Growth of the Soil – Knut Hamsun
“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 face and hands, sites of old wounds…”
SPOILERS BELOW, DO NOT READ IF YOU DON’T WANT IT RUINED!
Growth of the Soil is a book dedicated to the willpower, testament, and dedication of the simple and free man. It is a book dedicated to the nature of hard-work. It is a book dedicated to a look into the past, with fond memories and indulgence.
The setting is rural and non-trodden grounds of Norway. The time is the early 1800s. What is there to do? Frankly, not much besides farming and trying to find yourself through god and hard work. This is exactly what this book does, and Hamsun does it so brilliantly.
The human spirit yearns for (sorry Communists) hard-work and toiling. There is an old saying, “Work Hard. Hard work is the best investment a man can make.”, this is irrevocably true. The human spirit wants to work hard, because when you work hard, you achieve something greater than yourself, this will carry on past your mortal existence on this Earth and will continue to effect those after you, and will forever be immortalized to you.
This is true in all facets of epics, myths, even modern movies and stories. The struggling warrior works his damnedest to fight that mythical beast and wins! When a story is just about how a man got rich and didn’t work a day in his life and just lounged around, no-one will read this, besides perhaps those who do not have this yearning, which are select few people in our society.
Isak doesn’t fight a monster, he doesn’t win big by fighting for the civil rights of a oppressed person, and he doesn’t strike it rich finding treasure. Isak farms, and creates one of the greatest possessions a man can have, a family. He is the embodiment of what we want in life, whether subconsciously or consciously. We want to work hard and achieve something great, in this case a large family and a great farm.
Hamsun realizes all this and crafts a narrative that shows a person, Isak’s son Eleseus, who is not hard working, who is willing to mooch off people and take a life that is full of cheats and swindles. Eleseus fails over and over, not once in the book actually achieving something, and eventually leaving to go to America, never to return, his family missing him, he left for greener pastures that one can only assume turned out to be a mirage based on his laundry list of failures.
At the same time, it shows the compassionate naivety of the simple man. Isak is a hard worker, that’s it. He never went to school, he never read books, hell he can’t even read! This ‘compassionate naivety’ is shown through his love for his failure of a son, Eleseus. He consistently put his own families finances in dire straits so he could help Eleseus out on another venture or money making mission. He does this because he loves his son, his first son, so dearly that he is willing to put himself out of possible repair of the farm, behind in land payments, etc. to help his son succeed in this world.
His second son Sivert, is a spitting image of Isak, a hard-working simple farming man. And oddly enough, Sivert by the end of the novel, is looking to inherit the large estate from his old man, and is doing very well for himself. He has the same naivety as his father, giving Eleseus before leaving, his lucky golden coin that he had since childhood. Maybe he knew that Eleseus would never come back, and he gave it to him to have him remember the family, I’d like to assume that was why.
One of the most interesting characters in the story is a renaissance man named Geissler. Geissler was a sheriff, farmer, clerk, merchant, miner, and friend to the Sellanrå folks. He originally is the one who saves Isak from having to give up his property (which was essentially ‘illegally’ obtained, squatting and working on it). He also buys the large copper mine on Isak’s property and proceeds to sell parts of it for the rest of the book for thousands and thousands of kroner. Every time he comes around to the farm he gives the children some money, helps around the farm, and catches up with his friends. Near the end of the book, Sivert meets Geissler while in the woods looking to sell some extra supplied Eleseus had left behind. Geissler was not in good health, as he was very old by this point. He goes into a long diatribe explaining how hard work is good for the spirit, and that the merchant, which he notes as the Jew and the Yankee, are ultimately left unfulfilled in life, wishing they had done more to effect the word around them.
This book is a testament to the triumph of the human spirit, hard work. Whether or not this is ironic considering the relationship Hamsun had with Goebbels and Hitler, but Work truly does set you free. You are free to make your destiny out with hard work, maybe not toiling away in a factory, but by making the land yours and shaping life to be yours through excessive hours of backbreaking labour.
This book is perhaps the greatest book I’ve ever read, and maybe that’s because I am not that well-read yet, but I found meaning in this book beyond just a cutesy story of a man working in rural Norway and building up a family. I found a love for hard work, pushing yourself to the limits to achieve something you want, and finding strength when you really need to but want to give up.
Knut Hamsun, you are in the highest ranks of novelists, and history has mistreated you. For which, they shall forever be ashamed.