Knut Hamsun - Growth of the Soil
Growth of the Soil begins in the wilderness. There is a man, 'A strong, coarse fellow, with a red iron beard...'. He seeks a woman to help bear the burden of his new home, built in the wilds, miles away from the nearest town. Nobody is interested - they believe the man, Isak, is too much of a loner. They believe he has chosen poor land, with little potential.
Finally, Inger arrives. She is disfigured, a cast-off, ridiculed in the village for her appearance. Isak is happy with her if she is able to work - and she can. Thus one man becomes a couple, thus a life begins.
Soon, there are children. The farm grows. Buildings are added, animals are born. What was once a wilderness becomes tendered, tamed. Isak stubbornly works at the soil, harnessing its potential, cajoling food and life from the ground.
Growth of the Soil is not a novel based on plot. No, instead we experience the steady growth of Isak's farm, christened Sellanraa. Attached to this growth is Isak's family, as well as the surrounding area. What begins as a wilderness ends as a moderately prosperous community on the cusp of becoming a town.
We are presented most obviously with an allegory of man's rise from nothing into civilisation. We begin with a lone man and his wife, we end with writing, with culture, with mistakes and with money. A good chunk of the novel at the beginning is virtually devoid of dialogue - most of the end is rife with it. Similarly, money does not play a part until midway, and then it becomes a major focus for everyone except Isak.
There are villains, but only if we consider villains as being people who do not directly follow Isak's way of life. His son, Eleseus, after tasting the refined morsels of town life, becomes useless around the farm. He clearly represents the corrupting forces of too much literacy, too much culture. Eleseus drains Isak's money, buying frivolities like umbrellas and alcohol.
Hamsun writes as though we are reading one giant parable. The novel is a huge fairy tale of a way of life that the author agrees with on so many levels that it is impossible to disagree with the text as it stands. Hamsun writes so persuasively of the positive qualities of life attached to the land, but what is more appealing is that he does not openly criticise Eleseus' - and other's - choices. No, he reveals the mistakes that people make, but he offsets that with Isak's sheer goodness, leaving the reader to come to the only conclusion possible - Isak's way of life is the way that life is meant to be lived. This is subtle grand-standing on the part of the author, but it works.
The novel attains a timeless quality by the way in which tense is used. Sometimes, characters will act and speak in present tense. 'Isak says', 'Oline walks', etc. Other times, descriptions will be past tense - and these change about within the same paragraph, page, chapter. A poor writer would create a nightmare of tense shifting confusion with such a technique, but Hamsun manages to control the ebb and flow of the text. He is crafting a story that, by way of its telling, is not bound within the specificities of a now or a then.
Near the end of the novel, Hamsun's message becomes clear. We have experienced the growth of their lives - the growth of the world, perhaps? - and it is time for us to understand the message behind at all. He writes with a clarity and urgency that is missing from the rest of the text. We, the reader, have been persuaded by the goodness inherent in Isak's life. We become receptive to the message: 'Growth of the soil was something different, a thing to be procured at any cost; the only source, the origin of all. A dull and desolate existence? Nay, least of all. A man had everything; his powers above, his dreams, his loves, his wealth of superstition.'
It is interesting to note that in a novel so concerned with the toiling man, there is little religion throughout the text. It would be easy for Hamsun to rely too heavily on divine providence as a tool for progressing the narrative. To his credit, he does not. Instead the earth itself, the land, becomes a God, not worshiped but endured, not praised but absolutely essential to the survival and well-being of the characters. Isak may not say out loud that he loves the land, but it is a part of him, a necessary facet of his life. Without the land, the people are nothing, they have nothing and can produce nothing.
There is a scene towards the end of the novel that resonates with the truth of the entire work. Isak is an older man now, not as strong as he would like, but not yet old enough to give over his farm to his sons. There is a large stone on his property which he begins to dig out. He digs, and then attempts to shift it. No luck. He digs deeper, avoiding the necessity of blasting the stone. No luck. Eventually, his wife helps him move the stone, and it is here that Isak realises his worth as a man lies almost entirely with his strength. What is there apart from that? A man's worth is beholden to the strength of his arm - when that fails, so to does the man. It is a sad scene, but one which encapsulates the themes with which Growth of the Soil is concerned. Our strength - be it intellectual, muscular or otherwise - will one day fade, no matter its previous breadth or depth. As adults, it is our duty to discover that for which we are most aligned, our strength, as it were. We must accomplish whatever it is that our natural strengths and weaknesses demand, but we must not define ourselves as such. For when strengths fade, and weaknesses overtake, what is their left of ourselves but a definition of then and not now? We become a crumbled shell, an empty carapace. Our strengths are important, but there must be a greater importance beyond ourselves once those strengths have faded. Hamsun's Growth of the Soil suggests that this greater strength is the legacy we leave, the children we raise, the land we tender. It is a conservative, earthy, tender message, but one which bears taking heed.
Other works by Knut Hamsun under review:
---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.