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Hamsun, Knut

critical thomas singer increasingly

(Norwegian, 1859–1952)

For his seventieth birthday Hamsun received written tributes from, amongst many others, Thomas Mann, Maxim Gorky, André Gide, Arnold Schoenberg, and Albert Einstein. Writers as diverse as James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, and Isaac Bashevis Singer have cited his work as hugely influential on their own. Yet Hamsun is comparatively unfamiliar to modern readers. The son of an impoverished farmer in northern Norway, he was sent away from home at the age of 9 to work for his uncle, in order to pay off a family debt. He published his first work at the age of 18, but it was not until twelve years later that he achieved critical recognition with his novel Hunger (1890), drawing on his own experience in this portrayal of an impoverished, starving writer's increasingly hallucinatory struggle to survive. In Mysteries (1892) Nagel, a stranger arriving in a north Norway town, mystifies himself and the local inhabitants, constantly reinventing himself in the stories he tells. In these novels, Hamsun broke radically with the narrative conventions of his time, putting consciousness itself at the centre of his work, with all its contradictions and inconsistencies, and using techniques of stream of consciousness and free association to explore the inner world of his heroes. Pan (1894), a dreamlike meditation on unconsummated love, and Victoria (1898), in which circumstances keep two lovers apart, gave him popular as well as critical success. These four remain the most widely known, and some would say the best, of his novels. In later works he drew closer to the tradition of the great European novel, without losing his emphasis on the subjective experience. Under the Autumn Star (1906) and On Muted Strings (1909; also published together as The Wanderer), and the August trilogy (of which only the first, Wayfarers, 1927, is currently available in English translation) stand out. In Woman at the Pump (1920) he returned again to the more fragmented, shifting style, in a story of a crippled outcast. Increasingly, Hamsun became critical of the progressive urban development of the twentieth century, finding a deeper spiritual truth in man's relationship with nature, and in working the land; The Growth of the Soil (1917) expressed this view at its most deeply felt, and became a major success in Germany. It was Hamsun's public support for Hitler during the Second World War that fatally damaged his reputation. Though it is generally accepted that this support stemmed from the romantic, patriotic idealism of an old man rather than a true understanding of the destructive force of Nazi fascism, the stigma has remained with him. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1920.

James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Mann, Isaac Bashevis Singer Fyodor Dostoevsky  KB

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