Friday, September 15, 2017

Under the Autumn Star by Knut Hamsun

Reflections on a vagabond life
Under the Autumn Star, a short novel by Nobel Prize-winning author Knut Hamsun, was originally published in 1906 under the Norwegian title of Under Høststjærnen. It is the first volume in a trilogy, the second book of which is entitled A Wanderer Plays on Muted Strings. The third and final volume has been published in English as either The Last Joy or Look Back in Happiness. In English-language editions, the first two volumes are often confusingly lumped together into one book entitled Wanderers or The Wanderer.

Under the Autumn Star is narrated by an educated man who comes from a “good family.” As the book opens, he has taken up residence at a rented country cottage. He has spent time in the city and has cultivated sophisticated manners, but he has grown tired of urban life and has decided to live a quieter and more solitary existence. Before long, however, he decides rather than stay put at this seaside retreat, he will wander the countryside as an itinerant handyman, passing himself off as a common laborer and earning his living with his hands. Often in partnership with other wandering workmen he meets along the way, he stops at various farms, looking for work and requesting shelter. While digging wells, cutting wood, or excavating trenches, he and his fellow workmen often have their eyes on the wives, daughters, or servant girls of the landholders that employ them.

As the story develops, we learn the name of this narrator—Knud Pedersen—which also happens to be the birth name of the author, thus indicating that this is an autobiographical work. If indeed this is a faithful representation of Hamsun’s own life then it is an unusually candid one that delves deeply into his psychological state and reveals memories of past love affairs. The book has the wistfully nostalgic feeling of a memoir, sometimes humorous and often touching. Like many of Hamsun’s works, the narrative has a very meandering feeling, seemingly following a course of unconnected observations as the protagonist moves from place to place. Though the subtle plot may create the illusion of haphazardness, Hamsun gradually builds an emotional tension that drives the reader forward to each successive chapter. Though the narrator possesses a youthful wanderlust, he is no longer a youth. There are indications that he may have suffered some psychological trauma in his former life. Despite his penchant for manual labor, he possesses a sensitive soul and takes matters of the heart seriously, perhaps too seriously. Towards the end of the book the narrator exhibits behavior that verges on creepiness, at least by today’s standards, but you nevertheless feel strongly for him because of the uncompromising realism and sensitivity with which Hamsun renders his emotional state.

The English translation by W. W. Worster presents some difficulties. The translator retains Norwegian titles like Fruen (lady, wife, Mrs.) and Frøken (Miss), and the less common praestefruen (minister’s wife, I assume). One awkward aspect of the text is the repeated reference to the “thumbnail” of a smoking pipe that Knud is crafting. Not only is the use of this term in reference to the pipe unclear, it also takes on a bizarre and unexpected meaning later in the book.

The conclusion of Under the Autumn Star is sufficiently resolved for it to stand alone as a complete novel, but it also anticipates the next volume in the trilogy. After having enjoyed this first installment, I look forward to following this wanderer into book two.

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