87 of 90 people found the following review helpful
on June 20, 1999
People have different opinions of which was the greatest of Knut Hamsun's novels, and very often one of the works from the 1890s will range highest. People also have a lot to say about Hamsun's terms with Nazi-Germany and which made the common Norwegian to see him as a betrayer. He was their greatest hero, up there with King Haakon and Fridtjof Nansen. All these circumstances are more complex to be drawn up here, so let's stay with the fact that Hamsun was one of the greatest and most influential authors of all time. "Growth of the Soil" is the book that secured him the Nobel Prize for literature in 1920, the book the common man of the day valued more than any other of his works, the book that the Germans had printed in "field-editions" to send with their soldiers to the fronts. But this is not an ideally portrait of the values in life - it is a very accurate description of how the life was in the outback for these early settlers, how extremely simple they were. It was not because they had achieved a great understanding of the meaning of life, readers in that belief are totally wrong. They had no choice, were not on terms with their inner-self at all, did not know comfort and beautiful music, could not afford to be fastidious. I can't think of any other book in world literature that comes anywhere near "Growth of the Soil" in portraying these simple, unsophisticated people breaking the land and struggle to live. I am sure this could be the life story of several of my ancestors in North-Norway, the diaries of their lives, but they (like Isak) could not read or write or tell their story. Instead Knut Hamsun has done it with such wisdom, humour and tenderness and most of all his great talent, that in many respects this is his best work
49 of 52 people found the following review helpful
on December 21, 1999
I picked up this novel many years ago, unfamiliar with its history or the Nazi associations of the author, and began reading it during one of the bleakest periods of my life. I found great comfort in the humanity of the characters, their imperfections, their struggles with nature, with each other and with themselves. Knut Hamsun did not turn away from the dark side of human nature. He accepted it. This is not a literary review, just a heartfelt one for a book that was able to reach out across time and provide enlightenment and comfort.
92 of 105 people found the following review helpful
This book is in my top-twenty list of 20th-century novels. I can't fathom how anyone with any literary sense could call the prose "stilted." Simple, yes, prosaic, perhaps; but spare and lean does not mean devoid of grace. Hemingway strove all his life to write this way. And let's not forget, Henry Miller held Hamsun and Celine (another politically incorrect master-novelist) in the highest possible regard and wrote that they both influenced him greatly. I cannot recommend this novel highly enough to anyone who loves literature. As far as the political context is concerned, let's remember that Zubin Mehta performed Wagner in Israel after a long ban and received an enthusiastic reception. I'm a little weary of those politically sensitive souls that want to remove Twain from school reading lists and find Shakespeare too chauvenistic, etc. etc. I certainly can find no evidence of Hamsun's political views expressed in any of his novels. Give this one a chance and decide for yourself. Don't be put off by the thought-police.
19 of 20 people found the following review helpful
on March 2, 2007
Growth of the Soil begins in the wilderness. There is a man, 'A strong, coarse fellow, with a red iron beard...'. He seeks a woman to help bear the burden of his new home, built in the wilds, miles away from the nearest town. Nobody is interested - they believe the man, Isak, is too much of a loner. They believe he has chosen poor land, with little potential.
Finally, Inger arrives. She is disfigured, a cast-off, ridiculed in the village for her appearance. Isak is happy with her if she is able to work - and she can. Thus one man becomes a couple, thus a life begins.
Soon, there are children. The farm grows. Buildings are added, animals are born. What was once a wilderness becomes tendered, tamed. Isak stubbornly works at the soil, harnessing its potential, cajoling food and life from the ground.
Growth of the Soil is not a novel based on plot. No, instead we experience the steady growth of Isak's farm, christened Sellanraa. Attached to this growth is Isak's family, as well as the surrounding area. What begins as a wilderness ends as a moderately prosperous community on the cusp of becoming a town.
We are presented most obviously with an allegory of man's rise from nothing into civilisation. We begin with a lone man and his wife, we end with writing, with culture, with mistakes and with money. A good chunk of the novel at the beginning is virtually devoid of dialogue - most of the end is rife with it. Similarly, money does not play a part until midway, and then it becomes a major focus for everyone except Isak.
There are villains, but only if we consider villains as being people who do not directly follow Isak's way of life. His son, Eleseus, after tasting the refined morsels of town life, becomes useless around the farm. He clearly represents the corrupting forces of too much literacy, too much culture. Eleseus drains Isak's money, buying frivolities like umbrellas and alcohol.
Hamsun writes as though we are reading one giant parable. The novel is a huge fairy tale of a way of life that the author agrees with on so many levels that it is impossible to disagree with the text as it stands. Hamsun writes so persuasively of the positive qualities of life attached to the land, but what is more appealing is that he does not openly criticise Eleseus' - and other's - choices. No, he reveals the mistakes that people make, but he offsets that with Isak's sheer goodness, leaving the reader to come to the only conclusion possible - Isak's way of life is the way that life is meant to be lived. This is subtle grand-standing on the part of the author, but it works.
The novel attains a timeless quality by the way in which tense is used. Sometimes, characters will act and speak in present tense. 'Isak says', 'Oline walks', etc. Other times, descriptions will be past tense - and these change about within the same paragraph, page, chapter. A poor writer would create a nightmare of tense shifting confusion with such a technique, but Hamsun manages to control the ebb and flow of the text. He is crafting a story that, by way of its telling, is not bound within the specificities of a now or a then.
Near the end of the novel, Hamsun's message becomes clear. We have experienced the growth of their lives - the growth of the world, perhaps? - and it is time for us to understand the message behind at all. He writes with a clarity and urgency that is missing from the rest of the text. We, the reader, have been persuaded by the goodness inherent in Isak's life. We become receptive to the message: 'Growth of the soil was something different, a thing to be procured at any cost; the only source, the origin of all. A dull and desolate existence? Nay, least of all. A man had everything; his powers above, his dreams, his loves, his wealth of superstition.'
It is interesting to note that in a novel so concerned with the toiling man, there is little religion throughout the text. It would be easy for Hamsun to rely too heavily on divine providence as a tool for progressing the narrative. To his credit, he does not. Instead the earth itself, the land, becomes a God, not worshiped but endured, not praised but absolutely essential to the survival and well-being of the characters. Isak may not say out loud that he loves the land, but it is a part of him, a necessary facet of his life. Without the land, the people are nothing, they have nothing and can produce nothing.
There is a scene towards the end of the novel that resonates with the truth of the entire work. Isak is an older man now, not as strong as he would like, but not yet old enough to give over his farm to his sons. There is a large stone on his property which he begins to dig out. He digs, and then attempts to shift it. No luck. He digs deeper, avoiding the necessity of blasting the stone. No luck. Eventually, his wife helps him move the stone, and it is here that Isak realises his worth as a man lies almost entirely with his strength. What is there apart from that? A man's worth is beholden to the strength of his arm - when that fails, so to does the man. It is a sad scene, but one which encapsulates the themes with which Growth of the Soil is concerned. Our strength - be it intellectual, muscular or otherwise - will one day fade, no matter its previous breadth or depth. As adults, it is our duty to discover that for which we are most aligned, our strength, as it were. We must accomplish whatever it is that our natural strengths and weaknesses demand, but we must not define ourselves as such. For when strengths fade, and weaknesses overtake, what is their left of ourselves but a definition of then and not now? We become a crumbled shell, an empty carapace. Our strengths are important, but there must be a greater importance beyond ourselves once those strengths have faded. Hamsun's Growth of the Soil suggests that this greater strength is the legacy we leave, the children we raise, the land we tender. It is a conservative, earthy, tender message, but one which bears taking heed.
19 of 23 people found the following review helpful
on July 23, 2003
Knut Hamson is a fascinating character and his personality comes through in his fiction. From Hunger on through to this novel he explores the psychology of man more intelligently and with more humour than anyone has ever done (with the possible exception of Dostoyevsky). Yes, Hamson was a racist, and a Nazi sympathizer. This has held many people back from reading his novels, assuming that someone who believes these things must not be worth reading. This is a huge mistake. The Gods of great art (assuming such a thing exists) don't care if your morals are in check, they don't care if you are a "good" person in accordance with our modern morality. The gifts of artistic skills fall upon people randomly and without regard for who they are. People may critisize Hamsons politics but his talent as a writer is untarnished, and his contribution to literature indisputable. Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein's "American" style of writing, whcih was very editorial, is seen first in Hamson's Hunger, written in 1888 and he has lost none of his power by the time he got around to writing "Growth of the Soil". So sensitive people who can only read novels by people they agree with might want to avoid his writing, but anyone who is interested in how twentieth century writing came to be should read Hamson, and I recomend this novel after reading his first three (Hunger, Mysteries, and Pan).
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on March 16, 2008
As a teenager i stumbled across a dusty copy of this book (English translation) in the Pennsylvania state library. It affected me so that i was determined to learn Norwegian and find out more about the culture that could produce such writing. I ended up in Norway living on a farm and eventually did learn Norwegian well enough to read the book in the original language. Forty years later it is still one of my favorite books and one i recommend to anyone interested in history, nature or agriculture. (for example: The passage describing Isak going out to sow his grain is luminous! )
Hamsun was a genius and like many (most?) geniuses his vision and ability were counterbalanced by what are seen today as mistakes and personality flaws. Many artistic geniuses fail to fit in or actually "burn out" in one way or another. it's almost as if the intense energy that creates the works of genius eventually destroys the vessel or instrument that is transmitting the energy.
11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on August 22, 2001
It's been several years since I've read Growth of the Soil, a book I feel reveals the dynamic between the working man and gov't sovereignty (I'm just scraping the surface here). Isak's work ethic is natural to him (though arguably superhuman). As a farmer in the wilds he's truly an iconoclast, a separatist who departs from the state to make it on his own. His hard work and plodding success is a tribute to the patience needed to live off the land. Juxtaposed are elements of immediate satisfaction, the making of a quick buck at the expense of those who actually do the work necessary to survive (gov't officials who tax, the miners, and Isak's restless son all take from Isak thereby eroding the status of the farmer in society). Isak's idyllic lifestyle on the farm is portrayed as the good life; the city nothing short of the source of all evil (maybe that's an overstatement). But what I think Hamsun appears to be getting at is what he sees as the corruptness of gov't based on the assumption that gov't and it's officials are opportunist thugs. The system of gov't arising from something more feudal, perhaps, becomes a free for all for bandits masquerading as gov't authorities. The citizens then become opportunists themselves which destroys a sense of honesty and loyalty among them. They all become thieves, more or less, whose identities are flexible to circumstance and opportunity. This resonates in concept with Pan, Hunger and Mysteries where the main characters are opportunistic loners or their opposites. If you still believe in the naive honesty of hard work Growth of the Soil would be a good read. Even if you're a slave to one institution or another and the purpose of your existence is to make money or enforce policy for someone else this would be a good read. It might just be the opportunity you need to reevalute your purpose.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on May 14, 2007
This ace of an author Knut Hamsun can spin a yarn with the best of them. The novel may lack excitement, the characters in it may all be prosaic, unsophisticated, country folk, and at times it seemed as if nothing was happening in the story, yet, for some crazy reason, it still works to perfection in my eyes. I never lost interest in the story from page one until the end. And that, is obviously because of the greatness of this writer.
Anyway, the story is essentially about this 'strong, coarse fellow, with a red iron beard' (Isak) who walks into the woods alone one day carrying with him nothing but a sack of food and a few implements. He then proceeds to slowly forge a life for himself in the forest. He takes a wife (Inger), they have children, he toils and toils away on his land, with his faithful (for the most part...) wife Inger by his side every step of the way. They soon become very successful and all in all live a happy life as true pioneers. Well... of course there is much more to it than that! However, in order to not divulge to much of the drama (I hate when reviewers do that!) I very highly recommend that you read this enjoyable classic so that YOU can fill in the blanks. It's a great story and as I stated before, I truly enjoyed losing myself from page one on to the very last page. Also, Hamsun (although definitely not as much as in his other novels) is not afraid of tackling some very important social issues as well (i.e. abortion being at the top of his list). As I stated in my previous review of Hamsun's work 'Hunger', this man was way ahead of his time!
In closing, this novel is a prime example of what great art is all about. Like all great art, it allows us to lose ourselves for a while - the same as admiring a painting, watching a wonderful film, listening to magnificent music, etc... - and it's so important to our mundane lives. Can you imagine living in a word without these classic books to read or films to view or music to listen to?
Knut Hamsun is slowly but surely becoming my favorite Modernist. I have read Eliot, Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Kafka, Ezra Pound, etc... and this guy is right up there with the best of them. He writes with such simplicity, yet at the same time his prose is so endearing, so poignant, and so, so sublime... ENJOY!
9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on December 17, 2001
Thirty years have passed since I first read this. A favorite then, and I find that time has not diminished my appreciation for this great novel. This is a story of 'puts' and 'calls' and it has nothing to do with Wall Street. In a way this is the genesis of other stories.
...There is uninhabited land in a northern clime and a man is put amidst it. Isak clears land, tills the soil, constructs buildings. He has a call for a woman and Inger is put there. So too is a cow, then a bull, a goat, and a pig. There is a call for additional buildings and more clearing and tillage. A call for a saw mill. A call for irrigation and an engineer is put there. Children are put in the woman and two of these are sons. Eleseus is of different temperament from Sivert and his father and is called to town, to an office. Copper has been put in the land and Geissler and others call upon the landowner Isak to buy so that it might be extracted. Poles are needed for the telegraph. Neighbors arrive and with it a capitalistic thinking, but in the end it is those who work the soil who are truly lauded; and that all the artifacts that come about with development of towns are merely what they are called and worth only what a man will pay for them, unlike the soil. Isak is well described as 'a barge of a man' because of his size and scope of labor, yes, but also because all that follows in the rest of us might be argued as contained in his life of doings and in those of his wife as well.
Before there were thrillers, courtroom dramas, potboilers, and romances, there was literature like this. Thank god, it still lives.
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on October 24, 1998
The simple prose of this book follows the pragmatic path that the protagonist (Isak) plies. The simple goals in Isak's life are as stable as the Norwegian stones he farms among. He watches as those going for the golden ring falter, yet he in the end succeeds in his own way. Isak's description of his first meeting of the woman who would become his wife is a classic. Beautifully told, it is a book that you may have to work through to finish but you will feel good in the end. The moral of the book will live with you.