Sunday, October 04, 2015

Summer nights and still water

My copy of Pan: the 1983 Folio edition with wood engravings by Fredrik Matheson

Knut Hamsun described to a correspondent in his imperfect English the theme of his novel Pan (1894): “Think of the Nordland in Norway, this regions of the Lapper, the mysteries, the grand superstitions, the midnight-sun, think of J. J. Rousseau in the regions, making acquaintance with a Nordlands girl — that is my book.”*  This 'J. J. Rousseau' figure is as strangely driven as Rousseau himself, living alone in a hut and exploring the surrounding mountains and forests whilst torturing himself over a young woman.  Looking back I see I have only mentioned Knut Hamsun's writing here once before and that was in connection with the poisoning of a dog (in his novel Mysteries) rather than in relation to landscape.  Regrettably another dog meets a similar fate in Pan but rather than dwell on that I will recommend here the novel's poetic descriptions of the Nordland landscape, as it emerges from the snows of spring into the heat of summer until eventually the sunlit nights are over and darkness returns. This for example, is the beginning of Chapter 13 (from a 1927 translation in the public domain), full of rapture but with an undercurrent of unease:
Summer nights and still water, and the woods endlessly still. No cry, no footsteps from the road. My heart seemed full as with dark wine.
Moths and night-flies came flying noiselessly in through my window, lured by the glow from the hearth and the smell of the bird I had just cooked. They dashed against the roof with a dull sound, fluttered past my ears, sending a cold shiver through me, and settled on my white powder-horn on the wall. I watched them; they sat trembling and looked at me—moths and spinners and burrowing things. Some of them looked like pansies on the wing.
I stepped outside the hut and listened. Nothing, no noise; all was asleep. The air was alight with flying insects, myriads of buzzing wings. Out at the edge of the wood were ferns and aconite, the trailing arbutus was in bloom, and I loved its tiny flowers... Thanks, my God, for every heather bloom I have ever seen; they have been like small roses on my way, and I weep for love of them... Somewhere near were wild carnations; I could not see them, but I could mark their scent.
But now, in the night hours, great white flowers have opened suddenly; their chalices are spread wide; they are breathing. And furry twilight moths slip down into their petals, making the whole plant quiver. I go from one flower to another. They are drunken flowers. I mark the stages of their intoxication.

Seascape from the 1995 Henning Carlsen film adaptation,
starring a young Sofie Gråbøl 

* Quote from a piece on Hamsun in the New Yorker

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