For any art junkie, realizing that your heroes are bastards is like finding out that your best friend has betrayed you. I’m not talking about simply being let down; we all know that artists are only human, and these days trading in cultural capital for quick corporate cash is all too common. But some things are unforgivable. For example: what happens when you discover your favorite writer was a Nazi? And I don’t mean figuratively. I’m talking about a man who shook hands with Adolf Hitler.
A few years back, I read Knut Hamsun’s 1890 novel Hunger and the world of literature opened up wider than I believed possible. As a book addict who had been finding it harder and harder to get excited by the offerings at local bookstores, becoming so obsessed with a book was a rare and wonderful experience. And yet I was shocked that I had been ignorant about Hamsun for so long. Why hadn’t I even heard of him? Why aren’t Hunger and his other books celebrated the world over?
Hamsun writes unlike anyone else. Many writers today incorporate dark, twisted internal monologues into their work, but Hamsun did it both earlier and better than almost any other novelist. He was also hilarious. Have you ever been on the subway and suddenly snapped your book shut because you’ve fallen completely into hysterics and can’t hide it from the bewildered travelers around you? Most authors are incapable of inspiring such maddening joy.
After I finished Mysteries and Growth of the Soil, finding other Hamsun books became a problem. I couldn’t understand why Hunger wasn’t on shelves next to Catcher in the Rye, The Stranger, The Metamorphosis and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. The matter needed looking into.
The first thing I learned is that Knut Hamsun is widely acknowledged as a major forefather of modern literature. His admirers and followers are a who’s who of 20th century novelists: Joyce, Woolf, Mann, Proust, Kafka, Hesse, Faulkner, Fitzgerald. “Hamsun taught me to write,” Ernest Hemingway once said. He received won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1920.
I should have stopped there. Looking into your heroes’ private lives is never wise. I still wish I hadn’t ever read Lou Reed’s biography (although it saved me from buying any more of his abysmal solo efforts) or learned that H.P. Lovecraft was brutally racist.
And Hamsun? In 1943 he handed his Nobel Prize over to Joseph Goebbels, Germany’s minister of propaganda, in admiration for the latter’s work. Having offered political sympathies to Germany during the First World War, with the rise of Hitler Hamsun became an unofficial spokesperson for the Third Reich. He went to see Hitler, and even though in their meeting Hamsun argued for the release of Norwegian Jews from concentration camps (which reportedly enraged the Fuehrer for days), the two men maintained a deep mutual respect. Hamsun’s eulogy for Hitler called him “a warrior for mankind, and a prophet of the gospel of justice for all nations.”
After World War Two, Hamsun was charged with treason, but was spared trial due to his deteriorating mental state. (He did have to pay a fine of 325,000 kroner for his allegiance to the National Socialist Party of Norway.) His books were burned and his reputation was nearly erased. He spent the rest of his life in and out of mental institutions until dying in 1952.
The man who should have been an international icon instead ended up a sad, crazed pariah. In recent years, there has been increased interest in his books, as readers around the world—myself included—find themselves captivated by his work. As his biographer—a fellow Norwegian—wrote in 2009; “We can’t help loving him, though we have hated him all these years . . . That’s our Hamsun trauma. He’s a ghost that won’t stay in the grave.”