In this century, Céline is such a writer; and so is Céline’s great influence, Knut Hamsun, who is the greatest Norwegian writer since Ibsen, but who ended his life, in 1952, in disgrace.Hamsun’s life is surely one of the strangest in modern literature.Five years later, in 1934, he received tributes only from Goebbels and from a crowd of lesser German writers who are now forgotten outside Germany.
They are epistemological brawlers, always challenging meaning to a fight.
They invent the scenes through which they move, and thus invent themselves afresh on every page.
He took from Strindberg the idea that the soul is not a continuous wave but a storm of interruptions – something ‘patched together’, in Strindberg’s words.
In Hamsun, characters provoke apparently pointless encounters which they then disown or annul at whim.
More than most fictional heroes, the hero in Hamsun writes the novel we read, plots it for us.
Yet, like escaped convicts, these heroes erase their tracks as they proceed, and this seems to be hapless rather than willed: they carry no continuous memory of what they have said or done from scene to scene. Thus it is that although these characters are tissues of fictionality, they are not tediously weightless, or unreal, in the way that we know from the Nouveau Roman or other avant-gardisms.
What obstinacy and wickedness in an old man – I’ve never seen the likes of it. The old man looks frightened, and moves away as fast as his legs will take him, running with his small, geriatric steps.
Knut Hamsun’s greatest novels – from which this is a typical scene – throttle reason.
Their pathos is the pathos we feel for real humans, however madly assembled their selves seem to be.
In particular, Hamsun extracts a pathos from his heroes’ obvious delusion that they are in control of their unpredictability. And thus it is that Hamsun, although he is virtually the inventor of a certain kind of modern fictionality, is also the great refiner of the stream of consciousness, that mode of writing that is in some ways the culmination of novelistic realism, of the novel’s traditional devotion to human beings, that represents the soul’s stutter. Some writers refuse to lay their heads peaceably on the pillow of literary history in order to give posterity good dreams.