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Shallow Soil   By: (1859-1952)

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In the autumn of 1888 a Danish magazine published a few chapters of an autobiographical novel which instantly created the greatest stir in literary circles throughout Europe. At that time Ibsen, Björnson, Brandes, Strindberg, and other Scandinavian writers were at the height of their cosmopolitan fame, and it was only natural that the reading world should keep in close touch with the literary production of the North. But even the professional star gazers, who maintained a vigilant watch on northern skies, had never come across the name of Knut Hamsun. He was unknown; whatever slight attention his earlier struggles for recognition may have attracted was long ago forgotten. And now he blazed forth overnight, with meteoric suddenness, with a strange, fantastic, intense brilliance which could only emanate from a star of the first magnitude.

Sudden as was Hamsun's recognition, however, it has proved lasting. The story of his rise from obscurity to fame is one of absorbing interest. Behind that hour of triumph lay a long and bitter struggle, weary years of striving, of constant and courageous battle with a destiny that strewed his path with disappointments and defeats, overwhelming him with adversities that would have swamped a genius of less energy and real power.

Knut Hamsun began life in one of the deep Norwegian valleys familiar to English readers through Björnson's earlier stories. He was born in August, 1860. When he was four years old his poverty stricken parents sent him to an uncle, a stern, unlovely man who made his home on one of the Lofoten Islands that "Drama in Granite" which Norway's rugged coast line flings far into the Arctic night. Here he grew up, a taciturn, peculiar lad, inured to hardship and danger, in close communion with nature; dreaming through the endless northern twilight, revelling through the brief intense summer, surrounded by influences and by an atmosphere which later were to give to his production its strange, mystical colouring, its pendulum swings from extreme to extreme.

At seventeen he was apprenticed to a cobbler, and while working at his trade he wrote and, at the cost of no one knows what sacrifices, saved enough money to have his first literary efforts printed and published. They consisted of a long, fantastic poem and a novel, "Björger" the latter a grotesque conglomeration of intense self analytical studies. These attracted far less attention than they really deserved. However, the cobbler's bench saw no more of Knut Hamsun.

During the next twelve years he led the life of a rover, but a rover with a fixed purpose from which he never swerved. First he turned his face toward Christiania, the capital and the intellectual centre of the country; and in order to get there he worked at anything that offered itself. He was a longshoreman on Bodö's docks, a road labourer, a lumberjack in the mountains; a private tutor and court messenger. Finally he reached the metropolis and enrolled as a student at the university. But the gaunt, raw boned youth, unpractical and improvident, overbearing of manner, passionately independent in thought and conduct, failed utterly in his attempts to realise whatever ambitions he had cherished. So it was hardly strange that this the first chapter of his Odyssey should end in the steerage of an American bound emigrant steamer.

In America, where he landed penniless, he turned his strong and capable hands to whatever labour he could find. He had intended to become a Unitarian minister. Instead of doing so he had to work as a farm hand on the prairie, street car conductor in Chicago, dairyman in Dakota; and he varied these pursuits by giving a series of lectures on French literature in Minneapolis. By that time he probably imagined that he was equipped for a more successful attack on the literary strongholds of his own country, and returned to Christiania... Continue reading book >>

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