Knut Hamsun - Victoria
Norwegian Nobel Laureate Knut Hamsun wrote about characters who were obsessive, introverted, antisocial and possessed with a frenzied capacity for love, lust and art. This type is seen most clearly in one of his earliest works, Hunger, which shows a young artist struggling against poverty, unwilling to surrender to the principles of ordinary existence, even when it means the difference between food and starvation. Victoria, a novel written eight years later, in 1898, is subtitle 'A Love Story', but it is a typically Hamsun-esque love – one built on kind looks but harsh words and never, ever, any physical expression.
Though titled Victoria, the protagonist is Johannes, the miller's son. He is a boy who wants to work in a match factory because, “he could get sulphur on his hands so that nobody would dare to shake hands with him”. Later, as a man, he spends his nights writing epic poetry, capping a productive session with loud singing that wakes his neighbours. Johannes is proud to know the stones and the streams; he looks after birds and trees and scares himself into believing there is an ogre in a nearby cave. As a child he befriends Ditlef and Victoria, son and daughter of the socially aristocratic but economically destitute Lord of the village. He loves Victoria the way a tree loves the sun – eternally, its branches outstretched not to touch but to bask in the radiance of the light. Victoria, however, is forced into marriage with Otto, an upstart aristocrat with a poorer lineage but a great deal of money.
Johannes loves from afar, and Victoria – does she love him at all? Early on, as Johannes stretches his poetic wings, he muses that love is “like the anemone which closes at a breath and dies at a touch”. The novel utilises this concept again and again as first Johannes, and then Victoria, engage in a series of miscommunications, missed opportunities, and harsh words. When Johannes love is in the ascendancy, Victoria brushes him off. Later, she is contrite and declares her affection, but he is hurt and acts cold. The characters are of such a piece that they could love no other, but their equally vast capacity for stubborn indignation ensures they will remain apart.
For Hamsun, love – or even the true essence of a character's personality – is something that exists in bursting spasms of exertion and then fades to cold metal. A character may go months, or even years, being sullen and vindictive, only to suddenly shine with frenzied emotion. What is more, the psychology of a character is something personal and private – their rich inner life is shown to others as a series of grunts and rejection. Johannes and Victoria both share these qualities, and are drawn to the other because of this. To the outside world both seem aloof and cold. Emotion lies dormant until it flares into life, but even then these flares are often hidden from everyone except the individual themselves. Johannes, for example, gloats that he has written Victoria's name on the ceiling of his room, so that he can stare at it and love her from afar. But, he is quick to tell her, he wrote the name so small that not even the cleaning lady can tell it is there. For Johannes it is enough that he knows, his secret a bludgeon to strike the outside world with, only they do not know it. Victoria is much the same, revealing to Johannes when they are much older that she used to walk home the long way every day simply because she knew it was the way he liked to walk, only she never told anyone, not even him. What can we make of these acts of devotion that are hidden from everyone?
Hamsun asks that we make everything of it, but that we keep it to ourselves. Toward the end of this short work, a story is told in miniature of a couple that have loved one another their entire lives. When the husband is struck ill and becomes sickly, he demands his wife leave him, because he has become hideous. In response she hacks away at her 'golden' hair, making herself as ugly as he. Later, when she is sick, she demands the same, but he instead goes to the bathroom and splashes acid on his face, ruining his features so that they can remain together, uniquely one. This short story is the larger work written again, as Victoria and Johannes hurt first the other, and then themselves, again and again throughout their lives. They can never be happy, but their happiness comes from the secret love they – not share, because sharing would ruin it – but possess.
Victoria is a short novel, but its themes are large. As much as the novel is a story of obsession and possession thwarted, it also manages to include much on the then-relevant issue of love between different classes. Johannes, though he becomes a celebrated poet, will never be the social equal of Victoria, and both know it. This adds poignancy to their love, and a valuable (to the characters) sense that they will never truly be together. The characters are written sharply, which renders their love quarrels painful to the reader. It is clear from the first few pages that happiness is not possible for either of them. Victoria muses at one stage that Johannes must be doing alright because he mentions that he is dealing with only 'the small sorrows'. That she expects a person must always live with any sorrow at all suggests much about her character, and that Johannes is, in his way, content with these 'small' sorrows suggests just as much about his. They are lovers in a sense, but lovers who can never consummate physically what they so fervently express in secret to themselves.
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.