The good, the bad and the Nazi

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Photo: William Faulkner in 1955

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 Nobel laureates in literature

When the Nobel Prize in literature was
announced this month, the name "Herta Muller"
met much American head-scratching.

Muller, an ethnically German Romanian
who writes of trials of living under
a repressive dictatorship, has a strong
reputation in Europe that hasn't gained
much momentum in the U.S.

Coming as it did on the heels of last
year's choice, French author Jean-Marie
Gustave Le Clézio -- few of whose works
had been translated into
English -- the selection made
some wonder whether the prize
is becoming increasingly esoteric.

Not to mention, in the case of

Le Clézio's award, wrongheaded.

His landmark 1980 work "Desert," recently

released in translation in the U.S.,

is, our reviewer writes, "a truly dreadful book."

But it hasn't always been this way.

A look at the list of Nobel literature

laureates is stunning. Just a few: Rudyard Kipling,

Thomas Mann, Gabriel Garcia Marquez,

William Butler Yeats, Hermann Hesse,

T.S. Eliot, Andre Gide, Albert Camus,

Jose Saramago, V.S. Naipaul,

Naguib Mahfouz, Gunter Grass,

Jean-Paul Sartre, Alexandr Solzhenitsyn,

Octavio Paz. And many

Americans: William Faulkner, Sinclair Lewis,

Pearl S. Buck, Eugene O'Neill,

Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck,

Saul Bellow, Toni Morrison.

It's enough to inspire

a years-long reading binge.

Some Nobel laureates have been forgotten.

The first, French poet and essayist

Sully Prudhomme, has not exactly

remained a household name

since receiving the prize in 1901.

And then there's Knut Hamsun.

The Norwegian author's book "Hunger"

(1890) was praised both as

a modernist work and for

its critique of modernity. When he won

the Nobel in 1920, he was thought of

as a leading humanist, but 20 years later,

he became a Nazi.

An enthusiastic one: after meeting

Joseph Goebbels, he mailed him

his Nobel medal in admiration.

After the war, he was found

guilty of crimes against Norway.

This is the 150th anniversary

of Hamsun's birth, which is being

celebrated in his home country.

Two new books return to his difficult legacy,

looking simultaneously at his politics

and his prose.

In our pages today, Matthew Shaer

looks at "Knut Hamsun: Dreamer and

Dissenter" by Ingar Sletten Kolloen and

"Knut Hamsun: The Dark Side

of Literary Brilliance" by Monika Zagar.

Shaer writes:

To thrive, an artist must leave the city

for the rough living of the country.

He must immerse himself

[Hamsun wrote] in "the unpredictable

chaos of perception, the delicate life

of the imagination held under

the microscope; the meanderings

of these thoughts and feelings

in the blue, trackless,

traceless journeys of the heart

and mind, curious workings of the psyche,

the whisperings of the blood,

prayers of the bone,

the entire unconscious life of the mind."

In his prime, Hamsun always wrote

like this -- beautifully, poetically and savagely. ...

And yet Hamsun, personally

and politically, was a monster.

Without "Hunger," Shaer writes,

we would not have Kafka's "A Hunger Artist."

That's one measure -- and the Nobel

is another -- that marks it as

an important work, one that should

be read.

Or should it?

If Hamsun's work is evaluated

through the lens of his politics,

is he better forgotten?

-- Carolyn Kellogg

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