Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Shallow Soil by Knut Hamsun

Modern love in fin de siècle Norway
Knut Hamsun
Shallow Soil, a novel by Knut Hamsun, was originally published in 1893 under the Norwegian title of Ny Jord. Hamsun, a prolific writer with a long career, would later go on to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1920. Though generally regarded as Norway’s pre-eminent modernist, Shallow Soil is a book that harkens back to a naturalistic style of storytelling that bears more resemblance to earlier writers like Emile Zola or Norway’s own Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson than to Hamsun’s more experimental works.

The story takes place in Kristiania (present-day Oslo). Hamsun depicts cosmoplitan urban life in early modern Norway through the lives of a clique of young city-dwelling artists and professionals. Included among this group are a few prominent upstart writers and painters, as well as working men such as merchants, a lawyer, and a journalist. While the artistic members of the coterie strive for recognition and compete for public funding, their bills are often paid by their friends the businessmen, who seem happy to support their comrades as a way of contributing to their nation’s artistic development. These young gentlemen, along with their wives and mistresses, meet and socialize at cafes, restaurants, theatres, and offices, arguing over politics and debating the merits of the latest literary productions. When Ole Henriksen, who runs his father’s shipping and trading company, gets engaged to Aagot, a girl from the country, he brings her to the city where she is welcomed into the group. This beautiful young woman, with her small-town innocence and wide-eyed enthusiasm, is a rare commodity in the cynical city, and soon Ole is not the only gentleman who hopes to win her heart.

There is a political element to the novel as well. These young people clamor for radical reform and constantly complain about the weakness and indecision of their country’s parliament. A mysterious stranger named Coldevin arrives from the country, however, and criticizes the whiney indolence of Norway’s youth. Instead of gushing over the latest poets and playwrights, he suggests Norway’s young people should invest their energies in science and industry. Instead of whining about their government, they should take pride in their nation and encourage its development. I don’t know much about Hamsun’s politics, except that later in life he supported the Nazis. Here in Shallow Soil, one gets a taste of his conservative, nationalistic views. Nevertheless, the novel is primarily a love story—actually two or three love stories—and a very good one. Surprisingly forward and frank in its depiction of what would have been called “loose morals” in the 19th century, this book still holds a great deal of appeal for audiences of the 21st. Despite the book’s antiquity, the scenes of human drama that Hamsun portrays here—falling in love, seduction, rejection, betrayal, breakup, heartache—are ones that readers will recognize from their own lives. Here they are eloquently rendered with sensitivity, authenticity, and pathos.

To American audiences, Hamsun is perhaps best known for his novel Hunger, a work that’s a little too angst-ridden and self-consciously modernist for my tastes. Shallow Soil, coming out a few years later, feels more mature and less pretentiously artsy. This work should not be confused with Hamsun’s 1917 novel Growth of the Soil, which is a totally different book and a true masterpiece. As explained above, however, Shallow Soil is also exceptional, so if you find yourself reading either one of Hamsun’s “Soil” novels, you really can’t go wrong.
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