Knut Hamsun

The Dark Side of Literary Brilliance (New Directions in Scandinavian Studies)

Monika agar

  • Published: 2009
  • Subject Listing: Scandinavian Studies; Literary Studies; Biography, Autobiography, and Memoir
  • Bibliographic information: 352 pp., 6 x 9 in.
  • Territorial rights: World Rights
  • Series: New Directions in Scandinavian Studies
  • Contents

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1920, Knut Hamsun (1859-1952) was a towering figure of Norwegian letters. He was also a Nazi sympathizer and supporter of the German occupation of Norway during the Second World War. In 1943, Hamsun sent his Nobel medal to Third-Reich propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels as a token of his admiration and authored a reverential obituary for Hitler in May 1945. For decades, scholars have wrestled with the dichotomy between Hamsun's merits as a writer and his infamous ties to Nazism.

In her incisive study of Hamsun, Monika Zagar refuses to separate his political and cultural ideas from an analysis of his highly regarded writing. Her analysis reveals the ways in which messages of racism and sexism appear in plays, fiction, and none-too-subtle nonfiction produced by a prolific author over the course of his long career. In the process, Zagar illuminates Norway's changing social relations and long history of interaction with other peoples.

Focusing on selected masterpieces as well as writings hitherto largely ignored, Zagar demonstrates that Hamsun did not arrive at his notions of race and gender late in life. Rather, his ideas were rooted in a mindset that idealized Norwegian rural life, embraced racial hierarchy, and tightly defined the acceptable notion of women in society. Making the case that Hamsun's support of Nazi political ideals was a natural outgrowth of his reactionary aversion to modernity, Knut Hamsun serves as a corrective to scholarship treating Hamsun's Nazi ties as unpleasant but peripheral details in a life of literary achievement.
Monika Zagar is associate professor of Scandinavian studies at the University of Minnesota.

"Knut Hamsun is a very important contribution not only to the study of Knut Hamsun's oeuvre but also to the general study of literature. By asking the question of how Hamsun's works have been affected by his political and social attitudes, Zagar offers an instructive example of how crucial it is not to separate literary works from the context that enabled them."
-Jan Sjavik, University of Washington

"Zagar makes a strong case for the importance of discussing Hamsun's views on modernity, race, genetics, eugenics, and gender to understand his 'repugnant' politics."
-Anne Sabo, St. Olaf College

1. Discourses of Race and Primitivism in Scandinavia
2. Hamsun's Women as Scapegoats for Modernity's Sins
3. Imagining the Indians
4. Imagining Black and White
5. A Taste of the Orient
6. Imagining the Sly Magic "Lapps"
7. Imagining Degeneration and Revolution: The Interwar Period and Occupation
8. The Rhetoric of Defense in Hamsun's Paa gjengrodde stier

"By employing 'the bifocal lens of race and gender' and by including less canonical Hamsun texts, Zagar offers a persuasive account of Hamsun's ideological position and illuminates his career-long participation in reactionary, racist, and patriarchal discourse."
-Dean Krouk, Scandinavian-Canadian Studies, Vol. 20 (2011)

"Monika Zagar was provoked to write Knut Hamsun: The Dark Side to counter the 'white-washing' of Hamsun which, as she sees it, continues to this day."
-London Review of Books

"A superb academic study."
-Matthew Shaer, Los Angeles Times