Street-time for Hamsun

The Knut Hamsun jubilee year came to my attention two months after I moved to Oslo. I arrived on a warm, sunny day in early October. A cold drizzle arrived two days later and stayed until early January, when it was replaced by snow. I had received a fellowship to study Norwegian literature for a year, and I spent the autumn months looking for something to do other than pore over essays on contemporary Norwegian fiction at the National Library, or pour down cup after cup of coffee at Wayne’s, a Swedish Starbucks knock-off down the street.

In December, I learned of an event at Oslo’s Literature House: “The Complicated Legacy,” a daylong seminar on Knut Hamsun, the great Norwegian novelist whom Isaac Bashevis Singer once called the progenitor of “the whole modern school of fiction in the twentieth century.” At the time, I knew very little about Hamsun—I had read his novel Hunger in college, but that was it—much less what made his legacy so complicated. I was curious, and the promise of free lunch and coffee further intensified my curiosity.

The seminar, it turned out, was a run-up to the 150th anniversary of Hamsun’s birth, in 2009. To commemorate the occasion, Norway’s Ministry of Culture had declared a national jubilee year, designated, with characteristic Scandinavian economy, Hamsun 2009. Jubilee years are serious affairs in Norway, state sponsored and publicly funded, with budgets in the millions of dollars.

I was late to the seminar, and I slipped quietly into the lecture hall, a room like a large black box theater. It was surprisingly packed—especially for 10 AM on a Monday. Didn’t these people have jobs? I decided to stand until the speaker, a bald man in a black turtleneck with a white beard, finished his lecture. I didn’t have to stand long. He said approximately ten words, something about the intersection of life and art, and then called for questions.

A small, older woman in the front row stood up. She started to ask a question in Norwegian, tinctured with a heavy German accent, stumbled over a few unintelligible phrases, then abandoned her question in favor of a comment. Hamsun, she said, “had Jewish friends.” I began to see where this was heading. Hamsun wasn’t against Jews personally. “It was the idea of Jews he was against.”

Knut Hamsun burst onto the then thriving Scandinavian literary scene with Hunger, published in 1890. A short, spastic novel, Hunger follows an unkempt and unnamed flâneur, a would-be writer who does very little writing as he scrounges and freezes and eventually starves his way through the streets and gutters of Kristiania, Oslo’s name at the time. Hunger’s influence was far-reaching: the novel inspired a young Pasternak; it led Henry Miller, who called Hamsun “the Dickens of my generation,” to start the work that became Tropic of Cancer; André Breton applauded the book’s insights and quoted it at length in his Surrealist Manifesto. As Paul Auster put it, in a 1970 essay, Hunger‘s gaunt, fin de siècle protagonist, dragging himself along, “walks straight into the twentieth century.”

Well into that century, Hamsun remained a literary force in Europe. In 1920 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for his novel Growth of the Soil. Little read today, the book received significant attention in interbellum Europe. Hemingway recommended it to Fitzgerald. Maxim Gorky, in a 1927 letter to Hamsun, called it a “work of genius,” adding that “at this moment you are the greatest artist in Europe.” A couple years later Thomas Mann wrote, in his contribution to Hamsun’s star-studded seventieth-birthday Festschrift, “Never has the Nobel Prize been awarded to one worthier of it.”

The novel’s audience was not restricted to the literati; it had prominent fans in other sectors too. In 1943, Hamsun gave his Nobel medal to one of those fans: Josef Goebbels. Hamsun wanted to thank the Nazi propaganda minister for the hospitality he had enjoyed during a recent trip to Germany. Ten years earlier, a 74-year-old Hamsun had taken to supporting the Nazis in Norwegian newspapers. When the Nazis invaded Norway in April 1940, Hamsun urged his countrymen to surrender. Not long after his meeting with Goebbels, Hamsun paid a visit to Hitler himself. Two years later, when Hitler committed suicide, Hamsun took the opportunity to compose an unsolicited obituary, which was published in Norway’s most prominent broadsheet, Aftenposten. In the obituary, Hamsun mourned the loss of the Führer and praised him as “a preacher of the gospel of justice for all nations.” The Allies liberated Norway the next day.

The stated purpose of Hamsun 2009, in the stilted, bureaucratic syntax of the jubilee year’s website, is “to care for, make visible, and utilize” Hamsun’s legacy, “complicated” as it may be. On February 19, the fifty-seventh anniversary of Hamsun’s death, I joined several hundred very cold Norwegians in the gray afternoon outside the granite portico of the National Theater in downtown Oslo for the mission statement’s first enactment.

Hamsun 2009’s opening day ceremony was tagged “Hunger and Soup.” Despite a slow start, the ceremony delivered what it promised: street-theater performances of scenes from Hunger and free soup (cream of broccoli or tomato) ladled into small paper cups by women in period costume. When I arrived, the soup was on hand, but the street theater was, for some reason, delayed. A brass band housed in a gazebo nearby struck up a nineteenth-century marching tune, as if something were about to happen, then cut it short. Then they did it again. It started to snow. Still no street theater. After several musical false starts, the performers showed up.

The Norwegians and I sloshed through the streets of downtown Oslo, a mess of slush atop a hard layer of ice. Policemen in bobby cop helmets and trenchcoat blues herded us, like unhappy schoolchildren, from one urban mise en scène to the next. By the time we had reached the scene in which the protagonist attempts—in vain, of course—to sell “a short profile of Correggio” to a newspaper editor, I could feel neither face nor toes, and my shoes were filled with water and crushed bits of ice. The newspaper scene was set in the capacious lobby of Gyldendal, Norway’s biggest publishing house, and there I noticed a flyer announcing a lecture by the Hamsun biographer Ingar Sletten Kolloen. It was starting in five minutes in one of Gyldendal’s auditoria. Surely this was a sign. I was not meant to venture back out into the cold.

Kolloen, whose two-volume, nearly one-thousand page biography of Hamsun, Dreamer & Dissenter, will be published in a condensed English version this fall, turned out to be a large man with a round face and small wire-frame glasses, hinting at an owlish intelligence. His talk, “Hamsun and the Capital,” delivered to a full house, was interesting though unremarkable—that is, until the end. As Kolloen finished his cheery chronicle of Hamsun’s love-hate relationship with Oslo, his face darkened. It was a shame, he said, his voice quivering for effect, that the city council had “not rewarded the man who did more than anybody else to bring Oslo onto the world scene, just because of a bit of insanity during the war.” A frisson of unease ran through the audience. Apparently everybody but me knew what was coming. “Oslo!” he enjoined, raising a plump finger in the air. “Give Knut Hamsun what he deserves—a street.” He paused for a moment—bright owl eyes fixing the audience. Then he brought his fist down on the podium and with the fervor of a Baptist preacher bellowed “Hallelujah!”

In the eyes of Norwegians, Hamsun’s betrayal was Judas-like in scope. Other traitors, like the much-loathed leader of Norway’s collaborationist government, Vidkun Quisling, or his Gestapo henchman, Henry Oliver Rinnan, were nobodies or, at best, failures before the war. They were simple opportunists. Hamsun was different. He was Norway’s great voice, the intellectual face of a country short on intellectual renown. When he stabbed his countrymen in the back, the knife sank in much deeper. It’s telling that Vyacheslav Molotov, the Soviet foreign minister, a man not exactly known for his kind and forgiving manner (“I have never seen a human being who more perfectly represented the modern conception of a robot” –Winston Churchill), showed more sympathy for Hamsun than did many Norwegians. When, during a 1944 meeting in Moscow, Molotov suggested that the 85-year-old novelist should be spared the firing squad after the war, the Norwegian justice minister in exile responded, “You are too soft, Mr. Molotov.”

The minister was hardly alone in this opinion. But Scandinavian cool and PR concerns about executing a Nobel laureate prevailed. Hamsun lived for seven years after the war in disgrace. Like his American counterpart Ezra Pound, he was institutionalized, though only briefly, then ordered to pay a fine. His books came back to him, thrown over the fence of his estate by his disgusted countrymen. Then, in 1952, a blind, deaf, hunched nonagenarian, Hamsun died.

As recently as 2003 Norway’s King Harald stirred up a media frenzy by quoting a few snatches of Hamsun at a palace dinner party. The lines, from Hamsun’s unrepentant postwar apologia, On Overgrown Paths, included the maxims “prosperity is born of progress” and “in a hundred years all is forgotten.” The remarks occupied the country’s op-ed pages for weeks. Did this imply that the king, a member of the war generation, was forgiving Hamsun? Kolloen, the Hamsun biographer, describes the novelist’s legacy well. Hamsun is Norway’s gjennferd (restless ghost) and its verkesår (festering wound).

The question of renaming a street in Hamsun’s honor is an old proxy for Norway’s struggle to come to terms with the man who was at once its greatest novelist and its greatest traitor. For every prominent Norwegian writer, along with many less-than-prominent Norwegian writers, there’s a street in Oslo. (And it’s literally the writer’s street; in Norway, streets take the genitive.) The single conspicuous absence is Knut Hamsun. The 2009 jubilee brought the issue renewed immediacy. Advocates point to the precedent set by the 2006 Ibsen Jubilee. That celebration culminated in the rechristening of Drammen’s Road—named for a dull town outside Oslo, best known by the popular epigram “Better a dram an hour than an hour in Drammen”—as Henrik Ibsen’s Street.

Norwegians take the Hamsun’s Street debate seriously. This spring, I joined in by asking for thoughts at a family dinner party in an Oslo suburb. My innocent query set off the closest I’ve seen to a heated argument among my usually reserved Norwegian relatives:

“Isn’t it about time we honor Hamsun for his writing?” an aunt suggested.

In high Scandinavian style, everybody nodded politely, whether or not they agreed. Except for my cousin.

“But he was a Nazi,” she said, a hint of outrage in her voice.

Another aunt broke in. “Yes, but it’s his writing we want to honor.”

From another cousin, a riposte: “And how do we do that without honoring the Nazi?”

Eyes narrowed. Lips tightened. Before things got out of hand, my grandfather, who was a teenager during the war, mercifully restored decorum.

“Could somebody pass the potatoes?”

In spite of Hamsun’s status as national “verkesår,” and vocal opposition to Hamsun 2009’s public funding, the usual argosy of jubilee fare has been deployed. There’s a new edition of Hamsun’s collected works, in twenty-seven volumes, and a commemorative stamp. There have been stage tributes (Hamsun-inspired plays; Hamsun’s own plays weren’t very good), interpretive tributes (Hamsun’s poetry as cringe-worthy choir music), and operatic tributes (“Young Hamsun,” a love story).

At the dramatic reading of an 1891 polemical lecture, by a minor TV actor, I watched no fewer than five audience members in my immediate vicinity don sunglasses and promptly fall asleep. At the educational event “Knut Hamsun for Children,” which promised free soda and pastries, I was politely asked to leave. I saw this coming. But I was curious to know if parents would actually bring their children to such an event. They did.

I attended lectures, delivered by tweed-jacketed professors, with titles like “Knut Hamsun and Nihilism” and, in reference to the anti-hero of the early novel Mysteries, “Nagel as Nazi.” Eight years after the war’s end, Thomas Mann observed that Hamsun’s fascism “could surprise none.” What seemed in more peaceful times “an interesting point of view aesthetically speaking”—from the homespun Nietzscheanism of his early novels to the Blut und Boden philosophy of the later ones—became “a very political position in 1933.” Following Mann, it grew fashionable among postwar Norwegian academics to scour Hamsun’s fiction for signs of fascism to come. The witch-hunt quickly took on the quality of a wild goose chase.

Hamsun 2009 even bankrolled the creation of a Knut Hamsun memorial wine, both a red and a white, thankfully outsourced to the shores of Italy. None of the Wine Monopoly franchises (Norway’s nationalized answer to liquor stores) in downtown Oslo deigned to stock the wine. To find it, I had to travel to a branch at a sprawling shopping mall well outside of town. They only had the white, a Sicilian Grillo, which, at $18, was cheap by Norwegian standards. I drank it one evening with a friend in a park downtown. Afterward, a frowning Pakistani man laden with shopping bags full of recyclables came by and collected the empty bottle. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that this particular bottle, not mass-produced, wasn’t refundable.

Hamsun 2009 has managed “to care for, make visible, and utilize” the writer’s legacy, but only in transient ways. Theater, opera, lectures, stamp, wine: these shuttle Hamsun’s legacy into the public sphere, but for a limited time and for a limited audience. Absent from Hamsun 2009 is a memorial as permanent and visible as a street. The result is a qualified memorial. We honor Hamsun, it proclaims, but only in part.

There is one permanent memorial. The country’s first major Hamsun museum, which looks something like a Bauhaus grain elevator, opened in August. Not in Oslo though; on Hamarøy, a rocky, sparsely populated peninsula two hundred miles north of the Arctic Circle, where a teenage Hamsun, who came from a long line of peasant farmers, spent some of the worst years of his life in thrall to a tyrannical uncle.

At the top of the list of potential Oslo memorials for Hamsun 2009 lies Christian Frederik’s Square, an out-of-the-way wedge of concrete better known to locals as Plata, or the Slab. Other candidates include downtown boulevards (honor the man in full), minor side streets (a tacit demotion), and, as one newspaper half-jokingly suggested, Knut Hamsun’s Taxi Stand. The proposal to rename Christian Frederick’s Square was quickly voted down when it was brought before the city council last year, but the local neighborhood council, which governs street naming in its district, has since taken up the standard.

Part of what makes Plata so remarkable is just how unremarkable, at first glance, it appears. There’s a concrete plaza and a fountain and a lawn with some trees. Pedestrian traffic is neither especially heavy nor especially light. There’s a cafe off to one side, with parasols and outdoor seating. At this point, you notice the guy lying face down in the grass with his arms splayed, like a man drowned in a swimming pool. The rest of Plata then comes into focus: the year-round, day-and-night tableau vivant of heroin addiction, a permanent huddle of junkies, spoons balanced over lighters, syringes in arms.

I visited Plata in mid-May. Articles about the bid to turn Plata into Knut Hamsun’s Square quoted the familiar sources: politicians, spokespeople. What, I wondered, did the people who would literally have to live with Hamsun’s name think? I approached a small group of regulars who weren’t shooting up at the moment. Could I ask them their thoughts on Plata’s potential renaming?

“It has another name already,” a small man without a shirt, who told me his name was Øystein, said. He couldn’t remember what it was, but he figured that, to his set, it would remain Plata.

And what did they think about naming the square after a traitor?

A woman with red-rimmed eyes, who, wizened and pockmarked, looked like a thirty-year-old whose skin had aged an additional twenty years, declared that she had read Growth of the Soil once.

“A fantastic book,” she said, her head lolling a little.

Would she be okay with Plata being named after its author?

“Yes, of course. It was a fantastic book. I’d like that.”

Øystein didn’t see it that way. His father, he told me, had been in the resistance. No Nazi would ever have a street in his city.

What about the idea, popular among Norwegians, of yet again qualifying Hamsun by naming a street after one of his novels or characters? (Suggestions include Hunger Square and, despite the “Nagel as Nazi” lecture, Nagel’s Street). What if the neighborhood council decided to call Plata—and here I stumbled; I didn’t want to say Hunger Square, that seemed too sick—Nagel’s Square or something like that?

Øystein thought about that for a moment.

“That’s an interesting idea,” he said.

A man sitting across from me, whose gaze appeared fixed on something in the middle distance, nodded languorously. Whether that meant he liked the suggestion was unclear. Then he nodded off.

“He’s fine,” Øystein said, slapping him on the back. The man’s eyes shot open. Squinting, he took in his surroundings, as if through a fog, then closed his eyes again, smiling.

In mid-June, the Hamsun 2009 festivities moved to Grimstad, a small fishing town in southern Norway that was a hotbed of resistance during World War II. Hamsun lived there for much of his life—his estate sits just outside of town—and he was tried there after the war. Earlier this year, Grimstad’s town council voted—eighteen to seventeen—to christen a Knut Hamsun’s Square in the center of town. On June 19, the square was officially renamed and a new bust of Hamsun unveiled. Four days later, on a Monday afternoon, a small Nazi flag, affixed to a twig, was found duct-taped to its plinth.

Back in Oslo, the Hamsun’s Street debate remains unresolved. I find this useful, because choosing to separate Hamsun’s life and work would so clearly be a missed opportunity. The chairman of the Nobel Committee in 1920 praised Hamsun for the unresolved dialectic of his novels, a combination of “the good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly.” This is precisely what a Knut Hamsun’s Street in Oslo would remind us of. Good writing can make us reevaluate our thinking. Good writing by less-than-good people can make us reevaluate how we reevaluate our thinking.

Unfailingly diplomatic abroad, Norwegians remain surprisingly nationalistic at home. Rather than confront the ugliness of the past—or of the present for that matter—Norway tends, in Kolloen’s words, to “shove it under the rug.” Its small resistance movement spawns blockbuster movies; Norway’s Home Front Museum barely mentions the 90,000 Norwegians convicted of collaboration.

An op-ed in Aftenposten, the same newspaper that published Hamsun’s eulogy to Hitler, proposed yet another solution: a Hamsun’s Street whose sign would read, “Knut Hamsun: Winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, 1920. Traitor to his Nation, 1940-1945.” That’s not a bad idea. Countries need their troublesome writers, and they need them intact. Like a dead virus, a dead writer can serve as excellent inoculation against the dangers of a selective national memory.

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