Lonely and Beautiful Axemen

I thought I should restore some gender appreciation balance to this blog by making my first post about a male novelist. As I pondered this, I suddenly realised nearly all my favourite novelists are female: Iris Murdoch, Virginia Woolf, AS Byatt, Margaret Atwood, Marilynne Robinson. After racking my brain a little, the only shining light of a male novelist I could come up with is Knut Hamsun (I have since thought of the slightly more obvious favourites of Dostoevsky, CS Lewis, Hardy and Dickens but never mind!). So Knut it is.

Knut Hamsun, for the uninitiated, was a Norwegian author from the first part of last century. His novels (I’ve read Pan and Growth of the Soil) are about man’s relationship to the land, and to nature, about remoteness in the Norwegian highlands, about simple living. The main characters are the sort of men who live alone, carry axes and grunt a lot.

Doesn’t sound appealing? Well, somehow it is. The novels are beautifully written and make you feel very connected to the remote and wild Norwegian landscape. They appeal to some primitive instinct within me that knows we are reliant on the soil for survival and so we are somehow intimately connected with it.

Depending how much you know about Nazi ideology, it may or may not surprise that Mr Hamsun had leanings in this direction. Although the repugnant racism is not present in the novels I’ve read (as far as I can remember), the nationalism, and the idealization of the worker and nature is, almost to the point of pantheism. Apparently he wrote a eulogy for Hitler in which he said, “He was a warrior, a warrior for mankind, and a prophet of the gospel of justice for all nations.” The Norwegians had the good sense to put him into a psychiatric institution.

This gets me thinking however about how a novelist can have politics I abhor, write on a topic that would not normally interest me (a man wandering the woods with an axe?) but yet the novels remain powerful and beautiful.


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