Knut Hamsun - Pan
Lieutenant Thomas Glahn lives high in the Norwegian mountains, killing precisely as many animals as he needs to live, and no more. When the birds he eats are out of season, he fishes. Along the way, his dog, Asop, keeps him company. He is alone but not lonely, a man truly apart from the bustle and commotion of city and town life.
Near where he lives is a small settlement, but he keeps away from it as much as possible. Glahn writes in his diary, wondering about the world and life. When we first meet him, it is a few years after he lived on the coast, he spends his nights remembering a time when his solitary existence was changed for that of the social man.
But not straight away. First, we are shown Glahn's surroundings as he sees them, in their pure, natural beauty. He writes:
Rain and storm--'tis not such things that count. Many a time some little joy can come along on a rainy day, and make a man turn off somewhere to be alone with his happiness--stand up somewhere and look out straight ahead, laughing quietly now and again, and looking round. What is there to think of? One clear pane in a window, a ray of sunlight in the pane, the sight of a little brook, or maybe a blue strip of sky between the clouds. It needs no more than that.
Thus speaks a man who is content with his life lived apart from others. What need for company when there is rain? Or sky? Or sunlight? But intrusions appear. He meets Edwarda, a young girl with a flat chest and a manner he finds unattractive but intriguing. Also, there is the Doctor, a man with a limp, and Eva, the serving woman for Herr Mack, Edwarda's daughter. Glahn is introduced to them all in a hurry, but they soon vanish back to their own lives, and so does he.
Yet Edwarda visits again. She wants him to visit, to spend time with her and her father. Glahn, curious, accepts. He spends a quiet evening playing whist and drinking toddy, before wandering home. Is he changed by the meeting? Not so much, for while listening to water falling, he muses:
Here, I thought to myself, is a little endless song trickling away all to itself, and no one ever hears it, and no one ever thinks of it, and still it trickles on nevertheless, to itself, all the time, all the time!
Soon, though, Edwarda declares her life for Glahn. She is passionate, alive with the light that only immature youth can bring. Glahn finds himself entranced by her eagerness and, though he is not wholly attracted, begins to fall under her spell.
Quickly, quickly, his mildly curious affection turns into a love that is deeper and more emphatic than hers. We watch as Edwarda displays confusing behaviour, striking doubt and uncertainty into Glahn's mind. Once his love is declared, he loves her, and that is final, but her behaviour is so remarkably hot and cold that he can do nothing but drink heavily at the social events he is invited to, and inevitably make a fool of himself.
At the slightest provocation, he believes the love is over. If Edwarda says something in a tone that is not of complete love, Glahn becomes uncertain, confused. The Doctor is perhaps a rival, perhaps not, and this too, is confusing.
We follow Glahn through his confusions, though there are a few instances of strange behaviour for him, too. On two separate occasions, he sleeps casually with another woman. First Henrietta, then Eva.
The relationship between Glahn and Edwarda is soon over, and we watch with growing distaste as Edwarda proves herself a master manipulator. She uses people - males, mostly - to serve her own end, not for anything they might desire. Glahn begins a relationship with Eva, though his heart is still tied to Edwarda.
From here, we watch the interplay of Edwarda and Glahn, Glahn and Eva, and the bristling autumn of their small village. Throughout, Hamsun's language is focused alternately on the internal musings of Glahn and the sheer beauty of Norway. He writes, A green worm thing, a caterpillar, dragged itself end by end along a branch, dragging along unceasingly, as if it could not rest. It saw hardly anything, for all it had eyes; often it stood straight up in the air, feeling about for something to take hold of; it looked like a stump of green thread sewing a seam with long stitches along the branch. By evening, perhaps, it would have reached its goal. We read half for the characters, half for the description.
There are two climaxes to the novel. The first ends with Glahn's diary, and is very sad. While perhaps not completely shocking - an astute reader will ascertain the narrative developments as they arrive, with a few hints from Glahn himself - they do possess an emotional force that is surprising, considering the mostly obsessive tone of Glahn's thoughts.
The final section of the novel - no more than twenty pages - is told from the perspective of another, and it deals with the time after Glahn has left the small village. At first, there is confusion as to why this piece is part of the novel, but as we read it, we realise that it allows us a satisfying sense of closure that Glahn alone could not give. It ends, as all tragedies must, with a death. For a novel that exults in its descriptions of nature and wildlife, it is amazing how high the body count is by the last page.
Hamsun is a little read author in the English world these days, perhaps because his sympathies to Germany were so strong that he openly commended Hitler - even after his death - and even went so far as to send Goebbels his Nobel Prize medal as a gift. This is a shame, because there is great beauty in Hamsun's writing, as well as sharp clarity into the mind of men who exist on the comfortable side of loneliness.
Other works by Knut Hamsun under review:
---Growth of the Soil
---The Ring is Closed
The Nobel Prize in Literature 1920 was awarded to Knut Hamsun "for his monumental work, Growth of the Soil".
-Nobel Prize in Literature 1920 Citation
About the author
Knut Hamsun was born in Norway in 1859. He was presented with the Nobel Prize in literature in 1920. An unfortunate affiliation with Nazi Germany, and in particular a positive eulogy for Hitler in 1945, saw Hamsun's star fall very far in the decades following. There has since been a revival of his literature in recent times, though his life and politics make such revisitings uncomfortable for Norwegians. Hamsun died in 1952, aged 92.