Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Pan by Knut Hamsun

A Nordic Eden corrupted
Norwegian Nobel laureate Knut Hamsun’s novel Pan was first published in 1894. The story begins in 1855 in the Norwegian county of Nordland. The narrator, a Lieutenant Glahn, is spending the better part of a year in a cabin in the woods, living alone with his dog Aesop and hunting for his food. In the opening passages of the book, Hamsun vividly describes the beautiful natural environment and Glahn’s intimate relationship to it through his primitive way of living. Glahn brings to mind other nomadic woodsmen in Hamsun’s body of work, such as the narrator of Under the Autumn Star and A Wanderer Plays on Muted Strings, or the hero Isak from Growth of the Soil. At first the book reads like it’s going to be a variation on Thoreau’s Walden set in a Norwegian wood. Glahn is never far from civilization, however. He socializes with citizens of a nearby town and even attends parties, though when he does he can’t help but display a marked social awkwardness that often leaves him feeling ashamed. He falls in love with Edwarda, the daughter of a local landowner, and the two embark on what would appear to be an innocent love, the ideal union of wilderness and civilization.

As the relationship develops, however, it becomes less idyllic and more and more twisted. If the two are at a party, for example, and don’t speak to each other for 15 minutes, petty jealousies arise and resentments fester. Hamsun starts to paint Edwarda as a manipulative and fickle coquette, and Glahn proves to be no saint himself. Competition for Edwarda’s affections comes in the form of other suitors, which threatens Glahn’s fragile self-esteem. One can’t help but admire the realism with which Hamsun details the twists and turns in this relationship, yet the relentless pettiness, verbal cruelty, and spiteful retaliations make for an unpleasant read. It is hard to tell whether Hamsun meant this as an authentic portrait of the romantic histrionics of his age, like a modernist version of Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther, or as a study of mental illness, since Glahn is clearly unhinged. In Pan, Hamsun speaks of nature with a romanticist’s voice, but he takes a bluntly realistic approach to human psychology. He details the landscape of the human mind with the same stark, brutal, yet sensitive insight with which he describes the landscape of the earth.

Pan, the titular Greek god of the wild, is only referred to in passing in a couple of instances. Glahn himself is the real Pan of the story, a dichotomous embodiment of the wisdom of the forest and the lustful abandon of the wild beast. The narrative is interrupted on two occasions by the retelling of folk legends which parallel the main plot. Early in the book the narrator states that he’s writing his thoughts in a notebook, but really the tale is told mostly as stream of consciousness from inside Glahn’s mind, which is not always the most comfortable vantage point for the reader. An epilogue is written in the third person by a new character, who provides us an exterior perspective of Glahn’s appearance and behavior.

Pan is a rather disturbing and depressing work of art, but one can’t deny the masterly hand with which it was created. Hamsun’s novels prove time and again that he is a profound observer of the natural world, yet he could also write keen commentary on the morals and conventions of urban life, as seen in his novel Shallow Soil. Here in Pan those two worlds come together. Looking out over the landscape, Glahn remarks that he may be “seeing now the inner brain of the earth.” Through Hamsun’s expert prose, the reader sees it too, coupled with the sometimes ugly inner soul of humanity.
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