If one were to tell the story of Knut Hamsun's Dreamers in its simplest form it could almost pass for a fairy tale. The central character Ove Rolandsen at the beginning of the book is a struggling telegraph operator in a small fishing village who has already made a fool of himself over the beautiful daughter of the town curate and bigwig, Mack. By the end of the book he has become Mack's rival after a patent for fish glue comes good, and Mack's daughter, Elise, decides to end her engagement with her fiance, and is clearly now very interested in Ove.
But one way of looking at Hamsun's short novella is as a fairy tale, but told from the perspective (but not the point of view of) the book's third person central character. It feels like the sort of story Ove would daydream about himself, and Hamsun decides, provocatively, to turn it into a reality. This is where free indirect discourse works so much better than first person, and partly what distinguishes Hamsun from his monumental predecessor Dostoevsky. Both are writers interested in the irrational, in behavioural modes that can't quite be pinned down to reason. But where in novellas like Notes from Underground and The Gambler we enter a first person universe that leaves us brilliantly and claustrophobically at one with the narrator's point of view, Hamsun, writing forty years later, creates an amused space between Ove and his actions. Now a direct style would be to put what a character says in the character's mouth. "I am off to the pub". An indirect approach would say he was going to go to the pub. But a free indirect style would say he was off to the pub, capturing something of the character's speech but without using quotation marks. Now of course Dostoevsky wrote often in the third person and Hamsun frequently in the first person - including his best known book Hunger. The difference between the two writer's cannot be reduced to one of stylistic choices. But free indirect style helps us locate an aspect of Hamsun's oeuvre that we can open up into an issue of shame and embarrassment, an aspect of both writers' work, but one never reduceable to societal expectation. If Jane Austen and Balzac are writers of society, Dostoevesky and Hamsun are writers of the individual. They are consistent with the existential imagination as Soren Kierkegaard would define it. As John MacQuarrie says in Existentialism, "Kierkegaard, the first of the modern existentialists, is a writer for whom 'existence' does mean primarily the unique concrete being of the individual human person."
But first things first. Let us see how Hamsun uses free indirect discourse in the novella. Thinking about his fiance in the book, a house maid Miss Van Loos, the narrator says of Ove, "he was not God, he could not contain his heart if it insisted on flying away in the spring. It was a burden to have a fiancee who did not understand a clean break." We could easily imagine this in the first person, could even see it as a conversation he would have with Miss Loos as he tells her they are breaking up. But this is the narrator siding with Ove's frustrations. When the narrator says "Miss Van Loos had returned to him again, of course; she was not one to squander love and was intent on keeping their engagement going, there is no space for Van Loos's feelings, only her sense of need. If the narrator were to say that Van Loos loved Ove very much and wished to feel the brush of his hand on her skin, the musky smell, this would have conveyed her thoughts and feelings too. But instead the narrator sides exclusively with Ove here and conveys his sense of irritation, almost as if he were rehearsing the conversation he would like to have with her.
Yet the book isn't at all from Ove's perspective technically. We often have the perspective of others as strongly as we have Ove's. In the fishing village in which Ove lives a couple come and stay, a curate and his wife. At one moment they are awoken from their sleep by Ove outside their window singing. "She listened. She recognized that crazy Rolandsen's voice and heard his guitar...she felt hot with embarrassment." Later she thinks: "he was such a fascinating young man: he could fight like a stevedore and sing divinely. He brought variety into a monotonous life of trivial events." Elsewhere we sometimes have her husband's perspective too: "heavens above, how tirelessly the good parson had fought ludicrous battles with his wife to teach her some sense of order and consideration!"
So what is it that gives us such a strong sense that the book is perceptually from Ove's perspective rather than that of the other characters'? It resides partly in seeing Ove as a figure of extreme eccentricity without feeling obliged to side with the social angle that would view him as exactly that. Hamsun writes with a consideration that accepts Ove's behaviour is not at all normal, but whose abnormalities are nevertheless energising, and that energy is what counts. If life remains static it contains the stable, but certain figures come into environments and trouble them. Now this is quite different from various conventional figures in literature who generate what we will call narrative energy: a cad, a bully and a man of ambition could all shake up a community and a story can gather around their ambitions and their manipulations. Indeed Ove could be seen as a cad, a bully, and an ambitious man. The blurb on the back of the Souvenir Press edition describes him as a "telegraph operator in an isolated fishing village in Northern Norway...given to sudden passions, a cheerful rogue fond of girls and alcohol. He constantly hatches ambitious schemes..."
However, where a cad, a bully or the ambitious will have the energy of specific focus, vital to Ove's energy is that he is a properly dispersive character, someone whose energetic force is stronger than his personal ambitions. He is not like Wickham in Pride and Prejudice, nor even the more complicated womaniser Sergeant Troy in Far From the Madding Crowd. These are cads, no matter if Troy's caddishness comes out of personal pain. Nor is he simply a bully, as Sikes happens to be in Oliver Twist, or Claggart in Billy Budd. One needn't regard Austen, Hardy, Dickens and Melville as inferior writers to Hamsun; more to say that what they do is create archetypal figures who help define the very term of cad, bully or womaniser. We could say to someone of a modest literary understanding that someone they know is a real cad, a bit like Wickham; a bully, just like Sikes. But Ove like many of Hamsun's characters is a force of unfocused energy, as if all the better to explore what energy happens to be. Clearly what cads, bullies and the ambitious frequently possess is energy: a charismatic force channeled into a specific goal. But they are monomoniacally energetic; their capacity for action is concentrated on their ability to achieve specific aims. Many of Hamsun's characters completely lack this quality of focus, but nevertheless still retain a huge energetic force. In Hunger the first person narrator says: "My first really dishonourable act was taken, my first theft, compared to which all my earlier pranks were insignificant, my first tiny, huge fall....so be it!...I didn't have to keep being dishonourable, but even so I had never promised I would live any more honourably than anyone else. I hadn't signed any contract..." At the end of The Wanderer the first person narrator says: "If I thank God for life, it is not on the strength of any increased maturity that has come with age, but because I have always enjoyed being alive. Age confers no maturity; age confers nothing beyond old age." Life in a Hamsun novel isn't a forward trajectory, it is a chaos of impulses, a cluster of feelings that cannot easily be corralled into a given direction.
This is partly why we would be inclined to call Dreamers an accidental fairy story, a tale of a man who ends up with everything he could have desired, but without any sense of knowing how to go about it. When Ove thinks, he does so with a dispersive spontaneity; he isn't given to plotting, which isn't quite the same thing as saying he doesn't try and think ahead. At one moment, early in the book, Elise Mack passes by, and "he was proud and haughty and had decided how he would behave towards her. She seemed to want to be friendly, and made a few cheerful remarks, but he was not receptive." She tells him that she is bringing greetings from the telegraph operators at Rosengard, but Rolandsen doesn't see them as friends and reckons Elise was only saying this to emphasise the gap between the pair of them again. "...he would get his own back and make her pay for it." But moments later, after she wonders if he would be interested in giving her guitar lessons and Ove replies in a dismissive manner that she could have his guitar, he notices his attitude has offended her and says: "I just wanted to give you the only thing I possess". He then "doffed his cap with a grand flourish and continued on his way."
Here we see a man of a particular type of character that could be described not so much as sensitive as sensitised. This is a modern literary figure indebted a little to Goethe's Werther, but no longer someone of romantic yearning, but of instantaneous response: someone who can react quite spontaneously to the givens of a situation even as they collide with the apparent preconceived expectation. Martin Seymour-Smith in Who's Who in Twentieth Century Literature proposes that reading Hamsun "it is impossible not to be reminded of Nathalie Sarraute's tropisms: involuntary, instinctive movements. In Hamsun, however, the movements are uncannily towards the self." Seymour-Smith is talking more specifically about what he sees as Hamsun's best books, Hunger and Mysteries, but even in Dreamers the central character is very much a Hamsunian figure, someone whose movements are of the soul rather than of the moment, and yet aren't quite outside the moment either. Where for Sarraute tropisms are "movements, of which we are hardly cognizant", and that "slip through us on the frontiers of consciousness in the form of undefinable, extremely rapid sensations" (Tropisms and The Age of Suspicion), in Hamsun's work they more clearly go through the characters and thus create not the fragile dissolution of character often evident in Sarraute's books, but the dissolution of self we find in Hamsun's. There is still in Hamsun's books a clear notion of character, where in Sarraute's the book can be so perceptually fragmentary, so based on the perception of the thing to the deliberate detriment of the creation of biography, purpose and interaction, that we struggle to locate the figure easily within the material. Like Beckett's figures (perhaps a more appropriate term than characters), Sarraute's exist in a perceptual tentativeness that cannot allow for the comfort of characterisation. A typical passage from Tropisms goes: "she remained there hunched up, waiting, doing nothing. The slightest act, such as going to the bathroom to wash her hands, letting the water run from the tap, seemed like a provocation, a sudden leap into the void, an extremely daring action." In the essay The Age of Suspicion Sarraute says: "as a result of an evolution similar to that in painting...the psychological element, like the pictorial element, is beginning to free itself imperceptibly from the object of which it was an integral part. It is tending to become self-sufficient...the novelist's entire experimental effort is concentrated on this one point, as is also the reader's entire effort of attention."
Hamsun's attention is still on the character over the figure, but we must remember our earlier remarks about Austen, Dickens and others; that Hamsun might be interested in character but not quite in type: his characters aren't so dispersed that they lose characterisation; but they aren't so all of a piece that they become characteristic. There is one passage in Mysteries where central character Johan Nagel talks about the most irrelevant of things because the human mind's capacity for the irrelevant. "You may ask what this story has to do with you and me and the stag party. Nothing whatever, my friend. But I felt like telling it to you anyway to prove how dense I am when it comes to human behaviour. Oh, that human psyche." What he describes isn't very different from Sarraute's tropisms: "it records the most insignificant detail; there isn't anything that isn't absorbed. " Like the narrator in Hunger, and Ove in Dreamers, Nagel is an odd presence in the vicinity who is well aware of his strange behaviour and announces it so that awkward social situations are created. This makes Hamsun's work very dramatic as Sarraute's is not. Sarraute's figures will also be having many of the same perceptions as Hamsun's characters, but they won't dramatise their perceptions. (On this point Hamsun and Dostoevsky coincide). Hamsun's characters are always making scenes, and Dreamerscontains at least half a dozen of them, as if the novella isn't made up of scenes, as we find in the traditional novel, but of 'making scenes': creating a situation. We have of course quoted above the moment where Ove sings outside the Sexton and his wife's house at night, but there are others too. The fight he gets into with another man isn't just a quick scrap because Ove is slow to anger and he has to work himself up, so even after Ulrik punches him he can't return the blow straight away. "He would have to enter into a slanging match to keep things going. They exchanged insults and yelled like drunkards, boasting of what they would do to each other." Near the end of the novella he tells Mack about the fish glue patent and doesn't sensibly make a deal, but insists he will surpass the older man. "Let's be competitors" Mack says. "You'll be the loser" Rolandsen replies.
Some might insist Ove is a man looking for trouble, but better to see him as a man always capable of making a scene, as if the making of a scene exists when there is more energy in a given situation than that situation would seem to demand. As the narrator says of a character in The Wanderer. "It was easy enough for Grindhausen, In his younger days, he had been after the girls like a wolf, and he still, from long habit, swaggered around with his hat at a rakish angle. But now he was well and truly tamed, as was to be expected such is the course of nature.. Still, not everyone is tamed - and what is to become of those others?" Often they find themselves in a Hamsun novel. We might walk into a shop and an assistant fails to acknowledge our presence, and most of us would assume that the person is a little rude or a bit too preoccupied and leave it at that: a quiet irritation privately thought rather than publicly expressed. But a Hamsun character would be more inclined to assume a refusal of acknowledgement rather than a failure, and to feel entitled not only to think a negative thought, but offer a public insult. This lies at least in part due to a need for recognition, as if most of the time we pass through societal situations merely cogniting. We can fall into the habits of expectation so that if someone fails slightly to offer the requisite level of politeness (as in a hello when we walk through a shop's door) we keep our annoyance to ourselves. A Hamsun character would be less inclined to do so, crediting a higher degree of subjectivity to the other person, and subsequently feel entitled to express a higher degree themselves too.
Let us think again for example of the scene where Ove initially assumes Elise is patronising him and overreacts when she asks if he will give her guitar lessons. Believing he has offended her, he then makes a placating remark before "he doffed his cap with a grand flourish..." We find similar moments in the other novels and stories. In Hunger, the narrator is sitting next to an old man on a bench and notices irritation arising within him as they talk, but instead of letting it go he unleashes it: "Goddamit man, I suppose you think I've been sitting here stuffing you full of lies." The narrator admits "I shouted, completely out of my mind", but what is often most pronounced isn't that Hamsun's characters are out of their minds; more speaking out of context: melodramatizing their response to the world. In the short story 'The Lady from the Tivoli', the narrator says: "and this person who was otherwise incapable of carrying on a single intelligible conversation, now began telling a long story about this child, a strange story that made the most profound impression on me. She spoke spontaneously, openly, urgently; there we no gaps in her story, no faults in her grammar, so that at the very least I no longer felt there was something wrong with her mind." Earlier he had found her highly strung and even a touch hysterical, but now that the need to talk had been met, she was lucid and fully articulate. Meeting on another occasion she shouts loudly that the story she had told him was made up, and within earshot of others makes clear that he couldn't have been so gullible as to believe it was hers. Having been away for a while he sees her again walking along the streets and she says to him as she passes: "it was my child". She turns and disappears into the fog as the story ends.
Of course we might wonder whether people who speak out of context are out of their minds, but Hamsun would seem to want to keep in abeyance any psychological assumption, searching out instead the behavioural drama. This is partly why we talk of Dreamers as a fairy tale: another writer might take Ove's behaviour as increasingly unhinged and show us the trajectory of a nervous breakdown. Instead Hamsun provides us with a tale of surprising success, with Ove the antithesis of the town's major businessman, but by the conclusion his justifiable competitor, and a man that may well marry Mack's daughter. Mack is presented as a character who likes to do the right thing, as a man who wants to be there for his family and the community, and to look like the successful businessman which he sees himself as being. Halfway through the book he looks as if he might be in financial trouble. "Mack had bought up all the herring he could get, and no one had heard of any delays in his payments. Only with the last boat had he asked for a little time, while he telegraphed south for money. But immediately there had been gossip. "Aha - he's in difficulties!" After all Mack is a man of reputation, a man who had been eminent for twenty years; everyone who had deferred to him with respect were no longer doing so, and partly because of a burglary at his premises.
The point and purpose of Mack's life is for everything to go smoothly and for Mack to retain everyone's esteem. Ove's existence is predicated much more on absurd renewal. Mack would hate to make a scene; Ove lives for them, and so it makes sense that when Mack offers a reward for the one who comes forward with news of the burglary that Ove will take responsibility for the crime, and that Mack won't ask too many questions about the plausibility of Rolandsen's confession because what counts is resolving the situation. As Mack thinks: "it was no big thing for him to lose 200 crowns in a burglary. It was only when he had rewarded the thief with double that amount that the entire affair would reflect any real glory. It is a solution to the robbery but not the revelation of the truth, but it allows Mack to save face and Ove to make a scene for a small reward since he needs the money (which he initially turns down and insists it should only be a loan) and isn't afraid of embarrassment. As Mack thinks to himself: "whether Rolandsen had committed the felony or not, he was the most wonderful burglar he could have had. He would certainly not keep quiet about the matter, but would broadcast it to every person he met."
Of course later in the novella we find out that Ove wasn't responsible for the burglary, and Mack can see that he wouldn't have just confessed for the money. "The curate's mind was in a whirl. If Enoch was the thief, then Rolandsen had just been making a mockery of the letter of admonition he had been sent." It would make sense that Mack wouldn't understand Ove, even if we might add this would be in part because a character like Ove couldn't possibly understand himself. But if we accept that there is an enormous difference between saving face and creating a scene, a great difference between quelling energy and expelling it, we can understand if not Ove, then his contrasting nature next to Mack. The fairy tale aspect comes in Mack as the old authority of the community (usually a king), and Ove the interloper, from another class and another place, who falls for the daughter but would seem unworthy of the princess's hand. Ove is exactly this type of figure very ostensibly, and the novella concludes in exactly these terms. But where the hero of such a tale would be a man of action and integrity, someone who can prove his worth slaying rivals, overcoming obstacles and winning the daughter's love, Ove is a liar, a womaniser, a troublemaker. Yet such terms don't quite fit: he does lie, he does sleep around, and he does cause trouble. But the difference between the verb and the noun is enormous. When we talked of Sikes as a bully or Wickham as a womaniser, the noun and the verb come together as they do not in Ove's case, and partly why he cannot definitely be an exemplary character of such actions.
There is we sense, and no doubt Mack and his daughter sense too, a deeper integrity to Ove than his superficial actions. Indeed many of these actions appear to be searching out a deeper motive than the situation would seem to demand, with Ove, like many a Hamsun character, influenced however indirectly by the Kierkergaardian. "Still, it was so extraordinarily gratifying for my soul", Kierkegaard says in his Papers and Journals, "and for my powers of ironic observation, to roam about in the streets and be nothing while thoughts and ideas worked within me, being a loafer in this way while I was decidedly the most industrious of all the younger ones, irresponsible and 'unserious' while the others' seriousness could as well be simply jest beside my deep concern." Isaac Bashevis Singer in his introduction to Hunger says "Hamsun's favourite hero is a young man in his late twenties or early thirties, rash, good-natured, with no plans for the future, always anticipating some happy chance, yet at the same time resigned and melancholy... [but] frivolous in word and deed." Singer's observations may not express the depths evident in Hamsun's work, but they contain in them an obscure manifestation of the void as the undecidable and the unformed, the contingent and the surprising. As R. G. Poperwell reckons in The Penguin Companion to European Literature: Hamsun's "attitude to his characters is consistently marked by irony and ambivalence and the felicities of his style do not entirely disguise the void."
In Dreamers Hamsun creates a character who happens to make something of himself and looks like he will get the girl, but where a fairy tale will make clear the inevitability of such an outcome, in Dreamers it comes as much more of a surprise. Not least because we feel that chance could have led to quite different circumstances, that Ove is a character things happen to rather than one who carefully engineers them. After all, such is Ove's temperamental temperament, that he could walk out of the village the following day, looking for another adventure, to remain energised as he is once again willing to create scenes rather than trying to save face. Some might see a fairy tale ending as the happiest of outcomes; those given to seeing energy as more important than success would wish that he promptly finds pastures new, though he would hardly be a character likely to graze in them.
© Tony McKibbin