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In Wonderland by Knut Hamsun

In Wonderland (1903)

by Knut Hamsun

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Painful. Enlightening.
Until now, I have given Hamsun the benefit of doubt - left a tiny spot in my mind of hope that he misunderstood and was misunderstood. Despite the official polemic discussion between him and Sigrid Undset that went on in the thirties. Despite his travels to Germany. Because his nazi proclivities is still discussed. Because he was old. Because he was anti-imperialistic - hated and feared the English for their colonialism. An intellectual stand in late 19th century, early 20th century, when he was young and Britain a world-power. Because of age, because of being a Nobel Laureate - because he has written world literature. Because he was spared being sentenced to prison on the basis of "impaired mental capacity". Because of his last book, written after he was sentenced to house arrest at a psychiatric ward instead of prison - arguing that no-one spoke to him - no-one told - he was deaf then, and did not know....

But this book about his travels in Russia was written at the turn of the century. He was a young man. With all his senses acute, his powers at their height. And despite the bouts of lyricism that other reviewers have noted - reading the book made my flesh crawl. His literary texts can be discussed - "Growth of the Soil" need not be fascism - there are too many levels you can read the story at. But this, this is autobiographical - his reports on his travel to Russia about the people he meets and the way he acts towards them, thinks about them. I do not know what translators have done to the text at translation - but the words used in the original Norwegian text is not subtle, not now, not then. The antisemitism is open, raw, prejudiced, spelt out in a language that leaves no doubt, degrading, disgusting, leaving a chill in the room, making you understand - despite your will not to understand - how Holocaust was possible: If a literary giant like Hamsun is so blind - who cannot be? What are my blind spots??

I think it is the one most important book for any student reading Hamsun to study. I will keep the book. As a reminder.
  Mikalina | Oct 31, 2017 |
This book recounts a trip Hamsun and his wife took through a region of the Causcasus in September 1899. The Norwegian title of the book is "I Aeventyrland" which makes me speculate that it might as aptly have been titled "In Adventureland". It seems that Hamsun vacillates during his journey between two mental states. At times, he is "in wonder" at the bucolic beauty of the steppes and the mountains, and the harmony of its peoples with the land. At other times, though, he seems "en guard", in an almost combative mode, prepared for the unexpected, unpleasant surprises that could emerge during an "adventure".

And so he is at his best in "Wonderland" when reflecting on unity with nature. On page 108, for example, he reminisces of his shepherd days "No one who hasn't been brought up that way from youth upward can have any idea of the delicate, mysterious pleasure on can feel being out in the wild in rainy weather and sitting in a hideout." Or on page 80, "I feel strangely at ease here among these people and animals in the starry night. It's as though I've found a place where I can be happy also here, so very far from home."

The less pleasant Hamsun surfaces in his undercurrent of paranoia and hostility in encounters with strangers. There is of course, the matter of the police "official" who may or may not be a swindler. And there is the driver Kornei, who is a burr under Hamsun's saddle throughout the journey across the mountains. And the villager with baby bears who may be setting him up for an ambush. And the bank clerk who seems intent on humiliating him by requesting that he remove his hat. And the Jews, who always seem to be ugly and unpleasant.

This travel journal was as much about Hamsun as about the Caucasus, not unlike Kerouac's On the Road, which was as much about Kerouac, the Beats, Buddhism and youth as about the United States of America. But for that reason I found it odd that he mentioned his new wife only under the disguise of "his traveling companion". It was almost as if he had wrapped her in a Mohammedhan veil. His only mention of her was as a bit of an intruder who had the affrontery to read his journal! He seemed particularly arrogant in sheltering her from the threat of the police official when he might have better prepared her for the possibily of a separation, shared his suspicions of the man, and asked for her intuitions

In reading the Wiki of Hamsun's life, I was intrigued by the blot on Hamsuns career - the period when he fell under the Nazi's sway. It made sense after reading Wonderland. I could see how the blood and soil element of the Nazi propaganda would appeal to Hamsun who trusted nature over man. And the whiff of anti-semitism that appeared at moments in Wonderland was disturbing but familiar in its scent.

Hamsun's brief "essay" on the Russian writers interesting but odd. I can see how he would approve of Dostoyevsky who seems to share some of his irascibility and intuitive psychologizing. I maybe understand his negative reaction to Tolstoy's rational "philosophising". But it seems strange that Hamsun had kind words for Turgenev who seems so much more civilized, diplomatic, and comfortable in society.

It's as though Hamsun anticipated that his book might need an apology of sorts, and he constantly alludes to a fever that he is unable to shake (yet he is unwilling to follow advice about its treatment). I'm not at my best when traveling or when ill, so I'm willing to suspend my opinion of Hamsun until I've read more of his works. I certainly do share his yearning for a harmonious, rural ideal.
5 vote Ganeshaka | Jun 26, 2008 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0970312555, Paperback)

First published one hundred years ago, and now translated into English for the first time by noted Norwegian scholar Sverre Lyngstad, In Wonderland is a diaristic account of a trip Hamsun took to Russia at the turn of the century. This detailed travelogue is a rich and loving portrait of the people and culture of Russia, and is filled with the trademark style and keen observations of the author of such classics as Hunger, Mysteries, and Growth of the Soil.

In Wonderland is unlike any other book written by Hamsun, and offers not only an intimate glimpse into the mind of the Nobel Prize winning author at his unguarded best, but a rare view into a Russia that would soon vanish in the fire of revolution.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:16:43 -0400)

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