By Steven Jay Griffel
Queens, NY, USA
Steven Jay Griffel
I remember the day I discovered Knut Hamsun. Of course, "discovered" might insult Hamsun's million readers who preceded me. Still, it felt like a discovery. It felt personal and momentously important.
Though Hamsun was born and raised in mid-nineteenth-century Norway, and I was born and raised a century later in the Bronx, New York, I always felt a powerful kinship with him. His narratives—even the very first one I read—seemed to speak directly to me.
On first reading Hamsun I could tell he was an original: a classic storyteller with a modern understanding of psychology. He was as comfortable describing the great outdoors as he was his characters' interior landscapes.
I saw great wisdom and beauty in his work. And I was hardly alone in this assessment. In 1920 Hamsun was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Literary giants such as Isaac Singer, Stefan Zweig, and Thomas Mann hailed Hamsun as the preeminent writer of the first half of the twentieth century.
Hamsun had me at hello. But there was a time when I endured a period of doubt and pain. The unraveling began at a party on Riverside Drive, sometime in the 1980s. The conversation had turned to reading, and I mentioned a Hamsun novel I was enjoying. Someone I knew and respected turned to me and said: "You read that Nazi bastard? You, a Jew of all people!"
Hamsun, a Nazi? I was shocked, almost to the point of illness.
For me, the party was over. I could not remain a moment longer. I felt as if my own honor had been assailed. Worse, I worried that I had somehow betrayed my own people and my own dear causes by my unknowing complicity.
Knut Hamsun (1890)
I hurried home to investigate for myself. I didn't have a computer or the Internet, but I had enough texts and encyclopedias to make a quick, preliminary investigation. The information was not hard to find. On the face of it, the charges and verdict were irrefutable: Knut was a Nazi sympathizer. Among other proofs, he had presented his Nobel Prize to Joseph Goebbels, Minister of Nazi Propaganda—the architect of the mania that led to Kristallnacht and the even worse horrors to follow.
How did I not know this? How could I have been so blind?
The explanation was easy to figure out and just as easy to share. After the completion of my graduate work, I spent years studiously avoiding critical literature. I was done with essays and monographs, biographies and case studies. I wanted only to read widely and serendipitously, without plan or responsibility. Somehow, during these wonderful years of wide-ranging reading, which included the great novels of Hamsun, I missed the "memo" about Hamsun, Nazi sympathizer.
Fact is, I was confused by what I'd learned about Hamsun. The "truth" didn't fit. I did not think I could have been wrong about his novels, and so I reread them, every one, over a period of years. They were just as great as I remembered. I did not find a single fascist bent, not the merest hint of Reich-mania.
Later, I read many explanations of Hamsun's pro-Nazi position, including Hamsun's swan-song memoir On Overgrown Paths. To my non-amazement, I learned of extenuating circumstances, i.e., Hamsun's lifetime Anglo-phobia, which had led to him to support the Nazis when Anglo and Reich were opposed. Yes, this is simplistic; there are some other influences to explain Hamsun's actions. But this explains it in a nutshell.
The bottom-line for me and other readers, especially those who have not yet read Hamsun: He is a great writer and it would be a terrible shame to dismiss him because of the unfortunate label that has dogged him for many years.