Saturday, March 29, 2014


Knut Hamsun, the Norwegian winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1920, supported the Nazis in their occupation of Norway during World War II. After the war, he and his wife Marie were separately put on trial as collaborators. Marie Hamsun served nearly three years in prison. Knut Hamsun was confined to rest homes and mental hospitals for long periods of "examination" and ultimately paid a large cash fine in lieu of further confinement.

In 1996 Swedish director Jan Troell made Hamsun, a movie in Norwegian starring Max von Sydow and Danish actress Ghita NΓΈrby. It was based on a 1978 book by Thorkild Hansen published in English as The Hamsun Trial. Swedish novelist Per Olov Enquist collaborated with Jan Troell in transforming Hansen's journalistic book into a screenplay. When I saw Enquist's name in the credits I remembered his admirable novel, The Royal Physician's Visit.

The main action of the film covers ten years, from the mid-1930s (when Hamsun was in his mid-70s) through the mid-1940s (with Hamsun in his mid-80s). Max von Sydow stresses Hamsun's continuity with a traditional non-modern culture of fixed values and moral hierarchies. The Norwegian author was born in 1859, the same year Darwin's theory was first published. It was over the course of Hamsun's own lifetime that Darwin's revelations played out their annihilating meaning for traditional European belief-structures. The anti-modern tenor of fascism fit all too well with the anti-modern tenor of Hamsun's art. For many decades he had enjoyed the world's admiration and deference, like a survivor from another age. Then at the end of his life he became a figure of scorn.