When Hamsun won the Nobel Prize in Literature, in 1920, it was mostly because of this 1917 novel, an epic vision of peasant life in Norway’s backcountry. The saga of Isak and Inger (born with a harelip) and their hard times is by turns affecting and ponderous; the somewhat overheated first-person narrators of Hamsun’s extraordinary early novels—"Hunger" and "Pan"—are replaced by a stately, almost distant third person. Yet Hamsun’s eye and ear were still sharp; even his trees have special qualities ("Everybody knows that aspens can have an unpleasant, bullying way of rustling"). In this overdue new version, Lyngstad, Hamsun’s heroic translator, splendidly captures the author’s voice as he guides his large cast into the stresses of the modern age.
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Customer Reviews (51)
Beautiful novel, limited ideology...
Growth of the Soil is a book about Norwegian peasant life. The main story revolves around a character named Isak who sets off into the forests of Norway in search of a suitable site to build a farm. We follow Isak through the various seasons of his life as his original turf hut becomes a real house, he gets married, raises a family, and slowly but surely a small community begins to grow up around him.
The story is told in simple, but beautiful, prose, and though the characters are simple in many ways they are deeply human. Knut Hamsun is excellent in describing the small vanities that assail people, even `simple' country folk. Each character in the novel has their own peculiar source of vanity whether it is Inger's ring, Eleseus's walking stick, or Isak's ability to do a seemingly endless amount of work. But there is no fire and brimstone in Hamsun's descriptions of human vanity, only understanding, and humanity, and humor.
Even Inger's propensity to fall in love with just about every worker who comes to stay on the farm is not portrayed as some monstrous character flaw, but as an understandable human foible with its own season and its own resolution. An ordinary novel might have turned Inger's acts of infidelity into a central plot element, or a central complication around which the entire story would revolve, and finally come to some dramatic (and perhaps tragic) conclusion. But that is not how Hamsun's novel is structured. Hamsun's novel is structured like the seasons themselves, each event comes in its own time, dominates the story for awhile, and then goes in its own time without the necessity for any great human action, or dramatic resolution.
There is also a certain mystical aura which pervades the whole novel. Life in the wilds is not entirely dominated by the will to survive, "life there is not all earthly toil and worldliness; there is piety and the fear of death and rich superstition" (pg. 180). For, as Hamsun writes, "In the wilds, each season has its wonders, but always, unchangingly, there is that immense heavy sound of heaven and earth, the sense of being surrounded on all sides, the darkness of the forest, the kindliness of the trees" (pg. 178).
There are a few episodes in which this mystical sense, which remains as a background through most of the story, becomes explicit and takes center stage. One evening while Inger is standing outside listening for the cowbells she hears some tiny baby fish, who spend their entire life in a small tarn and are of no use to anybody, singing softly, "It was the tiny fishes song" (pg. 179). Another evening Isak is out gathering lumber and he sits down to rest for a moment, all is quiet around him, when he sees a pair of eyes which he believes to be the "Evil One".
Another incident involves Isak's son Sivert, and I think I better let Hamsun describe it in his own words, "Sivert, walking one evening by the river, stops on a sudden; there on the water are a pair of ducks, male and female...Sivert stands looking at the birds, looking past them, far into a dream. A sound had floated through him, a sweetness, and left him standing there with a delicate, thin recollection of something wild and splendid, something he had known before, and forgotten again...twas' not for worldly speech. And it was Sivert from Sellanraa, went out one evening, young and ordinary as he was, and met with this" (pg. 376-377).
Though these episodes never become the central focus of the story they create a kind of mystical atmosphere that pervades the whole novel. Hamsun's world is saturated with spiritual values.
A final word needs to be said about Hamsun's support of the Nazis. It is certainly true that a reader coming to this novel for the first time, who knew nothing of Hamsun or his regrettable political allegiances, would never guess that they were reading the work of a Nazi sympathizer. There is nothing overtly racist in the book or overtly political. So one should not let Hamsun's personal life effect one's enjoyment of this book.
But I am afraid that I cannot completely go along with those reviewers who see absolutely no connection between Hamsun's work and his Nazi sympathies. A major theme of this book is the contrast Hamsun creates between the "materialistic" values of the city, and the more "spiritual" values of the country. Hamsun is not simply describing what it was like to be a farmer at a certain place and at a certain time. There is also a certain sense of nostalgia for a way of life that seems to be being destroyed by unbridled materialism, by money, and by rationalism.
While I have some sympathy with Hamsun's concerns about the problems raised by a life more and more dominated by materialistic and rationalistic values, his proposed solution (at least as presented in this book) seems reactionary and counter-progressive to me. The celebration of peasant life, and peasant values, led many people to support the Nazis (who celebrated similar values) who should have known better (I am thinking of Heidegger). That is why I give the book four stars instead of five.
As a novel Hamsun's book is beautiful and well worth reading. But as ideology, or as a solution to the problems facing modern society, I think it is sorely lacking...
Simple yet frustratingly beautiful.
When your are living your life you don't get surprised about every moment; for instance when birds are chirping together at the end of a day or some old lady talking about a husband died a week ago. We don't care these small everday details because this is life bare. But if someone writes a book about simple life of simple people and manages to succeed you may say that is god's work. Hamsun is no god of course and i doubt he believes in it but i must admit that there much more difficulty in picturing the original country people than intellectual, intriguing, complicated fictional characters of modern novel that are cought up in unbelievably odd situations. What makes this book a masterpiece is that you suddenly believe in whole of it. This is the story of small farmer making himself an honest,hard working big landowner from virtually nothing. There are no tricks of deadly landowning ambitions, bloody boundary conflicts, so called sexual awakenings of isolated teens or the dramas of hired hands and that kind of artificial excitements which are in service of most rural novels to compensate lack of writing skills. No, far from it just simple folk living in the face of the soil like the other countless ones lived from the beginning of time. Their names are Isak and Inger but could have been something else for example Ali and Fatma or Bamidele and Ramla, and not a single sentence would change. This in my opinion is a bold attemp to give a description of what it means to feel a single transcendent moment in which we feel in whole with the world; the first time we understand the meaning of the chirping birds in front f our window. A must read for all ages.
Get Your Hands Dirty!
Growth of the Soil won Knut Hamsun the Nobel Prize for literature for good reason. This epic of the Norwegian wilds tells the story of the simple yet hardworking and practical Isak and his family as they build their farm and their lives with their hands, evoking "the elemental bond between humans and the land."
The story arc of Growth of the Soil is completely different from what most modern readers are used to. In most modern novels the author sets up situations and knocks them down like houses of cards, watching the characters deal with the resulting tragedies. When Hamsun sets us up with what would almost certainly go by way of formula in a modern day novel, he turns and goes in unexpected directions again and again. (*SPOILER ALERT*) When it is discovered that Isak does not have full title to his land we are ready for him to lose it, but he doesn't. When copper is discovered in Isak's mountains, we are ready for Isak to get cheated out of fair payment, but he isn't. When Inger goes to prison she could return a broken woman, but instead utilizes the opportunity to better herself.(*END SPOILER ALERT*)
The characters in Growth of the Soil are deceptively simple people who persevere. When faced with challenges they trust each other and work through them, continually building a better and stronger society as a result. The characters have certain faults, but those faults don't necessarily make them bad people - just people, like you and me. When shocking things do happen, we are completely blindsided by them.
Written in 1917 with amazing foresight, Growth of the Soil also addresses many issues in the forefront today, such as women's rights, incarceration and rehabilitation, abortion, and environmentalism, among others. This is a book that will stay with you and make you think long after you have turned the last page. It is very refreshing to read this amazing work by a master novelist with the subtly deft skill to surprise us again and again.
I am in love with this book and no other.
I read.I read all the time, and I almost only read classics, books written by Nobel Prize winners; to me that prize says something that no other says.This book:It is so deep.How does one explain that?It's deep, but it's simple, tauntingly, hauntingly simple; one has to read it all at once, and it's a long book, but it's like falling in love.I know.This is pure.This is a pure and honest and deep book about being human.One feels enriched, full, deeper, while and after reading it.One learns as one can't in any other way, I know of, that human life, no matter whose, no matter the conditions, is ineffably and profoundly important, beautiful, moving, meaningful, and one has read it in the words of one of the greatest writers who ever lived, and those words are pure poetry in their astounding way of saying so much in so few.Give it time.Let it "grow" on you. Live it; be inside it.Love this book.It is its own reward for being.
Feather Trail Press edition terrible
I have just purchased the Feather Trail Press edition of this fantastic novel, but am disgusted with the quality of the layout. The second line of the cumbersome, wordy description on the back has noticeable typos, followed by several more as it goes on. It almost seems like a non English speaker composed the back description, swapping words, changing sentence structure and unaware of run-on's.
The actual layout in the book is unsightly. Slim margins, courier style font make it un-enjoyable and resembling a dry, dreary term paper rather than a soft, humanistic masterpiece.
Googling Feather Trail Press has offered no results, there is no contact information inside the book, no website, address, etc.
Although I have not inspected it, I would recommend the Penguin classic edition based on past experience.
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