Saturday, August 02, 2008

The Wanderers

The theme of a wandering man is central to many of Hamsun's characters, so it is perhaps only fitting that a book comprising of two of his writings be called The Wanderers. The cover contains two inter-twined Hamsun writings: Under the Autumn Star and Wanderer plays on muted strings, the latter a sequel to the first - and is a close but stale reflection of Hamsun's themes and moods, perhaps even a reflection of some of his own experiences
In the former, the wanderer Knut Pedersen leaves behind his city life with the romantic fantasy of leading a simple village life. He begins to do odd jobs on farms, but finds his heart often interfering with his idea of simplicity as he falls in love with the women of the house. His adopted simplicity is not able to lure him into settling down on a farm with one of the maids as his simpleton companion does. Like most of Hamsun's heroes, he hangs in abeyance in a feverish passion, that works to depress and exalt him alternatively, but also always keeps him on his feet. He is the confused man who does not know what he wants - whether it is the affections of one lady or the other, or merely a life in the woods. It is, in a way comical to read of his mild frustrations, because he seems to be oriented towards what he apparently escaped from while escaping the city. It is also comical because these are the confusions of a real person, whose element is inconsistency and not a singular approach to life which seems to be the characteristic of most other protagonists.
In On Muted strings, Pedersen, six years later, returns to one of the farms where he had worked during his earlier wanderings. And if there is a word that can describe the emotion of this narrative, it is the well chosen word in the title - muted. This hero is certainly different from Hamsun's other heroes, he is a quietened, withdrawn soul in contrast to the earlier restless character. There is that lack of the characteristic fervor, although still retaining his element of estrangement and frivolity. He is more a narrator now than the protagonist - as he observes the life of the landowners, which are portrayed in shades of decadence. Though I think he tries to refrain from it, Hamsun does pass his negative reflections on alcoholism and infidelity in his commentary, something that trivializes him a bit in my opinion. Though I do not expect an author to be an unbiased observer, I think he could keep well above the station of passing moral judgements.
I have quoted Hamsun on his view of his characters in an earlier post - I recently chanced upon a more detailed commentary on these characters which I found quite appropriate:

Fictional heroes who are estranged from their environment seldom emerge lifelike. With most writers, such heroes are mere shadows, or, at best, symbols. But Hamsun is able to portray both the environment and the alienation, the soil and the extirpation. His heroes have roots even though they cannot be seen. The reader never knows precisely how they have become what they are, but their existence is real all the same.
Hamsun’s favourite hero is a young man in his late twenties or early thirties, rash, good-natured, with no plans for the future, always anticipating some happy chance, yet at the same time resigned and melancholy. Hamsun’s hero is frivolous in word and deed. He speaks to people as he would to a dog or to himself.
Perhaps this work does not quite compare to Hunger or Mysteries, and is only a slighted shadow of these, but it is a very good read, describing a real man and his romantic fantasies of a simple village life, and of a lot of other romantic notions. The translation by Oliver and Gunnvor Stallybrass is excellent.

For those interested, the full text of Hamsun's The Wanderers can be found here, though from different translators. The book is also available now on Project Gutenberg.


Alok said...

I have got "Mysteries", will start it soon. Alienation seems to be the recurring subject in his works. I also liked what he said about "literary character." Inner life and external behavior are always at odds in his characters. thinking or an inner feeling never leads to or in sync with any action...and they often act in "irrational" ways...

actually true to life, specially for those who are a little too self-aware of their own feelings and thoughts.

Fictional heroes who are estranged from their environment seldom emerge lifelike.

dostoevsky's novels are filled with such heroes and it is actually a common literary type in russian literature... do you know about"the superfluous man" ?

Alok said...

About Woody Allen, I have also come to admire him more with time but that is because I can now understand his cultural and literary references better... like in Manhattan when he says that "don't ask me about women, they gave me the August Strindberg award!" allen understands the kind of alienation mentioned above very well too, and he is even able to have a sense of humour about it.

in the "serious" woody allen category my favourite is Hannah and Her Sisters and from his LOL category I love his two early comedies ... love and death, a hilarious spoof on 19th century russian literature and also Bananas.

Alok said...

ok i didn't see the link or realized that the quote was excerpted from somewhere else!! the article was quite good actually.

Madhuri said...

You should read Mysteries - I liked it far better than Wanderers, even a little better than Hunger actually, which was quite good itself.
Yes, Dostoevsky's heroes are like that - and Hamsun is often referred to as the Norwegian Dostoevsky, and is largely influenced by him.

Madhuri said...

And I have to get through a lot of Woody Allen movies, but only after I head back home.
For the time being I will simply enjoy the easy availability of some of the foreign titles in Australia!