Sunday, July 09, 2023

Knut Hamsun, Growth of the Soil


Opening Passage:

That long, long path over the moors and into the forest, who has trodden it? Man, a human being, the first one who came here. There was no path before him. Later a few animals followed the faint tracks over the heaths and moors and made them clearer, and stil later a few Lapps began to nose out the path and to use it when theyw ere going from one mountain to another to see to their reindeer. This is how the path through the great common, the no-man's-land owned by no one, came into being.

A man comes walking north. He carries a sack, the first sack, containing provisions for the road and some implements.... (p. 3)

Summary: Isak heads out into the northern wilderness of Norway. The book is deliberately inexact about where, but the references indicate some remote part of Nordland, at least a day away from any standing Norwegian settlements; it is also inexact about when, but it would have to be somewhere around the mid nineteent-century. There he basically squats on a very nice piece of land and starts a farm. He is soon enough joined by a woman, Inger, who has a harelip but is exceptionally competent. Eventually the state takes notice, and the Lensmand ('Sheriff' in the Penguin translation) comes by; his name is Geissler, and he informs them that they are on state land. However, he helps them to buy it from the state, on quite excellent terms. The farm gets its official name of Sellanrå. Geissler is eventually removed from his official position, and vows to get back at those who had failed to appreciate him, but he always remains on good terms with Isak and Inger. As time goes on, more people slowly arrive and an actual community builds, but Isak, having arrived first and working hard, and thanks to Geissler having a secure possession of a very large amount of very good land as well, is the first and foremost among them. The nearby mountains turn out to have veins of copper, which brings miner and the boom-and-bust that mining inevitably brings, but Isak, like the tortoise in the story of the Tortoise and the Hare, keeps on being Isak. Again with Geissler's help, he makes a good chunk of money selling to the various mining companies, but lives almost wholly on his own hard work.

The Norwegian title, Markens Grøde, involves a sort of play on words; one could also translate it as 'Growth of the Frontier', since the word for 'soil' is actually related to the English words 'mark' and 'march', and like them can mean the land on the boundary of things. Isak is often referred to metaphorically as 'the margrave'. The book is a frontier novel, and is about a success story on the Norwegian frontier, one that serves as an emblem of all such success stories. Much of this aspect of the story I found particularly interesting. The frontier farmer was the modern form of the agricultural identity that was once central to Norwegian self-conception. I myself descend from Norwegian farmers, although farther south in age-old farming communities where the fields were cultivated by  Peter son of Olaf son of Peter son of Olaf -- all the way back, one would not be surprised to find, to the very beginning when even the south was a frontier. On a frontier many things can go wrong, and many do, but many things can go well, also, and there are very great successes on frontiers that serve as the foundation for civilization.

Other lines of the story I found of variable interest. There is a running them of infanticide throughout the book; two of the major events in the course of the story consist of women killing their children. I found most of this grating, in part because most of the characters in the book other than Geissler were not interesting enough in their own right, at least to me, to carry such drama. The infanticidal thread is treated mostly as if it were just part of the natural order, but the descriptions of liberal self-congratulation in their humane modern noncondemnation and even positive evaluation of the practice get very sarcastic, and they do so by means of Geissler, who is (as I note below) the one character who always sees the big picture. In Hamsun's own life, approval of infanticide was the one line he consistently refused to cross, and he shocked the literati of the day by his refusal to go along with the general sense of the sophisticated and respectable that it deserved compassion rather than condemnation. This is not a matter of compassion on Hamsun's part, as is no doubt obvious from the fact that he did not extend this attitude to any other class of person. Much of it, I think, is that Hamsun sees himself on the side of the people who actually build civilization rather than merely take advantage of it; if children die in the course of things, they die, but deliberately killing a child is throwing out everything the child can contribute to civilized life. Infanticide is literally the opposite of the growth of the frontier. Nonetheless, one also gets the impression that Hamsun sees it as just a hazard of life, in part because he seems to think that being infanticidal is one of the natural characteristics of women left to themselves.

There are many characters in the book -- which ends up extending somewhat beyond Isak and Inger to other settlers in the area -- but Geissler is easily the most interesting. He is a very clever man, although he seems a little attention deficit. One of his quirks is that in the middle of a discussion on one topic he'll stop and ask about a completely different subject, than return to the original topic almost immediately, and this summarizes his entire approach to the world. He had a reputation for being a very intelligent, very unreliable man, and he flits in and out of the story, always doing something and always doing something different, although nobody can ever figure exactly what. He seems to have an endless number of brands in the fire, and moves from one to another in the most erratic way. Nonetheless, as with his conversations, he never actually loses his way, and his revenge on the people in the district who didn't support him is as inevitable as it is slow in coming and indirect in execution. He is in fact always moving forward obliquely, and he carries along with him those, like Isak, who aren't opposed to him. He can handle so many ongoing projects, and can manage them to his benefit while constantly jumping around, because he is the only person who sees the big picture. This is indeed why nobody else can ever figure out what he is doing. Everybody else is farming for today; he makes his plans in light of what the mining company might do to the mountain years in the future. Everybody else is focusing on what goes on in their own little community; Geissler makes his plans based on what is happening with mines in Montana. There are necessarily many contributors to civilization, but the fundamental contributors to Norwegian civilization, the ones who make all the others possible, are the Isaks and the Geisslers.

Favorite Passage:

Isak understood the work, to carry on his trade. He was now a wealthy man with a large farm, but he made a poor use of the many cash payments chance had brought his way: he put them away. The backland saved him. If Isak had lived in the village, the world at large might have influenced even him a little; there were so many fine things, such genteel surroundings, that he would have bought unnecessary things and gone around in a red Sunday shirt every day. here in the backland he was protected against all excesses, living in clear air; he washed Sunday morning and bathed when he was up by the mountain lake. Those thousand dollars--well, a gift from heaven, every penny to be put away. What else? Isak could manage his ordinary expenses, and more, simply by selling the yield of his animals and the soil. (pp. 170-171)

Recommendation: Recommended if it comes your way, but you probably don't have to go out of your way for it unless you are studying the history of the novel. This book is brilliantly written, often (but unevenly) interesting, and not always particularly pleasant.


Knut Hamsun, Growth of the Soil, Lyngstad, tr., Penguin (New York: 2007).