Sunday, September 11, 2011

Douglas Messerli | Testing His Creations (on Hamsun's The Women at the Pump)


TESTING HIS CREATIONS
by Douglas Messerli

Knut Hamsun The Women at the Pump, translated from the Norwegian by Oliver and Gunnvor Stallybrass (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1978). Reprinted by (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1996).

Reading this new translation of The Women at the Pump I was reminded of those delightful hours when I first discovered the works of the Nobel Prize-winning Norwegian novelist Knut Hamsun; and I was once again struck by the fact that despite Hamsun’s remarkable writings and his influence upon modern masters as diverse as Gertrude Stein, Henry Miller and Isaac Bashevis Singer, his major works remained out of print for more than four decades.

Fortunately, in the late 1960s, Farrar, Straus & Giroux began a series of new Hamsun translations, and previous to this book have published five of his masterpieces: Pan, Hunger, Victoria, and Mysteries—my own favorite. For these new editions—as for other series of translations—the publishers can only be praised. That a major publishing house should devote so much of its energies towards the publication of one author’s oeuvre is a small miracle in these days.

The publication of Oliver and Gunnvor Stallybrass’s superb translation of The Women at the Pump, however, is an event that might be seen as somewhat controversial, and at the very least problematic. In the first place, this novel has never been a favorite among Hamsun’s critics. His depiction of small-town provincials in this novel is so sardonic as to be cruel. “Even Strindberg has a little pity for the sins and foibles of those he so passionately despised,” wrote the reviewer for London’s The Times Literary Supplement when the book was first translated in 1928.

Later critics, moreover, would see in this contempt for small-town life—and in Hamsun’s adoration of landliv (farm life) in this novel and in Growth of the Soil—the roots of his later attraction to fascism. (During the Nazi invasion of Norway, Hamsun published and broadcast speeches denouncing then premier Johann Nygaadsvold; and in 1947, at the age of 86, Hamsun was tried and found guilty of collaboration with the Nazis.) Clearly, these critics have a valid point. Hamsun’s extreme disdain for intellectualism, his biting attacks on small-town and city pretensions, and his recurrent exaltation of the sea and soil all found expression in the Nazi propagandist advocacy of a “new soil-loving Nordic race.” Indeed, in The Women at the Pump there is often a horrifying vacuousness as Hamsun, through stylistic maneuvers and didactic statements, brings into question the human worth of his townsfolk. Thus, while superficially The Women at the Pump may remind one of Sherwood Anderson’s kaleidoscopic presentation of small-town life in Winesburg, Ohio—which appeared one year earlier—at heart this is a very different work. In Hamsun’s novel there is seemingly no center, no hero, no human figure strong enough to unite the varying patterns it presents.

Yet, for all of this, there is a strange tension at work in the novel. While Hamsun’s characters are often no more than mouthpieces for a series of dialectics, Hamsun as narrator is brilliantly vital. And despite the fact that the novel contains no hero, the townspeople do speak as a positive force through Hamsun’s incredible narrative techniques. Like the women gossiping at the pump, the narrator moves fluidly from formal to colloquial language, from omniscient to limited points of view, from complex dialogue to ellipsis. And it is this protean energy as manifested in the townspeople which, in the end, is what the novel is about. If, on one hand, Hamsun empties his characters of human qualities, on the other, through the mere fact of their ability to withstand Hamsun’s satirical assaults, he wrings from them a sort of instinctual dynamism. Hamsun’s Oliver Anderson, for example, is created as a sexless cripple, an obese “abomination,” an “empty husk” cuckolded many times over by his wife. But he is also, as Hamsun eventually admits, a survivor. “A child of misfortune, if you like, chewed and spat out by life, left high and dry, but possessed of an undying instinct for survival.”

Thus, ultimately, it is not Hamsun’s idealization of soil and sea that wins out, and it is this fact which makes The Women at the Pump less romantic than Hamsun’s other works. It is almost as if he needed to test his literary creations in this novel against the romantic values he inherited, and which would eventually lead him naively—as it did others—towards fascism.

In The Women at the Pump, however, Hamsun goes one step further. At the novel’s end Oliver Anderson is not only a survivor, but a proud father of the town’s new schoolmaster and its blacksmith. The fact that this character not only survives but, as Faulkner would later put it, endures, is a testament not only to Hamsun’s honesty, but to his underlying faith in the human race, a faith expressed so beautifully in his last work, On Overgrown Paths, written in a psychiatric clinic in Oslo as he awaited trial for his war crimes. It is for this honesty, and for his ability to portray such enduring characters, that I so value the works of Knut Hamsun. And for this reason—and the enjoyment derived from reading any Hamsun fiction—it is wonderful to have The Women at the Pump back in print.

College Park, Maryland, 1978
Reprinted from The Washington Post Book World, September 1978 / International Herald Tribune, September 1978.


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