Nobel Prize Winners discussion

Group Read > Group Read for July 2013

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message 1: by [deleted user] (last edited Jun 13, 2013 06:55AM) (new)

Let's open the nominations for a July read. Usual rule, the member who nominates the selected book leads the discussion of it. This is not as onerous as it sounds, all you have to do is initiate the discussion and keep it within acceptable boundaries.

Prompted by a new group member, I nominate 'Ake' by Wole Soyinka. It is a wonderful evocation of childhood in West Africa written with a light but sure hand.

If you have any other nominations, please add them to this thread by Friday next, 14th June.

message 2: by [deleted user] (last edited Jun 13, 2013 06:52AM) (new)

Looks like there is no-one interested in Wole Soyinka'a Ake. Has anyone got any suggestions for a group read?

message 3: by Lex (new)

Lex Poot (lexpoot) | 23 comments I have the book in my to read pile. Sounds interesting. Just finished The Appointment by Mueller. I recommend that book.

message 4: by Bjorn (new)

Bjorn | 29 comments A group read is a great idea, I didn't comment because I've already read Aké and hoped some more people would jump at the chance.

If that doesn't grab people, how about Hamsun's Growth Of The Soil? Or Morrison's Beloved?

message 5: by [deleted user] (last edited Jun 13, 2013 11:35PM) (new)

Thanks for your suggestions, Lex and Bjorn. I know I ought to read more Mueller but I'm still in recovery after The Land of Green Plums. We read Morrison's 'Sula' last year or maybe it 2011. Knut Hamsun's Growth of the Soil' appeals to me not least because it's available free on Kindle, well in the UK at least. Anyone else willing to support 'Growth of Soil' ?

message 6: by Lex (new)

Lex Poot (lexpoot) | 23 comments I will see if I can find a copy of Growth of Soil.

message 7: by Neale (new)

Neale (armchairgeneral) | 3 comments I'm down for reading Hamsun.

message 8: by Tabea (new)

Tabea | 10 comments I have already read the appointment, and it was a really good read for me. So I recommend it but vote for Ake since I haven't read that yet.

message 9: by [deleted user] (new)

the majority so far seems to favour Knut Hamsun's Growth of the Soil, so I suggest we go with that for July and plump for Wole Soyinka's 'Ake' for August/September. For those of you who have a Kindle, I've recently obtained a Kindle version of Growth of the Soil for free. I'll put up a reading schedule in a couple of days.

message 10: by Bjorn (last edited Jul 09, 2013 08:30AM) (new)

Bjorn | 29 comments So did anyone else start Growth Of The Soil yet?

I just read the first 60-odd pages, and my immediate reaction is "OK, so this is where Mark Knopfler stole the lyrics for 'Telegraph Road'."

A long time ago came a man on a track
Walking thirty miles with a pack on his back
And he put down his load where he thought it was the best
Made a home in the wilderness
He built a cabin and a winter store
And he ploughed up the ground by the cold lake shore
And the other travellers came riding down the track
And they never went further, no, they never went back
Then came the churches then came the schools
Then came the lawyers then came the rules
Then came the trains and the trucks with their loads
And the dirty old track was the telegraph road...

Hopefully I'll have something more worthwhile to say about it by the time I'm done.

message 11: by Bjorn (new)

Bjorn | 29 comments Done with part 1. It's interesting how few hints there are of just when this story is taking place, even though it's very much a story about the creation of modern society. The telegraph line and the currency reform narrows it down; the story starts somewhere in the 1850s, and by the time Isak's boys have grown up, we're past 1875 - well into Hamsun's own lifetime - and yet by keeping it mostly in Isak's point of view, a man who wants to live entirely by the fruits of his own work and works the same way his forebears did before him (not that his personal history is ever mentioned), it looks like it could be set hundreds of years earlier. Most of the new things happening - steamboats, prison reform, modern schools, banks, etc - seem to happen over the horizon, down in the village, outside the story. Potatoes are fairly new and he wouldn't survive without them, but they don't seem new, they slot nicely into his worldview.

And yet all he does is create something new. Take a wilderness and transform it into a home, food, wealth. It's both a conservative and a radical novel.

message 12: by Tabea (new)

Tabea | 10 comments Ah, now that I read your comment I can't wait to start reading it again! Just need to get the current book I am on out of the way this weekend ...

message 13: by [deleted user] (last edited Jul 13, 2013 06:16AM) (new)

Finished reading it while on holiday in France. Interesting themes here worthy of discussion:
1 Infanticide as a method of birth control - was it common especially in remote rural areas?
2 There seems to be an underlying nationalism throughout and an especial antipathy towards Swedes.
3 It is clear that Hamsun is antipathetic towards the growing urbanisation and industrialisation and presents a Rousseau-like portrayal of the virtues of self-sufficiency and inherent nobility of rural people.
4 Isak and Axel seem to be excessively dour characters, introspective and xenophobic.

Any comments?

message 14: by Lex (new)

Lex Poot (lexpoot) | 23 comments Just got the book. So far I have read a few pages. I was somewhat taken aback that he was talking about man and then Lapps as if they are a separate species. I guess I need to read this with the time it was written in mind.

message 15: by Bjorn (new)

Bjorn | 29 comments David wrote: "Finished reading it while on holiday in France. Interesting themes here worthy of discussion:
1 Infanticide as a method of birth control - was it common especially in remote rural areas?
2 There s..."

I just finished it, so I'll start off from your excellent questions:

1) I don't think so. Hamsun makes a point of how childbirth, in this day and age, basically deteremines the role of women. Geissler tells Axel, with no apparent irony, that if Barbro had had and kept his child, then he would have had a free servant for life. It's also mentioned that Barbro gave birth to a child in the city and did the same thing there. At least out in the woods, having a man's child gives her a role; as a single mother in the city, she'd have an even lower status.

Mrs Heyerdahl's speech during the trial at the end is interesting (and not just because it retains some relevance today) - the fact that she says it about Barbro, whom Hamsun goes out of his way to make us dislike, subverts it a bit, but Hamsun still acknowledges that women are caught in a world where they never have any say in what to do with their lives. Men want them; when they get what they want and the women become pregnant, they get to choose between settling down to a hard life of unpaid servitude, becoming social outcasts, or committing murder.

That said, Hamsun doesn't entirely seem to think that's a bad idea, given his depiction of women as having "negro brains" and needing to occasionally be shown their place...

2) Well, the novel was written only 10 years after Norway gained its independence from Sweden, and it's set before then, so it's bound to have that as an underlying theme (there are several references to celebrations of May 17th, Norway's constitution day). Above all, most of the references to Swedes portray them as too-clever businessmen out to make a quick buck in Norway. That said, I don't think there's necessarily much more antipathy than you'll find in today's Scandinavian literature; we all tend to define ourselves as "not like the ponces on the other side of the border". :) (I can recommend Karl Ove Knausgård's My Struggle for a rant about how Norwegians see Swedes today...)

3 & 4) Yep. It's very tempting to read the book (and difficult to entirely not read it) with the knowledge that Hamsun came to despise modern democracy, and even went as far as to openly support Nazi occupation of Norway. That's not to say that Growth Of The Soil is a fascist novel, but you can see how there are ideas in it that wouldn't be disliked by them; the stoic heroism of the macho man who simply acts without thinking, without asking permission, who takes and tames nature because he's its master, plain and simple; the contempt for the effeminite modern man selling useless trinkets for paper money instead of digging (Geissler's rant about "flash people" taught by "yankees and Jews"); the insistence on fixed roles in society, especially as concerns men and women; the casual racism towards the Sami (though in fairness to Hamsun, reducing them to "goddamn Lapps" is still disturbingly acceptable today); celebrating a "natural", hard way of life rather than a "modern" one... ("Inherent nobility" is a good phrase - I'm not sure how it was translated in the English version, but at least in the Swedish one, Isak eventually is given the title "margrave" by the other people around - ie that he's been literally ennobled, not by birth but by his hard work. Nobility in Hamsun doesn't come from birth but from ability, but it's still there, in the sense that some people are simply better than others.)

At the same time, it's worth noting that as much as Hamsun makes it clear which characters he sympathises with, he always at least offers the possibility of a sympathetic interpretation of the others too, and plays it for tragedy when characters fall short of his world's demands. Oline is a free-loading tattletale, but she's also a survivor who's gone through things most of the other characters never have to; Eleseus is useful at what he's good at, he just ends up torn between the two worlds (thanks in part to his father simply not having the words to communicate with him - no wonder Isak dislikes the telegraph, the symbol for communication) and ending up no good at any of it; and as much as Isak represents constancy and sticking to your roots, it's new-ish innovations like the potato (broadly introduced in Scandinavia just a generation or two before him) and brand-new innovations like harvesters that make it possible for Isak to build anything but a very meagre hand-to-mouth existence out in the woods.

Another historical aside: Up until the 19th century, most of the population lived much like they had 500 years earlier, wrestling whatever living they could from the land. Starting in the late 19th century, things changed very quickly. A lot of deep woods farmers did become quite rich - ore and wood were in high demand in the newly industrial society, and it's the demands of that world that means Isak has anyone to sell to. On the other hand, a lot of people also failed at even making ends meet and, rather than starving to death, now had the new option of emigrating to America. Hamsun's opinion seems to be that only those who didn't want to or couldn't work hard enough had to emigrate; I'll leave it up to those who've ever met anyone from Minnesota how correct that is. ;)

Also, of course, the novel was written during WW1, as the general optimism about progress turned into a nightmare. (Well, over the horizon, at least, the war didn't reach Norway.)

It's been years since I read Hunger, but while there are definitely similarities - the central character refusing modern society with all its foibles and instead looking to himself - the conclusion seems to be the exact opposite: don't look into yourself, don't ask, just do, reject modernity and get your hands dirty. On the other hand, it's interesting that both novels are basically about the same thing: the idea that all human action ultimately goes back to filling your belly.

All that said, as a novel, Growth of the Soil is excellent, if not quite quite up there with Hunger IMO. Much like with Dostoevsky, I find myself wanting to keep reading and argue with it rather than dismiss it. Read more broadly, the story is a defense not of tradition, but of sensibility - not rejecting the new completely, but finding a way to build something on steady ground, that doesn't rely on whims or trends but can last. (Again, it was written during WW1...) Hamsun's language is part of that; his writing is at once radical in its sparseness, echoing the simple, limited world of its characters, and yet never overtly modern. I find myself loving Hamsun's style, the way he creates characters not by giving us a lot of history for them but simply by having them be who they are (IIRC, we never find out anything about Isak's life before he enters the novel). All there is is what happens on those acres of woodland; much like Isak within the novel, Hamsun builds on a ground he seems to have created himself, never outright referring to anything outside except by rumour, never having the characters interpret themselves in light of any outside stories - even Christianity doesn't get more than the most cursory nod. Even when the subject is harsh, the tone is light, simple. The story just is, much like Isak himself. Compare to a contemporary Scandinavian Nobel Prize winner, Lagerlöf, whose stories echo with myth, fairytale, self-deception, faith, introspection; Hamsun's characters have no use for any of that, they're too busy simply being, working, building a plot that evolves simply and naturally with no huge drama and yet incredible depth (even if some of those depths are rather dark).

...Wow, that got long.

message 16: by [deleted user] (last edited Jul 15, 2013 01:26PM) (new)

Bjorn, thanks for your excellent comments, you've certainly helped me to understand some of the intricacies of the story. Just one thing - I'm not sure that Hamsun openly supported the Nazi occupation of Norway although he was indeed a great admirer of Hitler, he was that in the context of an independent, nationalist Norway rather than a German occupied Norway. Which leads me to the fraught issue of European nationalism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and the late 20th and early 21st centuries. I instinctively rail against nationalism in all its forms, Welsh, Scottish, Irish, Norwegian, Kosovan etc etc. My argument is simply that one cannot be both nationalist and internationalist at the same time, they are mutually exclusive concepts and, of the two, I prefer the internationalist. However, I fear that I am part of smaller and smaller minority in this view.

message 17: by Bjorn (last edited Jul 15, 2013 03:16PM) (new)

Bjorn | 29 comments Well, I'll confess I haven't read up on all the details, but you're right that Hamsun's support for the Nazis is not an entirely simple matter. On the one hand, he did criticise them (to Hitler's face, no less) for their treatment of Norwegian dissidents; on the other, aside from his praise for both Hitler (even after his death) and Goebbels, he also urged all Norwegians to not fight back but to co-operate with the Nazis in their "struggle to break England's tyranny over us". (I'm also not sure I agree that the question of nationalism/internationalism is quite as binary as that - to not go too far off topic, the scandinavism of the 19th century had (and to some extent still has) elements of both - but that's probably another discussion.)

But like I said, while it's tempting to read the novel in the light of that, that was still 25 years in the future when he wrote the book, and while you obviously can draw parallels between the ideas in TGOTS and the rhetoric of fascism (and I may have overdone that a bit) it's certainly not something one has to do. It's very much a 1910s novel, and Hamsun certainly wasn't the only one urging caution about where modern society was going in light of WW1; I don't mean to hold the novel responsible for where some of those ideas led when taken to their extreme any more than I would, say, Tolkien, just to note that those ideas aren't necessarily quite as "lofty and ideal" as Hamsun intended. The novel's a call for reconstruction, rebuilding, self-knowledge and harmony, taking what can be salvaged from what he saw as a failed experiment and incorporating that when you build something better. While I disagree with the specifics, especially in hindsight, I can't help but admire the way he presents it and the reasons for it; in a lot of ways, it's a very inspiring novel.

message 18: by Tabea (new)

Tabea | 10 comments Read the first few pages last night and am mesmerized. It reminds me of The Good Earth (Pearl S. Buck) in how the relationship between Isak and Inger is portrayed and the rags-to-riches, sturdy backed and steady handed good fortune Isak has in building up the farm.

message 19: by Mo (new)

Mo | 11 comments I love your connection, Tabea. I'm about 20% into the book and am thoroughly enjoying the rather sparse writing style. I think it echoes their lifestyle- plain, simple, and understated.

message 20: by Mo (new)

Mo | 11 comments I finally finished today. I thoroughly enjoyed the seeming simplicity of the writing in contrast to the complexity of themes Hamsun introduced.

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