The Ring Is Closed

The Norwegian author Knut Hamsun was a novelist of strange and unsettling power, an early exponent of the kind of modernism embraced by Kafka, Musil and Beckett. His first - and still his best-known - novel, Hunger (1890), the surreal narrative of a young writer's physical and mental disintegration in Kristiania (now Oslo), made him a literary phenomenon at the age of 30; he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature for his epic Growth of the Soil in 1920, by which time he had become one of the most celebrated novelists.

During the 1930s and 1940s, however, Hamsun began courting the Nazi leadership and lobbying for Norway's capitulation to the Germans in the Second World War. In May 1945, on the eve of the surrender of occupation forces in Norway, he wrote a eulogy for Adolf Hitler. Even after the war he did not renounce Nazism. The impact of his politics on his literary reputation has been very damaging, especially in Norway, where he went from national monument to national embarrassment almost overnight. But there are now signs of renewed interest in his work, and his last novel, The Ring Is Closed, is appearing in English for the first time, 74 years after it was published.

The novel follows, largely from the perspectives of those around him, the son of a Norwegian lighthouse-keeper who emigrates to the United States. Abel is a typical Hamsun protagonist in his isolation, his hostility to convention and his probable insanity. While in America, he makes money, gets married and is widowed; after his wife's death he returns to the small port of his birth and in effect allows his life to unravel. The people of Abel's home town take a sharp interest in him, wondering whether he will marry again and what he will do with his new-found wealth. But, to their consternation, he chooses to do nothing at all, living from day to day and letting his money dwindle until he is "wretchedly poor".

Hamsun tells the story with an almost clinical composure. He makes no attempt to explain or scrutinise Abel's behaviour, presenting it simply as an alternative, one no less reasoned than the frenetic activity of those around him. The narrative lacks the anarchic energy and visceral intensity of Hunger, but has its own atmosphere of sickly unreality.

More than half a century after Hamsun's death, this new translation by Robert Ferguson is an important step towards rescuing the man's reputation and re-establishing the status of his extraordinary work.

The Ring Is Closed
Knut Hamsun
Souvenir Press, 352pp, £12.99

This article first appeared in the 08 November 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Israel divided