I know I should be spending my free time writing something that isn’t this blog. I know I should have already begun learning some useful Russian before my trip there in June. I know I should be practising my Spanish, I know I should go and do some exercise, go and visit my family, spend time with neglected friends, improve my cooking repertoire, watch some art house cinema, sort through my possessions, write a rap song, drag up, do some literary readings, go and enrol on a wine-tasting course, re-edit both of the unpublished novels I’ve written and try to get them published, and there’s even a part of me that thinks I should be dedicating more of my free time to my job, which already takes up 60+ hours a week.
There is no part of me that thinks I should be reading more books. I’ve read enough. I’ve read thousands of books in my life, and though I may own about 60 I’m yet to read, there is no pressure from anyone (including myself) to get through them. I should be using my non-work time constructively.
HOWEVER, that is absolutely impossible when I’m constantly made aware of the joys of reading. Every time I read a shit book (like Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge or Sartre’s Nausea) I do feel like I’m wasting my life, but every time I dive into a glorious text (like Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake or anything by Proust) I am reminded why it is that I read so much. There is no greater pleasure in the world (for me*) than reading a good novel. There is nothing like feeling your soul moved, your emotions evoked and the ache of existence captured in a literary form. There is nothing as good as language to recall the sensuality of love, the pain of rejection, the blundering stupidity caused by pride, the hunger for the future, the optimism of youth and the apathy of age, the desperation caused by avarice, lust, jealousy, the collapse of a life but, equally, the exaltation of another.
I’m being pretentious, I know, but I picked up Knut Hamsun’s Victoria as a bit of a risk. I visited Oslo a couple of months ago and since then I’ve read another volume of Knausgaard’s My Struggle, which references Hamsun a lot: the writer was on my mind. I bought this from a book shop as it was thin, and I’ve been reading too many long books lately. And it turned out to be great.
This piece of Norwegian modernism is very simple in terms of plot – man falls in love with wealthy woman, she likes him but is betrothed to a man of her class, the fiancé dies, but the poorer man has by this point already become engaged, the woman dies of heartbreak. The plot, yes, does date the text to its inception in the 1890s, but the narrative style and the structure belie something a little bit later. The narrative focus is mainly upon Johannes, a son of a miller who becomes a respected poet. He is in love with the daughter of the local lord of the manor, who is deeply in debt and relying on a moneyed son-in-law to help him plug his financial holes. Johannes’ parents appear as kind and considerate members of a community, Johannes is introverted but not anti-social, Victoria wants Johannes but is bound by familial loyalty to a wealthy military man.
The central lovers share only one kiss in the entire text, but it is rapturous and Hamsun manages to capture the sense of potential happiness and bottomless sensuality contained in any good kiss. The narrative leaps about through time, ever forwards, but with occasional sojourns to exterior characters, mentioned once, who embody short examples of different kinds of love – romantic, sexual, familial, others I can’t think of off the top of my head. These passages, which occur at odd moments and deliberately break up the flow of the main story, are powerful. More than one made me cry, and one (about a man broken by discovery of his wife’s infidelity who then sees physical evidence of her actions and is moved, unexpectedly, to heated desire) was particularly alarming and 21st-century in the ideas it explores.
These asides – which warm the text and elevate it – feel like the kind of thing that contemporary writers such as Adam Thirlwell do. It’s not a new device – they are parables, they exist in the fucking bible – the play within the play that cuts through to the essential truth of the larger work. Hamsun uses parable and a rather conservative narrative arc to, somehow, say something relevant and interesting about desire. Victoria was a youth hit in its day, and I can see why. Gently experimental, but full of the excitement and passion and pain of any kind of love affair (particularly a youthful one), it is fun and engaging and just perceptive enough to still be readable and relateable a century and a bit later.
At some point, I will read more Hamsun, because I really enjoyed this. However, there are so many more things I should be getting on with that it won’t happen for a while.
Victoria is a great read. Quick, snappy, emotive and wise. Pretty much exactly what I hope for from anything written pre-dirty realism.
* Most people prefer food, sex or intoxication, or some kind of gluttonous, heady, horny combination of the three.