In his book That Uncertain Feeling, Kingsley Amis’s protagonist, while watching some young women play tennis, reflects on an important question: "Why did I like women’s breasts so much? I was clear on why I liked them, thanks, but why did I like them so much?"
For some reason I was reminded of that while reading this review of a new biography on controversial Norwegian novelist Knut Hamsun. In essense, I was clear that Hamsun was something of a Nazi sympathizer; but boy, I didn’t know that he sympathized so much.
Indeed, in the review we learn that Hamsun enthusiastically welcomed the Nazi invasion of Norway, eagerly supported the quisling Nazi puppet government led by, well, Vidkun Quisling, and he urged the Norwegian resistance to give up their fight. He was a fawning admirer of Hitler and wrote an eloquent eulogy for the departed Fuhrer declaring him "a prophet for the gospel of justice." He even made a present of his Nobel Prize medal to Joseph Goebbels. After the war he was convicted of treason, but was let off the execution sentence due to his old age and (supposed) mental decline. On top of this impressive C.V., by all accounts Hamsun was also possessed of a mercurial and brutish character and was a nasty husband to two wives.
Yet, yet: I am a great admirer of Hamsun’s books.
For decades in the early 20th century Hamsun was hailed as Norway’s national bard and considered one of the greatest novelists in the world. He earned the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1920 for his epic novel Growth of the Soil, and by that time he had already published masterworks Hunger, Mysteries, and Pan. For his psychological depth he was praised as the "Dostoyevsky of the North" and was rhapsodized in print by the likes of Henry Miller and Thomas Mann. Hemingway recommended him to F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Herman Hesse called him his favorite writer.
It raises an interesting question: How are we readers to deal with this reputational disparity? Which outrages of conscience are we expected to pardon in our artists—or at least ignore—and which should terminally alter the way in which we consider and consume their art?
The problem of the misbehaving artist is not new. All of our bookshelves (and movie collections, and wall art) likely are filled with works by drunks, eccentrics, adulterers, misanthropes, and worse. It’s clear that we patrons are willing to forgive our artists a great deal of personal depravity and moral laxity as long as the art is good enough. W.H. Auden dealt with this problem in his brilliant elegy In Memory of W.B. Yeats:
Time that is intolerant
Of the brave and the innocent,
And indifferent in a week
To a beautiful physique,
Worships language and forgives
Everyone by whom it lives;
Pardons cowardice, conceit,
Lays its honours at their feet.
Time that with this strange excuse
Pardoned Kipling and his views,
And will pardon Paul Claudel,
Pardons him for writing well.
But what of those guilty of more than cowardice and conceit, or in the case of Kipling and Claudel, an ambivalent colonial legacy and far-right-wing Catholicism, respectively? Can we so praise the work of a man, like Knut Hamsun, who supported and espoused such uniquely repellent ideas? As the reviewer notes, a bum is one thing, but "what happens if a writer is something worse than a bum? How does a work of literary art stand in relation to its author if its author is truly abhorrent?"
It’s hard to form a ready rule or principle. Might it matter that all of Hamsun’s best works were written decades before the rise of the Nazis, and bore no thematic trace or hint of his later fascism? Can I say I like the movie Chinatown, because it was made three years before Roman Polanski became a fugitive after being indicted for drugging and raping a 13 year-old girl? Was the Economist right, uncouth, or both, when it declared Leni Riefenstahl the "greatest female filmmaker of the 20th century." Knut Hamsun, mercifully, never supported the Nazi’s racial theories, but what of those who did? Can one admire the work of Ezra Pound or Louis-Ferdinand Céline (the latter an old favorite of mine) even though they both turned out to be hysterical anti-Semites?
It’s interesting to see how the reputations of these various rogues and reprobates wax and wane over the years. Roman Polanski of course is not wanting for Hollywood and European apologists, despite my enduring hope that he’ll die in prison, where he will perhaps have experienced the same sodomitic fate he visited upon poor Samantha Geimer in 1977. (Though Polanski’s case is perhaps sui generis, since he is an active fugitive from justice for an unspeakable crime. The moral crimes of artistic cranks and political extremists and even collaborationists seem a difference of kind, not just degree, no?)
Knut Hamsun’s reputation has undergone a steep rehabilitation in recent years in his native Norway, after decades of deep ambivalence and public hostility. Last year his home town of Hamaroey celebrated the first annual Hamsun Days, a six-day festival of seminars and exhibitions dedicated to the writer. The festival coincided with the opening of Norway’s first Knut Hamsun museum, the ceremony of which was attended by Norway’s Crown Princess. They’ve even issued a Knut Hamsun postage stamp. Things are looking up for the old fascist bastard.
Works of art are discrete physical manifestations and it is easy for us to disassociate them from biographical or political context if we so choose. Whether we choose to or not, I suppose I agree with the reviewer’s conclusion: it’s hard to pin down an overriding intellectual principle here; it’s just a question of ad hoc personal comfort.