Chapter the Last, by Knut Hamsun

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?

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10 thoughts on “Chapter the Last, by Knut Hamsun

  1. Add Mann’s Magic Mountain and there is a sanatoria based reading list from the mid twenties. I guess a lot of people went to them at the time.

  2. I bought Hamsun’s Mysteries largely on account of you, so I’m glad to hear that he’s “hard to read at times without a grin on your face.” Political leanings notwithstanding, it’s about time a post-Beowulf Scandinavian author steps up to the plate for me and redeems the region for all the literary crimes against humanity perpetrated by Sigrid Undset and crappy “Nordic noir” respectively.

  3. Yes, The Magic Mountain was what I had in mind, though I was conscious as I was writing it that I was once again being overly obscure. I guess mountain sanatoria and mountain sanatoria novels went out of fashion again about the same time.

    It so happens I’ve been flicking through Martin Seymour-Smith’s acerbic 1500 pages Guide to Modern World Literature again, and he says of Sigrid Undset things like, “it is of no promise … a pioneer work in the middlebrow historical novel … it is not important as literature … entertainment for bored middle-class ladies all over the world, but is worthless”. M S-S is good fun, until he doesn’t like a writer you like.

  4. All of the saga writers are post-Beowulf.

    Hamsun’s early novels are terrific. I am surprised and pleased to read about this obscurity. I did get the idea. Have you read Blood and Soil? That’s not right – Growth of the Soil?? Maybe I should try it. I’m gonna let a buncha Nazis boss me around?

  5. I haven’t read the saga writers yet, Tom, but I’m glad to be reminded that there’s something to champion between Beowulf and Hamsun.

    Obooki, Martin Seymour Smith sounds spot on regarding Undset! At the very least, his “a pioneer work in the middlebrow historical novel” is a line I wish I had thought up to run alongside my summation of Kristin Lavransdatter as a “historical fiction Beaches.”

  6. I used to own both Growth of the Soil and The Women at the Pump, but never got around to reading them – not so much for the sake of Nazism (which I’ve never found abundant in his writings), as that I’d heard they were boring – which Chapter the Last isn’t; – but somewhere along the line I seem to have lost them.

    I seem to be developing a middlebrow historical fiction project all of a sudden (to discover if historical fiction is necessarily middlebrow), perhaps I should read Lavransdatter (yet another book I used to own, didn’t read, and no longer own).

  7. Hamsun is so very dear to me that saying he’s my favorite author would be a gross understatement, yet even I wasn’t able to finish Growth of the Soil, since as far as I can remember it sinks, towards the middle of the book, into an uncharacteristically tedious and contrived preachiness about man’s struggle and triumph over (or perhaps: inside) nature. Not uncharacteristic in its convictions, I’d say, but in the bloated way it tells them. It just does not have the natural flow of his best writing. (It is quite the page-turner for the first hundred-or-so pages, though).

    And it’s not just Chapter the Last. Almost none of his later works were translated into English, I believe, or they were translated once in the early 30s and that was that. It was the Nazism thing: «In 1929, on his 70th birthday, he received a Festschrift, with tributes from Thomas and Heinrich Mann, Musil, Schoenberg, Herman Hesse, Gorky, the first President of Czechoslovakia, Tomás Masaryk, and Gide. 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. In 1939, for his 80th birthday, he received tributes only from Goebbels, Alfred Rosenberg – and Hitler.»

    Available English translations of his books are not that great, either, I think. There have been some developments in this regard these last few years, though. His last proper novel, The Ring is Closed, was -nicely- translated in 2010 by Robert Ferguson for the first time (who also wrote a biography of him titled ‘Enigma’), 74 years after its original publication, for instance. It’s a great book. I’d definitely recommend it.

  8. Hi Faruk, thanks for the comment.

    I am a great fan of early Hamsun too – in fact, it’s a world I should revisit, especially Mysteries. Victoria is one of the few novels I’ve ever read twice (though it helps that it’s short; and in fact, I’d forgotten I’d read it the first time).

    In general, I can’t bear didacticism in novels, and your description suggests I really wouldn’t like Growth of the Soil, but I suppose I’m still intrigued since I’ve enjoyed everything else I’ve read of Hamsun and I find it difficult to believe there’s something of his I wouldn’t like.

    While ideas like anti-intellectualism and a return to the soil exist quite patently in Chapter the Last, they exist as part of the story. Hamsun doesn’t comment that the bourgeois people in the sanatorium are all foolish and contemptible, or that working on a farm leads to a better mental state – it’s all artistically worked in through the “action”. Very rarely do we get a character voicing what we may take to be one of Hamsun’s opinions (as the Suicide against formal education). So, I felt at least, it is remarkably free from didacticism. There is more didacticism in, say, his earlier work The Wanderer (in which a man packs in his intellectual life – I forget what he was, a lawyer or something – and goes off to become a seasonal labourer on a farm, in some sort of Maoist re-education, or hippie dropping-out) – but I seem to remember it was a first-person narrative, so it is more natural there would be didactic elements, the narrator justifying himself, stating his opinions.

    I can imagine the association with Nazism hit sales, but I’m still inclined to wonder. To what extent in the 30s was support of fascism a problem (The Daily Mail seems to have had no problem with it, for instance)? Is it that the kind of people who liked Hamsun before tended to be left-leaning? And why haven’t his other works been re-discovered since then, for they aren’t exactly Nazi texts? (According to the list of his works on Wikipedia, there are plenty of earlier novels – I’m assuming they’re novels – which are untranslated into English too, or rare in English translation). I’d be interested to read that biography of him by Ferguson.

  9. I’ve read a lot of Hamsun’s later novels that were published only once in English, including, I think, The Women at the Pump, which I recall enjoying, but not Chapter the Last. In fact, I enjoyed some of those obscure later novels more than the famous earlier ones. But I share Faruk’s opinion of the The Growth of the Soil.

    Your description of Chapter the Last (unwittingly?) makes it sound very much like The Magic Mountain, which features two intellectual disputants, Settembrini and Naphtha (I’m not sure how to spell his name), one of whom becomes an actual suicide.

  10. I shall read The Magic Mountain soon, when I feel up to it (I have to admit, that while I’ve enjoyed Mann’s short stories and novellas (I read Disorder and Early Sorrow again last week, and was much impressed), I’ve never truly enjoyed his novels – indeed, have given up on a few (Buddenbrooks, Lotte in Weimar), and been bored by others – The Holy Sinner remains one of my most traumatic reading experiences).

    But I am intrigued precisely by whether there are any parallels between The Magic Mountain and Chapter the Last, bearing in mind that Mann was a great admirer of Hamsun, and that The Magic Mountain was published soon after Chapter the Last.

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