ENVISION A CHILLY NORDIC CITY, AROUND THE end of the 19th century. On a bench in the city's main park, a young man, poorly dressed and horribly thin, fidgets and falters. He is talking to himself, and writing wildly on a block of paper. You, dear bourgeois reader, would avoid this anti-bourgeois banshee, and enact a nice, pacific crescent around the park bench. For this young man looks like trouble. But an old tramp is unwise enough to sit next to the lunatic. He asks the young man where he lives; the young man decides to lie to the tramp, and names a pleasant square he had just been walking in. Ah, says the tramp, and what is the name of your landlord? "Hippolati," says the young man -- it is the first word to come into his head. Ah yes, says the tramp, who seems to know the name. You remember Hippolati, asks the young man, embellishing his lie. He is famous for having invented an electric prayer book. Yes indeed, says the tramp, I remember. Hippolati was also a cabinet minister in Persia for seven years, says the young man. So he was, the tramp blandly agrees.
Suddenly the young man is enraged, and begins to insult the tramp. But instead of rebuking him for believing these silly lies -- the logical action -- he strangely accuses him of not believing him. "Perhaps you don't even believe that a man with the name Hippolati exists! What obstinacy and wickedness in an old man -- I've never seen the likes of it. What the hell is the matter with you? . . . Let me tell you sir, that I'm not at all accustomed to such treatment as yours, and I won't stand for it." The old man is terrified by this verbal onslaught, and runs away as fast as he can.
This is an early scene from Knut Hamsun's first novel, Hunger, which appeared in 1890. It is still an absolutely revolutionary text. Hamsun wrote at this time, "I dream of a literature with characters in which their very lack of consistency is their basic characteristic." He took the waywardness and illogical storms of feeling that Dostoyevsky had captured, and extended them to the point of incoherence and raging affront. Thus, the narrator of Hunger, who is nameless, spends the novel wandering through the city of Oslo, haranguing himself and innocent passersby. He stalks an attractive young woman, finally approaching her to tell her that she has dropped her book. But she was not carrying a book. He gloats over her confusion, and then feels shame at having pestered her. A beggar asks the young man for money. The young man rushes to the pawnshop, pawns his vest, and then returns with a few coins for the beggar. He is offended when the beggar looks him up and down and, clearly taking pity on him, refuses the charity. The young man is easily offended; he is a delicate needle of pride and self-loathing, which can be set vibrating by the tiniest occurrence. Just as the beggar's pity offends him, so he is similarly offended when his editor at the local newspaper -- the narrator fitfully writes journalism -- offers to pay him in advance. He proudly declines the money. Indeed he treats himself with the same mad combination of pride and self-abnegation: In one inspired moment, he says to himself, "Come, let's go for a walk to the pier! . . . that is, if you can spare the time." And he bows to himself and walks to the pier.
Hamsun's second novel, Mysteries (1892), is formally more coherent than Hunger, but its protagonist, Johan Nilsen Nagel, is quite as bewildering as Hamsun's earlier hero. Nagel turns up without warning at a small Norwegian seaside town. He attracts immediate attention, not only because he wears a yellow suit, but because he starts doing very strange things. He walks to a nearby town and sends himself a forged telegram, which offers to buy some land for an enormous sum. He leaves the telegram open in his hotel room, where it is seen by the maid. The rumor spreads that Nagel is wealthy. Yet later in the book, when the local doctor asks him if he is indeed rich, he denies it. So what is he playing at? Later still, as he is trying to woo the parson's daughter, he confesses to her that he sent himself the telegram. Whom is he trying to impress?
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Hamsun, by all accounts, could be as unpredictable, if not as insane, as his fictional characters. As a young man he fled Norway for America, where for two years he caused trouble in the various Scandinavian communities responsible for hosting him. (He wrote scandalous journalism.) In Chicago he worked on the railroad. It was so cold, and he was so poor, that he wore newspaper underneath his coat; his colleagues liked to touch him to hear it crackle. Like Dostoyevsky, whose novels he read and deeply absorbed, he gambled heavily, and was subject to fits of anger. On holiday in Nice, he made himself the most unpopular guest at one of the big hotels, abusing the staff and refusing to tip. When he left a week later, he inverted his reputation by giving the staff the largest tip they had ever received. And of course in later life, Hamsun would become notorious -- it is perhaps his only celebrity nowadays -- as the great Norwegian writer and Nobel laureate who supported Hitler. Being Hamsun, he was not pro-Nazi for reasons approaching coherence. Psychology trumped ideology: Obscurely, he loathed the British, and so backed the anti-British forces. And he was not a reliable Nazi, anyway. In 1944 he had an audience with Hitler, whose lieutenants thought that a meeting with the then world-famous writer might polish the Nazi shingle a bit. But Hamsun, by now old and deaf, merely shouted at Hitler about how little the Norwegians liked the puppet governor the Nazis had installed. Afterward, one of the witnesses said that Knut Hamsun was the only man he had ever seen "thwart the Führer."
THERE IS A DANGER IN MAKING HAMSUN'S work sound only bizarre -- the spoiled fruit of Strindberg, the aftermath of Dostoyevsky's hurricane. But in fact Hamsun wrote remarkably coherent and lucid fiction; I mean, philosophically lucid. His novels, for all their oddities, belong to the classical comic tradition of Don Quixote and Confessions of Zeno. In this tradition, what is both funny and awful is the hero's obvious delusion that he is in control of his own unpredictability -- that he is, in short, free. The reader can see otherwise, that the hero is the victim of bottomless compulsions and drives. This disjunction between hero and reader is made even more acute when, as in Hamsun's case, characters seem to be not just ordinarily free, but extraordinarily free. After all, to be able to plot one's own reception, to be able to control the way other people look at you, as Nagel tries to do in Mysteries, surely represents the greatest possible freedom. Most of us dream of such control. Yet Hamsun shows us that a man like Nagel is actually terribly unfree. First of all, in the traditional comic way, his plans collapse, go wrong. Then secondly, we see that such a man, so busy "plotting," has lost the center of himself, no longer knows who he really is. Does Nagel think he is a rich man or a poor man? Is the narrator of Hunger pleased that he discomfited the young lady he was stalking, or ashamed? And what, beyond the anarchy of feeling, do such actions further, anyway?
Hamsun tells us something true about the way we interact with other people -- that we are continually inventing, plotting, and creating the terms on which we are received. In other words, our relations with other people are to some extent fictions, but fictions that we choose not to acknowledge as such. (If we did, society would totter and implode.) Hamsun develops this idea further still: If our relations are somewhat fictitious, then perhaps we ourselves are somewhat imaginary too. Our souls are "patched together," as he put it, assemblages of fantasy, delusion and dream. Thus it is that in one moment in Mysteries, Nagel is seen thinking alone in his hotel room. Suddenly, he starts from his reverie, and this start, writes Hamsun, "was so exaggerated that it didn't seem genuine; it was as if the gesture had been made for effect, even though he was alone in the room." Such a person is no longer real to himself, has made himself his own audience. Fifty years later, in works like Murphy and Molloy and Endgame, Beckett would embroider these themes, in a language far more fractured and difficult than Hamsun's clear, colloquial prose. But Hamsun had been there first.
James Wood is a senior editor at The New Republic and the author of The Broken Estate: Essays on Literature and Belief.