Chapter the Last was first published in Norwegian in 1923, and first published in English in 1930 – and as far as I can ascertain, that’s when it was last published in English too. Which is fairly odd on the face of it, since a lot of Hamsun’s other works remain in print even today. Could there be any reason for this? – His later books certainly don’t have the reputation of the earlier ones – not among fashionable modernist-loving avant-garde types anyway.
The book is about the building of a sanatorium on a mountainside, the various people who stay as guests, and the countryfolk who live nearby. – A sanatorium, up a mountain? Now, I think I’ve heard of another famous book about that [ed. AE Ellis’ The Rack?]. Hasn’t Hamsun just stolen someone else’s idea here? – But no, that other book was curiously published a year later, by a man who was known to be an enormous fan of Hamsun. (I haven’t read this book as it happens, though I might get on to it soon and see how they compare).
So yes, some well-to-do people come to a sanatorium, built up a mountain, with their “ailments” and chat to each other about important matters and have a few emotions. Or at least they are seemingly well-to-do, though it happens that throughout the book most of them are revealed to be in some way frauds, maintaining appearances to which they are not entitled. There are some marvellous characters among them, most particularly a character referred to throughout as The Suicide (he is there for depression: he constantly threatens to kill himself, but always feels that it is in some way not the right moment), who is our proto-typical Hamsun character, somewhat cynical, perhaps insane, contemptuous of intellectualism (he has many arguments with a man called The Rector, about for instance the worthlessness of teaching children in schools), an ironic observer of all before him – one almost feels like saying, the author looking on.
So well-to-do people have affairs, fall in love, deceive one another. It could all be a tedious melodrama, but it isn’t – and it isn’t largely I feel because of Hamsun’s style (perhaps we should thank the translator here, one Arthur G Chater), which makes the novel such a joy to read. And yet I can’t really place my finger on what it is, and feel the following excerpts might well not convey it sufficiently.
Here is a woman, Fröken D’Espard, previously ostracised, being brought back into sanatorium society on the arm of the respected Herr Fleming:
Fröken D’Espard revenged herself by regarding strangers and acquaintances alike with some condescension, she could do that very well when she liked. What were these fat people here for, these beer-barrels, these deformities? They were ill, they were patients every one, she, Fröken D’Espard, had no need of the Torahus waters to keep herself in shape. As Herr Fleming had excused himself from talking French she could not show them who she really was, but the Rector Oliver sought her out before all others and thus her table became a centre. There were many visitors at the other little tables, but they forgot to read their papers and simply sat and listened.
And at dinner the doctor joined them, the new doctor, who would not let anyone treat him superciliously; yes, and he held out his hand to Fröken D’Espard and greeted her and chatted with her a good while: she was quite well, she had had no ill effects of the adder’s bite? No, to be sure. But she must beware of adders – next time in similar circumstances! The doctor pass on, but he had done his work, she was positively in a position to triumph. She looked so well too, she took wine and was witty, was tender, exerted her attraction. There was a group of ladies sitting at a table close by; they seemed envious of her.
And here is The Suicide taking a lonely walk and thinking about his wretched life, the great change that has suddenly come upon him, and his wife and his little daughter Leonora:
He strolled along the familiar path to “the Peak”. Here was the juniper-bush, here was the white stone slab, and here the little gully, all as before. After all, he was not broken down, nothing had really come upon him unexpectedly, it was only that now it had come. And now after the catastrophe she found it was time for a divorce. Very well, but how about the child, little Leonora? She talks already, she’s so clever, of course she’s learnt to walk long ago, she can run even, she has little shoes on her feet, a frock – eh, what a queer thing it was. Mamma and Papa, she would be saying. Hm, enough of that! So thats why we’ve come, that’s why we wear a dust-coat, we’ve altered so. The whole thing is not very savoury, and, oh, what shall we do with ourselves, where shall we hide our face? And little Leonora doesn’t say Papa, what bosh, how should she have learnt that? Don’t let us make fools of ourselves. The whole thing, therefore, is not too savoury. Admitted! However – however –
There she comes, that is she, walking nicely, with a slight sway, in a big hat, small shoes, gloves – mind the gully, it’s not meant for ladies – bravo, she clears the gully easily, hops over it, lovely creature! How should he receive her? Sit up here on the Peak and look down on her and be on one’s dignity? Nonsense, we get up and wait till she’s here, and then let chance decide ….
“Is this where you come when you talk a walk?” she asked.
“Yes, this is where I come.”
“Nice to see how you spend your time,” she said, looking about her with interest. “Do you sit on that stone?”
“Yes, here I sit.”
Fine, so maybe you don’t get the idea; but it’s hard to read at times without a grin on your face (as is often the way with Hamsun).
– Well, all this sounds very good, Obooki, but if I were a Nazi would I find much to appreciate in the novel?
– You would probably enjoy Hamsun’s evident dislike of intellectualism, and his sense of a return to the soil and the simple life. – But you can read any of his novels for that. The “complexes” of the degenerate rich might amuse you, if you’ve a sense of humour, though I’m sure you won’t find any of his characters to be sympathic – not as Hamsun himself clearly does – and the essential sense of joy and love of humanity inherent in the work might begin to grate after a while on your new morality.
– That’s ok. As a non-intellectual Nazi, I’m quite good at selective reading and cherry-picking.
– Aren’t we all?