The book: Wayfarers, by Knut Hamsun
The edition: English translation by James McFarlane, Condor Books paperback (British edition), 460 pages
The story: how Norwegian traditional society changed around the turn of the century (19th to 20th, that is), as seen through the eyes of Edevart, a young man in search of fortune (and love) and a perpetual wanderer. Also, Edevart’s own coming of age, from innocent child to a man “who knows the ways of the world”.
My experience with the book & my thoughts: I had never heard of Hamsun before I went to Norway and found his works on the “local fiction” shelves of a bookshop. I cannot really tell why I chose this one over other books, they all seemed to be dealing somehow with the same subject of modern life coming to the Norwegian countryside. It was good to read about the way of life that I had learned about in the local museums.
Unfortunately, I cannot say I liked it. Basically, this is the story of Edevart, but even more basically, this is no story at all, and this is the thing that bothers me most. Things happen, yes, people get rich and poor and rich again… but there is no story arch and no plot. I get this is often the case with Realism works, just photographing a reality, not focusing on the story. But to me, a good book needs a storyline, a reason why you choose to tell the story of that period, starting with a given fact and ending at a given point in time. A unity of some kind. This is completely lacking here. There is a kind of starting point, but there is no ending, and any other point in the story could have been chosen to be the finishing point. So what’s the point in telling this story at all?
Now, I know, the study of society, the photography of a moment in time that would mean a lot to the country’s development. OK. Fine. That’s not enough for me. (Apparently that’s enough for the Nobel prize commission, though. Of course there is something valuable in this book. It’s just not for me.)
Language & translation: I would be a fool to try and judge a translation in a language that is not my own, but there were a few points that made me wonder. For instance, the word dram. Why use a Scottish word? *puzzled* But then again, a translation always bears the mark of the translator, and I have to say that this one worked fine!
In the author’s own words: I liked finding this scene, because when I was in Norway, I was told that children in coastal towns would do this thing as a coming-of-age rite of passage:
One dinnertime, when work had stopped and they were all sitting, eating, there was a commotion on the drying grounds. People shouted and pointed! In heaven’s name — look! It was Ezra up aloft aboard the ship. He was already perilously high. He had let go the final rope and was holding on to the bare mast at the top. He clambered higher, shinning up with his hands and feet. The people ashore kept silent. One or two small girls threw themselves face down on the rocks. Then Ezra pretended to be turning the weathervane. He was climbing higher, the fool! Oh, what he needs is a good thrashing! He passes the weathervane, is above it, and now he’s high enough to reach up with one hand to the masthead and hold on there and take a rest. [...] Ezra hauled himself up inch by inch, hanging like a monkey on that slender mast and making it bend. Then he stood there in the air, his body from the waist up above the top of the mast. Several people moaned. “Be quiet! Be quiet!” others hissed between clenched teeth. Ezra had reached his goal. Slowly he bent his body forward and balanced on his belly on the masthead. There he stayed.
Read this if: if you are into literary fiction and care nothing for plot.
Counts as: Travel with books – Norway