Writers Behaving Badly: Knut Hamsun

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Knut Hamsun (1859 – 1952)

Norway’s greatest writer, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1920, he was the author of great novels deeply rooted in the Norwegian soil.

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However, driven by a commitment to Pan-Germanic thinking during World War Two, Knut Hamsun became an enthusiastic German collaborator and even met Adolf Hitler. From then onward, he turned into an object of hatred of the very people who once adored him.

kh7A still from the movie “Hamsund” (1996). Danish-Swedish-Norwegian-German drama directed by Jan Troell, about the later life of Knut Hamsun, played by Max von Sydow.

Hamsun’s reputation was in ruins; not only had he seen Hitler but, in a sickeningly misguided moment earlier that year, he had given Goebbels his Nobel Prize medal. His postwar fate was already under discussion.

In November, 1944, in Moscow, Vyacheslav Molotov, the Soviet foreign minister, discussed Hamsun’s case with Terje Wold, the Norwegian justice minister in exile, and Trygve Lie, the foreign minister in exile. The author of “Victoria” and “Pan” was too great an artist to be treated like a common Nazi, Molotov said, and, at such an advanced age, should be allowed to die a natural death. Wold replied, in English, “You are too soft, Mr. Molotov.” (Jeffrey Frank, IN FROM THE COLD: The return of Knut Hamsun.)

 Norway was liberated in May of 1945, and the Norwegians were unforgiving toward Nazi collaborators. Knut Hamsun,  together with his wife Marie, went from being national saints to national shame. Traitors were harshly persecuted in Norway. Marie got a three-year sentence and a fine. Hamsun faced treason charges. But he was the nation’s greatest writer, and an old man of eighty-six…

He was arrested and then moved to a nursing home housed at the main psychiatric clinic in Oslo, where he remained for the next three years.

The Norwegian courts fined Hamsun four hundred and twenty-five thousand kroner (then about eighty-seven thousand dollars), and he was allowed to return home, to Nørholm, where he went into a slow, steady decline… 

On Overgrown Paths was written at a time when Hamsun was in police custody and  published in 1949, when Hamsun was ninety. The “overgrown paths” referred to the writer’s youth, and in returning to that time he did so in a first-person voice he hadn’t used for nearly forty years.

Gilles Lapouge and Charles Dubois created an excellent documentary about the Norway’s fallen saint.

Grandson of Knut Hamsun, and famous Swedish actor Max von Sydow, who had played Hamsun in a film role about the novelist during World War II, attempt to show who this uncompromising man really was.

Through paintings by Norwegian painter Edward Munch, a contemporary of Hamsun’s, archive visuals of Hamsun and excerpts from movie adaptations of his novels, we learn about an enigmatic individual who was looking too far afield to see the political reality in his homeland. (From the introduction to the documentary.)

 This link will take you to the site where Knut Hamsun documentary can be viewed.vignette1

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2 comments on “Writers Behaving Badly: Knut Hamsun

  1. In his trial speech (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J6YwmwoOwco) Hamsun explained his actions and writings during WWII were driven by noble motives – the well being of Norwegian people, and their place in the future pan-German Europe. He cared deeply about young Norwegians, and warned them against resisting nazis.
    He also complained of poor information sources (reading only two official newspapers), and claimed no one dared criticize him (his writings) in those days. In his view, most Norwegians behaved no different from him. So their “righteous” indignation after the war, and his trial were sort of hypocritical – an easy scapegoat(?)

  2. To add to my previous note, Knut Hamsun and his writing fared better in the Soviet Union, they were translated and published even after WWII.

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