The Norwegian novelist Knut Hamsun made two visits to the United States in his youth, and after the second, between 1886 and 1888, he wrote The Cultural Life of Modern America (1889). Otherwise a book over which a decent veil had best be dropped, it contains an eccentric criticism of Shakespeare:
There is a brutal simplification in Shakespeare’s depiction of human emotions that makes them quite different from our own: his portrayals of love, wrath, desperation, and merriment fail to come off from sheer violence. We recognize these uncompromising emotions without shading or nuance as belonging to a bygone age when men still frothed at the mouth—consequently Shakespeare is not a modern psychologist…. Shakespeare’s plays are again just as simple, just as uncomplicated as the emotions he portrays; they are very often naïve in comparison with the work of modern dramatists.
This of course is a lot of balderdash, and it isn’t his occasional kindly qualification (“Shakespeare is not a modern dramatist, but a dramatist he will remain until the end of time”) that makes it almost acceptable in its context. It is Hamsun’s views of America that make his reflections on Shakespeare seem, relatively, high praise. For instance, if I may twitch the veil momentarily, he tells his shuddering readers how America attempted to create an intellectual elite by marrying its sons and daughters to imported Negroes (“a nascent human form from the tropics”) and established instead “a mulatto studfarm.”
The comments on Shakespeare may provide a point of departure for one’s reflections on Hamsun’s novels. He is an author whom it is difficult to write about without either underpraise or overpraise. On the face of it, overpraise would seem the more unlikely outcome, for there are passages in his work ripely redolent of late nineteenth-century high-minded flummery. But I note that (in an essay that otherwise contains some apt appreciation) Isaac Bashevis Singer makes large claims for him: “The whole modern school of fiction in the twentieth century stems from Hamsun, just as Russian literature in the nineteenth century ‘came out of Gogol’s great-coat.’ ” This calls to mind Hermann Hesse, another charmer of youth, who is held to be a master of modernism, though to me his work resembles an intellectual supermarket in which some of the more exciting elements of modernism can be obtained at less mental expense than is asked in the studios of the great masters.
There is a faint flavor of the fairy tale about Hamsun’s novels. What quickly strikes the reader is the somewhat capricious way in which his characters respond to common circumstances and the apparent gratuitousness of their behavior. All this inevitably causes one to cock an ear for the clash of symbols. Hamsun must surely find new readers at a time when so many reject finished, “autonomous” art in favor of a malleable artlessness that they can shape to accommodate their own inchoate yearnings and dissatisfactions.
But Hamsun, I would say, doesn’t push his luck; he…
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