So, we begin with what I’m hoping will be an occasionally-recurring theme in this blog: Unsung Reads or Writers. These are books or their writers who have little or no name recognition among today’s reading public for any of several reasons: They got lost in the shuffle of the many good-to-great writers, their styles aren’t popular, they’re from parts of the world that aren’t popular, or they’ve been buried under the sands of time. However, those who have tickled a strand of these writers’ webs and works found that they were caught. And they gladly stayed.
Today, we focus on Knut Hamsun’s novel Pan.
If you’re asking “Who? What?” you’re not alone. Despite having a healthy number of followers on Goodreads (864), Hamsun novels don’t sit on many readers’ bookshelves. He was an intense character in real life, full of great contradiction, bright lights and deep shadows. For a good, non-Wikipedian read about him, I recommend Don Waters’ essay published on the Tin House blog .
Pan was an acknowledged masterpiece when it was released in 1894 and has retained that reputation, but Waters glides over Pan in order to worship at the altar of Hamsun’s sainted novel, Hunger (1890). He can be forgiven for that; nearly all contemporary commenters on Hamsun’s work do the same thing. Hunger is raw, intense, as dichotomous as Hamsun himself, with a main character who sucks you in and makes you sick all at the same time. This unnamed character (loosely autobiographical of Hamsun himself) has more purchase in our tell-all obsession in this day and age. Hunger could be a long series of Facebook posts.
But Pan offers so much more. It’s a challenging work because, seemingly, nothing happens. Like the mythical god Pan, Thomas Glahn wanders in the woods and whiles away his days floating along to the rhythms of nature. Then he falls in love with Edvarda, which pulls him out of his world (she represents society – Hamsun is not above clichéd symbolism). When he abandons his natural rhythms, well, you can guess what happens.
What is so revolutionary about Pan is that it’s the mind, not the body, that draws you in. The novel is a stunning exploration of thought, not in form, like Ulysses, but in rhythm. Thomas is a man who is perfectly comfortable in his own world, and Hamsun makes the reader comfortable in it, as well. The life Thomas lives in the woods is so individual and yet typical that it feels like the life you live in your own world, the rhythms you follow, the natural way you go about a routine day. In short, Thomas’s world becomes your world. Hamsun captures you and draws you in until you become Thomas.
Then slowly, Thomas is drawn into another world, one he doesn’t know and in which he isn’t comfortable. That’s when Hamsun cuts you away. You’re outside again, where you started, seeing what’s coming, what’s going to happen, how this is going to end. It’s an old theme, after all. But Thomas doesn’t know what’s coming. You’ve been inside this man’s head and felt the love and comfort he felt when his life was in tune. But now, Thomas is rushing toward the Falls in a very leaky barrel. And you have to watch.
There are books who make us sympathize with characters, empathize with characters, love and/or hate their characters, make us wish we were those characters, but not in my experience has there been a novel that makes us that character, gives us the experience of another’s inner rhythms of life so completely. Thomas is the everyday Everyman, and reading this novel is an experience that is, if not unique, then extremely rare.