100 year book club 1917: 8 tips about Norwegian homestead epics

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1) Knut Hamsun’s Growth of the Soil is the Red Brick Reads 1917 selection for the 100 year book club. Hamsun won the Nobel prize, largely due to this novel that tells the epic tale of peasants Isak and Inger and their parcel of land in Norway.

2) The prose is as sparsely populated and as beautiful as the landscape. A complex narrative of two generations of family life is delivered in just over 200 pages.

3) The spare prose translates into some awesome sex scenes:

“And in the night he lay wanting her and she was willing.”

And then comes baby in a baby carriage.

4) Speaking of baby carriages, there’s the odd infanticide thrown in to lend the story colour.

5) Unlike recent Japanese translations we’ve covered, the story has no relationship to Gossip Girl.

6) Growth of the Soil might be the best book you’ve never read. Hamsun isn’t often listed in the cannon of great twentieth century literature, or listed with other great books of frontier and pioneer life. Hamsun’s work is very different from Cather’s or other more familiar examples and it is the difference of his perspective that lends power to his narrative.

7) Considering when it was written, Growth of the Soil can be quite forward thinking. Lots of getting it on out of wedlock and a pragmatic approach to the topic of marriage in general. “We could get married but the church is far and it’s harvest season so maybe next year.” There’s a female lawyer (in 1917…) who argues for women’s rights and the female characters are allowed to have sexual desires and act upon them. There are books being written and set in present-day North America that aren’t as generous with their female characters.

8) Hamsun himself was something of a character. There’s a famous tale of him riding around on the top of a train for hundreds of miles so that he could breathe the clean air in an attempt to cure his tuberculosis. He was also, um, a Nazi. Like he actually met with Hitler. And then eulogized Hitler upon his death. And after the war avoided a treason charge with an insanity defence. So there’s that. On second thought maybe there is a good reason we don’t exult Hamsun and list him in the cannon of twentieth century literature.


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