Friday, September 29, 2017

A Wanderer Plays on Muted Strings by Knut Hamsun

Witness to a dying marriage
Knut Hamsun
Knut Hamsun’s 1909 novel A Wanderer Plays on Muted Strings is the sequel to 1906’s Under the Autumn Star and the second book in a trilogy of works by the Norwegian Nobel laureate. In English translation, the two books have been published together in one volume entitled Wanderers or The Wanderer. The third book in the trilogy, The Last Joy (or, Look Back in Happiness) was published in 1912.

While Under the Autumn Star was little longer than a novella, A Wanderer Plays on Muted Strings is a more substantial work, about twice as long as its predecessor. In both books, the narrator is a man named Knud Pedersen, which also happens to be Hamsun’s birth name. Pedersen has previously lived a life of means in a big city, but later in life he chooses to live as an itinerant laborer, traveling from farm to farm over the rural countryside to find work as a handyman. This second book opens roughly six years after the conclusion of the first. The narrator, still wandering, returns to seek employment at the estate of Captain and Fruen (Mrs.) Falkenberg, one of his temporary residences in Under the Autumn Star. Some of the supporting characters from that volume also return, including his coworkers Grindhusen and Lars Falkenberg and the servant woman Emma.

While the first book had the feeling of an autobiographical novel or memoir, this one concentrates more on the Falkenbergs, with the narrator playing the role of an outside observer. Much of the goings-on in the Falkenberg house are related through the conversations of their servants and workmen. The Captain and his wife are having marital troubles, and both are fooling around with other people. Frankly, I found this direction less compelling than the previous novel. Under the Autumn Star was more of a personal examination of the narrator: his wanderlust, his personal growth, his inner conflicts, and his time spent working amidst the natural environment of rural Norway. Here, the focus on the Falkenberg’s marriage is more melodramatic, and, since there’s little trace of autobiographical content, reveals little about the author himself. In the first novel, the narrator had a special connection to Fruen that is largely glossed over here. The attraction or obsession he felt for her is minimized as he seems to be content with playing the role of observer and benevolent servant. The marital power struggle of the Falkenbergs becomes repetitive as they engage in numerous squabbles and attacks.

There is no denying Hamsun’s power as a writer, however, and despite my disappointment in the choice of subject matter I can’t help but admire what he does with it. The ending is very powerful and redeems much of the shortcomings of the earlier portions of the novel. As in the first book, there are some incredibly beautiful passages of poetic prose in which Hamsun paints pictures of nature with a seductive lyricism and an acute eye for detail. Compared to the first book, however, such passages are few and far between, and one wishes there were more of them.

The resolution of this second book feels complete, to the point where I’m not sure how Hamsun is going to make a trilogy out of this, but I’m looking forward to finding out when I read The Last Joy. Though not on a par with his masterpiece Growth of the Soil, Hamsun’s trilogy—thus far, anyway—often displays the same degree of power and beauty that characterizes this exceptional author’s work.

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1 comment:

  1. Growth of the Soil was the first book by Hamsun that I read and I agree that it is a masterpiece. I read a couple more by Hamsun but wasn't that impressed with them. I have the one-volume version of these called The Wanderer which I keep meaning to read but I didn't realise there was a third part as well. Anyway thanks for the reviews—it's good to know that they're a good read.