Monday, October 1, 2012

Growth of the Soil by Knut Hamsun

An epic saga of Man and Earth
In spite of the fact that I did not grow up on a farm, or perhaps because of it, I’ve always been a sucker for a good peasant epic. As soon as I heard of Growth of the Soil I wanted to read it. Once I dove into chapter one it quickly earned a spot among my all-time favorites.

Growth of the Soil was written in 1917 by Norwegian novelist Knut Hamsun, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1920, due largely to the magnificence of this great work. The novel opens with a solitary figure, heavily laden with supplies, trudging across the wilds of Norway. A day’s walk from the nearest village, he selects a spot to call his home, and begins cutting timber and turning the soil. He erects a sod house which is visited once every few months by the occasional nomadic herder, and he makes it known to those who come by that he is looking for a woman to help him with the chores around the place. One day that woman comes. The very night of her arrival they begin living together as man and wife. They are simple folk, not particularly smart and far from beautiful, but they work hard, relentlessly, like two beasts of burden, to carve a living from the earth. Together Isak and Inger build a home, a farm, and a family in this deserted wasteland.

Eventually a community forms around them, and their isolation diminishes. Their estate, dubbed Sellanraa, increases in size, wealth, and conveniences. Yet this is no rural Utopia. Evil influences invade their bucolic idyll. When residents of this rural outpost venture into the villages and cities, they return with unhealthy ideas that foster a disillusionment with their agrarian life and lead them toward sin. An undercurrent of stoic and pantheistic morality pervades the book. The more the characters surrender themselves to the will of nature, the greater their contentment and reward. The more they stray from the natural order of life on the land, the greater their disappointment and ruin.

Growth of the Soil bears some resemblance to another well-known work of literature, The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck. Both novels chronicle the lives of farming families. Hamsun’s work, however, is darker in tone, more psychologically complex, and, despite being written 15 years earlier, a touch more modernistic in style. Hamsun presents a naturalistic slice of rural life in Norway, just as Buck tells a realistic story of farmers in China, yet both books transcend the spatial and temporal limits of their settings to make universal statements on the themes of family, work, and the relationship of man to his environment. Both books use deceptively simple language to tell their tales, exhibiting an elegant economy of words evocative of the stark and simple lives of the characters being depicted. In Hamsun’s case, I’m not sure if I have him to thank for this beautiful prose, or the English translator W. W. Worster, but every sentence of this work is as pithily poetic as a carefully crafted haiku.

Reading Growth of the Soil is a powerful and moving experience. From the opening lines of the first page one immediately becomes intimately engaged in the lives of these vividly drawn characters. When the book comes to an end it’s difficult to say goodbye. Unlike The Good Earth, unfortunately, Growth of the Soil has no sequel, so enjoy every page while you can.

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