02 October 2011

Pan (Knut Hamsun)

   I lie closer to the fire and watch the flames. A fir cone falls from its branch, and then a dry twig or two. The night is like a boundless deep. I close my eyes.
   After an hour, all my senses are throbbing in rhythm, I am ringing with the great stillness, ringing with it. I look up at the crescent moon standing in the sky like a white shell and I feel a great love for it, I feel myself blushing. "It is the moon," I say softly and passionately, "it is the moon!" And my heart beats gently towards it. Several minutes pass. A slight breeze springs up, an unnatural gust of wind strikes me, a strange rush of air. What is it? I look about me and see no one. The wind calls to me and my soul bows in obedience to the call, I feel myself lifted out of my context, pressed to an invisible breast, tears spring to my eyes, I tremble—God is standing somewhere near looking at me. Again some minutes pass. I turn my head, the strangely heavy air ebbs away and I see something like the back of a spirit who wanders soundlessly through the forest. [107]
I'm very much taken by the poetic expressions in this novel. In James W. McFarlane's translation from Norwegian, Knut Hamsun's Pan (1894) is ringing in one's ears with its lyrical presentation of man's inner nature. The beauty of the natural world is teeming in the forest and Hamsun is too wise not to use its beauty for his own ends. Pan fairly anticipates the sensuous and erotic works of D. H. Lawrence and the spiritual confessions of Rainer Maria Rilke. Ostensibly the journal entries of a soldier hunter who inhabited a hut in the woods of a rural community, the short novel otherwise relies on the resonance of various storytelling registers—folktales, legends, testimonies, monologues, daydreams, prose poetry.

Hamsun depicts a fierce battle of the sexes, a battle to the end between the narrator, Lieutenant Glahn (a man with an irresistible "animal look"), and his object of love, the fickle beauty Edvarda. Despite their obvious passionate feelings for each other, they enact a savage choreography of power and dominance. Each one will not yield submission to the other. Their pride blinds them from reality and brings them to the precipice where the only thing that sustains them is pure hate.

The novel proceeds in swift chapters, each mostly running for two or three pages. Glahn's first person journal tells of his hermit-like existence in the woods and of his intimate relationship with Edvarda, in a voice that at first is romantic and then becomes more and more vengeful, vindictive, and vicious. Its language is incantatory, as if delivering poetry reading after poetry reading on the subject of mountain, sea, forest, moon, birds, and beasts. A deliberate sense of the lofty and sublime tends to mar books of similar themes, but in this the sublime subtly refracts Glahn's confusion, baseness, and naiveté. It is a bold and posthumous sublimity.

Hamsun's achievement is in portraying extreme and conflicting psychological states in one man and one woman—compassion-cruelty, love-rage, reason-madness, intelligence-delusion. These states fluctuate according to their perceptions of each other's lust and ruthlessness. The situations, both exaggerated and muted, allow the characters to display their violent gestures and subtle rejections. The desires of the characters are never really restrained, being transparently drawn from an assumed complex interiority, and this only serves to make the characters seem like pawns to their own pretenses and schemes. One has the sense that their abrupt and absurd decisions are a product of inevitability. Their tragic sense of reality deserves close observation and sympathy.

Pan also appears in a recent translation by Sverre Lyngstad. But I think McFarlane's version is not yet dated and is even brilliant for its mapping of a man's spiritual descent into the heart of darkness, for producing a rousing mad poem of love sickness.

   "A toast, you men and beasts and birds, to the lonely night in the forest, in the forest! A toast to the dark and to God's murmuring in the trees, to the sweet, simple harmonies of silence upon my ear, to green leaf and yellow leaf! A toast to the sounds of life I hear, a sniffing snout in the grass, a dog snuffling over the ground! A rousing toast to the wild-cat crouching with throat to the ground and preparing to spring on a sparrow in the dark, in the dark! A toast to the merciful stillness over the earth, to the stars and the crescent moon, yes, to it and to them! ..."
   I stand up and listen. No one has heard me. I sit down again.
   "I give thanks for the lonely night, for the hills, for the whispering of the darkness and the sea ... it whispers within my heart. I give thanks for my life, for my breathing, for the grace of being alive tonight, for these things I give thanks from my heart! Listen in the east and listen in the west, but listen! That is the everlasting God! This stillness murmuring in my ear is the blood of all nature seething, is God weaving through the world and through me. I see a gossamer's thread glistening in the fire's light, I hear the rowing of a boat in the harbor, the Northern lights rise against the northern sky. Oh, I give thanks by my immortal soul that it is I who am sitting here! ..."
   Quiet. A fir cone falls with a dull thud to the ground. I think: a fir cone fell! The moon is high, the fire flickers among the half-burnt embers, about to die. And I stroll home through the late night. [103-104]


  1. I knew of the book, Hunger, but that's as far my knowledge went, so thanks for this, as this has a far greater resonance.

  2. Gary, I was trying to decide between this and Hunger, and I was swayed into this. These two novels and another, Mysteries, are supposed to be his finest.

  3. I liked this one a lot and alos Victoria. They are quite alike. I've also got Hunger and Mysteries but didn't get to them yet. I think Pan and Victoria are the most lyrical.

  4. Hunger is quite different in substance, but you will see all sorts of thematic similarities and resonances with what you wrote here. Both are fascinating books.

    I have not gotten to Mysteries or Victoria, but plan to, someday.

  5. Caroline, thanks for mentioning Victoria. Another intriguing one-word title. I'll certainly go for something Pan-like.

    Tom, then I must read Hunger soon. I want to investigate further.

  6. An excellent novel, no doubt! In my opinion even better than 'Hunger'. Unforgettable colonel Glahn. Now I expect to read soon 'Mysteries' and 'Victory', as well as 'Markens Grøde' ('La bendición de la tierra' in the spanish translation).
    Very interesting to read some fragment in English, in fact I have read this novel in spanish...

  7. This particular English translation is well done, I think. I must read Hunger soon. Thanks for visiting, Krust.

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  9. Can someone help me with an essay on this book about 10 pages. Let me know.