Monday, August 27, 2018

Look Back on Happiness by Knut Hamsun

This wanderer should have wandered further
Look Back on Happiness, a novel by Nobel laureate Knut Hamsun, was originally published in 1912 under the Norwegian title Den sidste Glæde, and is also known in English as The Last Joy. Some critics place this novel as the third book in a “Wanderer Trilogy,” following Under the Autumn Star (1906) and A Wanderer Plays on Muted Strings (1909), but I don’t know if Hamsun ever designated it as such. Though the three books are similar in style and subject matter, there’s no concrete evidence in the text that the narrator in this book is the same character who featured in those two earlier novels, and Hamsun wrote a lot of books with wandering protagonists.

Here the unnamed narrator, a writer in his early seventies, is successful enough and wealthy enough to live his life as he pleases. Though a man of means, he chooses to leave city life behind and live a nomadic existence in the country. When the novel opens, he is spending the winter in a primitive hut and living off the land like Henry David Thoreau in a Norwegian Walden. The solitude gives him time for philosophical reflection and gives Hamsun the opportunity to indulge in some truly beautiful nature writing. Like Thoreau, however, the narrator is not a total recluse, and he does occasionally entertain visitors in his humble abode. The novel thus becomes less about his life in nature and more about the people he encounters in his travels.

When Spring arrives, the wanderer walks to a farm that operates a country inn for tourists who come to enjoy the mountain scenery. Here he gets to know the staff and the guests and becomes intimately involved in their affairs. From this point, very early on, the narrative veers away from the narrator’s personal journey to focus on these other characters’ lives. This is very much in keeping with Under the Autumn Star and A Wanderer Plays on Muted Strings, in that the narrator is almost more of a passive observer than a participant in the narrative. Even after he leaves this tourist retreat, he continues to coincidentally and unrealistically run into the inn’s guests wherever he roams. One woman in particular, a Miss Torsen, strikes his interest, and although he is too old for romantic involvement, he concerns himself in her affairs almost to the point of stalking her.

The picture Hamsun paints of this female character is not very flattering. At first she is depicted as a coquette who toys with men to boost her own self-esteem, though she does grow and become a more sympathetic character as the book goes on. As a schoolteacher, she is an educated woman, but the narrator denigrates her education, and Hamsun indicates that she can only find fulfillment through marriage and childbirth. Sexism should hardly be surprising in a century-old book, however, and Hamsun may just be espousing the joys of simpler family values, as his male narrator likewise represents an ignorance-is-bliss and back-to-nature attitude towards life. There is no doubt a fair amount of social and political commentary in the book that a Norwegian in 1912 might have found very insightful, but much of it was likely lost on this 21st-century reader. For example, one character goes off on an anti-Switzerland tirade that falls somewhere between good-natured ribbing and an international incident.

Look Back on Happiness is one of Hamsun’s less successful works. The fact that he so soon abandons the natural and nomadic aspects of the story in favor of a sort of modern novel of manners is a disappointment. He keeps the reader interested enough to want to move from one chapter to the next, but in the end one wonders what the point is and whether it was all just a waste of time.

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