“I take to writing things down for my own amusement and to pass the time…”: knut hamsun’s pan

“Rain or blow, no matter; often on a rainy day some little joy will take possession of you and make you steal away with your happiness. You stand there staring straight ahead, laughing softly now and then and looking around. What are you thinking of? A clear pane in some window, a ray of sunlight on the pane, the view of a small creek and perhaps a break of blue in the sky. It need be no more.”

 

book cover of 

Pan 

by

Knut Hamsun 


 

PAN

By Knut Hamsun

I

I’ve thought and thought, these last few days, about the endless day of the Nordland summer. I sit here and think about it, about a hut I lived in, and about the forest behind the hut, and I take to writing things down for my own amusement and to pass the time. Time hangs heavy, I can’t make it pass as quickly as I would like, though I have no regrets and lead the merriest of lives. I’m quite content with everything, and thirty is no great age. A few days ago I received a pair of bird’s feathers from far away, from someone who was under no obligation to send them to me—two green feathers in a sheet of letter paper with a coronet on it and sealed with a wafer. It gave me real pleasure to see those two feathers, so devilishly green. Otherwise I have no complaints, except for a touch of rheumatism in my left foot now and then, from an old gunshot wound that has long since healed.

Two years ago, I remember, time passed very quickly, more quickly by far than now; the summer was gone before I realized it. It was two years ago, in 1855—I’m going to write about it just to amuse myself—that something happened to me, or I dreamed it. By now I’ve forgotten many things that are part of those happenings, because I have hardly ever thought of them since; but I can remember that the nights were very light. Also, many things seemed to be so out of joint: the year had twelve months, but night became day and you never saw a star in the sky. And the people I met were peculiar and of a different nature than the people I used to know; sometimes a single night was enough to change them from child to adult, making them come out in all their glory, mature and fully grown. There was nothing magical in this, I just hadn’t seen anything like it before. No, I hadn’t.

In a large white-painted house down by the sea I met someone who for a while occupied my thoughts. She is no longer constantly in my thoughts, not now—no, I’ve quite forgotten her; but I do think of all the other things, the cries of the sea birds, going hunting in the woods, my nights, all the warm hoursof summer. Anyway, I got to know her by pure chance, and if not for that chance she wouldn’t have been in my thoughts for a single day.

From my hut I could see a scattering of islands and rocks and skerries, a bit of the sea, a few bluish peaks; and behind the hut lay the forest, a vast forest. I was filled with joy and gratitude at the fragrance of the roots and leaves and the fatty odor of the pine, reminiscent of the smell of marrow; only in the woods was all at rest within me, my soul became still and full of power. Day after day I would walk in the hills with Aesop at my side, and I wished for nothing better than being allowed to continue walking there day after day, though the ground was still half covered with snow and soft slush. My only companion was Aesop; now there’s Cora, but at that time I had Aesop, my dog, whom I later shot.

In the evening when I returned to the hut after the hunt, I would often feel a warm sense of home ripple through me from top to toe, setting off sweet tremors in my heart, and I would chat with Aesop about how well-off we were. “Come, now we’ll make a fire and roast ourselves a bird on the hearth,” I would say, “what do you say to that?” And when it was all done and we had both eaten, Aesop crept over to his place behind the hearth, while I would light a pipe and lie down on my bed for a few moments and listen to the dead soughing of the forest. There was a slight breeze, the wind bearing down on the hut, and I could hear quite clearly the call of the blackcock far away in the hills. Other than that, all was quiet.

And many a time I fell asleep where I lay, fully clad, in my togs, just as I was, and didn’t awake until the sea birds had started crying. Then, when I looked out the window, I could catch a glimpse of the large white buildings of the trading center, the piers of Sirilund, and the general store where I used to buy my bread, and I would lie there awhile, surprised to find myself in a hut at the edge of a forest in Nordland.

Then Aesop would shake his long, spare body over by the hearth, jingling his collar, yawning and wagging his tail, and I would jump up after my three or four hours’ sleep, refreshed and rejoicing in everything, everything.

Thus passed many a night.

II

Rain or blow, no matter; often on a rainy day some little joy will take possession of you and make you steal away with your happiness. You stand there staring straight ahead, laughing softly now and then and looking around. What are you thinking of? A clear pane in some window, a ray of sunlight on the pane, the view of a small creek and perhaps a break of blue in the sky. It need be no more.

At other times even unusual experiences cannot jolt you out of a flat, impoverished mood; in the middle of a ballroom you may sit stolid and indifferent, unaffected by anything. For the source of grief or joy lies within.

I remember a certain day. I had gone down to the seaside. Surprised by the rain, I went into an open boathouse to sit for a while. I hummed a little, but without joy or zest, just to pass the time. Then Aesop, who was with me, sat up to listen, and I stop humming and listen too. There are voices outside, some people are coming. A chance thing, nothing out of the ordinary! A party of two men and a girl came bursting into the place. They shouted to one another, laughing, “Quick! We can take shelter here awhile.”

I got up.

One of the men was wearing a white unstarched shirt front that was now baggy to boot, having been soaked by the rain; to this wet shirt front was pinned a diamond clip. On his feet he had long pointed shoes that looked somewhat foppish. I bowed to the man, it was Mr. Mack, the trader; I recognized him from the store where I’d bought bread. He had even invited me to call on him at home sometime, but I hadn’t been there yet.

“Ah, we’ve met before!” he said, when he noticed me. “We were on our way out to the mill, but had to turn back. Some weather, eh? But when are you coming to Sirilund, Lieutenant?” He introduced the little black-bearded man who was with him, a doctor living near the chapel-of-ease.

The girl raised her veil a bit, up on her nose, and started talking to Aesop in a low voice. I noticed her jacket and could tell by the lining and the buttonholes that it had been dyed. Mr. Mack introduced her also, she was his daughter, Edvarda.

Edvarda threw a glance at me through her veil and went on whispering to the dog, reading what it said on his collar: “So, your name is Aesop, is it? . . . Doctor, who was Aesop? All I can remember is that he wrote fables. Wasn’t he a Phrygian? No, I don’t know.”

A child, a schoolgirl. I looked at her—she was tall but with no figure, around fifteen or sixteen, with long, dusky hands without gloves. Maybe she had looked up “Aesop” in an encyclopedia that very afternoon, to have a ready answer.

Mr. Mack questioned me about my hunting. What did I shoot mostly? I could have one of his boats at my disposal whenever I liked, I just had to let him know. The Doctor didn’t say a word. When the party left I noticed that the Doctor had a limp and used a stick.

I walked home in the same vacant mood as before, humming nonchalantly. This meeting in the boathouse hadn’t affected me one way or the other; what I remembered best of it all was Mr. Mack’s soaked shirt front with the diamond clip, that too wet and without much brilliance.

 

III

 

 

There was a rock in front of my hut, a tall, gray rock. By its looks it seemed to be well-disposed toward me, it was as if it saw me when I came by, and recognized me. I used to like walking past that rock when I went out in the morning, I felt as though I was leaving a good friend there, who would be waiting for me till I came back.

 

And up in the forest began the hunt. I might shoot something, or I might not.

 

Beyond the islands lay the sea in a leaden repose. I would watch it many a time from the hills, when I was high up; on calm days the ships barely moved, I would see the same sail for three days, small and white, like a gull on the water. But if the wind veered about, the mountains in the distance would almostdisappear, we were in for rough weather, a southwester, a drama to which I was a spectator. Spindrift veiled the horizon, earth and sky were confounded, the sea tossed in tortuous dances, forming men, horses and slashed banners in the air. I stood in the lee of a cliff thinking of all sorts of things, my soul was excited. God knows, I thought, what I’m witnessing today and why the sea opens before my eyes! Maybe at this moment I behold the interior of the earth’s brain, how it labors, everything seething! Aesop was restless, cocking his nose in the air and sniffing time and again, weather-sick, his legs quivering skittishly. But as I didn’t speak to him, he lay down between my feet and gazed out to sea just like me. And not a cry, no human voice to be heard anywhere, nothing but that dull roar around my head. Far out lay a reef, alone; when the waves crashed against that reef, they reared up like a crazy spiral, or rather like a sea-god rising, wet, into the air to survey the world, blowing snorts that made his hair and beard stand out from his head like the spokes of a wheel. Then he plunged down into the surf again.

 

And in the midst of the storm a little coal-black steamer was fighting its way in from the sea. . . .

 

When I went down to the dock in the afternoon, the little coal-black steamer had entered the harbor; it was the packet boat. There were many people on the jetty, come to take a look at the rare visitor; I noticed that they all, without exception, had blue eyes, however different they might be otherwise. A young girl with a white woolen kerchief around her head stood some way off; she had very dark hair, and the white kerchief formed a strange contrast to her hair. She looked inquisitively at me, at my leather clothes and my gun; when I spoke to her she became embarrassed and turned her head away. I said, “You should always wear that white kerchief, it suits you.” Just then she was joined by a heavy-limbed man in an Icelandic sweater, he called her Eva. Evidently she was his daughter. I knew the heavy-limbed man, he was the smith, the local blacksmith. He had installed a fresh nipple in one of my guns a few days ago. . . .

 

And rain and wind did their work and melted away the snow. For some days a cold, unsettled atmosphere hovered over the earth, rotten branches snapped, and the crows gathered in flocks and squawked. But it didn’t go on for long, the sun was near, one morning it rose behind the forest. A shaft of sweetness shoots through me from top to toe when the sun rises; I shoulder my gun in silent exultation.

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