For more than 400 years–“twice two hundred years of darkness,” in Henrik Ibsen’s phrase–Norway was ruled by Denmark. Then in 1814, as a consequence of the Napoleonic wars, Norway was ceded to Sweden. In the shake-up, Norwegian self-interest flourished, a Constitution was drafted and Swedish authority was violently opposed, though briefly. And while Sweden would manage Norway’s foreign policy for almost another 100 years, Norwegian nationalism never cooled down. With its politicians defeated, its patriots were often writers, men who could persuasively speak for Norway, drawing on backwoods folklore against the urbane culture of Danish Copenhagen. They gathered folk tales, debated the merits of a uniquely Norwegian written language and wrote idealistic poems and novels about peasant life. The Swedish king had prohibited recognition of Norway’s Constitution day, but on May 17, 1829, poet Henrik Wergeland led a celebration that made its anniversary a popular national holiday.
Beginning in the 1860s, the chief of these writers was Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, a stout orator with a large face, mutton chops and a hawklike crest of hair. He penned the national anthem in 1864 and took his service to his country seriously. When he died, in 1910, the Norwegian press loudly wondered who could succeed him. But they already knew. Even the New York Times reported, in 1911, on this self-conscious search for a new great man, which by then had produced its result: Knut Hamsun.
Hamsun proved to be a disaster. In 1920 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature; but by 1933 he had declared his support for Hitler, and he continued to do so during and after his country’s occupation by Nazi forces in 1940. He was a black sheep, a genius–sure of his talent but also paranoid, insecure and incurably cocky. As Robert Ferguson explains in his invaluable biography Enigma, Hamsun waded into the most sensitive debates–on infanticide, freedom of speech and eventually Nazism–with bellicose editorials that took his national stature, and the inviolability of his ideas, for granted. He wanted none of the responsibility that came with his laurels; he never stopped being the rebel. Though he began to cultivate Bjørnson shortly before the latter’s death, he had spent most of his career antagonizing him. As late as 1904, he published damning articles in the Norwegian press. “You have become old, master. If only you had not become old…. Age thinks it becomes wiser and wiser; but the truth is that Age becomes more and more stupid.” The same could have been said to Hamsun in 1940.
Hamsun made great men his business–for a Norwegian writer, this was inevitable. As a very young man he already had Bjørnson’s model in mind, even combing his hair back in a three-inch wave that resembled the elder writer’s snow-white pompadour. Hamsun was also a great critic of Victorian hero worship, but he was neither like Lytton Strachey, content to prove Florence Nightingale and Cardinal Manning hypocrites on their own terms, nor like Oscar Wilde, happy to draft figures such as Jesus Christ or Lord Byron into his unlikely causes. After the breakthrough of Hunger (1890), Hamsun risked his nascent reputation with a lecture series that tried to tear down the idols of Norwegian culture–Bjørnson and the expatriate Ibsen. What Hamsun hated about these men was their solemn belief in their own responsibility. Ibsen took it upon himself to open the doll’s house and rethink women’s roles; Bjørnson championed the peasants in one decade, and in the next he took on the church. But Hamsun, a nihilist already, threw social responsibility out of literature; from the beginning, he was a champion of no one but himself.
Hamsun’s mature career began onstage. On December 11, 1887, in Minneapolis, where he was living, Hamsun began a series that would showcase his hard-won knowledge of modern literature, lecturing on Balzac, Flaubert, Zola, Bjørnson and Ibsen. As Ferguson writes, one witness remembers that Hamsun’s clothes were frayed; his pants were too short, and his jacket was tightly buttoned, as if to hide an unsuitable shirt: “Often he bit his lip, started as though in surprise, and then a salvo of passionate phrases would come literally tearing out of his throat.” He wasn’t yet ready to betray the older generation, but he did make special mention of the young Swedish playwright August Strindberg, claiming that he was “no great thinker” but merely “a great original genius”–a distinction that self-taught Hamsun would lean on in the future as a mandate.