Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Growth of the Soil

Knut Hamsun

Nobel Laureate. The novel is a six hundred page Norwegian farming epic written in the early twentieth century. Based on that description I wasn’t expecting a thrilling experience in reading this book, and this lowered expecation was largely fulfilled. It’s a serious, reflective and fairly ambitious novel, it is however also quite dull. The plot is framed by not much happening, and having the larger narrative revolve around the weather makes for a rather focused absence of tension. Much of the happening stuff in the book involves the marriage of the two main characters, yet it’s here that the book has it’s biggest point of failure. The two are fairly believable, and aren’t without some complexity, but they just aren’t varied or engaging enough to sustain the kind of close narrative presence that they occupy for hundreds of pages on end. It’s not an absence of more conflict that makes for a problem, rather a sense that there needs to be a bit more depth in the personalities, or at least having their existing character be staggered a bit more. As is, too much of their mentalities come across on the surface level, leading to a less than thrilling processing of inhabiting alongside them in the novel.

There are sparks of an ambitious and substantive book, in particular with the indications of technological change, social challenge and technological implementation. It’s precisely in the picture of a non-static, transformative cultural experience that the book makes its most distinctive and valuable statement. Showing remote agricultural life as part of the disorienting change of modernity without featuring it being demolished wholescale is an interesting shift, and it’s particularly intriguing how the State is represented. In the twentieth century Norwegian context it’s one of the more bland and non-belligerant structures around, yet it’s still shown as having major disruptive influence and tends to be regarded, not unreasonably, as a significant problem by the terms of conventional life. Such elements offer some value and make the book not without its compensations, but at core it’s character-driven narrative has major aesthetic problems that it never fully overcomes.

Worse than: The Sleepwalkers by Hermann Broch
Better than: Effi Briest by Theodor Fontane

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