When I first started looking for books from 1920 I knew I would have to read Knut Hamsun’s The Women at the Pump. Other possibilities would have been re-reads of Sherwood Anderson’s Poor White and Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street, both which I enjoyed reading eons ago. Another re-read choice would have been some H.P. Lovecraft stories, such as The Statement of Randolph Carter—but I read some Lovecraft for our 1924 Club Year so decided against it this time. So, The Women at the Pump was published in 1920 (of course) which was the year that Hamsun won the Nobel Prize for Literature. His superb book, The Growth of the Soil, which was published in 1917, was cited as being instrumental in the prize being awarded to him. As is often the case with authors I like, he had some dodgy political views, such as supporting the Nazi regime; he even gave Goebbels his Nobel Prize medal as a gift. I don’t actually know much about his life but would certainly like to read a biography; I know of at least one that is available in English—Enigma: The Life of Knut Hamsun by Robert Ferguson. My copy of The Women at the Pump was published by Souvenir Books (now owned by Profile Books), who have several of Hamsun’s books available, and was translated by Oliver & Gunnvor Stallybrass in 1978.
The events of The Women at the Pump take place in some unnamed Norwegian coastal town in some undefined period presumably before WWI, as the war is not mentioned or even hinted at. There is little plot, as such, which seems to annoy some people (at least it does on GoodReads), but a lot of character studies, which I always enjoy. Throughout the book the focus switches between many of the inhabitants of the town, but the main focus is on Oliver Andersen and his family. But there is also Jørgen the fisherman; Johnsen of the Wharf, a double Consul; Carlsen the blacksmith; Mattis the carpenter; Olaus, a loafer; and a doctor, a postmaster etc. And as the book progresses there are sons and daughters of these characters, and more. I must admit I love this type of book with a multitude of characters. So Oliver Andersen (who it should be noted is blue-eyed) gets a job on a ship, called Fia, which is owned by the consul C.A. Johnsen. It is, however, only a few months before Oliver returns home crippled; he’s lost a leg and claims that he was crushed under a barrel of whale oil. Life is tough on his return; he lives with his mother, and his girlfriend, Petra, is unsure whether to resume their relationship.
As we get to know Oliver over the course of the novel we see that he’s a bit of a rascal, and a scallywag, but overall he’s a good(ish) sort. He’s not violent, or a drinker, or a gambler; he loves his wife and his children and he has a bit of a sweet tooth; but he’s not adverse to lying, or breaking the law if it might benefit him, and his family, in some way. We get the feeling that Hamsun has a bit of a soft spot for Oliver. Here are a couple of descriptions of his character, which mostly appear near the end of the novel.
Now as before, as nearly always these last twenty years, Oliver’s life is partly within the law, partly on the borderline, occasionally a little outside.
Oliver was made of sterner stuff, less delicate and sensitive, more carefree, in short, the right human clay; he could endure life. Who had taken a harder knock than he? But a tiny upward turn in his fortunes, a lucky theft, a successful swindle, restored him to contentment.
Oliver no longer begins anything anywhere, beginning things is not his business, he stays where he is put, uncrushed by human thought, unconverted by the women at the pump. Naturally life, fate, and God are damned high-class questions and very necessary questions, but they will be solved by people who have learned to read and write; what use are they to Oliver? If a brain like his starts busying itself with the why and the wherefore, it will go into a tailspin, and then Oliver will be unable to continue with his work, to enjoy his food and candy, to be fit for what he is. Leave getting above oneself to others!
Oliver has ups and downs throughout his life, and his relationship with his wife, Petra, is stormy. At times they seem to hate each other. Here’s Petra’s view of him at one such low point.
Petra doesn’t answer, doesn’t look at him, she is so weary of his talk and of his person. Oh, that lump of fat in the chair—it breathes, it wears clothes that someone has sewn, it has buttons on its clothes; on its upper end it has a hat, tilted at an angle. She knows it all inside out, the sprawling wooden leg that projects into the narrow room and blocks the way, his conversation, all the lies, the bombast, the voice that grows more and more like a woman’s, the lusterless, watery-blue gaze, the mouth that is perpetually moist. Year by year he seems to be going to pieces; only his appetite remains intact. And there isn’t always enough to eat.
Still, Oliver and Petra have two boys, Frank and Abel, and three girls. Throughout the book it is clear that there is more to Oliver’s injury than he lets on and although it’s pretty clear to the reader what the problem is, the rest of the characters seem oblivious, and at times Oliver and Petra themselves seem unaware.
What is especially enjoyable about this book is the humour and the compassion that Hamsun has for the characters, indeed all the characters; there is no-one that is wholly bad or contemptible, no-one that the reader ends up hating. The postmaster can’t stop talking about metaphysics to uninterested listeners, the doctor is a misanthrope, Oliver’s son Frank is studious but dull, his other son, Abel, is in love since an early age with Little Lydia, who is totally uninterested in him, Oliver has a long-lasting feud with the carpenter over some doors and much, much more. And the women at the pump? Well, we’re never allowed to listen in on them directly but we do hear, throughout the book, what is being discussed by the women at the pump and what they think. Anything that is worth knowing is known by the women at the pump and known before anyone else.
Human beings push against each other and trample on each other; some sink exhausted to the ground and serve as a bridge for others, some perish—they are the ones least fitted for coping with the push, and they perish. That can’t be helped. But the others flourish and blossom. Such is life’s immortality. All this, mind you, they knew at the pump.