A complex legacy
The Humsun Fest Finale pushes Norwegian culture to the forefront.
Published: November 6, 2009 (Issue # 1524)
Controversial Norwegian author Knut Hamsun, who went from being an admired Nobel laureate to despised Nazi traitor, is in the limelight this month.
The Days of Knut Hamsun in St. Petersburg are set to enable city residents to get acquainted with the legacy of one of the most controversial writers in the history of Norway.
In 2009, the 150th anniversary of the birth of Knut Hamsun, Norway launched a year-long international program commemorating its best known writer. The Hamsun Fest Finale that takes place in St. Petersburg this month is part of this program.
The Days of Knut Hamsun is a series of unique theatrical and musical performances, exhibitions and literatary events that aim to highlight the controversial writer’s work and promote the cultural heritage of Norway. The festival has been organized by the Nordland County Council in Norway, with the support of the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Consulate General of Norway in St. Petersburg.
“There will be a wide-ranging and exciting cultural program during the Days of Hamsun in St. Petersburg,” said Fredrik Langeland, adviser at the Nordland County Council. “There will be an opening reception and concert at the Sheremetyev Palace. We also want to draw particular attention to theater performances, lectures and film screenings at the Dostoevsky museum, a book exhibition at the National Library, a unique film program at Dom Kino cinema with showings of Hamsun films with Russian subtitles for the first time, and the play “On Overgrown Paths” at the Lensoviet Theater.”
Hamsun gained popularity with his epic “Growth of the Soil,” for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1920. Hamsun’s works were determined by the idea of connection between characters and their natural environment. The author had a significant influence on European and American literature, with Thomas Mann, Franz Kafka, Maxim Gorky, Stefan Zweig and Henry Miller all admitting that they tried to write like Hamsun. Ernest Hemingway said, “Hamsun taught me to write.”
Albert Einstein regarded Hamsun as an eminent man, while Thomas Mann compared the writer to Homer and Dostoevsky. Biographer Robert Ferguson (1988) wrote that Hamsun was one of the most influential and innovative literary stylists during the last hundred years, and that there was hardly a writer living in Europe or in America who was not consciously or unconsciously indebted to him.
The Hamsun Center, which was opened earlier this year, is seen from across the river in Hamaroy, Norway.
“Hamsun was highly popular in Russia when Scandinavian literature gained popularity in Russia in the 1890s and early 1900s,” said Langeland. “His plays were performed on Russian stages even more than in Norway, his books were soon translated and quickly sold in large quantities. The first biography of Hamsun in Russia came out as early as 1910, when Maria Blagoveshchenskaya stated that Hamsun was really similar to the Russian nature,” he added.
Hamsun is now remembered for his controversial political views as much as for his work. He supported Nazi Germany both before World War II and after Germany occupied Norway in April 1940. For this reason, following the war Hamsun was considered to be a traitor by Norwegians, and angry crowds in major Norwegian cities burned his books in public places. Hamsun went from being wildly popular to being despised; he faced legal charges and found himself first in a psychiatric hospital and then a retirement home.
“Hamsun is still a controversial author, as many have strong opinions about him,” said Langeland. “The purpose of the Hamsun year in Norway has not been an attempt at a one-sided tribute to the author. On the contrary, it has been a critical and nuanced view of both the author and the man. There was, for example, a major international Hamsun conference recently at the university in Oslo in which leading academics from several countries participated. Among the topics was a critical perspective on Hamsun and his legacy.”
Hamsun is now once again a popular writer in Norway. In 2009, a new 27-volume edition of his complete works was published, including novels, short stories, poetry and articles. The Hamsun year has seen diverse events across Norway, the most notable of which was the inauguration of the Hamsun Center in Hamaroy, which was opened by the Norwegian Crown Princess, Her Royal Highness Mette Marit. Along from Norway, the Hamsun year has been celebrated in several other countries, including Latvia, Germany, China and Romania. The Hamsun Fest Finale in St. Petersburg is a final chord of the international comemmorations of the writer.
The Days of Knut Hamsun in St. Petersburg runs from Friday through Nov. 29. A full program is available at www.hamsun.spb.ru