Category Archives: Hamsun, Knut

Growth of the Soil: Read from October 14 to November 21, 2014

One of the most interesting qualities of this novel is in the way it is told. I kept getting the feeling I was being told this story by a narrator who had taken me up in a hot air balloon and would describe to me everything going on below – we’d descend down and follow one person at a time, getting as close as possible to them, but never so far inside the minds of each character as to know their most personal thoughts. In this way the novel is very Norwegian in that there is a distance between people, an unspoken understanding between husbands and wives and children and neighbors, but never too much is said or revealed. For a novel that canvasses so much and can be quite intimate at times, there is a privacy, too.

Structurally the novel reminds me a lot of the book of Genesis. The novel begins with the first man in a pristine Garden of Eden who quietly and happily makes his way alone until the first woman comes along. Together the man and woman can split the labor and together they are fruitful and, of course, they multiply. And this biblical quality is not just a structural parallel, but it’s also thematic in how conservative its point of view is on what the ideal society should be and how it should be managed. Men are the unspeaking center of power and authority, women are the gossiping center of the domestic sphere, children are prodigal, foreigners are suspicious, and modernity is both a marvel and a corrupting force. The only virtue is that of hard work and extreme labor; all other thoughts are at worst sinful and at best a waste of time.

There is one part in the novel that I found to be difficult to relate to and that is when Isak physically controls Inger by picking her up and throwing her down to get her to stop (I believe) spending money. The scene is not written with anger and so there is no malice or enjoyment in what Isak does (he is not sadistic and therefore not what you’d call abusive), however, it does reflect a very uncomfortable dynamic between men and women where physical violence towards women is something that happens in the home. The novel does take the side of Isak, and this might turn many readers off.

And very often women do not come out looking all that great in the novel. Inger begins as a social outcast with a harelip, Oline is a terrible gossip and manipulator, Barbo is willful and (like Inger) a murderer, and by the end of the novel these women are all “tamed”. Not that all the men come off as saints, however, Isak and Sivert, and to a degree Geissler too are the characters of wisdom and righteousness whom should be obeyed. This male dominated society of conservative values and hard labor on the land is very much at odds with modern society and, again, many readers might find it borderline misogynistic.

Yet to dismiss the book based on what I’ve described in its philosophy would be to misunderstand the novel’s complexity and nuance. In one scene near the end there is a trial where Barbo is defending herself from the charge of having murdered her newborn. This parallels the exact same event that takes place near the beginning of the novel, yet here after so much time has passed, Barbo is defended by a woman who convinces the men in the court that they have no right to judge Barbo and her actions. She says that men could never know the struggles and the pain of a woman and to put her in jail would be cruel. There is a strong thread of social justice that is brought to the countryside, a more Christian and forgiving attitude towards one’s fellow neighbor. In fact the entire second half of the novel seems to parallel the New Testament whereas the first half parallel the Old Testament. There is even a clear dividing line between the two and this is when Isak sees a vision in the forest one night, a vision of perhaps Death, or Salvation, or God Himself. This is never explained in the novel, but the philosophy and attitude of the novel does change going forward from this scene.

The most interesting character in the novel is Geissler. I kept trying to imagine if Hamsun was using Geissler as a metaphor for God or for the Devil; he works both ways. For Isak and everyone at Sellanraa, Geissler is a God, he brings good fortune every time he shows up and seems exist solely to aid Isak and all his endeavors. Yet for the surrounding countryside Geissler is the Devil. He was driven out from his post as a public official, his involvement with the owning of property (the mine) brings near ruin to everyone in the town, he is poorly understood and even less liked by almost everyone else. I suppose the best way to describe Geissler is that of a gardener, someone who tends after the garden all day pulling weeds, favoring one plant over another for its perfection, tilling the soil when it needs work, bringing water when it’s dry (he literally teaches Isak how to do this) – he’s the Garden of Eden’s caretaker – he’s both Good and Evil, and he describes himself as “fog”: he’s everywhere all the time but he’s hard to see or understand.

But all the characters in the novel are brilliant and the entire construction of the novel is so well done, so clear, that I felt as if I too had walked with Isak out of the forest and started this small village and got to know all these people and all their troubles and successes. Very early on you inhabit the world of this novel completely to the point where you feel as if you knew where every stone lay on the ground, every tree sat in the forest, where that telegraph line was in the forest, where the huts were, what everyone looked like, what the weather was everyday – everything. And this is the novel’s greatest achievement in its slow, methodical world-building, its construction of an entire civilization, of all humanity on display in this one corner of Norway at the turn of the 20th century.

63% done with Growth of the Soil

Axel bring pinned under the tree was a great story, very tense. The whole situation between Axel and Barbro was fantastic, but this book is not very kind toward women. Men are the lords of the realm here and women are very often seen as childish, vain, petty, and ungrateful. That’s the one major flaw, however, the women are all indispensable, too and even Axel’s life is saved by that crone Oline.

42% done with Growth of the Soil

I love his description of nature in this section, of feeling the weight of heaven and earth, of how the mushroom is like a lung without a body, of the fish that sing in the tiny pond.

Then his vision of the evil one. An omen? Death soon? She’s pregnant again and she is still fearful of God’s judgement.

And soon the town will grow even larger, more people, more noise. Progress. But will it also be freedom?

27% done with Growth of the Soil

I wonder if people who live in Asia or Africa read this book for insight into the western mindset of independence, family, and culture? This book has (not sure if intentionally) a strong core of traditional family value (nuclear family), hard work ethic), a desire for comfort, and the desire to be left alone by politics. Regardless, I want to live in this book.

20% done with Growth of the Soil

He talks of the farm now just being half a thing with Inger gone. I like how he tries to be a little extra good in hopes it might bring her back sooner. But he has no joy in it.

This story is the one we would never have got from, say, Tolstoy when he wrote of peasants. We would only hear of the murder but never know their hearts. This is a book Tolstoy would have loved.

15% done with Growth of the Soil

Like Confederacy of Dunces, this book too describes very little, we let the actions of the characters describe them. And how do we feel about Inger now? We can empathize with her but hasn’t she managed well despite her here lip?

So it’s at least the 19th century since they mention a train, but up till then it could have been any time in the past 2000 years.

7% done with Growth of the Soil

I know, I’m reading too many books at once, but this captured me immediately from the preview that I just had to get into it.

I love the natural setting, the quiet solitude, the simple but hard life. There is a magic here.

I left off with his worry of paying off the loan for the horse. Such small thing in the grand scheme, but huge for them. Life is precarious but also good.