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Book Review: Growth of the Soil by Knut Hamsun

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It is not uncommon for a writer to become more known for his reputation than actual work. Not that the work isn’t of quality, just that it is easier for the public to cling to one’s outrageous political beliefs or one’s tragic life than for the very work that writer should be known. Sylvia Plath is a perfect example, since many non-readers of poetry are aware of her having suicided herself in the oven, yet are unfamiliar with her great poetry — the very thing for which she is deservedly famous.

The Norwegian writer Knut Hamsun was well known in his day, for he won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1920 after having published Growth of the Soil. I was unfamiliar with Hamsun’s work, until a friend informed me that Growth of the Soil was one of his favorite novels. Yet when I went to order the book off Amazon, I noticed copies were old and difficult to come by, and that many of the reviewers had only recently “discovered” Hamsun, just as I had recently discovered him.

His other well-known work is his novel Hunger, which I’ve not read, but returning to my original point, upon reading up on Hamsun’s background, I learned of his controversial political views. For one thing, he is well known for having been a Nazi sympathizer, and upon winning the Nobel, he apparently mailed his medal to one of Hitler’s closest associates, Joseph Goebbels. Then, after Hitler’s death, sources claim that he made some sorrowful eulogy, lamenting over the dictator’s life and death.

As result, readers have adopted ambivalent feelings for the writer — hating him for his politics yet loving him for his work. It should be also noted that Hamsun was in “mental decline” after the war, so one can’t be sure what he would have believed in a healthier state of mind. But all this should be no matter, for what counts is the work, and Growth of the Soil is a work worth the read. The book tells the story of Isak and Inger, a married couple seeking to make a living off land that many believe to be a bad business move. Inger is physically disfigured, but Isak is devoted to her, and the couple works to raise a family and make a life off their land.

The text is translated from Norwegian by W.W. Worster, and reads very richly upon the page. Rife with description and wild observation, Growth of the Soil is a book partially about sacrifice and selfishness, but also self-preservation. Isak seems to be the only one truly passionate about his land, while many around him are driven by material wants. Isak and Inger’s son, Eleseus, is a prophetic depiction of the “me generation” that exists amid the Baby Boomer generation and beyond. Although Growth of the Soil was published in 1917, Hamsun depicts this hedonistic attitude quite well, for Eleseus regularly mooches off his father’s money, purchasing frivolous material wants at his own accord. Not only does he not appreciate his father’s sacrifice, but he believes he is entitled to such privileges. Hamsun sums up his character well when the narrator notes:

“Eleseus manages his business like a fool. It flatters him to have folk coming up from the village to buy at Storborg, so that he gives them credit as soon as asked; and when this is noised abroad, there come still more of them to buy the same way. The whole thing is going to rack and ruin. Eleseus is an easy man, and lets it go; the store is emptied and the store is filled again. All costs money. And who pays it? His father.”

A scene as this is all too sad, yet not uncommon when one thinks of spoiled youth. Later, Eleseus escapes to America, leaving his family and their farm behind, never to return.

The book is somewhat critical of city life and culture, especially when it threatens the preservation of land and family values. Although Hamsun is never preachy, the lure of the city is something that recurs throughout the tale, and although the city itself is not something shown to be evil, it is more or less, just like the rough parts of nature: indifferent to human happiness and fulfillment. And in some sense, the imposition it can cause is inescapable. Though when asked which will outlast, land will always live without the need for humans, for the city is nothing more than peopled wilderness, or: “the wilderness was peopled country now.” Without the people, the wilderness will always return.

There are moments where the prose is littered with a bit too many “aye!” and “ho!” and “nay!” but this wouldn’t be the first time something got lost amid translation. Growth of the Soil becomes the growth of generations — the passage of time and the growth of land that makes its way within the creases of one’s face and hands. The people become their land, and by the end of the novel, Isak is balding, and what the narrator calls “a stump of a man.” He is older and not as physically strong as he once was, but he is not beaten. He continues sowing his grain. “Growth of the soil was something different, a thing to be procured at any cost; the only source, the origin of all.”

Later this point is expounded further: “’Tis not all that are so, but you are so; needful of earth. ‘Tis you that maintain life. Generation to generation, breeding ever anew; and when you die, the new stock goes on. That’s the meaning of eternal life.”

In many ways, reading Growth of the Soil is like reading a preview for the later greats, for one can see American writers like John Steinbeck and Thomas Wolfe have picked amid the themes in this work and made them their own. Yet just like with Steinbeck and Wolfe’s works, there are moments when Growth of the Soil feels a bit verbose, as it finishes at 435 pages in my edition. Yet it is still a rich work worth reading, as Hamsun is a writer worthy of attention.

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About Jessica Schneider

  • Phillip Routh

    Hamsun was a flat-out great writer.
    I’m glad you liked Growth — but I have feeling you got a rather clunky translation.
    Hunger is a wonder. But there are many others he did that are special (one being Pan, the ultimate doomed love novel).

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    I haven’t read Growth, but Hunger is a heckuva book. And you’ve got to read the intro by Isaac Babel.

    BTW, a recent New Yorker featured a comprehensive article on Hamsun’s literary career and his political involvement with the Nazi movement, including the brief interview with Hitler.

    You might want to look it up.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    Sorry, it should be Isaac Singer.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    Here’s the link to the New Yorker article, “In From The Cold.

  • http://ruvysroost.blogspot.com Ruvy

    Shame on you mixing up a guy who got killed in a Soviet prison camp for not having the brains to get out of the USSR when he could, with one of the best Yiddish writers who ever lived!

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    Sorry, I’ve been too long on the BC site to read any good books. But I corrected myself, haven’t I?

    But just to make up for this mistake, here’s another link: “The Fabulist.”

  • http://jaschneider.blogspot.com/ Jessica Schneider

    Translations can be a problem with certain writers, but overall Hamsun’s writing was rich, even if some might have been lost in translation (which unfortunately happens often).

    Roger: thanks for the link. I will check it out. “Hunger” is definitely a must read for me someday.