Monday, December 13, 2010

Growth of the Soil by Knut Hamsun (1917)

... translated from the Norwegian by WW Worster

Sometimes we miss out on real gems by avoiding translated books, but in my opinion, this is not one of those cases.  I had to really struggle to finish this book, and I did appreciate how well the author illustrates man's connection to the land, and it was interesting to read about a pioneer experience taking place in the remote wilds of Norway rather than the north american prairies, but overall, this book fell short for me.

If you read my reviews regularly, you kow that one of the things that I value in book is brevity/ terseness/efficiency - don't waste my time going on and on, repeating yourself, saying the same thing twice, being redundant and wasting a lot of words telling me what I already know (notice how I did that there... pretty tedious reading, eh? hee hee hee)

To give Mr Knut his due, he had little formal education and little economic success, so becoming the author of multiple books and selling well in his home country, and even publishing in translation beyond that, is no small achievement.  However, a ruthless editor removing repetive descriptions and sections of the plot line could have reduced this book by half.  There were times that I wondering if I had lost my place because I had the feeling that I had read that exact passage before. 

The book is written with a deliberately plodding motion meant to echo Isak's dogged work ethic, and the relentless cycle of the seasons, but Hamsun told of the passage of the seasons with nearly identical descriptions probably half a dozen times throughout the book.  Isak - his build and his character - are described so frequently that I could probably write one of those passages myself (in my sleep!) by now.  But the biggest ineffeciency in the book that bothered me to no end was the repetition of the plot line... Isak and Inger have a child whom Inger strangles at birth and hides.  This crime is revealed by Oline - there is a court case- Inger ends up in jail and Oline takes her place in the family; Axel and Barbro have a child who Barbro drowns at birth and hides.  The crime is revealed by Oline - there is a court case - Barbro is sent away and Oline takes her place in the family.  Even more so - turns out that Barbro has committed infanticide before too!  Maybe there is some point is telling this whole same story line twice, but if so, I missed it.

Hamsun creates some interesting characters in this 253 page novel - Isak, Inger, Oline, Geissler and Eleseus.  He also argues a pretty revolutionary feminist argument (women have the right to make decisions about their reproductive health including choosing to avoid pregnancy as well as choosing to terminate pregnacy, even up to the point of birth) for the early 1900's.  His overall message - that we're only truly human when we live with our hands deep in the soil - Isak, Sivert and Jesine being the stars in this department - and that society has a corrupting influence on people is especially interesting to consider nearly 100 years later.

Overall verdict: not a complete waste of time, but I can't say I'd recommend it either.

So, Michelle.... feel free to weigh in here :-)

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