Yale £25 (378pp) £22.50 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

Knut Hamsun: Dreamer and Dissenter, By Ingar Sletten Kolloen

The novelist, the Führer - and the missing pea

Nobel Prize-winning novelists are often thought sagacious, unfazed by salt mines or subordinate clauses. Picture, however, the 50-year-old Norwegian novelist Knut Hamsun at work in 1909 in a house with the woman, Marie, who would soon become his second wife. Some words were slowly emerging from the paper that he crumpled up and hurled towards the bin.

One day he left the desk and strolled into the kitchen for sustenance. There was Marie but any hopes of his smiling lovingly were dashed when she picked up a stray pea and threw it away. Hamsun shoutingly insisted that she retrieve it, rinse it off and add the salvaged vegetable to the box which he himself had painted and labelled "peas".

That might sound an ecological spirit or the residual parsimony of a man whom had poverty had obliged to wear four shirts, each layer interleaved with newspaper. Hamsun was more complex than that. His first marriage had not been helped by his trying to ease the endemic difficulties of the writing life by purloining his wife's money, and absconding to Ostend's casinos.

As driven as he was cantankerous, Hamsun had grown up in the modest, seaside life which was to sustain many of his many-peopled novels - such as The Growth of the Soil. They alternated with briefer works which included the love story of Victoria and that remarkably incisive, innovative novel Hunger which, in delineating a writer's struggles, amounts to more than a Nordic incarnation of Gissing.

Hamsun can sometimes appear two novelists at work simultaneously. As John Updike noted, his lack of pity "produces a tonic clarity but a certain monotony as well... a primal modern, Hamsun perceived in the lonely, sub-arctic valleys of rural Norway that nothing makes enough difference: our quirks and pains come to nothing".

This biography, translated by Deborah Fawkin and Erik Sluggevik, certainly adds to the stock of his own quirks. Even more rash than an all-out assault on American values was his decision to have his spermatic duct closed in the belief that this would halt ageing and even prompt a third set of teeth to grow. More wayward even than this was his fascination with Germany.

Unlike the English, they had found the spirit of Heimat in his delineation of people upon the land. Many were the articles he wrote in support of the Nazi régime - even after the invasion of Norway in 1940. Beyond surreal is his wartime meeting with a deranged Hitler, of whom he wrote an appreciative obituary. Other writers have reached 90 with pen in hand, but to do so under house arrest - as Hamsun did in 1949 - is unique. Without those obsessions there would not have been these fascinating novels - and this enjoyable biography.

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