Knut Hamsun: Growth of the Soil

I had the pleasure not only of reading Knut Hamsun’s Growth of the Soil recently, but reading a second-hand copy with a mysterious note in the front. Happy days!

The book begins on a perfect note: a man named Isak walks through the wilderness, unidentified, unknown. For all the reader knows in the first few pages, Isak could be primordial man. It takes time for the setting to be established, just as it takes time for Isak to find a suitable place to settle down. He’s not explicitly compared to Adam, but he might as well have been. We never learn about him beyond his current states, his current mindsets. Isak is a creature of the moment.

Isak, beginning alone and with only a few basic tools, builds a hut. He finds and trades for a few animals. Inger joins him from a nearby village, and they are quickly married. We learn a lot more about Inger than we do about Isak – she enters the scene as a solidly built woman with an unfortunate cleft lip, who assists him with physical tasks just as much as she manages the rapidly growing household. Isak’s settlement, arbitrarily named ‘Sellanraa’ by a member of the local government for record keeping, grows continually throughout the book. Other families start farming near Sellanraa, and after many years Isak has effectively become the leader of a small community of farmers. Not that he takes to the idea of being leader, and in fact it’s never really stated that he is. It’s rather implied through the attitudes everyone else has towards him.

Thematically, we’re dealing with something very libertarian. Any interference from the government – indeed, from civilisation – is seen as an interruption, a distraction from the literal growth of the soil. Isak is a symbol for early, pure man. No education or ability to read and write, but extraordinary strength and the ability to keep the farm running almost alone for several years. Age catches up with Isak, of course, but in his younger years Inger and everyone else is continually surprised by what he chooses to carry without the aid of horse or cart.

His sons are a classic, Plutarch-like contrast. Sivert, it’s implied, will be a carbon copy of his father, an uneducated farmer with aptitude for the country. Eleseus, in keeping with his oddly refined name, is essentially a city kid, with long fingers and a talent for writing and so on and so on. You already know what he’s like even though you haven’t read the book.

Growth of the Soil reminded me a lot of Anna Karenina. Not only because of the focus on agriculture and peasant life, but the ideals behind them – the contrast between the corrupting, soft city and the purity of the wilder country. These are themes that Tolstoy spent half his books writing on, so it’s interesting to see them crop up again here. The idea that the city, civilisation, and government are negative influences appears in so many examples throughout that it’s difficult to remember them all. After a stint in the city, Inger returns to Sellanraa cultured, and it creates a rift between her and Isak, as well as a myriad of material problems. Eleseus, a prospective city gentleman with a watch and a fancy coat and other trappings, is continually at odds with his father, to the extent that they barely speak and later in life barely know one another. Patience and strength, and robustness in the winter months, are better than flightless restlessness and fabulous machinery built to keep the cold away. Growth of the Soil is the story of one man and all humanity at once. It’s about human contact with the earth, rather than abandonment of our origins.

It’s a nod to the myth of Antaeus, the Greek giant who forced passing travellers to wrestle with him. His mother was Gaia, so he gained strength literally from his feet touching the earth. To end the menace that Antaeus posed to travellers, Heracles challenged him and lifted him away from the earth, draining his power. On a smaller scale, Hamsun is saying the same thing happens to all of us, and the further we retreat from the soil the less human we become. We become embroiled in all manner of pointless process, industrialised and bureaucratic rambles, that distract us from what it means to live – to gather resources and secure a future in person.

As far as writing technique goes, I’ve read that Growth of the Soil was the definitive 20th century novel, because of the stream-of-consciousness aspect, but of course that’s nothing to the modern reader. Yet again, the literati are over-prioritising the importance of new techniques.

I’m not claiming it’s not important. Rather, I’m saying most modern readers aren’t going to pick up Growth and just look for the consciousness bits. They’re not there to hunt down examples of literary techniques, they’re trying to enjoy the prose and story. For many that does involve a degree of analysis, but it shouldn’t always be the focus, should it? Perhaps I’ve simply grown tired of reading about streams of consciousness.

In any case, Growth of the Soil is definitely worth reading more than once.

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