Geoffrey Macnab On Norwegian Novelist, Knut Hamsun Essay, Research Paper
Hitler’s little helper It is a measure of how ambivalent the Norwegians feel towards their Nobel prize-winning novelist Knut Hamsun (1859-1952) that the recent suggestion that a street in Oslo be named after him provoked a ferocious public debate. “There was quite a fight in the newspapers,” says the film-maker, novelist and journalist Arne Skouen. “The idea was voted down. Hamsun is still an object of hate in Norway.” Whether they like it or not, the Norwegians cannot escape Hamsun. Even in the realm of film – a medium for which he cared little – his influence is pervasive: there have been more screen adaptations of his work than of any other Norwegian author barring Ibsen. His is one of the names that figure most prominently in the National Film Theatre’s current celebration of Norwegian cinema. The season includes silent versions of Hamsun’s novels Pan and The Growth of the Soil (both made at around the time he won his Nobel prize in 1920) as well as a more recent adaptation of his work, Erik Gustavson’s The Telegraphist (1993). Many of the other titles in the season (including Skouen’s two masterpieces, Nine Lives and Cold Tracks) deal with precisely the period during which Hamsun turned from a national idol into one of the most loathed men in the country – the Nazi occupation. In the demonology of those years, he ranks only a place or two beneath Vidkun Quisling, the Norwegian politician whose name became synonymous with treachery. (”Had I 10 votes, he would get them all,” Hamsun wrote of Quisling in one of his more egregious wartime polemics.) No one can explain exactly why the novelist was so in thrall to the Nazis, but in thrall he certainly was. “The fact that he visited Hitler and that he gave his Nobel prize medal as a gift to Goebbels – just think of that!” Skouen says with indignation, as if, more than half a century later, he still can’t quite believe it. Max von Sydow, who played Hamsun in a 1996 biopic, believes that the writer’s admiration of Hitler was rooted in his hatred of the British. “Britain was very imperialistic and he didn’t like that. He saw what happened in the colonies in the late 19th century. Furthermore, he felt that Britain threatened Norway as a seafaring nation.” Hamsun regarded the Germans as defenders of Norwegian sovereignty rather than aggressors against it. Hence his notorious newspaper article when the Nazis arrived in Norway: “NORWEGIANS! Throw down your rifles and go home again,” he wrote. “The Germans are fighting for us all, and will crush the English tyranny over us and over all neutrals.” The evidence against Hamsun is damning. In Robert Ferguson’s 1988 biography, Enigma: The Life of Knut Hamsun, there is an old newspaper photograph of him aboard a U-boat, admiring the weaponry. Ferguson offers a tragicomic account of Hamsun’s wartime meeting with Hitler. The novelist, profoundly deaf but unwilling to cede the conversation to anyone else, exasperated the Führer with his complaints about German behaviour in Norway. The two didn’t hit it off at all. None the less, after Hitler’s death, Hamsun declared in an obituary, “I am not worthy to speak his name out loud.” Hamsun was not the only important writer dazzled by Hitler and Mussolini. Ezra Pound and Louis-Ferdinand Céline were also fascist cheerleaders. However, neither was a national figurehead in the way that Hamsun was for Norway. When he was awarded his Nobel prize, he dedicated it to his homeland (”I have been swept off my feet by the tribute that has been paid to my country,” he declared in his acceptance speech). As if to underline the country’s pride in its author, Gunnar Sommerfeldt’s reverential 1921 film of Growth of the Soil opens with a prolonged close-up of the “eminent” Hamsun. It’s a stirring but preposterous yarn about a Nietzschean superman, Isak (a huge bearded fellow who looks uncannily like the wrestler Giant Haystacks), taking on the land as he tries to start a farm. The setting is a remote region in Norway “where the stern and savage face of Nature seemed to utter an eternal challenge to the will of man and his instinct to civilise”. Isak, we’re told, is a “man with a will of steel and muscles of iron”. In no time at all, he has cleared half a forest and built himself a cabin. All he needs now is a partner. The local women turn him down, but then, as if out of nowhere, appears Inge: “comely but harelipped, whom no man would have”. In its more absurd moments, the film could indeed pass for fascist blood-and-soil propaganda: Isak and Inge are the hardy, racially pure pioneers bending the elements to their will. However, it is handsomely shot, full of sublime but desolate-looking landscapes, and, in its own naive way, strangely moving. The 1922 adaptation of Hamsun’s Pan (which has been filmed several times) is likewise notable for its cinematography. The film-makers struggle to capture the perversity and barbed humour in Hamsun’s novel, but certainly do justice to its lyricism. It is a story of erotic obsession. Like Isak in Growth of the Soil, its hero, Lieutenant Glahn, is a solitary type, living in the woods with his dog Aesop for company and surviving off game. Besotted by the beautiful, virginal Edvarda, he is so infuriated by her coquetry that he ends up shooting his dog and dispatching it to her. After winning the Nobel prize, Hamsun was regarded as a sort of father figure by young Norwegians, few of whom suspected he harboured fascist sympathies. “We admired him deeply until our eyes were opened,” says Skouen, 88. He pinpoints 1935, when Hamsun refused to support the campaign to have the anti-militarist German journalist Carl von Ossietzky (himself a Nobel peace prize winner) freed from a Nazi concentration camp, as the moment when he and his contemporaries turned against the novelist. “Hamsun was writing and talking nazism from the middle of the 30s. From that time on, we were through with him.” Hamsun and Skouen had very different wars. While one exchanged gifts and telegrams with Goebbels and Hitler, the other was active in the resistance. As well as smuggling information to Sweden, Skouen wrote a pseudonymous column describing day-to-day life under the Nazis for the official Norwegian newspaper in London. His double life ended in 1943 when a theatre critic denounced him to the Nazis and he was forced to flee to Sweden. Two Norwegian government psychiatrists who examined Hamsun after the liberation concluded that he was suffering from “permanently impaired mental faculties”. The Norwegian authorities (who reluctantly brought him to trial in 1947) hoped that this was the case – how else could they explain away one of their national heroes betraying his country in so craven a way? The evidence, however, suggests that Hamsun was lucid until the end. In 1949, when he was 90, he published his last book, On Overgrown Paths, in which he tried to explain his behaviour during the occupation. It betrayed no signs of a writer losing his powers. Skouen estimates that only 2% of Norwegians actively supported the Nazis. Even today, two generations on, he acknowledges that there is widespread revulsion at the memory of these Quislings. The extent of the revulsion is evident in many of the movies screening at the NFT. (Take Laila Mikkelsen’s heart-wrenching 1981 film Little Ida, about a six-year-old girl who is made a pariah because of her mother’s association with the Nazis.) It is clear that Hamsun has not yet been forgiven. Nowadays, as Skouen reflects, a mini-industry has sprung up around his legacy. “We are still discussing him in Norway. Literary people are writing papers about why he loved the Germans and why he hated the British. People are taking doctorates in it.” The only real surprise is that – with the exception of a TV adaptation of Ferguson’s biography in 1996 – the Norwegians have yet to make a movie about Hamsun during the Hitler years. The Max von Sydow biopic was directed by a Swede, Jan Troell. This, it seems, is still subject matter too close to the bone for any local film-maker to dare tackle. · Pan is screened today at the National Film Theatre, London SE1; the Norwegian cinema season continues until March 31. Box office: 020-7928 3232.