If Knut Hamsun is remembered at all in Britain – he never really caught on here – it is as the Nobel Prize-winning Norwegian writer who became a Nazi, and a betrayer of his country during the Second World War. For the majority of his compatriots, suffering under the German occupation and yet still, many of them, courageously resisting it, this fall from national hero to traitor was hard to fathom, and even harder to stomach. Ways were found around it. It was attributed to senility: Hamsun was 80 in 1939. Isolated during the war years, and profoundly deaf, he simply didn’t realise what Nazism was like. Some blamed his second wife, Marie, who was certainly more active in Nasjonal Samling (i.e. Nazi) circles than he was. Or maybe it was in part a pretence; a guise he assumed to enable him to use his influence to save at least some resisters from execution.
I am not sure it is true that Hamsun never really caught on in Britain. When I was at university, many of his novels were available in English in a nicely packaged Picador series. A friend even talked about making a movie of Victoria, his only love story. The most recent biography before those reviewed, Enigma: The Life of Knut Hamsun, was by Robert Ferguson, a British writer.
However, Britain certainly never really caught on with Hamsun, in fact he detested anything to do with the Brits. In Ferguson’s view, Hamsun’s leaning towards Nazism, or perhaps more accurately, towards a powerful Germany, has to be understood in the context of his visceral anti-British views.
He also points out that Norwegian writers in the 19th and early 20th centuries were to some extent forced into taking public positions, with the leading writer seen as its fører (‘guide’), representing the ‘collective conscience of the nation’.
Even if you don’t accept either of these rationales for Hamsun’s behavior, the broader question—should a great writer be condemned by the mistaken political positions he took up as an old man?—remains.
Remembered or not, Hamsun was one of the outstanding European writers of the 20th century. A first reading of Hunger and Mysteries is an unsettling experience; they contain overtones of Sartre and Camus and even the Beats, yet they predate them by several decades. Hunger was published in 1890, but its tone is pure mid-20th century alienation. As Koestler put it: “The story of a semi-delirious ‘trip’ of a young drop-out writer in search of his identity … With a little scene-shifting it could have been written today … he created a new style of writing, a new form of prose narrative which has a hypnotic effect on the reader.”
Some people may find Hamsun's support of the pro-Nazi Quisling regime in Norway indefensible and in some ways that position is hard to argue against. Still, all in all, I prefer to separate the artist from the man, as did these two:
‘His Nazism was after all only one streak in him,’ the writer Sigurd Hoel said just after the war. ‘His writing flowed from quite different sources.’ ‘The stigma of his politics will one day be separated from his writing, which I regard very highly,’ Thomas Mann said in 1955.
[The review in the London Review of Books is available only to subscribers, but if you are interested I can give you my password.]