Author Hamsun gets his due

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“In a hundred years, all will be forgotten,” wrote the man who became one of Norway’s greatest yet most controversial literary figures. On Tuesday, author and former Nazi supporter Knut Hamsun would have turned 150, and a crowd of dignitaries, journalists and even the crown princess gathered to help keep at least Hamsun’s works remembered forever.

The Hamsun Center on Hamarøy PHOTO: Nordlands Fylkeskommune

“It’s his authorship that we’re celebrating today,” said Hamsun’s own grandson Leif Hamsun as Hamarøy Township, where Hamsun grew up, officially unveiled Hamsunsenteret , a six-story building and auditorium dedicated to Hamsun’s works.

It’s been 15 years in the making, at times harshly criticized for its expense, its architectural form and even whether it should be built in the first place. Many Norwegians and foreigners alike will never forget or forgive Hamsun for the backing he gave Hitler and Nazi occupiers during World War II. Hamsun faced trial after the war and was ordered to pay a heavy fine, but he was an elderly man by that time. He died in 1952.

Few can argue, though, that his literary production was extraordinary, with newspaper Aftenposten writing that few if any could match “his vitality, rich lyricism or mastery of the language.” Hamsun won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1920.He was born in the mountain village of Vågå and grew up at Hamarøy, in northern Norway. In 1980, local civic leaders started talking about building a center to highlight Hamsun’s life and works. The idea, like everything about Hamsun, was controversial. It wasn’t broadcast until 1986, and eight more years passed before county officials approved establishement of Hamsunsenteret AS.

Crown Princess Mette-Marit arriving at the opening of Hamsunsenteret with the center's director Bodil Børseth (left) and Hamarøy Mayor Rolf Steffensen. PHOTO: Nordland Fylkeskommune/Anna Zheleznaya

American architect Steven Holl was ultimately selected to design the center, and that set off more controversy. Aaslaug Vaa, former cultural chief for the county, wrote in Aftenposten this week that even though Hamarøy has less than 1,800 inhabitants, everyone had an opinion as to where the center should be place, what it should offer and how it should look. Holl revised his drawings. His architectural interpretation continues to face local criticism.The center, with an initial budget of NOK 20 million (about USD 3 million), also faced massive funding problems. Costs swelled to more than NOK 54 million, then NOK 142 million. The state finally guaranteed its financing in 2007.

In short, realization of the Hamsun Center became as troubled as the man himself. It took the occasion of his 150th birthday to set a firm deadline and get it built,if not actually finished.

Crown Princess Mette-Marit formally opened the center, calling it “a journey in itself.” She’s been a patron of an entire year of celebration of Hamsun’s work, royal recognition of the author that also proved controversial.The building has won rave reviews from architectural critics, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York bought its model to put on display.

Many Norwegians, even critics in Israel who assailed the celebrations, have since resigned themselves to the center and the Hamsun jubilee itself. A statue of the author was also unveiled in Vågå over the weekend, and cultural events dedicated to Hamsun have been going on all summer.

As Hamsun wrote, “Om hundrede aar er allting glemt.” Maybe all the fuss around him will be forgotten a hundred years from now. But it’s unlikely.

Mixed blessings of oblivion
While less famous than novels like Pan or Growth of the soil, some of Hamsun’s oddities like “The wild choir” remain popular among Norwegians. His poem on the mixed blessings of oblivion, Om hundrede aar er allting glemt (In 100 years, all will be forgotten), was recently turned into a powerful hit song and video by classical singer Stine Mari Langstrand and rock group Lumsk.

Watch the video here.
Alternative version, with English subtitles.