Knut Hamsun detested England. To the Nobel laureate, the island in the west embodied modernity at its worst: industrialism, materialism, the uprooting of mankind from its rural past. The only thing that could match the intensity of his Anglophobia was his admiration for fascist strongman leaders. Hamsun and his wife Marie remained staunch supporters of Nazi Germany long after Hitler was dead and the bodies exhumed from Bergen-Belsen. Hamsun’s national socialism was closely linked with his dislike for industrial modernisation, something that can be traced throughout his work, from big-city anguish in Hunger to the idealised farmer Isak Sellenraa in Growths of the Soil, the work that earned him the Nobel Prize in 1920.
The book that perhaps best exemplifies Hamsun’s anti-modern sentiments is Children of the Age, now republished in English for the first time since the 1920s. Published in Norwegian in 1913, it was described by the author as ‘a novel about the war between the aristocrat and the peasant’, and follows three generations in the fictitious coastal town of Segelfoss. Willatz Holmsen III is a patriarchal landowner, whose rural livelihood is threatened by young Tobias Holmengraa, who arrives to invest his newly earned Mexican money in Segelfoss’s budding industry. This effectively puts an end to Holmsen III’s feudal society, and his free-spirited son is unable to stop the oncoming rush of modernity – after all, he was educated in England.
Children of the Age is Hamsun’s most satirical work, and the volume is full of sharp and often humorous observations. He scorns the industrial working classes and mocks the invention of tinned foods. While amusing, his derision also echoes the very sentiments of Nazi ideology that Hamsun would go on to embrace: the idea that you live your most authentic life when in close contact with the earth – preferably the earth where you have your bloodline.
This is not to say that the book shouldn’t be read, and Tough Poets Press deserves praise for crowdfunding the novel’s ‘resurrection’ in English. Hamsun wrote at a time when written Norwegian was moving away from its Danish roots. People began exchanging the double ‘aa’ for the new vowel ‘å’, while soft-voiced plosives had to make way for sharper-sounding consonants. Hamsun took little notice of these linguistic changes, however. Reading him is therefore comparable to hearing the creaking of an old tree – it feels ancient, beautiful, sometimes almost otherworldly.
Translating him into English is therefore no easy task. Children of the Age was first published in English in 1924 by Alfred A. Knopf (who also published a slew of other Norwegian writers in the interwar period, among them Hamsun’s fellow Nobel laureate and political enemy Sigrid Undset and his one-time protégé Nordahl Grieg). At the time, the preservation of a foreign title’s literary features in translation seems to have been of little concern. As a result, J. S. Scott’s translation waters down Hamsun’s uniquely beautiful language, and his frequent use of the word ‘folk’ (‘“Aye, they say things were grand here then,” old folk will still tell you’) clash violently with the original register. Scott preserves some of Hamsun’s characteristically baroque interjections, but perhaps the man whom Henry Miller dubbed the ‘Dostoevsky of the north’ remains untranslatable to this day.
This review was first published with the European Literature Network