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Night Roamers and Other Stories.

You can't take the Nobel Prize, or, for that matter, any prize given to artists, very seriously; after all, James Joyce did not win a Nobel but Pearl Buck did. Beyond that, any halfway decent Scandinavian author has a better shot at winning the prize than great writers from other parts of the world. Iceland's Halldor Laxness won a Nobel prize, for example, and he isn't exactly one of the twentieth century's major authors. Norwegian Knut Hamsun picked up a Nobel too, but he actually was an outstanding, world-class author.

Hamsun is one of the most intensely subjective of all novelists, his work being very autobiographical. From a technical standpoint his writing is also innovative, as some of the interior monologues in Mysteries, in which free association is employed, and his use of sentence fragments in Pan, which some might want to call stream-of-consciousness writing, indicate. In Hunger Hamsun made everyday events, as experienced by his starving protagonist, seem weird and hallucinatory. This technique, called ostranenie by the Russian Formalists, anticipated the work of such outstanding Soviet writers as Yuri Olyesha.

This collection contains "newly discovered" short stories by Hamsun written between 1884 and 1906. Most were done while he was still a struggling artist. Some seem so accurate in detail that they must be nonfiction. The title piece, "Night Roamers," describes the Sunday-night carousers of Kristiana, mostly working-class people who desperately try to enjoy themselves into the wee small hours before having to go to work on Monday. "At the Clinic" is about Hamsun's stay in a hospital; "On Tour" has to do with his efforts to launch a lecture tour in 1886. "Small Town Life" contains Hamsun's impressions of "A dead-calm conservative town." In "Bad Days" the protagonist has hit times when everything seems to go wrong. These could be categorized as slice-of-life pieces; indeed another story here is called "A Fragment of Life." "Sin" may be the best, most provocative piece in the book. Here a desperately poor young girl takes the flowers off the grave of her sister, whom she loved, to sell them, and is accused of theft. The author presents her as a victim of the narrow-minded.

Hamsun's writing is spare and evocative, sometimes bitter, sometimes ironic, on occasion lyrical. Happily his work contains little of the self-righteous quality that would become more pronounced in later years. Though not among his most important works, Night Roamers is still a fine collection which will prove particularly informative to those who are interested in the evolution of Hamsun's style. [Harvey Pekar]
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Author:Pekar, Harvey
Publication:The Review of Contemporary Fiction
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1993
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