Tag Archives: Knut Hamsun

‘The Women at the Pump’ by Knut Hamsun (1920 Club)

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.

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‘The Wanderer’ by Knut Hamsun

The Wanderer consists of two related novellas, Under the Autumn Star and On Muted Strings. Both share the same narrator and contain the same characters so they can easily be thought of as two sections of the same novel. Under the Autumn Star was originally published in Norwegian in 1906 as Under Høststjærnen. En Vandrers Fortælling and On Muted Strings was first published in 1909 as En Vandrer spiller med Sordin.

Under the Autumn Star begins with the narrator, Knut Pederson (Hamsun’s real name), explaining that he had fled the city to the country to find some peace and solitude.

It is years since I knew such peace, perhaps twenty or thirty years; or perhaps it was in a previous life. Whenever it was, I must surely have tasted before now this peace that I feel as I walk around in ecstasies, humming to myself, caring for every stone and every straw, and sensing that they care for me once more. We are friends.

Pederson meets an old workmate called Grindhusen, who paints but is not exactly a painter, who does stonework but is not exactly a stonemason. Pederson joins Grindhusen in his travels to find work.

They turn up at a parsonage where Grindhusen has been employed to dig a well. Pederson suggests to the priest that it would be possible to install pipes from the well to the house. So they busy themselves with work and on his time off Pederson wanders about the forest and churchyard. He finds the priest’s daughter, Elizabeth, attractive but a bit too young for him; he nonetheless falls in love with her. But it is the girl’s mother that seduces Pederson when the priest and Elizabeth are out of the house and she asks Pederson to help her move her bed. When the work is complete Pederson and Grindhusen move on to dig up potatoes; Pederson is especially reluctant to settle down despite having offers.

One evening the priest came over and offered me work on the parsonage farm. The offer was a good one, and I considered it for a while before finally turning it down. I preferred to rove around as a free agent, picking up such work as I could, sleeping out, taking myself a little by surprise.

Once the work is done Pederson goes wandering again, this time with someone called Lars Falkenberg, a very different character than Grindhusen. Falkenberg is a bit of a con-artist in that he pretends to be a piano tuner; he has some piano-tuning equipment and twiddles about with the piano for a bit before leaving the piano in the same state it was when he arrived—no-one ever notices that nothing has been improved.

It is not long before they end up at Øvrebø, home of Captain and Madame Falkenberg (no relation to Lars), where they get jobs felling trees. Much of the remainder of the novel centres around events at Øvrebø. Meanwhile Pederson and Falkenberg vie for the attentions of the maid Emma. Pederson develops a machine for sawing trees and receives help and support from the Captain. It turns out that Elizabeth is a friend of Madame’s and so she visits frequently. One day Pederson is asked to drive Elizabeth back to the parsonage and Madame goes along as well. They stop for a picnic beside the road.

The pair of them plied me with food and feared I wasn’t getting enough; and When I had opened the bottles, I got my full share of beer, too; it was a regular roadside banquet, a small fairy tale in my life. Madame I hardly dared look at, lest she should have occasion to feel hurt.

But something happens between Pederson and Madame on this trip; both feel that there is an attraction between them. Later on Pederson virtually stalks her when she goes on a visit into town. Meanwhile, Falkenberg gets taken on permanently at Øvrebø and marries Emma whilst Pederson sets out on his wanderings again.

The events of On Muted Strings takes place six years later with Pederson returning to Øvrebø. The story is dominated with the marital affairs of the Captain and Madame. They have no children and it appears that the Captain is carrying on an affair with Elizabeth and hosts never-ending parties. Madame is jealous and tries to get her revenge on her husband by having an affair with an engineer. Domestic fights and squabbles continue throughout the book with the servants and Pederson caught in the middle. It is a different book to Under the Autumn Star but a very interesting sequel. Although not quite on the scale of Hamsun’s Growth of the Soil I was very impressed with the The Wanderer and hope to continue with more books by Hamsun.

Since writing the above I have also read Hamsuns Victoria which was originally published in 1898. It is a novella and the full translated title would be Victoria: A Love Story. And that is what we get, a pretty standard nineteenth century love story with the usual themes; love across a class divide, unrequited love, an impoverished poet writing about his beloved, the death of his beloved. Hamsun’s style though is unfussy and modern and I’m guessing that he was trying to update the tired themes of the nineteenth century love story fit for the approaching twentieth century; but to our eyes it just really melts in with the rest of them. Or maybe he was just trying to write a more old-fashioned story. It’s not a bad read though and the two lovers Victoria and Johannes are well sketched.

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