Growth of the Soil (Knut Hamsun)

Posted: October 3, 2014 in fiction
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As the title might imply, this is a slow book. Sometimes very slow indeed.

The days go by.

and

But again the days went by and nothing bad happened because the days went by.

and even

But the hours went by now as well, afternoon came and was followed by evening.

The book is heavily imbued with the landscape of northern Norway, above the Arctic Circle, where the author grew up. What plot there is moves with the same glacial stillness. A man walks into the wilderness and cuts out a spot for himself.

Fall is coming, it is quiet in the woods round about, the mountains are there, the sun is there, and tonight the moon and the stars will come out; it is all unchanging, full of kindness, an embrace. Here folks have time to rest in the heather, with an arm for a pillow.

He tends to his farm. People walk by every now and again, and he asks them about getting a woman to help him. He’s alone for a year or two, and then she comes seemingly out of nowhere and they settle into their work. She was born with a harelip, so she never could find someone to take her on elsewhere. She comes to Isak as a way of hiding from the world, in the one place she will feel valued. And he does set a great deal of value on her. Their lives have the flavor of a fairy tale, or a myth of origin. It’s just so . . . Edenic.

In the wilds every season has its wonders, but there is always something unchanging: the immense, heavy sound of heaven and earth, the sense of being surrounded on every side, the darkness of the forest, the friendliness of the trees. Everything is heavy and soft, no thought is impossible there. North of Sellanra there was a tiny little tarn, a puddle, no bigger than an aquarium. Swimming around in it were little baby fish which never grew bigger; they lived and died there and were no use at all – goodness, no, not in the least. One evening when Inger stood there listening for the cowbells, she heard nothing else, because all was dead round about; but she did hear a song from the aquarium. It was so small, next to nothing, dying away. It was the little fishes’ song.

But paradise never lasts. Reality comes in, demanding to know what right Isak has to his land, expecting payment for it. He doesn’t let that bother him, though, and he pays it off. This is a great deal of the first half of the novel: Isak works, things grow, he builds new buildings, and life on the farm continues. The potatoes grow better during a drought than anything else, the animals reproduce, and Inger has children. Eventually more people carve out their places in the landscape and Isak and Inger get neighbors, and their lives dominate the second half of the book. But pretty much the same things happen again. Some people are successful, some are not.

The mining operation upsets the balance of things – there’s copper up in the mountain, and some Swedes buy it to mine. They bring their own workers instead of relying on local labor (a smart move – most people wouldn’t even agree to monitoring the telegraph wire because it would take them away from their farmwork), but the workers turn some people’s heads. The problem with harvesting nonrenewable resources is that eventually the copper runs out. Mining towns collapse. Aaronsen sets up a store to trade with the miners, but when they go, his business goes too. The store never really works out until Andresen works the farm behind the store and only sells what people need, when they need it, but by then Aaronsen is long gone. Self-sufficiency is very strongly valued in the book, and those who let the outside world affect them are generally seen as weak. Those silent farmers carry the day.

The settlers in the wild didn’t lose their heads. They didn’t find the air to be unhealthy for them, had a large enough public for their new clothes and didn’t miss diamonds. Wine they knew from the wedding in Cana. The settlers didn’t make themselves suffer on account of goodies they hadn’t got: art, newspapers, luxuries, politics were worth exactly as much as people were willing to pay for them, no more; the growth of the soil, on the other hand, had to be procured at any cost. It was the origin of all things, the only source. The settlers’ lives sad and empty? Ho, that least of all! They had their higher powers, their dreams, their loves, their wealth of superstition.

The whole farming vs mining thing gives Hamsun a great opportunity to explore the nature of money and commerce. Money isn’t that important; food is. Animals and people are. You have to make things; people’s worth comes from the produce of their hands and land. Money’s a worthless sort of thing that lies around, easily lost, easily stolen, easily traded for other worthless things.

Isak understood work, to carry on his trade. He was now a wealthy man with a large farm, but he made a poor use of the many cash payments chance had brought his way: he put them away. The backland saved him. If Isak had lived in the village, the world at large might have influenced even him a little; there were so many fine things, such genteel surroundings, that he would have bought unnecessary things and gone around in a red Sunday shirt every day. Here in the backland he was protected against all excesses, living in clear air; he washed Sunday morning and bathed when he was up by the mountain lake. Those thousand dollars – well, a gift from heaven, every penny to be put away. What else? Isak could manage his ordinary expenses, and more, simply by selling the yield of his animals and the soil.

It makes me dissatisfied with my life as it is now. I live in a place where there are only two things, money and God, and anyone looking for other things (music, art, pork, alcohol, nutrient-rich soil, greenery, fiction) is going to be disappointed. I’m not interested in the god they have here, so that leaves me with money. If I think about it too much, I really start to hate myself. Who lives in a place they don’t like among people they don’t much care for just to get money? I do, apparently. I comfort myself with the thought that I’m doing this as a sacrifice for my children, giving up my happiness to meet their needs, but I wonder if they’ll thank me for it when they’re old enough to understand.

You should’ve seen the engineer: here he has worked hard and kept it going, with men and horses and money and machines and lots of trouble; he thought he was doing the right thing, didn’t know any better. The more stone he can turn into money, the better; he thinks he’s doing something meritorious that way, providing money for the community and the country. Meanwhile he hurtles more and more rapidly toward disaster, and he doesn’t understand the situation.

I had an opportunity to teach some extra night classes a year ago, but I refused. Everyone kept telling me that it would be worth the amount of money I’d make, but after a few weeks the people who did it told me that I was right not to take it. It ended up being a miserable experience, despite the money they made. I felt rich and principled because I could refuse the money, and they called themselves whores because they thought they couldn’t.

If I were to live in this type of barter economy, what would I contribute? What can I actually make? I like putting together IKEA furniture, so maybe I could make a go at carpentry sometime. I am pretty good at some of the fiber arts, knitting and crocheting, but I tend to place a low value on my own work. I can bake well, but the less scientific types of cooking are beyond me. I’d need a lot of help with farming; I’ve never succeeded in keeping a plant alive. The ex once had a dream of a self-sufficient family compound away from civilization, and she envisioned me as primarily teaching the kids. Lessons for food isn’t a bad deal, but one that’s hard to come by these days.

Another major issue in the book is infanticide. Inger has two boys, then kills her first daughter because she is born with a harelip. Knowing what that life is like, she doesn’t want her daughter to go through it, like Sethe in Beloved. Oline, the resident troublemaker, figures it out and gets Inger arrested for it. Inger gets sentenced to eight years in prison; she only serves five, but that time changes her significantly. I don’t say that she’s been rehabilitated – spoiled, more like. Living in a large community has made her unfit for life on a secluded farm with only her husband and children to talk to. Oline, of course, gets Isak to hire her to do Inger’s work while she’s gone, raising the children and tending to the house and livestock.

But to fight with Oline, wrangle with Oline? Impossible. She never gave in. And nobody could match her in mixing heaven and earth into a big muddle of kindness and malice, nonsense and poison.

Another description:

She had not been pampered. Practiced in evil, oh yes, used to fighting her way with tricks and petty deceits from day to day, strong only thanks to scandal-mongering, making her tongue feared, oh yes. But nothing could now have made her worse, a legacy least of all. She had worked all her life, had borne children and taught them her own few tricks, begged for them, maybe also stolen for them, but had kept them alive – a mother in straitened circumstances. Her ability was no poorer than that of other politicians; she worked for herself and her family, suited her speech to the moment and came through, gaining a cheese to bring home by one tack, a handful of wool by another; she too could live and die in reliance on insincere quick-wittedness.

Oline seems willing to do anything she can to get by, so long as it involves feeding off of others. Settling down on a place of her own is out of the question. She finds her happiness in stealing that of others. She engineers Inger’s removal from Isak’s farm, and then when Inger comes back, having learned to spin and weave, and having had an operation to fix her face, Oline then takes credit for all of Inger’s improvement, as if getting her sent to jail was a special favor. Isak turns a blind eye to her thievery while he thinks he can’t get any better help, but once Inger comes back, Oline is out again. Years later, when there’s another case of infanticide, Oline sticks her nose in again. Barbro isn’t married to Aksel, she’s just his housekeeper, and she doesn’t want the child, so she drowns it. Oline makes sure the police know about it, and there’s another trial. Barbro gets off, though, and she works for the sheriff’s wife for two years to recover her respectability. Then she marries Aksel anyway. Oline, of course, fills Barbro’s place at Aksel’s while Barbro is away, but she’s too old to do the work well, and Aksel kind of hates her. When Barbro returns, they try to get rid of Oline, but don’t seem to quite manage until she dies suddenly one night.

Inger’s trial passes with little authorial comment, but Barbro’s is no small matter. That sheriff’s wife, Mrs Heyerdahl, testifies on Barbro’s behalf, a long argument in favor of a woman’s right to kill her baby. Personally, I recognize the difference between infanticide and abortion, but I know people who don’t, and most of Mrs Heyerdahl’s argument could be used to support abortion. A hundred years has passed since Hamsun wrote this novel, but it’s still relevant. The ex was attracted to Catholicism at least partially due to its stance on abortion; she felt so strongly about it that we ended up not using any birth control (hence the three children, now aged 7, 5, and 3). I had some students back in the United States who chose to terminate pregnancies, and I really felt sorry for them because I love (love, love, love) babies. But I recognized that their life choices were none of my business, and for them, in their situations with work, family, and relationships, and with their personalities, it was the right choice. Reproduction is a huge decision, which impacts every part of a person’s life for the rest of his life. It is not to be entered lightly. I know that there are other options: I’ve seen a small part of the world of private adoption, and it’s not right for everyone. I also have over thirty years of experience as an unexpected, unwanted child in a large family saddled with poverty. I don’t wish I had been killed or aborted, but I wouldn’t wish my life on anyone else. This is one of those decisions that has to be considered on an individual basis, but civil and religious authorities make sweeping laws that paint every case with the same brush. It’s never black and white.

Despite his apparent forward-thinking on a woman’s right to choose, Hamsun was a terrible racist. Even though he won the Nobel Prize in 1920, his works lost their popularity when he sympathized with the Nazis.

The Lapps keep to the fringes, lurking in the dark; expose them to light and air and they don’t thrive, like vermin and maggots.

Really? The Sami (Lapp is an offensive term – sorry, Cole Porter) occasionally travel down from the extremely distant North to trade with the town, and they stop off and see Isak on the way, but only at first. Inger blames them for her daughter’s harelip, because one of them shows her a hare when she is pregnant. Oline hangs out with them, but after Isak and Inger push Oline out of their house, they disappear from the narrative. Hamsun says they’re only interested in people they can manipulate and steal from. They remind me of the Native Americans, but they have the same color skin as the settlers, so they’re less easily categorized. And the settlers don’t want the land they live on, so that’s a different issue, too. But people discriminate against them and demonize them all the same.

In the end, I suppose this is a book about happiness.

The mining had come to an end, but so much the better for the farmers; it wasn’t true that the land was dead, quite the contrary. It was beginning to teem with life – two new men, four more hands, fields and meadows and homes. Oh, those green wide-open spaces in the forest, a hut and a spring, children and animals! Grain swaying on the moors where horsetail grew before, bluebells nodding on the hills, babies’ slippers blazing with golden sunlight near the houses. And people are going about their lives, talking and thinking, at one with heaven and earth.

There’s so much beauty in the natural world. People find joy and identity by working with the earth. It’s a different type of pleasure than people are used to in the cities, and it’s one that has become less common. I think in some communities people are recovering it; Seattle and Portland, for example, or the area between Asheville and Knoxville. Collectively, we’re changing our definition of progress and modernity – skyscrapers belong to the past, and we’re returning value to our connection with the land. Hamsun’s characters are mostly against the supposed progress of telegraph wires, newspapers, and other marks of urbanization; they’re busy with the land. And that’s what makes this book a hard sell today – the life portrayed isn’t fun or exciting; it’s as slow as a man hitching himself to a harvester to make sure it works properly. But as other people have pointed out, ‘The happiest nations have no history.’ Books about other people’s happiness are sort of dull.

No one can live deep in the wilds and keep on playing around. Happiness is not the same as having fun.

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