I tried to avoid reading this book. I really did.
It definitely wasn’t my first choice for 1917. To be brutally honest, I only read this particular book because I couldn’t get my hands on anything else published in the year 1917. Trust me, I tried. That’s why I put off ordering this book until the last possible moment, which is why this review is…err…a little on the late side. Oops.
I dreaded reading this week’s book. But then, when it finally arrived and I picked it up and started reading, I found, to my intense surprise, I couldn’t stop…
Growth of the Soil
by Knut Hamsun
Published in 1917
Knut Hamsun’s Growth of the Soil was first published in Norway in 1917, and it went on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature a few years later, in 1920.
I guess you’re probably wondering why I was so desperately afraid of reading this book? It’s because I read a plot summary first. Growth of the Soil is, essentially, a three-hundred-and-twenty-something doorstop of a book, translated from Norwegian, about farming. I did not. Want to read. About farming. YAAAAWN.
But once you start reading Growth of the Soil, you’ll come to realise it’s so much more than just some dull Norwegian book about a farm. Growth of the Soil is about time, about progress, about the land – and, most importantly, about the people who seek to live on the land.
It doesn’t matter how I describe the plot of Growth of the Soil; it’s going to sound like the most unbelievably boring book ever written – even though this couldn’t be further from the truth. And I don’t want to reveal too much, because this book is packed with surprises I’d like you to discover for yourself. But, nonetheless, I’ll try and tell you what this strange little book is all about…
Growth of the Soil is the story of Isak, a settler, who ventures deep into the wilds of northern Norway and begins to build a farm for himself in the middle of nowhere. He clears the land, sows crops, builds a small shack in which to live. He brings animals to the land, and eventually realises he cannot tend the land alone. The farmer wants a wife – and before too long, she arrives. Her name is Inger, a hare-lipped young woman who has heard about Isak in the distant village. Before too long, Isak and Inger are expecting their first child.
The years pass quickly, and Isak and Inger’s family grows. Isak learns new ways to till the soil, and the land flourishes. New settlers begin to arrive, following Isak’s example, and begin to establish their own farms. Life thrives. But as more people arrive on the land, the cracks in Inger and Isak’s idyllic rural life begin to appear. Life on the land, although rewarding for some, is not for everyone…
The thing with Growth of the Soil is that it’s really as much about the people of the land than it is about the land itself. Growth of the Soil begins with just a single character, but, by the end of the book, Hamsun’s dramatis personae has expanded substantially. It’s Hamsun’s characters and their complicated lives that make this book such a surprisingly entertaining read. Don’t get me wrong – I’m sure if the book had only ever been about Isak and Inger, it would have been just as compelling.
Another reason I couldn’t stop reading this book once I’d started was because of the language. There’s just something about the way Hamsun uses words. Something spellbinding. Growth of the Soil is written in short, simple sentences; plain, almost Biblical language that perfectly evokes the simplicity of life on the land. It’s most evident at the beginning of chapters, where the reader is presented with a clipped, almost shorthand sentence that summarises the passing of time – sometimes years – in just a few short words. Chapter sixteen, for instance, begins “Great changes at Sellanrå” (the name of Isak’s farm). The first words of chapter fourteen are “And time went by”. These chapter openings manage to describe the passage of time in a way that doesn’t leave the reader feeling cheated – and, interestingly, Hamsun often repeats these chapter openings in a different form throughout the book. Reading Growth of the Soil, you’ll often have a strange sense that you’ve already read certain sentences before – because you have.
When the characters speak, they rarely utter more than a few sentences, and their speech is often strange and unnatural; almost as if their words have been awkwardly translated. “Oh, that Isak!” Inger says frequently. Or she commends him with “Oh, you’re really something!”. Of course, I don’t speak a word of Norwegian, so I’m not at all qualified to comment on matters of translation. After all, Hamsun’s words might have been just as awkward in Norwegian as they are in English.
There’s something so magical about Knut Hamsun’s writing; something I can’t quite put my finger on. Take, for instance, the first page. The book itself begins with a question –
“That long, long path over the moors and into the forest, who has trodden it? Man, a human being, the first one who came here. There was no path before him…This is how the path through the great common, the no-man’s-land owned by no-one, came into being”
– Knut Hamsun, Growth of the Soil, page 1
This first page introduces us to the land that forms the novel’s setting, as well as to Isak, our main character – but instead of telling us about him, introducing him properly, Hamsun instead presents us with possibilities: a series of questions that are never answered…
“A man comes walking north. He carries a sack, the first sack, containing provisions for the road and some implements. The man is strong and rough-hewn, with a red iron beard and little scars on his face and hands, sites of old wounds – were they gotten at work or in a fight? Maybe he has been in jail and wants to go into hiding, or perhaps he is a philosopher looking for peace; in any case, here he comes…”
– Knut Hamsun, Growth of the Soil, page 1
Intriguing, isn’t it? This would have to be one of the most interesting first pages I’ve ever encountered. Beginning with a question seems to me the perfect way for the reader to enter this confusing, strange book.
As I’ve already mentioned, Growth of the Soil is more than just a book about farming practices – it’s about the characters who inhabit the land. It’s narrated from a unique third-person perspective that, somehow, manages to jump between past and present tense in a way that doesn’t sound jarring and strange at all. In the beginning, we only have Isak and Inger for company, but as the settlement around Isak’s farm grows larger, the narrative begins to focus on the other characters more and more often. Growth of the Soil is divided into two halves – most of the first half is about Isak and Inger, whereas the second focuses more on the second generation of settlers, as they repeat the same dramas and face the same choices as those who came before them.
Hamsun allows us to travel with some of the book’s characters, learning their innermost feelings and emotions. However, there are some characters who, it seems, are off limits. The most noticeable is Isak. The doubt raised on the first page about Isak’s character (namely, is he a criminal?) is never allayed. We’re never allowed into his head. He’s almost beyond human; his strength is often compared to that of an animal. When he accidentally severs most of his ear, he keeps the severed part in place with his hat until it magically grows back. As you do…
Isak’s farm is a almost a kind of Eden, with Isak cast as a (possibly) fallen Adam, seeking redemption through toil. But that’s not to say that Growth of the Soil describes rural life as idyllic. Far from it. Around Isak, sons cheat their families, settlers are lazy and greedy, wives are unfaithful to their husbands – and crimes of the worst sort are committed. This is not paradise – but it does have its moments of utter loveliness.
Reading Growth of the Soil, I had the feeling that I was reading something that could easily become a cult classic – if it isn’t already. Towards the end of the novel, Isak stands in his farm wearing clothes his wife has made from their own wool, boots he’s made himself from his own leather, and he grows all his own food – organic, of course. Isn’t this kind of self-sufficiency the dream of every modern-day eco-warrior? A return to nature: to the noble ways of the past?
I’ve said it already, and I’ll say it again: Growth of the Soil is one very strange book. It totally refuses to conform. I’m trying to conclude this review, and I don’t know whether I should tell you that Growth of the Soil is a book about the nature of progress, encroaching on the life of a simple, down-to-earth farmer, or a celebration of the old-fashioned, long-forgotten (yes, even in 1917) art of living on the land, or a brilliant study of a set of characters, thrust into a series of extreme situations. Possibly, it’s all these things, and a few more. In all honesty, I don’t know how to classify this book. It’s unlike anything else I’ve ever read. How can a book be both simple and complicated at the same time?
Growth of the Soil is so many things: it’s compelling, honest and fascinating, all at once. It’s also surprisingly brutal in parts. Try as I might, I can’t even begin to wrap my head around this book. It defies…everything.
Perhaps that’s why I like it so much?
Official Book to the Future Rating:
Superawesome! – Awesome – Okay – Blah – Superblah!
Should I read it?
Growth of the Soil mightn’t be for everyone. I highly recommend it, but I realise that not every reader will find Hamsun’s most famous work interesting in the way I do. Fair enough. Farming’s not for everyone. I think if you’ve read Anna Karenina and you didn’t want to stab someone while you were reading the passages involving Levin, then, chances are, you’ll enjoy Growth of the Soil, too.
In a word: