with these facts; for instance, in reference to giving away his medal, the name Goebbels was replaced with “a German.”  The question of post-war reinterpretation of Hamsun’s actions and writing thus becomes a relevant one. Hamsun’s last novel, On Overgrown Paths, uses his literary skills to skew the view of his actions and alter the reader’s judgment of him.

Apart from hard political facts, what I want a reader to discover is the more insidious side of Hamsun’s worldview, which is often congruent with the propaganda and reality of the Third Reich.  If my book inspires a reader to revisit Growth of the Soil, I hope they approach it with some wonder at how hard it is on women not to be able to control their fertility and the burden they bear from repeated pregnancies.  Hamsun’s praise of fertile erotic women as mothers and, in contrast, his demonizing or derogatory portrayal of women who would aspire beyond motherhood are fully fleshed out in his novel.  Hamsun aspires to a utopian world where everyone is part of an organic life cycle; women and their fertility are central to this cycle.  This organic life cycle should be embraced intuitively, and not be questioned.

At the end of the novel, achievements of modern progress—education, industrialization, mobility, women’s rights, modern medicine—are subsumed into this eternal life cycle.  Although the novel is to a certain degree atypical for Hamsun, it expresses the author’s basic values: anti-intellectualism, anti-state and anti-parliamentary democracy, anti-progress, and anti-women’s rights.  Hamsun was also against Christian morality and he endorsed natural fertility.  However, he tamed women’s sexuality within patriarchal constraints, and warned against miscegenation in his other works.  All of these moral values are embedded in a text that is a pleasure to read, not only because of a story well told, but also because of Hamsun’s great skill with language.  It easily escapes one that all of these views, especially his view on sexuality, agree so fully with the Nazi ideology.