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By Knut Hamsun
Translated from the Norwegian by W.W. Worster
No date on this edition, but say: “now in Public Domain in the U.S.”
435 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
May 2014

In an article which W.W. Worster wrote in 1920, and is included as an appendix in the novel, Worster says of this book:

“It is the life story of a man in the wilds, the genesis of humanity, in the untilled, uncleared tracts that still remain in the Norwegian Highlands. It is an epic of earth; the history of a microcosm. Its dominant note is one of patient strength and simplicity; the loving alliance between Nature and the Man who faces her himself, trusting to life, and the spiritual contentment with life which she must grant if he be worthy.”

It certainly is this, but I think it is even more. The central character is Isak. In the early pages, as a very young man, he set out from a small village in Norway’s northern hills, into a complete wilderness and begins to farm. He builds a rough little shack, and begins out of nothing. He must clear, and plant and somehow squeak out a subsistence life as he begins this task with very few tools.

He is patient, extremely hard working, loving the land and outdoors. In the small village below people are startled by this first “farmer” settling out in the wilderness, and not even very close to the village. They watch with some interest.

Little by little Isak begins to succeed. He tells Lapps who come by, that if they know of a woman who would be willing to work with him to send her. Not too long later Inger shows up. She is about Isak’s age, and not very good looking. She has an especially unlovely harelip. But, she is sincere, a hard worker and settles in. Little by little they become a couple. Before too long they are not only building a farm, but a family as well.

First comes Eleseus and second is Sivert. Things are moving along for the family. The village is becoming dependent upon the wood Isak cuts and sells in the village for winter heating, and little by little he is building a farm with not only crops, but also animals of all sorts. Not only is the village dependent on Isak, but he is regarded with great respect. His has proved himself.

The entire story from the earliest pages on reminded me of Maurice Ravel’s Bolero. There is the theme that begins so softly and slowly, and gradually the main theme is repeated, but gradually it grows a bit faster and a bit louder. I had a hard time getting that image out of my mind as I read. However, the story which Knut Hamsun tells is much more varied and much more real to human existence. One of Isak’s first tasks for which he is poorly prepared is that the government finally takes notice of Isak’s place, which they name Sellaraa, and tell him he will have to formalize the property and pay for it. Isak wasn’t even aware he’d have to do this, but doesn’t mind. He lives somewhat close to a village and he makes money by selling them things from his land, especially fire wood in the winter.

During the preparing to “regularize” his ownership of his property with the government the first important figure outside the family comes into the story: Geissler. He was a former local official, but “retired.” He likes Isak very much and not only advises him on all aspects of “regularizing” his property, but uses his influence with the government to get Isak the best terms he can. Geissler will remain a sort of shadowy figure throughout the novel, but one who is a great help to Isak, the country man, for those things which require “city” knowledge and connections.

This rural bolero grows slowly and consistently. Isak and Inger begin their family with two sons, and the farm and their reputation is growing. Then comes a first major road block. Inger has delivered her own two first children the boys, and is content to do this. When she delivers the third, a girl, the child is born with the same harelip that Inger has. This had caused her such misery all her life that she just can’t face it with her child and she kills the baby.

Eventually this comes out and she is sent to prison, not only that, but for some time, not even known to Isak, she was pregnant again before she was sentenced and she has a little girl in prison. Curiously, in the six years she is in prison, Isak NEVER once went to visit her, so when she returns with the little five year old daughter, Leopoldine, it is the first time Isak’s ever seen her.

The time in prison was very useful to Inger. She was, to some extent, educated and citified. Also, they did surgery on her harelip and she looks much better than before and has more self-confidence. From this period on she has some conflict between this rigorously rural life on the farm and her knowledge of city life.

Geissler is in and out of their lives. He discovers there is copper in some of the mountain lands which Isak owns and he purchases those giving Isak a very decent amount of money for this land which is totally useless to Isak. It aids Isak a great deal in developing what is now worthy of being called his “estate.”

This develops slowly but steadily. They have more and more buildings on the farm, more and more fields in crops and many animals. Wood for the town remains a major source of income.

Eventually their family is completed when Rebecca is born, and by this time Isak is regarded as the wealthiest man in the area, and respected by all.

Along the way others, seeing Isak’s great success, begin buying land from the government and starting their own farms. However, Isak and Inger’s is by far and away the most successful, but the rural area is becoming important.

By this time in the story of this development, from the time of Isak’s walking out of the village and just starting his own place, not even owing the land, to years later when he has a massive “estate” and great success and renown, it would seem that the tale is over. And in one sense it is. The author, ends Volume I, but starts Volume II. This is a rather different story and even, for me, the Bolero image faded away. New directions develop.

I would describe the second book as being the conflict between the world of work as cash and the world of work as the product itself is developed and contrasted. Of course, Isak needs some money and sells his crops, animals and always, wood. But, he isn’t interested money itself, nor, with only small exceptions, what it can buy outside developing his farm, buildings and equipment.

However, Geissler again enters into the story and is a figure in the background pushing the exploitation of the copper and selling some of the land he purchased from Isak to outside developers. They have some immediate success and this success brings a good deal of money into the local area and there is great development, with nearly a dozen new farmers buying land and setting up farms in the area of Isak’s place, none of them even remotely as successful as Isak.

The theme has shifted between the conflict between the life of man within nature, working hard and improving himself and family and area, as in contrast with others trying to exploit the soil for the riches of its copper, to make a maximum amount of money and get on with it and out of there as the copper is depleted. Isak stays completely outside this world, but the increase of wealth that comes with the copper mine does in fact, increase Isak’s wealth by giving him a much stronger market for his goods and services.

Geissler is a clever trader and has angered the area when the first copper mine peters out and the new found wealth with it, and then it is discovered that Geissler owns a lot of the adjacent lands he had purchased years ago, and he is sitting on it not willing to sell to miners, not allow it to be exploited, thus, at least for the time being, bringing the prosperity to an end.

I read this second book as the story of a contrast between the highly idealized life of Isak and his family and success, and their devotion to the land itself, and the brutal and crass life of competition within the typical capitalist, money based, society. If read this way it seems to make a marvelous contrast. On the one had the author does not idealize the path to Isak’s wealth and respect. He has always remained a very simple man working extremely hard and never complaining, never expecting anything from anyone but reasonable fair dealings. He never hurts others, helps all sorts of others to get their farms started and is always fair and kind in his dealings with the villagers. This is in strong contrast to the almost humanless nature of the copper mining business which is measured solely in terms of profit. Profit to the owners, profit to the workers, profits to the merchants who serve them.

Isak and Inger, and later their second son Sievert are very different. They treat their farm, their estate, as an end in itself and as the essence of the meaning of their lives.

This is a wonderful story. Simple, touching, inspiring, believable, rich and rewarding! I would highly recommend it to all.

Bob Corbett


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