Victoria a love story, p.1
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       Victoria: A Love Story, p.1

           Knut Hamsun
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Victoria: A Love Story

  Table of Contents


  Title Page

  Copyright Page

















  KNUT HAMSUN was born in 1859 to a poor peasant family in central Norway. His early literary ambition was thwarted by having to eke out a living—as a schoolmaster, sheriff’s assistant, and road laborer in Norway; as a store clerk, farmhand, and streetcar conductor in the American Midwest, where he lived for two extended periods between 1882 and 1888. Based on his own experiences as a struggling writer, Hamsun’s first novel, Sult (1890; tr. Hunger, 1899), was an immediate critical success. While also a poet and playwright, Hamsun made his mark on European literature as a novelist. Finding the contemporary novel plot-ridden, psychologically unsophisticated, and didactic, he aimed to transform it so as to accommodate contingency and the irrational, the nuances of conscious and subconscious life as well as the vagaries of human behavior. Hamsun’s innovative aesthetic is exemplified in his successive novels of the decade: Mysteries (1892), Pan (1894), and Victoria (1898). Perhaps his best known work is Growth of the Soil (1917), which earned him the Nobel Prize in 1920. After the Second World War, as a result of his openly expressed Nazi sympathies during the German occupation of Norway, Hamsun forfeited his considerable fortune to the state. He died in poverty in 1952.

  SVERRE LYNGSTAD, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of English and Comparative Literature at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, Newark, New Jersey, holds degrees in English from the University of Oslo, the University of Washington, Seattle, and New York University. He is the author of many books and articles in the field of Scandinavian literature, including Jonas Lie (1977), Sigurd Hoel’s Fiction (1984), and Knut Hamsun, Novelist: A Critical Assessment (2005). Among his more recent translations from Norwegian are Arne Garborg’s Weary Men (1999); Sigurd Hoel’s Meeting at the Milestone (2002); and Knut Hamsun’s Pan (1998), On Overgrown Paths (1999), Mysteries (2001), and The Last Joy (2003). Dr. Lyngstad is the recipient of several grants, prizes, and awards, and has been honored by the King of Norway with the St. Olav Medal and with the Knight’s Cross, First Class, of the Royal Norwegian Order of Merit.


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  This translation first published in Penguin Books 2005

  Translation, introduction, and notes copyright © Sverre Lyngstad, 2005

  All rights reserved

  Victoria originally published in Norway in 1898.


  Hamsun, Knut, 1859-1952.

  [Victoria. English]

  Victoria / Knut Hamsun ; translated with an introduction by Sverre Lyngstad.

  p. cm.

  eISBN : 978-1-101-16159-3

  I. Lyngstad, Sverre. II. Title.

  PT8950.H3V4313 2005

  839.8’2’36—dc22 2005050950

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  For Fiona and Erik



  When Hamsun published a fragment of Hunger, his breakthrough novel, in the Danish journal Ny Jord (New Earth) in 1888, an event that made him a welcome guest in the drawing rooms of Copenhagen’s intellectual luminaries, he had served a literary apprenticeship of more than ten years and experienced life on two continents. His life during those years, as well as afterward, was often one of extreme hardship.

  Born to an impoverished peasant family at Skultbakken, Vågå, in central Norway in 1859,1 Knut Pedersen, to use his baptismal name, had a difficult childhood. In the summer of 1862, when Knut was less than three years old, his father moved with his family to Hamarøy, north of the Arctic Circle, where he worked the farm Hamsund, belonging to his brother-in-law, Hans Olsen. From nine to fourteen Knut was a sort of indentured servant to his uncle, since the family was dependent on him. The boy’s beautiful penmanship made him particularly valuable to Hans Olsen, who suffered from palsy and needed a scribe for his multifarious business, from shopkeeper to librarian and post-master. The uncle treated Knut abominably; he would rap his knuckles with a long ruler at the slightest slip of the pen. And on Sundays the boy had to sit indoors reading edifying literature to Hans and his pietist brethren, painfully aware that his friends were outside, waiting for him to join them. No wonder Knut loved to tend the cattle at the parsonage, where his uncle lived, an occupation that allowed him to lie on his back in the woods dreaming his time away and writing on the sky with his index finger.2 Very likely, these hours of solitary musings away from the tyranny of his uncle acted as a stimulus to the boy’s imagination. His schooling, starting at the age of nine, was sporadic, and his family had next to no literary culture. However, the local library at his uncle’s place may have provided a modicum of sustenance for his childish dreams.

  During his adolescence and youth Hamsun led a virtually nomadic existence, at first in various parts of Norway, later in the United States. After being confirmed at Lom, a neighboring township of Vågå, in 1873, in the same church where he had been baptized, he was a store clerk in his godfather’s business in Lom for a year, then returned north to work in the same capacity for a merchant, Mr. Walsøe, not far from his parents’ place. Here, at Tranøy, Knut seems to have fallen in love with the boss’s daughter, Laura. It is uncertain whether the young man was asked to leave because of his infatuation with Laura, or because Mr. Walsøe was hurt financially by the failure of the herring fisheries in 1875.3 In the next few years Hamsun supported himself as a peddler, shoemaker’s apprentice, schoolmaster, and sheriff’s assistant in different parts of Nordland. After the failure of his literary ventures in the late 1870s, the school of life took the form of road construction work for a year and a half (1880-81).

  Hamsun’s dream of becoming a writer had been conceived at an early age, amid circumstances that gave him no choice but to fend for himself. If ever a writer can be said to have been self-made or self-taught, Hamsun was one. Not surprisingly, the two narratives published in his teens, Den Gådefulde (1877; The Enigmatic One) and Bjørger (1878), were crude and i
nsignificant, products of literary imitation. The former is an idyllic story in the manner of magazine fiction, in a language more Danish than Norwegian. The latter, a short novel, was modeled on the peasant tales published by Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson (1832-1910) in the 1850s. In 1879, with the support of a prosperous Nordland businessman, E. B. K. Zahl, Hamsun wrote another novel, “Frida,” which he presented to Frederik Hegel at Gyldendal Publishers in Copenhagen. It was turned down without comment. The manuscript of this story—which was dismissed by Bjørnson, Hamsun’s idol, as well—has been lost. Bjørnson suggested he become an actor. Thus, in early 1880, shortly after his twentieth birthday, the first period of Hamsun’s literary apprenticeship came to an end.

  The 1880s were marked by hard physical labor and renewed literary efforts. During the period he was employed in highway construction, Hamsun made his debut as a public lecturer. His next decision was not unusual for a poor, ambitious Norwegian in the 1880s: emigrating to America. However, he was not chiefly interested in improving his fortune; instead, he foresaw a future for himself as the poetic voice of the Norwegian community in the New World. Needless to say, the dream quickly foundered, though the lecturing activity continued. To support himself he worked as a farmhand and store clerk, except for the last six months or so of his two-and-a-half-years’ stay, when he was offered the job of “secretary and assistant minister with a salary of $500 a year” by the head of the Norwegian Unitarian community in Minneapolis, Kristofer Janson (1841- 1917).4 This was Hamsun’s first significant encounter with an intellectual milieu. While he did not share Janson’s religious beliefs, he clearly enjoyed browsing in his well-stocked library. But his stay was cut short: in the summer of 1884 his doctor diagnosed “galloping consumption,” and in the fall of that year Hamsun returned to Norway, apparently resigned to die. He was twenty-five years old. His illness turned out to be a severe case of bronchitis.5

  Back in Norway, Hamsun’s endeavors to support himself by writing stories, articles, and reviews for the newspapers in the capital, Kristiania (now Oslo), while working on a “big book,”6 brought only a meager harvest financially, despite a considerable amount of publishing activity. Worthy of mention is his article on Mark Twain in the weekly paper Ny illustreret Tidende (New Illustrated Gazette) in March 1885, important because by a compositor’s error the “d” in his name, Hamsund, was left out.7 The young aspiring writer adopted this spelling of his name for the rest of his life.

  After a couple of years in Norway, at times in severe want, Hamsun returned to America, but now for purely economic reasons: to finance his literary ambition. From New York he wrote a friend in Norway that it had become “impossible” for him at home.8 However, the challenges posed by America were still formidable. Only toward the end of his two-year stay, after supporting himself as a streetcar conductor in Chicago and a farm laborer in the Dakotas, was he able to turn his attention to literature. Having returned to Minneapolis in the fall of 1887, he delivered a series of lectures there during the winter of 1887-88. These lectures, which dealt with such literary figures as Balzac, Flaubert, Zola, Bjørnson, Ibsen, and Strindberg, attest to Hamsun’s painfully acquired familiarity with the literary culture of his time. By July 1888 we find him in Copenhagen. In a brief sketch of his early life recorded in 1894 he says that he “hid on board a day and a half”9 when the ship reached Kristiania, bypassing the city that had so bitterly frustrated his literary dreams.

  The following decade was a very productive period for Hamsun, although his work was not always favorably received. Hunger (1890) garnered excellent reviews, but sales were disappointing, and the reception of his second novel, Mysteries (1892), was mixed. Moreover, a series of lectures that he gave in the capital and elsewhere in 1891, while causing a sensation, were severely criticized for the high-handed manner in which he dismissed his immediate predecessors on the Norwegian Parnassus. And Hamsun’s life, though not exactly nomadic, remained unsettled, as he shuttled back and forth between Kristiania and Copenhagen, between one Norwegian town and another, and—during the period from 1893 to 1895—between Norway and Paris. His restlessness seems to have affected his writing as well, to judge by his forays into different genres. Thus, in the interval between Pan (1894) and Victoria (1898), Hamsun wrote mainly plays, despite his low opinion of dramatic literature and the theater. In a letter written in August 1898, he says: “I’m tired of the novel, and I’ve always despised the drama; I’ve now begun to write verse, the only literature that is not both pretentious and insignificant, but only insignificant.” 10 While calling Victoria “some sort of ‘pendent’ [sic] to Pan,”11 he refers to it as “nothing but a little lyricism” and as “full of ‘Stimmung.’ ”12

  If self-demeaning language were in order, a more appropriate pretext might have been the overall plot of this short fiction, a story of star-crossed lovers separated by class and circumstance. Judged by its plot alone, Victoria is pure melodrama. However, as in Pan, the plot is merely a framework within which Hamsun creates a web of narrative modes, themes, and motifs, the elements that make up the novel’s substance.

  Victoria consists of a mosaic of scenes and situations developed according to a basic psychological scheme: dreamlike amorous expectation followed by triumph and, subsequently, by bitter disappointment. Sometimes the second stage is missing, causing the narrative to alternate between hope and disillusion. Yet, the ultimate effect produced by the novel is not one of disillusionment. This may be partly due to a frequently occurring structural pattern in Hamsun’s narrative, one whereby a flat rendering of an encounter, mostly couched in clipped, constrained dialogue, is amplified by ecstatic recall and, eventually, literary re-creation. Since Johannes and Victoria see each other so rarely, their meetings usually begin very tentatively and awkwardly, but Johannes’ pent-up feelings often break through, as happens in chapter three, where they meet in the city. His ardent confession recapitulates the emotional adventures with which his loving memory of Victoria has enriched him. “I would always see or hear something that reminded me of you, all day, at night too,” he tells her. The scene is rounded off by another dialogue sequence, which ends with her telling him, “You’re the one I love.”

  The first part of chapter four employs the same device on a broader scale, as Johannes recalls the entire experience related in chapter three. Being in a state of semidelirious happiness after Victoria’s declaration of love, he overwhelms an irate neighbor peeved by his predawn singing with an ecstatic description of his nocturnal experiences. The story he tells him is a heightened version of the previously noted confession to Victoria. He tells the man that, as he was writing during the night, “the heavens were opened, . . . an angel offered me wine and I drank it, intoxicating wine which I drank out of a garnet cup.” This possible allusion to the baptism of Jesus also appears in what he related to Victoria the previous day.13 In both instances, remembrance and literary creation are indistinguishable. For while Johannes tells the neighbor that he “lived it all afresh, one more time,” the account he gives him of the meeting with Victoria is a modified version, in some respects quite fanciful. “[W]e met the King,” he says, “and the King turned to look at her, at my beloved, because she is so tall and lovely.” He goes on to describe what he wrote as “an endless song to joy, to happiness. It was as though happiness lay naked before me with a long, laughing throat and wanted to come to me.” That Johannes’ happiness is dispelled after he runs into Victoria and Otto, his well-to-do rival, in the theater conforms to the larger rhythm of disenchantment.

  This sequence of episode and recollection-cum-creative transformation is only one of several strategies whereby Hamsun complicates the narrative flow of the novel. Having the effect of repetition, it produces a sense of recurring cycles of experience, thereby slowing down the pace of the action and mitigating the melodramatic suddenness of key events. The story’s climax, Victoria and Otto’s engagement party, exhibits another scenic development, equally, if not more, decisive in bracketing the novel
s conventional plot. The scene of scandal, which Hamsun had picked up from Dostoyevsky and used successfully in previous works, assumes in Victoria an especially outrageous form, since it develops from a celebratory occasion in high society. Again, the opening note, for Johannes, is one of happy anticipation, of which he is cruelly disabused in the course of the party.

  In effect, there is a succession of scenes of scandal taking place at the party. Victoria’s introduction of Camilla, the girl Johannes had saved from drowning some years earlier, is followed by a series of acrimonious exchanges between Victoria and Johannes reminiscent of the barbed words of Glahn and Edvarda in Pan. Johannes is overcome by a “hopeless despair” and turns “deathly pale.” Walking around “like an outcast,” he gives and receives refined insults, and when he rises to respond to a toast offered him by Richmond, his future rival for the love of Camilla, Johannes suffers a deep humiliation. Taken aback by Victoria’s wild outbursts, “her eyes blazing,” he is forced to change course and gives a knowingly false retrospective of his relationship with the Castle children. Johannes even implies that his genteel friends had “a large share” in his success as a writer. No wonder Ditlef, Victoria’s brother, remarks to his mother, “I never knew it was really me who wrote his books.” Obviously upset by the erotic electricity passing between his fiancée and Johannes, Otto, now a lieutenant, warns Victoria by threatening to go hunting with a neighbor, then pokes Johannes in the eye and leaves in a dudgeon.

  In view of these occurrences, which contravene ordinary canons of logic and reason, the death of Otto, whether self-inflicted or accidental, becomes quite acceptable. Similarly, the cruel irony of Victoria being turned down when she is finally free to offer herself to Johannes, an irony that under more normal circumstances might seem manufactured, is quite in tune with a state of affairs that has lost all contact with decorum and rational order.

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