Hamsun letters reveal cold heart

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Norwegian author Knut Hamsun remains a controversial figure, decades after his death. Now some old love letters he wrote to a young woman more than 100 years ago have been opened, prompting his biographer to claim that they portray Hamsun at his worst.

Knut Hamsun was and is a controversial figure. PHOTO: Nasjonalbiblioteket

Hamsun’s letters, written in the early 1890s to Julie Amanda “Lulli” Lous, were turned over to Norway’s national library back in 1960 by Lous’ nephew. The packet of letters was sealed, however, with a note saying they must not be opened for 50 years.

On Monday, the allotted time had passed and library officials, Norway’s cabinet minister for cultural affairs and various literary figures could finally break open the packet. As expected it contained Hamsun’s letters, plus a photo of Lous and one of Hamsun taken while they both lived in Kristiansund on Norway’s northwest coast.

Also included was the transcript of a conversation Lous had with her nephew, Otto Lous Mohr, who was a dean at the University of Oslo. The conversation took place also in 1960, on the occasion of Lous’ 90th birthday. She died in 1963.The material indicates that Lous was deeply in love with Hamsun and perhaps he cared for her as well, but he ended up dumping her and moving away from Kristiansund on Easter Sunday morning of 1892. He broke her heart and later, when his Nazi sympathies had emerged in the 1930s, he accused her of being behind a smear campaign against him when anonymous, damaging letters about him were sent to various Norwegian editors, judges and others.

She had nothing to do with that, and the material unveiled Monday reveals that his rejection of her was her life’s biggest disappointment. She was also deeply hurt by his later accusations.

Ingar Sletten Kolloen, who has written a biography of Hamsun, told reporters assembled for the event that Hamsun’s letters show the author at his worst. “He had little ability to understand other’s love,” Kolloen told newspaper Aftenposten . “Hamsun wanted to punish those who clearly showed him that they loved him.”

In some letters he wrote passionately about their romance, and sought confirmation of her love, only to demand in another paragraph that they should break up. In one letter, he wrote “Listen, I don’t think you’re fond of me, not much. I’m not conceited, maybe you’ll find someone else. You have made me happy…”

Lous never did marry, and later became a piano teacher and nurse, also politically active with the Liberal Party (Venstre) , working for women’s rights and social causes. It’s believed she resisted Hamsun’s sexual advances, which is what may have led to him addressing her in another letter as “Your Royal Highness, you are as aloof as a majesty, but appealing as a child…”

“I think Knut Hamsun felt surprisingly turned away by Lulli,” his grandson Leif Hamsun told Aftenposten . “He apparently felt uncertain.”