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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Dunne, played by Ben Affleck, finds himself at the centre of a media storm when his wife is reported missing and assumed dead

film
Arts and Entertainment
Lindsay Lohan made her West End debut earlier this week in 'Speed-the-Plow'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Artist Nathan Sawaya stands with his sculpture 'Yellow' at the Art of Brick Exhibition

art
Arts and Entertainment
'Strictly Come Dancing' attracted 6.53 million viewers on Friday
tv
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant plays Detective Emmett Carver in the US version on Broadchurch

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor goes undercover at Coal Hill School in 'The Caretaker'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Ni , Rock of Rah, Vanuatu: The Ni live on one of the smallest islands of Vanuatu; Nelson flew five hours from Sydney to capture the 'isolation forged by their remoteness'
photographyJimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style
Arts and Entertainment
David Byrne
musicDavid Byrne describes how the notorious First Lady's high life dazzled him out of a career low
Arts and Entertainment
Sergeant pfeffer: Beatles in 1963
booksA song-by-song survey of the Beatles’ lyrics
Arts and Entertainment
music'I didn't even know who I was'
Arts and Entertainment
Cheryl was left in a conundrum with too much talent and too few seats during the six-chair challenge stage
tvReview: It was tension central at boot camp as the ex-Girls Aloud singer whittled down the hopefuls
Arts and Entertainment
Kalen Hollomon's Anna Wintour collage

art
Arts and Entertainment

TV Grace Dent on TV
Arts and Entertainment

Music
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

music
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer is believed to be playing a zombie wife in Patient Zero

film
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Gatiss says Benedict Cumberbatch oozes sex appeal with his 'Byronic looks' and Sherlock coat
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Clothing items bearing the badge have become popular among music aficionados
musicAuthorities rule 'clenched fist' logo cannot be copyrighted
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson will star in Seth MacFarlane's highly-anticipated Ted 2

film
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike in 'Gone Girl'

film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

    Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

    and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
    Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

    Last chance to see...

    The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
    So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

    Truth behind teens' grumpiness

    Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

    Hacked photos: the third wave

    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?
    Royal Ballet star dubbed 'Charlize Theron in pointe shoes' takes on Manon

    Homegrown ballerina is on the rise

    Royal Ballet star Melissa Hamilton is about to tackle the role of Manon
    Education, eduction, education? Our growing fascination with what really goes on in school

    Education, education, education

    TV documentaries filmed in classrooms are now a genre in their own right
    It’s reasonable to negotiate with the likes of Isis, so why don’t we do it and save lives?

    It’s perfectly reasonable to negotiate with villains like Isis

    So why don’t we do it and save some lives?
    This man just ran a marathon in under 2 hours 3 minutes. Is a 2-hour race in sight?

    Is a sub-2-hour race now within sight?

    Dennis Kimetto breaks marathon record
    We shall not be moved, say Stratford's single parents fighting eviction

    Inside the E15 'occupation'

    We shall not be moved, say Stratford single parents
    Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

    Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

    Talks between all touched by the crisis in Syria and Iraq can achieve as much as the Tornadoes, says Patrick Cockburn
    Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

    Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

    The Tory MP speaks for the first time about the devastating effect of his father's bankruptcy
    Witches: A history of misogyny

    Witches: A history of misogyny

    The sexist abuse that haunts modern life is nothing new: women have been 'trolled' in art for 500 years
    Shona Rhimes interview: Meet the most powerful woman in US television

    Meet the most powerful woman in US television

    Writer and producer of shows like Grey's Anatomy, Shonda Rhimes now has her own evening of primetime TV – but she’s taking it in her stride
    'Before They Pass Away': Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

    Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

    Jimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style