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Growth of the Soil.

Growth of the Soil. By KNUT HAMSUN. Trans. with explanatory and textual notes by SVERRE LYNGSTAD. Intro. by BRAD LEITHAUSER. (Penguin Classics) New York: Penguin. 2007. 328 pp. $13. ISBN 978-0-14-310510-7.

Markens Grode (1917) is a novel that attends both to the most benign pastoral sites and the most terrifying events of the twentieth century. Written as a warning against industrial modernity, it celebrates the humble virtues of Isak, the peasant who settles in the remote mountains and tills the soil. Knut Hamsun won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1920, quite specifically, 'for his monumental work Growth of the Soil', which was received as a universal message of peace after the bloodshed of the Great War. The same book was later appropriated by Nazi ideologues, and even distributed in special Wehrmacht editions for German soldiers during the Second World War. Brad Leithauser's introduction to this new English translation, now published as part of the prestigious Penguin Classics series, acknowledges Hamsun's Nazi sympathies, but is perhaps rightly more interested in the way Hamsun's narrative art confounds generic expectations. This fascination is shared by the translator, Sverre Lyngstad, whose recent study of the Norwegian author (Knut Hamsun, Novelist: A Critical Assessment (New York: Peter Lang, 2005), reviewed in MLR, 102 (2007), 606-07) very clearly shows how Hamsun's novels, throughout his long career, violate the canons of aesthetic unity.

Lyngstad's rigorous translation has much to recommend it, not least its sensitivity to the peculiarities of Hamsun's rhythm, wry humour, and narrative style, which is animated by beautiful transitions between direct and indirect discourse, and frequently punctuated by unexpected ironic turns. Growth of the Soil adds another title to Lyngstad's impressive list of Hamsun translations which, to date, include the major novels Hunger, Mysteries, Pan and Victoria alongside a selection of lesser-known works, such as the travelogue In Wonderland, the novel The Last Joy, and the semi-autobiographical On Overgrown Paths. Lyngstad's commitment as a translator is evident also in the high quality of his notes, which detail historical references and more obscure divergences between different versions of the Norwegian editions. In Growth of the Soil, the textual notes register only some minuscule variations, but are none the less illuminating when placed next to the equivalent notes Lyngstad has included for the Penguin Twentieth-Century Classic editions of Hunger and Mysteries, notes which reveal a whole hidden history of textual revision--a practice Hamsun evidently gave up later in his career.

Lyngstad's new translation admirably conveys the blunt simplicity and eloquent prose style of Growth of the Soil. The previous translation by W. W. Worster from 1920, which until now has been the only English version available, was deeply flawed by its pervasive tendency to exaggerate the quaint and folksy aspect of Hamsun's novel. Upon the terrible revelation of infanticide, for example, Worster rendered Isak's response as follows: "'Well, well, 'tis too late to be crying over it now", said he' (Growth of the Soil, trans. by Worster (London: Souvenir Press, 1995), p. 74). Where Worster contrives to make Hamsun's text bizarrely jovial, Lyngstad offers a better reflection of Isak's muteness: "'Hm, it's too late to cry now", he said' (p. 56). Many examples could be cited where the old translation adds idiomatic expressions: "'Aye", said Isak. "Now that Oline is come, I can go off tomorrow morning, first thing"' (Worster, p. 79). Restoring the original's clipped style, Lyngstad's translation is much more reliable: "'Yes", Isak replied, "now that Oline is here I'll leave tomorrow morning"' (p. 59).

Growth of the Soil is implicated in a complex history of both misreading and mistranslation. Thomas Mann, for instance, found himself undecided about its politics, writing at first that it was 'completely apolitical', after which he called it 'communism poetically perceived', finally deciding that it was 'humanely poeticized anarchism' (Diaries 1918-1939, trans. by Richard and Clara Winston (London: Andre Deutsch, 1983), p. 65). For a novel that for so long has been the vehicle for contradictory ideas and ideologies, Lyngstad's vigilant and faithful retranslation is most welcome.


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Author:Sjolyst-Jackson, Peter
Publication:The Modern Language Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2009
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