Friday, 27 September 2019

Book Review: The Women at the Pump by Knut Hamsun fate strikes badly and turns life completely upside down thwarting all plans, it’s usually a very unsettling experience that can make feel at a loss even the most flexible mind. Some people quickly pull themselves together and take life back into their own hands trying to make the best of the situation, while others give in to despair and just drift on with the current unwilling to set a new course because it just doesn’t seem worthwhile or at least possible. The protagonist of The Women at the Pump by Knut Hamsum, the recipient of the 1920 Nobel Prize in Literature, is one of the latter. Having lost one leg in an accident aboard a cargo steamer and unfit to work as a sailor again, Oliver Andersen takes to brooding and idling away his time. Not even for the sake of his growing family, he is able to change.

Knut Hamsun was born Knud Pedersen in Lom, Gudbrandsdal, Norway, in August 1856. Seventeen years old and on his own, he did odd jobs for a living and started writing. Already in 1877, he brought out his first novel Den Gaadefulde (The Enigmatic Man), the only one published under his real name. Two more novels came out before he lived in America for several years. After his return to Norway, appeared the semi-autobiographical novel Hunger (Sult: 1890) that made the author’s worldwide fame along with other innovative work like Mysteries (Mysterier: 1892), Pan (1894), and Victoria (1898). Before and after his epic masterpiece Growth of the Soil (Markens Grøde: 1917) that earned him the 1920 Nobel Prize in Literature, he wrote many other novels. Notable among them are the Wanderer Trilogy comprising Under the Autumn Star (Under Høststjærnen: 1906), A Wanderer Plays on Muted Strings (En Vandrer spiller med Sordin: 1909), and Look Back on Happiness (Den sidste Glæde: 1912), The Women at the Pump (Konerne ved Vandposten: 1920) and Wayfarers (Landstrykere: 1927). The author also published short stories, plays, a little poetry and some non-fiction, especially travelogues and essays. Knut Hamsun died in Grimstad, Nørholm, Norway, in Feburary 1952.

In a small Norwegian coast town, The Women at the Pump always know the latest news. After half a year at sea, young Oliver Andersen returns home to his widowed mother and his fiancée Petra, but alone and by train because on the cargo steamer of Consul Johnsen he had a terrible accident. Hobbling around with a wooden leg and a crutch, he feels so utterly useless that he often hides at home brooding and eating. He likes, however, to stun townspeople with the imaginative story of the accident that maimed him and he cheats them in the firm believe that they owe it to a cripple who can’t provide for himself to wink at a little trickery. Sometimes, he has active spells when he rows out every day to fish and hunt for treasures, but ever more often he lets himself go completely. Having used up pay as well as savings, he soon begins to sell his valuables including the engagement ring that Petra returned to him. Although gossip has it that the joiner wants her for his wife, the girl suddenly comes back to Oliver and they get married. Some months later, they have a son called Frank whose brown eyes startle not just blue-eyed Oliver. Over the years, another brown-eyed boy called Abel, a girl nick-named Blue-eyes and a brown-eyed girl nicknamed the Brunette are born to the couple. All the while, they are hard up because Oliver lacks all energy to do something about it. Then Petra somehow succeeds in convincing Consul Johnsen to give Oliver a job. He becomes head of the storehouse and life gets better for the family. Years pass and thanks to scholarships, Frank grows into a studious young man, while Abel turns out a good-natured rascal who knows how to survive…

Although the unconcerned third-person narrator of The Women at the Pump clearly focuses on the protagonist and his family whose existence is forever marked by the loss of his leg (and even more), the novel is also sociological study of small-town life in Norway at the beginning of the twentieth century. Even the title indicates that the author meant all along to show his characters as integral parts of a community vibrant with secrets whispered about. Actually, skillful hints at usually embarrassing truths that nobody is supposed to know and everybody suspects nonetheless permeate the novel, but only the central figure’s big secret is revealed more or less explicitly towards the end. Despite some unexpected twists and turns, the novel’s plot doesn’t abound with action. Much rather a series of highly realistic scenes from everyday life fills its pages and makes townspeople truly come to life. Altogether the main characters are very original, some of them to the point of quirkiness, and yet, they are all entirely convincing. From beginning to end, a striking sense of humour, which even my old German translation of the book conveyed to a certain degree, spices the author’s clear, unpretentious and often lyrical language.

With its gentle tone and subtle irony The Women at the Pump by Knut Hamsun turned out to be a more than worthwhile read and I can say that I truly enjoyed it although every so often I came across really lengthy passages and it probably isn’t the author’s best work. It certainly isn’t the most famous, nor the most widely read novel of the Norwegian writer who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1920. However, I liked this one much better than Victoria that was first published more than twenty years earlier and that – despite my liking for stream of consciousness and internal monologues – quite disappointed me. I found his depiction of small-town life a lot more convincing and his neutered protagonist a lot more interesting, not to say amusing. Altogether quite a rather forgotten novel today The Women at the Pump deserves my recommendation even more.

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