Knut Hamsun’s Pan Revisited
When he was ninety, Hamsun was detained for three months in a psychiatric hospital in Oslo. When one of the doctors asked him to analyse himself, he replied thus:
‘I have not analysed myself in any other way than by creating in my books hundreds of characters – each one spun out of myself – with the advantages and disadvantages of all imaginary persons. The so-called naturalistic period, Emile Zola and his contemporaries, wrote about people with so-called main characteristics. They had no use for the nuances of psychology, their persons had a ‘dominating quality which determined their character. Dostoevsky and others taught us something else about human beings. From my earliest writings I don’t think there exists in my entire production any person with such a straight dominating quality. They are all without so-called ‘character’, they are split and divided, they are not good or bad but both. They consist of many parts, there are nuances, they change in mind and actions.
‘And that is the way I am myself, without a doubt. It is quite possible that I am aggressive. I may have some of the characteristics hinted at by the professor – vulnerable, suspicious, egotistical, generous, jealous, judicious, sensitive, cold – all these qualities would be human. But I don’t know that I could give any of them supremacy in my nature. Whatever I consist of, whatever I am, came to me as a gift of grace which has made it possible for me to write my books. It is a gift I cannot analyse, Georg Brandes called it the divine folly.’
It is more than thirty years since I first read Knut Hamsun’s Pan. I had few memories of it, though I remembered the language, the poetry, and the mystery surrounding Lieutenant Thomas Glahn, the central character.
Glahn is a Pan-like man. He has rented a shack up in the woods in the far north of Norway where he lives by hunting and fishing. He has a dog, but otherwise lives alone, communing with trees and the sea, telling the time of day by the sun and bird-song, feeling the closeness of God around him. The opening pages show us Glahn’s absolute association of nature with divinity and there is an expectation of the tale becoming a kind of pastoral romance.
Hamsun said, “My new book will be beautiful; it takes place in Nordland, a quiet and red love story. There will be no polemics in it, just people under different skies.”
Into Glahn’s world, and attracted by his charisma and his ‘animal look’, come two women; the passionate teenager, Edvarda, who is stimulated almost entirely by the chase; and simple, tragic Eva, the wife of the local blacksmith.
Hamsun gives us a kind of Pan, a character who is half man, half goat; someone who can easily live alone and survive in nature, but who is completely incapable of life in the social realm. The novel is accomplished, astoundingly, by the subtle use of lyrical language and attention to what Hamsun described as the life of the mind.
This second visit to Hamsun’s novel showed me a picture of masculinity that I had not identified in my first reading. And although it may well contain elements of truth, the picture is a disturbing one and has left me with more questions than conclusions.
Nevertheless, Pan is a great novel, beautifully written and executed, and worth the time of anyone who appreciates good literature.
‘Hamsun has the qualities that belong to the very great, the completest omniscience about human nature.’ Rebecca West.