Having finished the first book in Knut Hamsun’s Segelfoss series, Children of the Age, I naturally wanted to move on to the second, Segelfoss Town. I was one click away from buying it for a pretty penny on ABE when my book butler Jerome breathlessly interrupted me, running up from the sub-library waving a copy I’d purchased some time ago. He was flogged for his impertinence, of course, but I didn’t allow that to darken my enjoyment of the novel.
In Segelfoss Town another generation has emerged, causing the eclipse of “King” Holmengraa, the bold businessman whose rise was traced in Children of the Age. Hamsun’s pessimism about “progress” and the direction of the modern world in general exhibits itself here, as he suggests that a great man cannot succeed in an environment so committed to mediocrity. His fulminations against a puffed up proletariat that lacks respect, ambition or accountability while being unquestioningly supported by a progressive press are ham handed and lacking in Hamsun’s usual ironic subtlety, and lend a certain unpleasant bitterness to several portions of the book.
In this brave new world, the ascendent character is the shopkeeper, the canny, upwardly striving but slightly ridiculous Theodore of Bua, whose Achilles heel is his carefully concealed love for Holmengraa’s exotic daughter Mariane:
His everyday heart had a little nook where no trade entered, a hidden grove, full of gifts and dreams and devotion.
Unfortunately for him, Mariane is still infatuated with her girlhood crush, the not quite successful composer Willatz Holmsen, namesake and son of Lieutenant Holmsen, the hero of Children of the Age. Theodore himself is the son of Per of Bua, Segelfoss’s first shopkeeper, set up in business by Holmengraa, and notable mostly for his propensity for shortchanging unwary customers. This once robust man has suffered a debilitating stroke, and can only rage at his son and the world from the prison of his bed:
Those long years of idleness had not improved him, but had hardened him a little every day – and now he had gone a long way on the backward path. A little longer, and he would become uncannily malignant and savage; his natural instincts were already having full and fettered play – he was hastening back to his distant past, to the cave, to cunning, to bellowing and sudden onslaught. He was rushing straight ahead with eyes fixed on the unseen – the darkness was calling him.
But to me the real anti-hero of the piece is Baardsen, the telegraphist, whose carelessly noble yet self-destructive habits and hopelessly thwarted artistic and amatory ambitions make him the true heir to early Hamsun protagonists like Nagel of Mysteries and Glahn of Pan. He’s a typically failed romantic and one of the few town residents immune to the modern siren song of materialism and egotism.
Even though Hamsun once again engineers an implausibly happy denouement for a central character, in this case Holmengraa, it’s Baardsen who’s the heart and soul of Segelfoss Town, and indeed the book ends with his tragicomic death and resonates with his dark philosophy:
It is we who are on the right road; we do not sit like great lights in the midst of the riddle of the universe, but like dark objects in the midst of darkness, at one with it, at home and eternally happy.