Knut Hamsun: Pan
photo: The Hamsun Center
no copyright infringement intended
These last few days I have thought and thought of the Nordland summer’s endless day. I sit here and think of it, and of a hut I lived in, and the forest behind the hut, and I’m writing this to help pass the time, and to amuse myself...
So begins Pan, the novel Knut Hamsun published in 1894. Once you start reading it you don't leave the book up to the end. The story takes place in Norway, sometime in the 1850's. A young officer, Lieutenant Thomas Glahn, retires from the military and moves far away, on a small island in Nordland, to live there lonely in the woods, hunting and fishing, his rhythms and moods following the rhythms and moods of nature, the alternation of sundowns and sunsets, of summer's endless days and winter's long nights, the coming and going of seasons, the caprices of weather, the moves of clouds on the sky, the winds, the storms, the snowfalls, the sunny days. There is a village nearby, the whole region is isolated in the fjords, a postal ship comes to the island every two weeks or so. A girl of means from the village, Edwarda, seems to fall in love for the lieutenant. Once he reciprocates, she starts to humiliate him and their love becomes for the lieutenant a masochistic story. Very soon everybody in that small community turns against him and follows Edwarda in making his life miserable. In all his troubles he finds at a certain point a substitute lover (interesting literary technique), a much simpler girl (Eva), occasion to be even more ridiculed. Eventually he has to leave the island, defeated in all respects.
The lieutenant moves back to the capital, and this horrible episode seems to be now a closed chapter. After several years he receives an envelope containing two green feathers. He can guess who the sender is, and the trigger is raised again: the lieutenant starts writing a diary, putting there the memories of his love story: re-living everything again in his mind, at the same intensity.
Sure, we can think at the impossibility of love between two beings belonging to different universes: he belongs to the nature, she belongs to the civilization. We can think also at an ancient erotic paradigm, that frequently comes in the works of Hamsun: Iselin, la belle dame sans merci, like an eerie breathing from the dark of woods at dusk and dawn (Worster in The Fortnightly Review, December 1920). There is something more, I think.
Actually what we have in the novel is just this diary. The story is told at the first person, he is the narrator. We will never find Edwarda's version, her reasons. All we have is the lieutenant's diary. And I think, the object of study in this novel is not the woman (as fascinating as she could have been, as angelic or evil - is there a potential evil hidden in any angel?). No. The object of study is the lieutenant, and we can debate whether he is sane or mad, whether all that story happened in real life or just in his imagination, whether his narration is an objective account or just a madman's diary. And the debate remains open, we'll never find definite answers. For him, I repeat, not for her. Gogol and Dostoyevsky are not far.
The novel of Hamsun belongs both to the 19th and 20th centuries. It is a romantic story (though we could consider Hamsun rather a Romantique défroqué, the kind of Heine), and his love of nature is not easily paired (some considered Hamsun a Pantheist, for whom there was not God, but gods). On the other hand, his depiction of the morbid dimension of love puts this author in the camp of Hyeprrealists of the end of 20th century!
And the psychological side of the novel, his movement back and forth between narration of facts, sheer imagination, flow of consciousness, dreams, all this announces the works of Joyce and Woolf.
Let's come back to the story. It has an epilogue, this time no more narrated at first person. After many years the lieutenant is in India, hunting, and seemingly very praised in society. He gets again a letter that will force him to a tragic end. That old chapter had never been properly closed.
Here is a link to the text of Pan:
Five movies were made based on this novel. The first one, a Norwegian silent, was released in 1922: Pan. The second came in 1937: a German production this time, with the same title (Pan). Greta Garbo was initially offered the role of Edwarda: she declined and eventually the enigmatic heroine was played by Hilde Sessak (that I had the chance to watch in another movie, Feuerzangenbowle, where she was co-starring near Heinz Rühmann). The third adaption was Danish:, Kort är sommaren, in 1962. In 1995 a Danish/Norwegian/German version came, again with the same title as the novel, Pan. And finally, in 1997 came a Canadian production, Twilight of the Ice Nymphs, loosely inspired by the novel of Hamsun, also by a short story by Mérimée (La Vénus d'Ille - where a statue of Venus comes to life and kills the son of its owner). What could link the two stories? An idea of female side viewed as devilish destiny? Maybe.
Here are two fragments from the movie made in 1995.
Labels: Knut Hamsun