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.

It must have been sweet, lecturing on European literature to a Sunday crowd, when the previous winter he had been conducting streetcars in Chicago, insulating his uniform with newspaper, doggedly reading Aristotle between stops. Hamsun had originally come to America on Bjørnson’s recommendation, hoping to become the voice of a growing Norwegian community there. But this hope had been frustrated, and Hamsun fell back on hard labor and odd clerkships to survive.

After a few weeks of earning his keep by minding pigs, Hamsun gave a final lecture, held on Norwegian National Day, May 17, 1888, devoted to attacking America, as his biographer Ferguson surmises. Hamsun resented democracy, calling it mob rule, and viewed the American Midwest as a land of poverty and rootlessness. At this time Hamsun was wearing black ribbons that indicated sympathy for the anarchist victims of the Haymarket massacre. His first symbolic quarrel with the establishment was political.

His next was aesthetic. To write Hunger, the book he began later that year, Hamsun had to give up on being the next Bjørnson. He wrote about being hungry not only because he had good material but because he decided that suffering brought psychological insights a Bjørnson would never have. And Hamsun’s first implicit break with Bjørnson emphasized their class differences: Bjørnson had made a tour of America, and was welcomed in many towns with a brass band; he never got his hands dirty, as Hamsun had. In a scandalous lecture series in Copenhagen, Hamsun told his own truth about America. The wildly nonfactual, antidemocratic book he published afterward, On the Cultural Life of Modern America, included this motto: “Truth is neither objectivity nor the balanced view; truth is a selfless subjectivity.” From the beginning, political recklessness and Modernist subjectivity were fused. Hamsun actually fantasized that Bjørnson would denounce the series–and that Nietzsche’s great popularizer, Danish critic Georg Brandes, would then come to the aid of Hamsun, the young profaner.

Bjørnson remained aloof–but Hamsun had found his voice. He would be both self-pitying and self-aggrandizing. “It was in those days when I wandered about hungry in Kristiania, that strange city which no one leaves before it has set its mark on him….” So he begins Hunger, with an ellipsis. He then switches to the present tense, waking up, so to speak, in his own novel. He finds himself in a cheap attic room, starving at 6 am, so hungry that a newspaper ad for bread starts to swell before his eyes.

The Hunger narrator was one of the first in a parade of alienated moderns beginning with Baudelaire and Raskolnikov and continuing with Rilke’s Malte Laurids Brigge and Beckett’s Molloy. He crosses and recrosses the city of Kristiania (Oslo), chasing odd loans and sleeping on benches, writing in cemeteries and then suddenly rushing off on an imagined errand. The novel is set not so much in the city as in the narrator’s mind. It’s divided into four almost interchangeable parts, the only rising action being the narrator’s deepening debts. At the end of every section, he gets some money–but by the beginning of the next, he’s broke.

Brandes, the critic Hamsun most wanted to hear from, confessed that he found the book “monotonous.” A reader today might disagree: Beckett and Camus have taught us to read similar tales with far less incident and overt emotion than Hamsun unself-consciously provides. But he felt he had to defend himself: “I have avoided all the usual stuff about suicidal thoughts, weddings, trips to the country and dances up at the mansion house. This is too cheap for me. What fascinates me is the endless motion of my own mind.”

At a cerebral level, the Hunger narrator enjoys his crises: “I had passed over into the sheer madness of hunger; I was empty and without pain and my thoughts were running riot.” But occasional euphoria is incidental to the narrator’s soaring stubbornness about his situation. So many chances slip through his fingers–he puts the wrong date on an important job application; he turns up his nose at a loan; he bypasses a homeless shelter’s free morning meal in order to maintain the illusion that he is an important journalist who stayed up all night at an expensive club and lost his key. Everything becomes a test of pride.

Hunger is available in two recent English editions. Sverre Lyngstad’s translation forms the initial number in an ongoing project, including eight novels so far, that gives us a unified English Hamsun for the first time. The other edition, a reprint of Robert Bly’s 1967 translation, benefits from Bly’s ear for rhythm. Bly has “All of this happened while I was walking around starving in Christiania,” which is far more natural than Lyngstad’s “It was in those days when I wandered about hungry in Kristiania.” But Bly smoothed out Hamsun’s tense changes and otherwise erred on the side of fluidity. By retaining Hamsun’s awkwardness, Lyngstad preserves the deep personality of his narration. Throughout his work, Hamsun takes a very free hand with things like tense or a narrator’s supposedly limited omniscience–he writes with an unruly impulsiveness that is both untutored and eerily masterful. This was notably appreciated by Kafka, who, having noticed a less convincing pattern of flaws in another author, referred to Hamsun’s work, saying that “there it is as natural as the knots in wood.”

After Hunger, Hamsun let loose. He attacked Bjørnson and Ibsen directly, finally. These two masters had often created controversies of their own–on social issues. Hamsun was more interested in aesthetics and in his obvious ambition. Speaking to provincial audiences and finally to a sold-out Kristiania hall that had Ibsen in the front row, Hamsun insisted on amoral individuality and subjectivity at any cost. “I will make my hero laugh, where sensible people think he ought to cry…and why? Because my hero is no character, no ‘type’ who laughs and cries according to the theories of some School, but a complex, modern being.”

Hamsun had a strange way with embarrassment–it seemed to fortify him, to confirm his sense of self–and that, as much as his ambition and his revolutionary aesthetics, contributed to his combative career as a public intellectual. Even in private, whenever possible, he did the indiscreet thing. As a young man, when writing to his early patron Erasmus Zahl, Hamsun dated his letter on Norwegian National Day, as if he was already a national treasure. And with Zahl’s money in hand, he moved to the small coastal town of Østensjø, bought new clothes and a pretentious lorgnette, chased the girls and started writing letters to the regional newspaper that attacked local hymn-singing practices. In America, once he had his foot in the door of a Unitarian minister’s sophisticated home, he decided he would go barefoot. And as an old man on a rare holiday , he explicitly refused to tip the staff at a grand Nice hotel. Only just as he and his family were packing to go did he hand out wonderful bonuses.

Just so, in Mysteries (1892) Hamsun’s hero, Nagel, shows up in his bright-yellow suit, catching a Northern coastal town in the middle of its own dramatic grind, just when the local beauty’s suitor, Karlsen, has killed himself. Nagel gets in line–pursuing Dagny, the beauty, and contemplating death by prussic acid. But unlike the romantic Karlsen, who solemnly quotes poetry in his suicide note, Nagel is self-deprecating and presumptuously absurd. He represents the modern artist’s insecure relationship with his bourgeois public. Everywhere he goes, Nagel frantically charms and then gives offense for good measure. Arguing as usual against Tolstoy and Kant, Nagel utters some of the most incriminating lines of Hamsun’s early career: “No, the voice of my blood says that he is the greatest who has contributed most fundamental value, most positive profit, to human existence. The greatest one is the great terrorist, a towering magnitude, an unheard-of universal jack that balances planets.” But more important than these lines is the way Mysteries crystallizes Hamsun’s relationship with his public, offering a loving parody of the conceited ironist who by definition must be misunderstood.

After Mysteries, Hamsun moved to Paris. He was poised to become a world writer and an expat, but the relevant role model, August Strindberg, had been sharply disappointing. Hamsun took his early theories of character from Strindberg, but in person he found the Swedish playwright too easy to dominate. Moreover, Hamsun couldn’t get the hang of French. To finish his next important novel, Pan (1894), Hamsun decided he would abandon the cosmopolitan world.

It is very moving to realize that Pan, a return to form but also a return to Norway, to the Arctic coast that would shelter Hamsun’s increasingly insular career, is probably his most beautiful book. As was becoming a pattern, Hamsun sets the tone with a gesture of recollection: “I’ve thought and thought, these last few days, about the endless day of the Nordland summer,” his narrator, Lieutenant Glahn, begins. Glahn has moved north to hunt and to have some peace, but Edvarda, daughter of a local merchant, turns his head, queering his idyll. For a few weeks he’s filled with a fey happiness:

Gladness is intoxicating. I fire my gun and an unforgettable echo answers from crag to crag, floats out over the sea and rings in some sleepless helmsman’s ears. What am I glad about? A thought that comes to me, a memory, a sound in the forest, a human being. I think of her–I close my eyes and stand still on the road and think of her, counting the minutes.

Pan is a poetic book, broken into mini-chapters that open onto sudden glimpses of life: “Maybe at this moment I behold the interior of the earth’s brain,” Glahn muses from a seaside cliff, “how it labors, everything seething!” Pan was a homecoming and a release. Hamsun reconciled himself to Norway and found a way to write a good book that was not provocative. Edvarda matches Glahn and contains him; she would have stopped Nagel in his tracks–a woman who embodies Hamsun’s theory of literary characters. “One cannot always be the same,” she hedges, when Glahn accuses her of cold indifference.

But Hamsun’s oeuvre after Pan hugs the Nordland shore, returning again and again to tales of wanderers and star-crossed lovers, all of them inspired by the pale air of warm Arctic nights. Hamsun continued to write about taciturn, complicated men, but his books were more mysterious than revolutionary–more than a whiff of their strange atmosphere is contained in Per Petterson’s recent masterpiece, Out Stealing Horses (2003).

In other words, Hamsun had completed his aesthetic experiments by the time he became famous. His ambitions were complete. In some ways, he mellowed–he moved to the country and occasionally wrote family-friendly novels on commission. But he clung to the reckless self-confidence that had made him famous; it was what he had to give. When Bjørnson died in 1910, Hamsun inherited his mantle on literary merits, but the timing was good for Hamsun to dabble in politics. When World War I began, he made a point of siding with Germany–where he had been translated early and celebrated. And at the war’s end, he published an epic celebration of Blut und Boden that took the world by storm.

Though it opens with an archetypal man clearing a path through the wilderness, Growth of the Soil (1917) firmly belongs to Hamsun’s unmistakably modern voice, rendered in a prepossessing new translation by Lyngstad. Isak, Hamsun’s idealized farmer, “never read a book,” but the voice that brings him to life is a seasoned literary creation: part village gossip, part agrarian visionary and always naggingly ironic. “Oh, that Inger [Isak’s common-law wife]–he loved her, and she loved him in return; they were frugal folk, living in the age of the wooden spoon and doing well.” The age of the wooden spoon passes, personal troubles come and go, modern farm equipment arrives, but Isak stays the same: placid, built like a barge and barely human. The reader waits and waits for disaster to strike, but Isak seems to be blessed by economic destiny. It is soothing to watch as his farm steadily grows, but it also feels like an intellectual indulgence. Out of artistic necessity, Hamsun introduces Geissler, a mercurial wanderer and authorial stand-in, who teaches Isak irrigation and generally makes up for his lack of self-awareness. “The country is supposed to have thirty-two thousand men like your father,” Geissler says to Isak’s son. “I’ve figured it out.”

Hamsun had taken it upon himself to plan Norway’s future. He envisioned an agricultural renaissance. Isak was his new model for a genius, even more unlettered than Hamsun. Hamsun’s Modernist beliefs had made him a Luddite, an enemy of rationalism and a lover of anachronism. He liked Mussolini before he liked Hitler–he liked a strong man, a simple solution. He had long held a racist prejudice for the so-called Germanic race, but his anti-Semitism was an odious afterthought to his interest in fascism. He came out for Hitler early and stubbornly refused to reconsider, despite his misgivings about German rule in Norway. Granted a personal meeting with Hitler, Hamsun complained about Josef Terboven, the Reichskommissar in Norway, infuriating Hitler–but also revealing Hamsun’s naïve assumption that Hitler could be reasoned with. Still, Hamsun maintained his public position. As Ferguson makes clear, Hamsun was not senile. But he was isolated, both physically and mentally. He built not just his career but his life on standing alone, and the dimensions of his final imbroglio did not scare him into changing.

Nonetheless, there is nothing inspiring about Hamsun’s political views. It would seem useful to discount biography, to take his books on their own. But seldom are biography and literature so obviously interwoven. In his 1945 psychological deposition, while on trial for treason, Hamsun noted that his characters are “split and fragmented, not good and not bad, but both at once, subtle, and changeable in their attitudes and in their deeds. No doubt I am also like this myself.”

Yet it was his tenacity in so many things–in choosing Hitler, in making his artistic claims, in pontificating from the stage–that defined Hamsun. Had he ever settled in America or Paris, he might have been able to fade away, or he might have had peers capable of saving him. As it was, in 1935, Thomas Mann bragged that he had thought of writing Hamsun to warn him off Hitler but had decided “it would lead too far.” If Mann had done so, and somehow succeeded, literary history would be slightly different. As it is, Hunger and Mysteries and Pan are still in print, in good translations, and as long as they are, Hamsun’s abhorrent politics will still be relevant.