Knut Hamsun - The Ring is Closed
The Ring is Closed is the last great work by Norwegian Nobel Laureate Knut Hamsun. It comes years after Growth of the Soil, which saw Hamsun suppress his iconoclastic methods in favour of celebrating the rhythmic, cyclical nature of peasant life and the grand humanism that it engenders, and decades later than Hunger, his first novel, which, whether it was intended to or not, shattered the notion of what the novel in the late 19th century was capable of achieving. The Ring is Closed is in many ways a synthesis of these two very different strands, an assured marrying of the common themes of Hamsun's literary career.
To understand The Ring is Closed, the reader must first understand the trajectory of Hamsun's literature, and how the core of his work remained strong and clear while the surrounding details shifted and changed. His first novel, Hunger, was published when the author was 31, and came after a young adulthood spent wandering the globe rather aimlessly. Hamsun was exceptionally poor, and a favourite anecdote of reviewers and essayists is that he would wear old newspapers underneath his clothes while riding the trains up and down America, to keep from freezing. Hunger tells the story of a starving artist, an unnamed young man whose mind rapidly begins to fracture under the pressure of failed ambition, hunger, and the general aimlessness of life. Hamsun relates the general absurdity of life, highlighting his themes of isolation, art, and rejection of societal norms through the increasing irrational actions of his protagonist. It is, on the surface, a bizarre, strange adventure, and it is, deeper down, a satisfying exploration of the unsatisfactory nature of being alive. One's mind, rather than one's actions, become the primary focus, with Hamsun showing that the exploration of a man's inner self can be as gratifying, stimulating and exciting as the exploration of vast plains and glittering cities.
Hamsun's novels continued along in a similar vein – which is to say they plumbed the depths of the isolated creative, the increasingly antisocial man (always a man) who found within himself the worlds he couldn't bear outside – until 1920, when Growth of the Soil was published. It is no less than the epic retelling of creation, using a single man and his family as the microcosm through which the beginnings of civilisation are examined. Growth of the Soil is a masterpiece, and undoubtably it remains one of the capstones of Hamsun's career, yet it is very different to what came before. Hamsun's strong sense of the value isolation remained, but added to that is the possibility that isolation can be achieved within the reaches of a family unit. Gone are the rages of the hungering youth, and in their place is the calm, rational, clear-eyed vision of God surveying His creation. An overwhelming empathy suffuses the text, and though the travails are many and the disappointments deep and lasting, the core goodness of a person as an individual, and people as a collective, remains strong. Hamsun may not enjoy towns and cities, but he loves equally the solitary man, and the far-reaching concept of mankind. Growth of the Soil crystallised these thoughts that had been bubbling, in nascent form, from the very first.
The Ring is Closed comes a decade and a half later, and Hamsun is now in his late seventies. The plot of the novel roughly mirrors his own, but what's most fascinating about the work is that it combines the frenzied self-examination and external loathing of both Hunger and its offshoots, and the calm, gentle Humanistic tendencies of Growth of the Soil, with its infinite compassion for the foibles of ordinary people. It would never be recommended as the first of Hamsun's novels for an interested reader to embark upon, but it is a more than fitting capstone to a long and varied career. It acts, in short, as a summation of all that has come before.
The novel concerns Abel, the son of a lighthouse-keeper who, through his meanness, has squirreled away a fortune vast enough that the parents of the daughters around Abel's age are interested in him as a potential husband. He flirts, is flirted with, falls in love and then flees to the United States on a ship. Abel writes letters, at first frequently and then less so, outlining his plans and ambitions as he hops from one career to another. His father, lonely and anxious, sends him messages, but the years pass and soon the story of Abel abroad and making a name for himself begin to wear thin amongst the townsfolk.
Money was sent, but Abel didn't come. He replied that he would wait until the spring. The weather was nice and warm where was he, and the life he was living suited him well. He had a donkey for a mount and grew sweet potatoes and fished in the Ridge Streamlet and gutted the fish and wiped his hands on his trousers and cooked the fish and ate the fish and the sweet potatoes and apart from that he did nothing. It was so good, and since his wife's death it was all he needed, he wrote.
The wife we learn little about, and soon Abel returns home to Norway. Throughout this section Hamsun devotes a great deal of attention to the comings and goings of the townsfolk, their interactions with Abel's increasingly aged and foolish father, and, in particular, the successes and failures of Olga, Lolla and Lili, the three young women who are like moths to Abel's flame, fluttering closer and then further away, but always circling. Abel's life abroad is hardly detailed, and what we learn of it comes primarily through letters and recollections. We soon discover that something terrible has occurred – his wife's death – but the particulars remain confusing.
At any rate, Abel soon returns and the novel proper begins. Hamsun has his pieces in place, and now it is a matter of seeing how things will unfurl. But then the novel changes tack, and the juxtaposition of Hunger with Growth of the Soil begins.
People went on about how he ought to make something of himself. But why? Everyone made something of themselves, but it was only the same something as all the others, not more.
Abel returns home and it is assumed by others – and particularly the ladies – that he will make something of himself. He has enough money to his name that he need not concern himself with doing anything distasteful, and can devote himself to business, to art, to leisure, to – whatever he wishes. He has a solid foundation upon which to build an impressive career. But Abel chooses not to do this, he elects to remain outside of life. He loans money to people and cares little if they repay him. He neglects his clothes and his home, and gives away anything to anyone who asks. He is, in effect, stepping aside from life, choosing to become an observer rather than a participant.
His actions – or lack thereof – cause the townsfolk some consternation. Is Abel a crank, a dangerous lunatic, or a harmless eccentric? He is none of those. Hamsun writes,
Down but not desperate, rarely really desperate. He didn't suffer, he was empty, alive in his easygoing way and kept himself afloat. Nor was he dull-witted. It took quite a bit of thinking to stay afloat, real creativity to work out his nefarious tricks, and pulling them off required all his concentration. Sometimes he managed it, sometimes not, could go either way, luck could change.
One of the great successes of the novel is that all of the characters surrounding Abel's inactivity – and there are a rather lot of them – are remarkably active. There is violence and divorce, love and children, death and suicide, bankruptcies and fortunes made. Everyone is overwhelmed by the energy necessary to simply be, except for Abel, who is serene and calm. Yet he is no mystic, and there is no overarching creed that governs his life. He echoes the inactivity of Goncharov's Oblomov, but without the laziness. For a man of inaction, there is an awful lot of action around him. Indeed, at times it approaches a cacophony; when Hamsun slows the narrative to examine the day-to-day of Abel's life, it's a wonder he manages to complete his daily requirement of doing nothing at all. The hustle and bustle of the other characters sharply juxtaposes with the stillness of Abel's life.
Importantly, Abel's inactivity is not a sign of inner peace, and may even be an indication of great turmoil. He is a man unhappy with the world, and unhappier with himself.
To return to the moths. The three women alternate in their importance in Abel's life, at times closer emotionally and physically, and other times not. There is a sense – to them – that their lives are, for better or worse, inextricably linked. Each woman's fortune rises and falls throughout the novel, and it seems that at times of extremes, be they positive or negative, they seek Abel as a balancing device. When they are 'fine', which is to say normal, they seek him out much less, if at all. Abel, when they come, accepts them; when they do not, it matters little. He gradually divests himself of all possessions and ties, and that of course includes the women. But just as he would not turn down a shirt found in the street, he does not turn down the friendship or romance of one of the women when it is offered. But he never seeks, he never pursues.
Abel is neither a likeable or dislikeable character. He simply is, and it is this is-ness which makes him fascinating. Hamsun wisely makes Abel both the core of the story and its unexplainable centre; everyone else is exhaustively described and examined, but Abel – Abel is not. The activities of others reflects upon the hollowness of Abel, and makes his character an integral part of things without ever really explaining him. Abel's depths are plumbed, but never directly – we are always gazing askance at him, catching his essence out of the corner of our eye.
As has been noted, The Ring is Closed provides a capstone to Hamsun's career. It is an effective synthesis of the two primary themes Hamsun grappled with his entire life, and what it lacks in the rage and irrationality of Hunger, it makes up for with the maturity and clear-eyed understanding of ordinary people that comes from Growth of the Soil. For many years after his death Hamsun went unread, and this was largely due to the unfortunate political choices he made in his declining years. But an author's personality is not, of course, relevant in any way to their art, and it seems now that he is making something of a comeback. Much of the credit for this in the English-speaking world can be laid at the feet of Souvenir Press, who have gone to great lengths to publish the majority of Hamsun's major works, The Ring is Closed included.
Hamsun was, and remains, a great writer, and is certainly one who cannot be ignored if the full magnitude of twentieth century literature is to be understood. He descends directly from the nightmares of Dostoevsky and leads to the introspective, claustrophobic horrors of Kafka. He is no mere stepping-stone, however, and should not be treated as such. I would suggest, for those interested, to begin with either Hunger or Victoria, and then progress on to Growth of the Soil. Save The Ring is Closed the way you would savour a fine wine – let it age a little, and then drink it slowly. It's flavours will come not quickly but they will come, and when they do – masterful.
||The Ring is Closed
(Original Title: Ringen sluttet)
Other works by Knut Hamsun under review:
---Growth of the Soil
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.