Knut Hamsun and Nordic modernism
The 1898 “Victoria” may not be the first book that comes to the mind of most readers hearing the name “Knut Hamsun.” In fact, it may not even be the second. Nonetheless, it remains one of the most important novels in the study of Nordic modernism. Published at the turn of the century, “Victoria” is heavily characterized by the frequent use of inner monologues, its realist reflection of social gaps, and the light touch of the visual descriptions of the Norwegian countryside that highlights the interactions between characters.
The Norwegian Nobel Literary Prize winner was born in 1859 in Gudbrandsdalen — commonly known as “the valley of valleys” — a rural district surrounded by the highest mountains of Scandinavia. Growing up in the Hamarøy countryside of Norway, Hamsun was greatly influenced by the rural landscape and the pastoral scenes. Nevertheless, rather than concentrating the subject of his writing on illustrating the countryside, Hamsun employs such imagery as a backdrop for the critical interactions between his characters. Through the implementation of interior monologues and stream of consciousness, Hamsun’s novels pioneered Modernist elements in Norway. Much of Hamsun’s writing centers on social hierarchies, the solitude of outcasts in wilderness, and primitivism. His best known works are “Sult” — “Hunger” — published in 1890 and “Markens Grøde” — “Growth of the Soil” — published in 1917. In 1920, the awarding of the Nobel Literary Prize for “Markens Grøde” brought his international popularity to a peak.
However, the 1940 Nazi invasion of Norway instantly changed the public view of Hamsun. An admirer of German writers Thomas Mann and Herman Hesse, Hamsun sympathized with the Nazis, and the public displayal of his sympathies turned Norway against him. In a fortnight, he went from a national hero to the enemy of the country. Libraries rid themselves of all his works, and households burned all Hamsun collections they possessed. Hamsun passed away antagonized, forgotten by his people. It wasn’t until the 1960s that people began to read Hamsun again.
Why read “Victoria”? While it may not hold the same popularity as “Sult” or “Markens Grøde,” it is a love fiction enveloping the youthful love souring in the process of aging and barriers of social hierarchies. With the backdrop of Norwegian rural sceneries, a young boy and young girl loved each other with the purest hearts, and their inability to let go of the passion led to fatal consequences. Johannes was born a miller’s son, and Victoria was the daughter of a castle owner. Evidently, there is not meant to be a happy ending. As the couple grow up, they become increasingly fond of each other in secret, but the cold reality of their social differences set them apart. When Victoria’s “castle” crumbles — her wealthy, land-owning family begins to wane and her lieutenant fiancée dies — it seems like she is liberated to pursue her lover. Unfortunately, Johannes is engaged to another. The heartbroken Victoria begins to decline in health and dies.
At first glance, “Victoria” seems like a melodramatic story lamenting the mishaps of unrequited love and jealousy; nonetheless, Hamsun describes romance in a burning-candle-like way, wavering in strength from time to time but never ceasing to burn. When Johannes’ affection burns ardently, Victoria coldly reclines against the chest of Lieutenant Otto; after the sudden death of Otto, Victoria rusheds to tell Johannes how ill she has always been for him, only to hear the cruel news that he is engaged. Although one seems to be cold while the other is burning in flames, barely perceivable is the shadow of the candle also passionately burning on the ground, and that it is the embodiment of the concealed devastation each of the two suffers from pushing away each other. Under the pretense of the melodramatic setting of the horrible timing, the difficulty faced by the two is faulted in their silent affections and jealousies rather than fate itself.
Of all Hamsun’s novels, “Victoria” has been adopted into films the most times, most likely due to its picturesque literary depiction of the Norwegian landscape — easily appearing photo-genic on screen — that it became a favorite for film producers. The 2013 version directed by Torun Lian was the first film adaptation in Norwegian. As expected, the film sheds a light on the prided Nordic sceneries, but Lian’s production creates more depth to just showcasing pretty mountains and valleys. She is known for disorienting the audience, creating a space within a location one is so familiar with and destroying immediately our knowledge of where it is. The most impressionable moment in the movie is the scene where fourteen-year-old Johannes carries eight-year-old Victoria through the woods. While this scene is original to the visual adaptation, it underscores the innocence of the two sharing a loving moment without recognizing that it is romance. Without much discourse, the scene seizes the attention of spectators through the long shots of the children looking at each other smiling and the occasional giggles. While they walk through a field of snow white cow parsleys, the camera panned slowly into the children while birds chirped and Victoria hummed idly. Victoria wraps her arms around Johannes neck, and, carrying the girl in his arms, the young boy is also struggling a little to keep his balance. The moment of innocence juxtaposes the tragic consequences of their love in the end. Even the purest affections may derive from jealousy.
The technique employed in “Victoria” lays a foundation for the Nordic modernist traditions, and the romantic sentiments inspire film makers frequently to recreate the romance in vivid Norwegian landscapes. While not a difficult read, “Victoria” presents a challenge for modern readers to dig deeper into a trivial, simple plotline. In search of the layered sentiments buried in the minds of the characters, either through direct or indirect discourse or stream of consciousness, one may find instead the dauntingness of love passionately burning ferociously, haunting each of us in our subconscious.
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