Column Editor: Donna Jacobs (Retired, Medical University of South Carolina, Charleston, SC 29425)
What is in store for life in 2019? Always an interesting question to ponder. In the short story The Call of Life Knut Pedersen Hamsun’s lead character ponders many questions about the life of a woman he meets while taking an evening stroll along Vestervold Street in Copenhagen. Each musing leads to an interesting twist. We learn the woman’s name is Ellen; we learn that she is young; we learn personal details about Ellen; and we learn that her husband, who is many years her senior, has just passed away. We learn this fact after the main character spends an intimate night with Ellen in her home and the next morning observes a corpse lain out in the adjoining room to the one where he is making use of a wash stand. “I sat for a long time and pondered.”
Knut Pedersen Hamsun was awarded the 1920 Nobel Prize in Literature for his monumental work, Growth of the Soil. https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/literature/1920/summary/ Each Nobelist is featured on this website, some with more information than others. Knud Pedersen — he wrote under several pen names — was born in Lom, Norway in 1859. His early life was full of struggles and he worked at a wide variety of jobs. From sheriff’s assistant to elementary school teacher to store clerk to odd jobs throughout America, Hamsun would try anything for a dollar. It was while apprenticing with a ropemaker at the age of 17 that he began to write. He successfully published his first book in 1890 using his experiences and struggles with all of his odd jobs to guide the narrative.
Although Hamsun was awarded the Nobel for Growth of the Soil, the 1890 semiautobiographical work Hunger is considered by many to be Hamsun’s real claim to literary fame. The writing of Hamsun influenced Isaac Bashevis Singer, who also won a Nobel Prize in Literature in 1978. This influence developed into Singer not only translating many of Hamsun’s works but also calling Hamsun “the father of the modern school of literature in his every aspect — his subjectiveness, his fragmentariness, his use of flashbacks, his lyricism. The whole modern school of fiction in the twentieth century stems from Hamsun.” (A quote attributed to Singer’s introduction in a 1967 translated version of Hunger.)
Like many authors, Hamsun had strong political leanings. He was a strong advocate for Germany, the German culture, Nazi ideology and eulogized Hitler after his death. In Otto Dietrich’s memoir The Hitler I Knew: Memoirs of the Third Reich’s Press Chief, Dietrich relates an anecdote about a meeting between Hamsun and Hitler. Hamsun was old and hard of hearing. He interrupted Hitler many times in their conversation where Hamsun was critiquing the behavior of the German government toward the Norwegians. Dietrich states that the Führer was in a fury for several days after the exchange.
When the wars shifted the political wind, these political positions created difficulties for him. His books were burned. He was subjected to a psychiatric exam to determine if his mental state was stable to stand a trail for treason. He was found to be impaired and the treason charges were dropped. Then in 1949 Hamsun wrote his final book — maybe as a testament to an improved mental facility.
Now life is calling me back to The Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code by Margalit Fox, the story of the three people involved with the discovery and subsequent decoding of Linear B.