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Hamsun’s books can be included in the history of gay literature
Reading canonized texts with fresh eyes gives them new relevance.
“Hamsun writes clearly about sexual desire between two men in the short story «Secret Suffering». This does not mean that he himself was gay, but that he writes about something that was frequently discussed at the time, by for instance August Strindberg”, says associate professor at the Department of Language and Culture at UiT, Henrik Johnsson.
In the 1890s, there was more openness about homosexuality than one would think, according to Johnsson.
Thus, it is perhaps more a matter of more modern times not wanting to read Hamsun's texts in retrospect with a so-called «queer theory» focus, he believes.
"We highlight something that has been explicit, but invisible. Why have Hamsun researchers not seen this? It is quite obvious that Hamsun writes about same-sex desire, which makes him part of the history of gay literature. It is an important point that gay readers of Hamsun have not previously been able to identify with his characters, but now they can relate to Hamsun’s fiction in a new way", says Johnsson.
Hamsun and borders
Together with associate professor Linda Nesby and doctoral fellow Ingri Løkholm Ramberg, Johnsson is the editor of the latest issue of the journal Nordlit, which is published by the Department of Language and Culture at UiT. The issue is based on the seventh international Hamsun conference, which was held at UiT in September 2019, with the theme Hamsun and Borders.
22 articles place Hamsun's work in a new light in different ways.
"The conference showed how canon research has a relevance today and can be used to examine exciting and current societal issues by using classical literature. When we open up for a less homogeneous approach to Hamsun, we find new perspectives", says Nesby.
Examples of topics covered in the journal are Hamsun's ecocriticism and depictions of the Sami. Nesby, for her part, highlights the novel Victoria, which has been considered a great love story, but which can also be read as a story about women's liberation and as a patient narrative.
"The female protagonist dies of tuberculosis, which at the time was a major public disease. Illness can contribute to something positive, such as having the courage to stand up for who you are. Modern patient literature has a resonance from the 19th century. Nevertheless, Hamsun researchers have aestheticized the story and removed the disease", says Nesby.
A rich authorship
Løkholm Ramberg also believes that it is important to show all facets of Hamsun’s works.
"We are in the middle of a worldwide discussion about how we should relate to, for instance, authors whose attitudes do not stand the light of day. But to regard Hamsun as a misogynistic, reactionary Nazi is not an argument for not researching his authorship. That would be a huge loss. He has an incredibly rich authorship that spans 70 years, and there are good chances of finding more than Hamsun wanted us to find. There are still new findings to be made, even though a lot of research has already been done on Hamsun", says Løkholm Ramberg.
"The discussion about Hamsun is today to a lesser extent than before characterized by the question of whether he was a Nazi, but rather how that fact should affect the discussion and the readings", she adds.
She believes that how one reads Hamsun could also have implications for how his works are taught at school.
"Young people should be trained in critical reading and how they can approach classical works of literature. What experiences do they bring into the encounter with the literature themselves?" asks Løkholm Ramberg.
She elaborates on the fact that it is always possible to extract new experiences from good literature:
"Canonical authors are a source of constantly new readings and new insights, in line with the time the works are read in. It changes the perspective from just dealing with the artwork to the reader becoming more self-aware. This is important to communicate to the students as well."
Different facets of life
Linda Nesby believes that Hamsun is also well suited for feminism.
"His female characters are more interesting than the male characters. Even though Hamsun appeared to be anti-feminist in his private life, this is not the case in his books", says Nesby.
Her view is that literary scholars have an important job and a crucial social mission, precisely by subjecting canonized writers to a critical eye.
"We try to uncover the complexity and show that canonized texts can be ambivalent and more difficult to grasp than one would think. No one should read fiction to confirm their own values and attitudes", says Nesby, and concludes:
"Through fiction, one is presented with different facets of living, but it is not up to Hamsun or Ibsen to decide how we conduct our lives. They can only contribute to a higher degree of reflection, and we as literary scholars can help to unfold that facet."
This article is produced and financed by UiT The Arctic University of Norway
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