Enigma: The Life of Knut Hamsun by Robert Ferguson (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: $30; 314 pages)
The first time I can recall hearing the name of Knut Hamsun was during an interview with Henry Miller, who told me that the Norwegian novelist and playwright was among his favorite authors. Later, I learned that my favorite author, Isaac Bashevis Singer, flatly declares that "the whole modern school of fiction in the 20th Century stems from Hamsun."
In fact, Hamsun and his work animated and inspired a pantheon of 20th-Century writers: Andre Gide, Boris Pasternak, Franz Kafka, Maxim Gorki, H. G. Wells, Hermann Hesse, Thomas Mann, Rebecca West, Ernest Hemingway. And yet, as Robert Ferguson readily concedes in his superb new biography of Hamsun, "If they've heard of him at all, people tend to know two things about Knut Hamsun: that he wrote 'Hunger' and that he met Hitler."
Hamsun was among the first literary superstars of the 20th Century: winner of the 1920 Nobel Prize, successor to Ibsen as the grand old man of Scandinavian letters, the pride (and poet laureate) of newly independent Norway. But Hamsun, a self-styled iconoclast and a resolute eccentric who built a career and a fortune on purposeful outrageousness, simply immolated himself and his reputation on the funeral pyre of the Third Reich.
He was an early and ardent supporter of fascism, a willing propagandist not only for the Quisling regime in occupied Norway but for Hitler himself, and he continued to lionize his sorry hero even after Hitler's suicide: "He was a warrior, a warrior for mankind, and a prophet of the gospel of justice for all nations," Hamsun wrote on the very eve of the surrender of occupied Norway to the Allies. "He was a reforming nature of the highest order, and his fate was to arise in a time of unparalleled barbarism which finally felled him. . . . We, his closest supporters, now bow our heads at his death."
Hamsun was nearly 90 when he wrote those words, and--like Ezra Pound--he was spared a trial on charges of treason on the grounds that he was mentally enfeebled. But Ferguson, who is otherwise a highly sympathetic biographer, does not forgive or excuse Hamsun's political aberrations: "The unfortunate fact is that Hamsun was demonstrably not senile during the period in question," Ferguson concludes. "In fact, Hamsun's fascism was a genuinely held political conviction." Still, Ferguson encourages us to look behind and beyond Hamsun's shameful politics and the scandals of his old age, and he allows us to see a man of eccentric charm, ironic humor, and--above all--profound literary genius.
" 'Hunger,' " Ferguson writes, "is one of the great novels of urban alienation, on a par with Kafka's 'Castle' and Dostoevsky's 'Notes From the Underground.' " And he observes of Hamsun's novel "Mysteries": "More than any comparable work of the last hundred years, perhaps even more than Joyce's 'Ulysses,' it gives us a sensation of being actually and physically close to another consciousness, close enough to hear it whirring and ticking, to register sudden explosions of light within it, and consuming surges of darkness and obscurity."
Ferguson offers an illuminating critical reading of Hamsun's oeuvre, but "Enigma" is no brittle work of textual criticism. The book is a biography of impressive depth and authority and Ferguson's engaging narrative draws on his own sound scholarship. The author studied Norwegian language, history and politics to complete his book--the first full-length biography of Hamsun in English--and we are treated to wholly fascinating asides on such diverse subjects as the two rival strains of the Norwegian language, the creation of Norway's royal house, the exploits and ordeals of 19th-Century Scandinavian immigrants in America and the bitter literary skirmishes in turn-of-the-century Scandinavia.
Above all, "Enigma" is the wholly absorbing story of Hamsun himself--his considerable and enduring work, his passions and prejudices, his strange and tragic fate. He was a raw talent out of the Scandinavian hinterland, a self-taught and self-made man, a wanderer who sought his fortune in America but who was drawn back to his native land by a sense of destiny that would later express itself as a romantic attachment to the Nordic soil--and a perverse hatred of cities, tourism, feminism, democracy and all things English.
As we discover in "Enigma," Hamsun's life was the stuff of a novel. Born Knut Pedersen, he adopted the name of his native village--and later brought a lawsuit to prevent his younger brother from calling himself by the same surname. As a young man, he shamelessly promoted himself and his early work by delivering a series of public attacks on the most prominent literary figures of the time, including the revered Ibsen, who once attended one of Hamsun's notorious lectures and sat defiantly in the front row; Hamsun (who once adopted the pseudonym "Ego") was unfazed.