Author: Knut Hamsun
Description: “Growth of the soil was something different, a thing to be procured at any cost; the only source, the origin of all. A dull and desolate existence? Nay, least of all. A man had everything; his powers above, his dreams, his loves, his wealth of superstition.”
Having spent most of a weekend driving through the woods in Värmland, close to the Norwegian border, reflecting on the strange way in which time seems to have stopped there in the remote countryside, I remembered my phase of passionate Lagerlöf and Hamsun reading.
Those two understood the attraction and oppression of life lived on the harsh limits, dictated by nature's omnipresent volatility, and by a small community's shared values and superstitions, as well as power structures and intolerance, based on fear of things unknown.
The landscape in which hardworking farmers settled is breathtakingly beautiful in summer: dark green woods, light green fields, flowers of all colours and shapes around the glittery blue waters of the lakes, farms spread out between small churches.
But once you stop and talk to people (or spend time with relatives, as the case can be), the short time span of the beautiful summer sneaks into conversations within minutes. Even nowadays, dialogues circle around when the first flowers appeared this spring, when the last snow storm hit (in Stockholm, it was 11th May, and many apple trees - mine included - lost their budding flowers), how much rain is needed to make vegetables grow, but not rot over the short summer. Light hardly fades at night, but it is chilly, even in July, and people know instinctively that they have to catch each sun ray in order to steel themselves for winter.
You can still find traces of Knut Hamsun's epic tale of the quiet, monosyllabic farmer life in Norway in the rural dialects, superstitions and conservative mindset. A foreigner would be recognised immediately, in these remote woods.
There is something silently heroic in the constant fight against nature to make the soil fertile to feed hungry children, and Hamsun's love of his own cultural background shines through the prose on every page. However, his later identification with fascist Germany may also find an explanation in the worship of the Nordic, the fear of foreign influences, the focus on protecting national identity rather than accepting a range of new perspectives. The political stain of Hamsun's later years does not take away from his narrative power, but it should be mentioned as part of who he was, and what he developed into. Seeing both the brilliant writer and the Nazi supporter will give a nuanced picture of the different facets of life in Scandinavia at that time.
It is neither idealistic nor monstrous, just shaped by the conditions under which people lived, worked and mingled with each other. Understanding the dynamics of remote farmer communities is still relevant, and Hamsun's sharp perceptions and colorful descriptions open up a a strangely closed world and make it accessible to a wider, international audience.
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