Actually it all started last year at the fantastically fabulous Kerrytown BookFest when my pal Mike Gajda of Out-of-the-Way Books sold me a Knut Hamsun book that I hadn’t seen before at a very reasonable price. It was called The Road Leads On and I let it just sort of sit there for quite a while. Part of the reason is that I love Hamsun so much that I was trying to delay that awful emptiness you feel when you read the last word of the last sentence on the last page of the last book you haven’t read by a favorite dead writer, desolate in the knowledge that you can never again read something by them for the first time. Hamsun’s later books were also printed, packaged and even titled in a very haphazard way, particularly the Wayfarer and August novels, (for instance the same original is out now in different translations from two different publishers, one called Look Back on Happiness and the other The Last Joy) and I was kind of afraid I’d dive into it only to discover I’d already read it.
But eventually I got a Hamsun hankering I couldn’t deny, but I had an unanticipated setback the moment I opened the book. The first sentence reads:
The third generation now guides the destiny of Jensen’s great store in Segelfoss.
It was clear I’d missed something – two generations in fact. In researching the question I learned from Robert Ferguson’s excellent biography Enigma: The Life of Knot Hamsun that there were in fact two previous novels also set in the small Norwegian costal town of Segelfoss. Luckily, I was able to extract the first in the series The Children of the Age (1913) from one of the dusty towers of books that blot out the sun here at UBU palace. It’s a great book, but quite different from Hamsun’s early, highly subjective masterpieces like Hunger, Pan, and Mysteries.
Painted on a larger, almost Dickensian, canvas, and told in the third person, The Children of the Age illuminates all strata of society from nobleman to peasant. Unlike the compressed, almost expressionistic narratives of his first works, its pace is relaxed and anecdotal. The main movement of the novel is the slow ceding of power from the aristocratic to the merchant class. The former is represented by Lieutenant Willatz Holmsen, the hereditary squire of the village, a ramrod straight man with a rigid code of conduct who is quite aware that he is becoming an anachronism, but is unable to do anything to prevent it. A sympathetic, noble man whose slow decline approaches tragedy, the Lieutenant is no symbolic figure, but a fully realized character, rounded out by Hamsun’s characteristically frank yet understated understanding of the repressed erotic undercurrents of his life.
The emerging merchant class is represented by the mysterious Tobias Holmengraa, a peasant who emigrated to Mexico, reinvented himself, and returned to Norway in triumph, a rich and powerful man. Since Holmsen doesn’t actually produce anything, he can only survive by selling pieces of his landed heritage to Holmengraa, and the latter quickly becomes the preeminent power in the town, usurping the Lieutenant’s traditional position. The two men share a great mutual respect, however, and the transition to the modern world is made as gracefully as possible, accompanied by an almost palpable nostalgia.
Clearly, Hamsun finds both men admirable, Holmsen as the embodiment of traditional aristocratic values and Holmengraa as a modern day Viking, boldly risking all on various business ventures. Hamsun’s biting satire is reserved for the professional class of functionaries like the Doctor, Lawyer and Minister, men who aspire only to a secure mediocrity. Acting for the first time as a distant god paternalistically observing his creations rather than a frenzied narrator in the middle of things, Hamsun grants Holmsen the improbable gift of the discovery of a treasure horde buried by his ancestors, enabling him to avoid the ignominy of bankruptcy. But inherited nobility was always the Lieutenant’s true treasure, and it allows him to die at the end of the book with as much class as he lived.
Here’s one of my favorite passages from the book. It’s about Holmsen’s son, also named Willatz, and his adolescent discovery of love’s intoxication. As Brian Wilson put it, Make it real, your summer dream:
What a time that was, beautiful, unearthly! When Willatz went riding now it was no longer that he might be seen from the cottages as he passed – he rode a long way simply and solely that he might sit and look up at Marianne’s house and garden. Soft summer-time and shining eyes! He lived in a world of sweetness and bashfulness; driven aimlessly into the woods, to the mountains, back home again. Where did he rest at night? Where could one rest at night? In the grass, in the hay, in a garden-swing he had used as a child, anywhere; a little here, a little there – sometimes even in his bed with his clothes on, curled up, exhausted. What a time it was!