Tag Archives: Norwegian Literature

‘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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‘Love’ by Hanne Ørstavik

Love by Hanne Ørstavik was published by Archipelago Books this year and was originally published in Norwegian in 1997 as Kjærlighet. It was translated by Martin Aitken. As far as I know it is only the second book by Ørstavik to be translated into English; the first was The Blue Room which I read last year. Hopefully more of her books will be published in the future.

Love follows the nocturnal wanderings of mother and son, Vibeke and Jon, over one night in their lives. Vibeke is a single mother who has recently moved to town with her eight year old son, Jon. Vibeke works as an Arts and Culture Officer in a local authority and she likes reading, getting through at least three books a week. The whole book is told from both Vibeke’s and Jon’s perspective, flitting back and forth, so that we get to experience their thoughts and actions concurrently. Ørstavik is not using this technique to trip the reader up as it’s clear in the text whenever the switch between the two characters is made from the context of the story. It’s an highly effective technique.

The story begins with Vibeke returning from work on the eve of Jon’s ninth birthday. Here’s an example of Jon’s thoughts as he waits for his mother to return from work:

The sound of the car. When he’s waiting he can never quite recall it. I’ve forgotten, he tells himself. But then it comes back to him, often in pauses between the waiting, after he’s stopped thinking about it. And then she comes, and he recognizes the sound in an instant; he hears it with his tummy, it’s my tummy that remembers the sound, not me, he thinks to himself. And no sooner has he heard the car than he sees it too, from the corner of the window, her blue car coming round the bend behind the banks of snow, and she turns in at the house and drives up the little slope to the front door.

We realise early on that Jon is used to being by himself, he’s introspective and has an active imagination and curiosity about the world around him. Jon also has trouble with blinking as his eye muscles start to spasm at random moments. It’s difficult not to feel some affection for the boy.

When Vibeke returns she is thinking of her new job and getting a meal ready for the two of them. Even when they’re eating there is little interaction between themselves, they seem to be quite isolated in their thoughts. Jon thinks of school, the neighbours, his birthday the following day whilst Vibeke thinks of work, clothes she wants to buy and books she’s reading. Even when she does show some attention to her son she is soon sidetracked by thoughts of herself.

   She reaches out and smoothes her hand over his head.
   “Have you made any friends yet?”
   His hair is fine and soft.
   “Jon,” she says. “Dearest Jon.”
   She repeats the movement while studying her hand. Her nail polish is pale and sandy with just a hint of pink. She likes to be discreet at work. She remembers the new set that must still be in her bag, plum, or was it wine; a dark, sensual lipstick and nail polish the same shade. To go with a dark, brown-eyed man, she thinks with a little smile.

Throughout the night covered by the novel Vibeke rarely thinks of her son and she has totally forgotten that it is his birthday the following day so it would have been easy for Ørstavik to make her into some kind of monster; but she doesn’t, Vibeke is certainly self-obsessed to some degree but she comes across as quite a naive, innocent, woman who just wants good things to happen to herself and her son.

The bulk of the novel takes place once Jon leaves the house, he has some raffle tickets for a sports club that he wants to sell to some of the neighbours. He leaves the house and soon after Vibeke leaves intending to return some books to the library, however she is unaware that Jon is no longer in the house. First off Jon knocks on the door of an old man who lives opposite him. He is invited in, the man offers to buy all the tickets then thinks of something and invites Jon down to the cellar. At this point we, the reader, are picturing that all sorts of horrible things will happen, especially when Jon notices, quite innocently, a dog collar and chain hanging from a hook in the ceiling. Ørstavik plays brilliantly with the readers’ expectations throughout the novel as Jon meanders about. He starts talking with a girl who invites him back to her house. Jon stays there after she goes to bed and her parents appear quietly menacing to us, but not to Jon. Later on he gets into a car with a woman, who Jon suspects may really be a man, whose intentions towards Jon are unclear. We fear for Jon who seems oblivious to any danger. The driver appears to know who Jon’s mother is, which is another source of concern for the reader.

Meanwhile Vibeke, finding the library shut, ends up at a fairground where she chats to one of the fairground men, called Tom, and goes back to his caravan. As with Jon we begin to wonder what will happen to Vibeke. Although she has only just met the man, she seems to be imagining them living together whilst his interest in her seems to be waning already. When they go out to find a bar or nightclub he appears to us to be almost absent, more interested in chatting up other women than Vibeke, whilst Vibeke sees little wrong with this. At one point in the novel Vibeke, in a car driven by Tom, passes by the parked car that contains Jon and the woman. At ths point the reader is fearing what will happen to both characters.

Love is an excellent book, easily comparable with the equally excellent The Blue Room. I love the way that Ørstavik plays with the expectations of the reader by placing the characters in potentially dangerous situations and throwing us false clues, or rather, clues which would be significant in a thriller of horror book but which are insignificant here. But Love is mostly about the two characters Vibeke and Jon. Both come across as innocent, introspective people but basically decent, though Vibeke is quite self-obsessed and thoughtless, illustrated by her forgetting her son’s birthday. Whether she should be vilified as a bad mother or bad person because of that is left for us to decide. The ending was suitably ambiguous though we are thrown enough clues for us to guess what happened or could have happened. The problem is, given our experience with the rest of the book, should we trust our own thoughts based on these clues?

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‘The Blue Room’ by Hanne Ørstavik (#WITMonth)

Image source: Pereine Press website

Hanne Ørstavik’s The Blue Room was published by Pereine Press in 2014, translated by Deborah Dawkin. Its original Norwegian title is Like sant som jeg er virkelig (1999), which Google Translate translates as ‘As true as I really am’; I personally prefer the more literal title but I can see why they went for The Blue Room; it’s more punchy and more memorable. Ørstavik has written twelve novels but this is the first one to be made available in English.

The novel opens with Johanne, a twenty-something woman who lives in a flat with her mum (or Mum in the text), discovering that her mum has locked her in before going off to work. The whole novel is Johanne’s account of recent events leading up to this event. The narrative flits back and forth a bit without a break in the flow of the narrative but it is easy to get used to Ørstavik’s technique as little clues are given in the text. We discover that Johanne is a psychology student, she’s a little odd, a little quirky and doesn’t have many friends apart from Karin, who is about to embark on becoming a minister. Johanne’s father left when she was young and she was brought up, along with her brother Edward, by her mother. Johanne’s relationship with her mother is the main subject of this book and it’s a fascinating story to read even if we’re only getting Johanne’s view. It’s tempting to think that her mother is a tyrant as she’s locked her daughter in her room and so, as the story develops, it’s interesting to hear Johanne’s views of her mother. When Karin remarks how much she likes Johanne’s mother, Johanne says:

I told her how easy it was living with Mum, like being in a collective, that she was my best friend. Apart from you, I said smiling.

Johanne is very studious, she has just embarked on a Psychology degree, and takes her studies seriously. She doesn’t drink or party, she goes to church regularly and helps out with the chores, but there’s another side to her, she keeps having images of sado-masochistic sex, or violent sex, she feels at times that she’s living with her mother only as a way of spongeing off her and she can be quite tactless at times, like the time she dragged her mother to see the film Betty Blue even though she knew that her mother would not approve of the sexual imagery of the film. Johanne likes to get to the library reading room on time so she can start studying early and disapproves of her fellow students who have a more lax attitude though at the same time she is quite envious of them.

What they display, these students who don’t arrive in the reading room until nine, or even later, is a kind of daring. They play with life, with possibilities. For me my studies are like a tightrope I’m balancing on, life will begin only when I’ve reached the other side. Only when I’m standing there triumphantly, with a glowing testimonial and glittering results, only then, I think to myself, will I be free.

But things change when Johanne meets Ivar, who works at the university canteen and is in a band. Johanne has masochistic erotic daydreams about him. It turns out that Ivar is also attracted to Johanne and he asks her to go to see his band play. Johanne is unsure whether to go but in the end she does even though her mother disapproves. Her mother tells Johanne at one point ‘Men are so simple. Controlled by sex and power. Like robots…’ So, it is easy to think of her mother as either a prude or someone who hates men and therefore doesn’t want her daughter to have any relationship with men but it’s apparent from Johanne’s narrative that her mother has a lover, or lovers, that visit regularly. It may be that her mother understands Johanne better than Johanne does herself and that she is concerned that her daughter will ruin her life over her fling with Ivar. Johanne’s mother meets Ivar when he visits and is not impressed with him, especially when he offers her, a tea-totaller, some wine. As a test she asks him to explain what love is.

Ivar asks Johanne, rather vaguely, to accompany him on a trip he’s about to take to the United States and Johanne, rather vaguely, agrees; the offer is left open. She torments herself as she wants to go, to be spontaneous for once, but worries about her studies, her mother and Karin.

I wished I could split my body in two, give one part to Mum and the other to Ivar. Then they could both have their share, and I could keep my ribcage as a little raft on which I’d curl up and float away.

But the night before Ivar is due to leave Johanne packs her bags in preparation for the trip. Johanne, who had been so studious, so caring, is now prepared to abandon everything to go off with Ivar, whom she has only known for two weeks. And so her mother locks her in her room to prevent her from going.

There is so much in this novel that I’ve had to leave out of this post but there is a lot in the novel that is left ambiguous, not least the ending. The main reason is that we’re only getting Johanne’s point of view and she’s a very unreliable narrator. But it’s all done so perfectly that the ambiguities reflect those ambiguities that we all experience in life; where not only are others’ actions are difficult to understand but our own are as well. What a brilliant novel. If Ørstavik’s other novels are as half as good we’re really missing out in not having English translations available.

I read this as part of the ‘Women In Translation Month’.

I first heard of this book from the review at BookerTalk. Thanks Karen.

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