Shallow Soil

Shallow Soil

SHALLOW SOIL KNUT HAMSUN Sudden as was Hamsun's recognition however it has proved lasting. The story of his rise from obscurity to fame is one of absorbing interest. Behind that hour of triumph lay a long and bitter struggle weary years of striving of constant and courageous battle with a destiny that strewed his path with disappointments and defeats overwhelming him with adversities that would have swamped a genius of less energy and real power. Knut Hamsun began life in one of the deep Norwegian valleys familiar to English readers through Bjornson's earlier stories. He was born in August 1860. When he was four years old his poverty-stricken parents sent him to an uncle a stern unlovely man who made his home on one of the Lofoten Islands--that "Drama in Granite" which Norway's rugged coast-line flings far into the Arctic night. Here he grew up a taciturn peculiar lad inured to hardship and danger in close communion with nature; dreaming through the endless northern twilight revelling through the brief intense summer surrounded by influences and by an atmosphere which later were to give to his production its strange mystical colouring its pendulum-swings from extreme to extreme. At seventeen he was apprenticed to a cobbler and while working at his trade he wrote and at the cost of no one knows what sacrifices saved enough money to have his first literary efforts printed and published. They consisted of a long fantastic poem and a novel "Bjorger"--the latter a grotesque conglomeration of intense self-analytical studies. These attracted far less attention than they really deserved. However the cobbler's bench saw no more of Knut Hamsun. During the next twelve years he led the life of a rover but a rover with a fixed purpose from which he never swerved. First he turned his face toward Christiania the capital and the intellectual centre of the country; and in order to get there he worked at anything that offered itself. He was a longshoreman on Bodo's docks a road-labourer a lumberjack in the mountains; a private tutor and court messenger. Finally he reached the metropolis and enrolled as a student at the university. But the gaunt raw-boned youth unpractical and improvident overbearing of manner passionately independent in thought and conduct failed utterly in his attempts to realise whatever ambitions he had cherished. So it was hardly strange that this the first chapter of his Odyssey should end in the steerage of an American-bound emigrant steamer. In America where he landed penniless he turned his strong and capable hands to whatever labour he could find. He had intended to become a Unitarian minister. Instead of doing so he had to work as a farm-hand on the prairie street-car conductor in Chicago dairyman in Dakota; and he varied these pursuits by giving a series of lectures on French literature in Minneapolis. By that time he probably imagined that he was equipped for a more successful attack on the literary strongholds of his own country and returned to Christiania. Disappointments and privations followed more bitter than any he had ever known. He starved and studied and dreamed; vainly he made the most desperate attempts to gain recognition. In despair he once more abandoned the battle-field and fled to America again with the avowed purpose of gaining a reputation on the lecture platform. Once more he failed; his countrymen resident in the Northwest would have none of him. Beaten back in every attempt discouraged perhaps feeling the need of solitude and the opportunities for introspective thought which he could not find in the larger cities he exiled himself to that most desolate of existences a life on a Newfoundland fishing-smack. Three long years he spent as one of a rude crew with whom he could have nothing in common save the daily death-struggle with the elements. But these years finished the preparatory stage of Hamsun's education. During the solitary watches he matured as an artist and as a man. In his very first effort upon his return to civilisation he proved that the days of aimless fumblings were over: in "Hunger" he stands suddenly revealed as a master of style and description a bold and independent thinker a penetrating keen psychologist a realist of marked virility. Since "Hunger" was written Hamsun has published over thirty large works-- novels dramas travel descriptions essays and poems. Every one of them is of a high order. Each is unlike the rest; but through them all flash in vivid gleams a dazzling witchery of style a bewildering originality a passionate nature-worship and an imagination which at times takes away the breath. "Shallow Soil" in some respects the most contained of Hamsun's works is perhaps best suited as a medium for his introduction to Anglo-Saxon readers. In a very complete analysis of Hamsun's authorship the German literary critic Professor Carl Morburger thus refers to "Shallow Soil": "Not only is this book Knut Hamsun's most significant work but it gives the very best description available of life in Christiania toward the close of the century. A book of exquisite lyric beauty of masterly psychology and finished artistic form it is so rich in idea and life that one must refrain from touching on the contents in order to keep within the narrow limits of this essay. A most superbly delicate delineation of the feminine soul is here given in the drawing of Hanka and Aagot; nowhere else is woman's love in its dawn and growth described with such mastery with a deftness and sureness of touch which reminds one of the very greatest passages in that Danish classic 'Niels Lyhne.'" Hamsun is now in his fifty-fourth year. The expectations aroused by his first book have been more than fulfilled; the star that was born overnight still shines with undimmed brilliance--nay with a purer warmer steadier flame. The volcanic violence of earlier days has been mellowed and subdued; the "red eruptions of flame-tongued primeval power" have all but ceased. In one of his latest works Hamsun himself notes this change in saying: "When a wanderer reaches fifty years he plays with muted strings." But with or without the sordine Hamsun's production is equally seductive equally entrancing and compelling. All over the continent of Europe he is known and his writings treasured; in Russia his popularity exceeds that of many of its own inimitable writers. It is to be expected that the English-speaking world will accord him that appreciation which is the natural tribute to genius irrespective of language or clime. CARL CHR. HYLLESTED. NEW YORK December 1913. CONTENTS PROLOGUE GERMINATION RIPENING SIXTYFOLD FINALE PROLOGUE I A faint golden metallic rim appears in the east where the sun is rising. The city is beginning to stir; already can be heard an occasional distant rumble of trucks rolling into the streets from the country large farm-wagons heavily loaded with supplies for the markets--with hay and meat and cordwood. And these wagons make more noise than usual because the pavements are still brittle from nightly frosts. It is the latter part of March. Everything is quiet around the harbour. Here and there a sleepy sailor tumbles out of a forecastle; smoke is curling from the galleys. A skipper puts his head out of a companionway and sniffs toward the weather; the sea stretches in undisturbed calm; all the winches are at rest. The first wharf gate is thrown open. Through it one catches a glimpse of sacks and cases piled high of cans and barrels; men with ropes and wheelbarrows are moving around still half asleep yawning openly with angular bearded jaws. And barges are warped in alongside the docks; another army begins the hoisting and stowing of goods the loading of wagons and the moving of freight. In the streets one door after another is opened; blinds are raised office-boys are sweeping floors and dusting counters. In the H. Henriksen office the son is sitting at a desk all alone; he is sorting mail. A young gentleman is strolling tired and sleepy toward the railway square; he comes from a late party given in some comrade's den and is taking the morning air. At Fire Headquarters he runs across an acquaintance who has also been celebrating. "Abroad so early Ojen?" asks the first stroller. "Yes--that is to say I haven't been in bed yet!" "Neither have I" laughs the first. "Good night!" And he wanders on smiling in amusement over that good night on a bright and sunny morning. He is a young and promising man; his name had suddenly become famous two years ago when he published a lyric drama. His name is Irgens; everybody knows him. He wears patent-leather shoes and is good-looking with his curled moustache and his sleek dark hair. He drifts from one market square to another; it amuses him sleepy as he is to watch the farmers who are invading the public squares with their trucks. The spring sun has browned their faces; they wear heavy mufflers around their necks and their hands are sinewy and dirty. They are in such a hurry to sell their wares that they even hail him a youth of twenty-four without a family a lyric writer who is simply loitering at random in order to divert himself. The sun climbs higher. Now people begin to swarm in all directions; shrill whistles are heard now from the factories in the city suburbs now from the railway stations and docks; the traffic increases. Busy workers dart hither and thither--some munching their breakfast from newspaper parcels. A man pushes an enormous load of bundles on a push-cart he is delivering groceries; he strains like a horse and reads addresses from a note-book as he hurries along. A child is distributing morning papers; she is a little girl who has Saint Vitus's dance; she jerks her angular body in all directions twitches her shoulders blinks hustles from door to door climbs the stairs in the high-storied houses presses bells and hurries on leaving papers on every doorstep. A dog follows her and makes every trip with her. Traffic and noise increase and spread; beginning at the factories the wharves the shipyards and the sawmills they mingle with wagon rumblings and human voices; the air is rent by steam-whistles whose agonising wails rise skyward meeting and blending above the large squares in a booming diapason a deep-throated throbbing roar that enwraps the entire city. Telegraph messengers dart hither and yon scattering orders and quotations from distant markets. The powerful vitalising chant of commerce booms through the air; the wheat in India the coffee in Java promise well; the Spanish markets are crying for fish--enormous quantities of fish during Lent. It is eight o'clock; Irgens starts for home. He passes H. Henriksen's establishment and decides to drop in a moment. The son of the house a young man in a business suit of cheviot is still busy at his desk. His eyes are large and blue although his complexion is rather dark otherwise; a stray wisp of hair sags untidily over his forehead. The tall somewhat gaunt and taciturn fellow looks about thirty years old. His comrades value him highly because he helps them a good deal with money and articles of commerce from the firm's cellars. "Good morning!" calls Irgens. The other looks up in surprise. "What--you? Are you abroad so early?" "Yes. That is to say I haven't been to bed yet." "Oh--that's different. I have been at my desk since five; I have cabled to three countries already." "Good Lord--you know I am not the least interested in your trading! There is only one thing I want to discuss with you Ole Henriksen; have you got a drink of brandy?" The two men leave the office and pass through the store down into the cellar. Ole Henriksen pulls a cork hurriedly; his father is expected any moment and for this reason he is in haste. The father is old but that is no reason why he should be ignored. Irgens drinks and says: "Can I take the bottle along?" And Ole Henriksen nods. On their way back through the store he pulls out a drawer from the counter and Irgens who understands the hint takes something from the drawer which he puts in his mouth. It is coffee roasted coffee; good for the breath. II At two o'clock people swarm up and down the promenade. They chat and laugh in all manner of voices greet each other smile nod turn around shout. Cigar smoke and ladies' veils flutter in the air; a kaleidoscopic confusion of light gloves and handkerchiefs of bobbing hats and swinging canes glides down the street along which carriages drive with ladies and gentlemen in stylish attire. Several young gentlemen have taken their accustomed stand at "The Corner." They form a circle of acquaintances--a couple of artists a couple of authors a business man an undefinable--comrades all. They are dressed variously: some have already dispensed with their overcoats others wear long ulsters with turned-up collars as in midwinter. Everybody knows "the clique." Some join it while others depart; there remain a young corpulent artist by the name of Milde and an actor with a snub nose and a creamy voice; also Irgens and Attorney Grande of the prominent Grande family. The most important however is Paulsberg Lars Paulsberg the author of half a dozen novels and a scientific work on the Atonement. He is loudly referred to as the Poet even though both Irgens and Ojen are present. The Actor buttons his ulster tightly and shivers. "No--spring-time is a little too chilly to suit me" he says. "The contrary here!" exclaims the Attorney. "I could shout all the time; I am neighing inwardly; my blood sings a hunting chorus!" And the little stooping youth straightens his shoulders and glances secretly at Paulsberg. "Listen to that!" says the Actor sarcastically. "A man is a man as the eunuch said." "What does that remark signify?" "Nothing God bless you! But you in your patent leathers and your silk hat hunting wolves--the idea appealed to my sense of humour." "Ha ha! I note the fact that Norem has a sense of humour! Let us duly appreciate it." They spoke with practised ease about everything had perfect control over their words made quick sallies and were skilled in repartee. A number of cadets were passing. "Did you ever see anything as flabby as these military youths!" said Irgens. "Look at them; they do not walk past like other mortals they _stalk_ past!" Both Irgens and the Artist laughed at this but the Attorney glanced quickly at Paulsberg whose face remained immovable. Paulsberg made a few remarks about the Art Exhibition and was silent. The conversation drifted to yesterday's performance in Tivoli and from there to political subjects. Of course they could refuse to pass all financial bills but--And perhaps there was not even a sufficient majority to defeat the government budget. It certainly looked dubious-- rotten--They cited quotations from leading parliamentarians they proposed to put the torch to the Castle and proclaim the republic without delay. The Artist threatened a general revolt of the labouring classes. "Do you know what the Speaker told me in confidence? That he never _never_ would agree to a compromise--rather let the Union sink or swim! 'Sink or swim' these were his very words. And when one knows the Speaker--" Still Paulsberg did not say anything and as the comrades were eager to hear his opinion the Attorney finally ventured to address him: "And you Paulsberg you don't say a word?" Paulsberg very seldom spoke; he had kept to himself and to his studies and his literary tasks and lacked the verbal facility of his comrades. He smiled good-naturedly and answered: "'Let your communication be Yea yea and Nay nay' you know!" At this they all laughed loudly. "But otherwise" he added "apart from that I am seriously considering going home to my wife." And Paulsberg went. It was his wont to go when he said he would. But after Paulsberg's departure it seemed as if they might as well all go; there was no reason to remain now. The Actor saluted and disappeared; he hurried off in order to catch up with Paulsberg. The Painter threw his ulster around himself without buttoning it drew up his shoulders and said: "I feel rotten! If a fellow could only afford a little dinner!" "You must try and strike a huckster" said Irgens. "I struck one for a brandy this morning." "I am wondering what Paulsberg really meant by that remark" said the Attorney. "'Your communication shall be Yea yea and Nay nay'; it is evident it had a deeper meaning." "Yes very evident" said Milde. "Did you notice he laughed when he said it; something must have amused him." Pause. A crowd of promenaders were sauntering continually up and down the street back and forth laughing and talking. Milde continued: "I have often wished that we had just one more head like Paulsberg's here in Norway." "And why pray?" asked Irgens stiffly. Milde stared at him stared at the Attorney and burst into a surprised laugh. "Listen to that Grande! He asks why we need another head like Paulsberg's in this country!" "I do" said Irgens. But Grande did not laugh either and Milde was unable to understand why his words failed to provoke mirth. He decided to pass it off; he began to speak about other things. "You said you struck a huckster for brandy; you have got brandy then?" "As for me I place Paulsberg so high that I consider him _alone_ able to do what is needed" said Irgens with thinly veiled sarcasm. This took Milde by surprise; he was not prepared to contradict Irgens; he nodded and said: "Certainly--exactly. I only thought it might accelerate matters to have a little assistance so to speak--a brother in arms. But of course I agree with you." Outside the Grand Hotel they were fortunate enough to run across Tidemand a huckster also a wholesaler a big business man head of a large and well-known business house. "Have you dined?" called the Artist to him. "Lots of times!" countered Tidemand. "Now no nonsense! Are you going to take me to dinner?" "May I be permitted to shake hands first?" It was finally arranged that they should take a run up to Irgens's rooms to sample the brandy after which they were to return to the Grand for dinner. Tidemand and the Attorney walked ahead. "It is a good thing that we have these peddlers to fall back on" said Milde to Irgens. "They are useful after all." Irgens replied with a shrug of the shoulders which might mean anything. "And they never consider that they are being imposed upon" continued Milde. "On the contrary they think they are highly favoured; it flatters them. Treat them familiarly drink their health that is sufficient. Ha ha ha! Isn't it true?" The Attorney had stopped; he was waiting. "While we remember it we have got to make definite arrangements about that farewell celebration for Ojen" he said. ...