Sunday, February 5, 2012

Random thoughts while not watching the Super Bowl

Finally, after two library renewals, I finished Knut Hamsun’s 435-page Growth of the Soil this afternoon. It was the fifth of Hamsun’s novels I’ve read since last fall, and even though it was the book that won him the Nobel Prize (in 1920), some of his most perceptive critics, including Isaac Bashevis Singer, regard it as a step down from his earlier work. Yeah, I’d go along with that. It has a direct prose style that reminded me of an Icelandic saga, and it contains some terrific set pieces, such as the early infanticide and the episode in which Axel is pinned beneath a tree. But the nostalgia for the peasant way of life wore me down, and all the ayes and ’twases drove me to distraction. (H.G. Wells thought the book “saturated with wisdom,” which any sensible person should take as a warning) Hamsun’s tragedy, according to Singer, was that he lived too long. His powers declined after the turn of the 20th century, and then, there’s his Nazi problem. He regarded Hitler as the savior of civilization, and he supported the German occupation of Norway. Had he died gracefully at 70, instead of at 93, his name might not be anathema in his native land.

Best of the Hamsun novels I’ve read — or at least my favorites — were Pan and Mysteries. If you read any, read those. Then you can feel free to blame me if you don’t like them.

On Wednesday, January 25, I visited Doug Heller and his wife, Nancy Parsons, at their home in Flourtown. Doug, a former Springfield Township commissioner, has stage IV pancreatic cancer. Unlike some patients, who refuse visitors when they realize how serious their condition is, Nancy has issued an open invitation to Doug’s friends and acquaintances. I took her up on it. I stayed for perhaps two hours. Doug is in very good spirits, and indeed, if it weren’t for the weight loss, the bathrobe and slippers, and the blanket on the living room sofa, you wouldn’t suspect he was ill. I stayed for about two hours. We watched Jeopardy, played a round of categories, and ate a little, but mostly, we listened to CDs. I brought a few of my own. Doug and Nancy especially liked the Quartet for Trumpet, Tenor Saxophone, Piano, and Percussion by Stefan Wolpe, and they introduced me to the transcendently awful music of Jonathan and Darlene and of Mrs. Miller. The former achieved badness intentionally (Darlene was the party name of Jo Stafford), and the latter was born bad. It's been a long while since I laughed to hard.

Went biking today through Pennypack Park, and then out Torresdale Avenue to Glen Foerd and Northeast Philadelphia Airport. The air was clear and deliciously cold. The real reward a ride like that is drinking something hot afterward.


Lisa Hirsch said...

Have things changed with the Nobels? These days, the literature prize is awarded for a body of work, not a specific work.

That said, t hanks for the Hamsun comments - I've been thinking about giving him a try for years.

Joe Barron said...

That's the official story, but it varies. In some cases, it's the buzz surrounding publication of a specific work that leads the Nobel committee back in one writer's direction. It's no coincidence that Hamsun won right after Growth of the Soil came out, any more than it's a coincidence Hemingway won after publication of the Old Man and the Sea.

Eric H said...

Sid Fleischman, who wrote some exceptionally clever and unconventional novels for kids, didn't win the Newbery Award until later in his career for an uncharacteristically conventional tale. The official story is that the award is given for an individual work, but in Fleischman's case the opposite may have been true.

Joe Barron said...

This is also true of the Pulitzer. You write a great book that gets ignored, so they make up for it by giving you the prize for your next book, which might not be nearly as good. Interestingly, in its citation for Hemingway, the Nobel committee specifically criticized his early work as being cynical and praised his later work for its deepening humanity (or something). The irony, of course, is that Hemingway's early work is his best.