STEPHEN CRANE READ HIM (Hunger) during a visit to the British Isles. Ernest Hemingway recommended him (Growth of the Soil) to Scott Fitzgerald. Thomas Wolfe studied him carefully for clues to the primitive forces hidden in personality, and Henry Miller read him and discovered "another version of my own life."

He was a lover of the sensitive and shiftless in man and of the majestic terrain man covered, but he may have been the shyest sensualist ever to write a story or poem. He kept telling stories until the end and wished he wouldn't have to die, but he often lived as a recluse. On his 70th birthday -- this was long after he had received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1920 -- he went into hiding for three days rather than accept in the presence of reporters a silver trophy from the Norwegian Society of Writers.

He once asked, "Isn't culture really the education of the heart?" but welcomed the Nazi invasion of his native land, for which the Norwegian government fined him as a collaborator in 1948. He was 89 at the time.

Knut Hamsun (1859-1952), like Walt Whitman, contradicted himself and embraced multitudes. He was supremely compassionate, a magnificent storyteller and a puzzlement. A naturalist and a romantic, a political conservative and spiritual radical, Hamsun fits no quick literary category and suits no fashion. It's likely his fiction would have got lost somewhere in Minnesota long ago except for the persistent efforts of Farrar, Straus and Giroux in bringing his works -- seven novels now -- to modern American readers.

Wayfarers is as good a place as any to start reading Hamsun or to continue the pursuit of his wisdom. It was written seven years after he received the Nobel Prize. Nostalgically, Hamsun turned back -- after decades of literary and economic struggle, in Norway and the U.S., where he had worked as a farm hand and Chicago street car conductor -- to his sources in the Atlantic fishing villages and impoverished farms of northwestern Norway.

In writing Wayfarers Hamsun appears to have been searching through his early wanderings and sensual hungers for the ideological roots of his spiritual independence. Perhaps he also had in mind a more mature and calculated response than appeared in Hunger to the phenomenon known as progress. Things and money don't make his people happy. Changes in the conditions of life have less to do with inner tranquility than the qualities of human contact. But relatively little of Wayfarers dwells on "being torn up by the roots from our own poor soil and set down in a richer one -- and nevertheless yearning to be back in the poorer." Rather it's an attitude or mood that emerges gradually and finally prevails.

Wayfarers is a long, meandering novel filled with stories and events from the early life of Edevart Andresen, third son of a poor Norwegian watcher of telegraph lines. It's around 1880 and Edevart is 15 as Wayfarers opens and he begins his picaresque adventures with an irrepressible liar, girl-chaser and inept sailor named August. When the novel closes perhaps 10 years later Edevart has experienced most of the rites of passage from adolescence to adulthood possible in the semi-literate provincial society he has inherited. He has deceived and been deceived. He has made and lost money. He has seen death and murder. He has robbed a grave, commanded a ship, and lived by his wits as clerk, peddler, fisherman, farmer. He has loved passionately and been wounded by it. pAnd one day he simply disappears from the old village. Perhaps Edevart heads for America to find Lovise Magrete Doppen again. (He has inherited 400 kroner from a Jewish watch peddler he once defended.) Or possibly he has returned to the farm he accepted as collateral from Lovise Magrete and her husband.

"What about Edevart? God alone knew," says Hamsun. "What he needed, what might have helped him was not something that could be achieved by a single day's work. The crab needed patiently to retrace its long journey back to where it might find its head again."

Wayfarers is a novel that tells what it was like, if you were sensitive and curious, to grow up long ago in a society about to be turned upside down by knowledge and technology. It also suggests chance, persistence, ecstasy, loss as the composing elements of life wherever it may be led.

While Wayfarers sometimes appears to be one loosely tied yarn connected still more loosely to another, there's a binding thread running through it from start to finish. It's the idea of quest as the drive that moves our lives forward. Life urges us toward more. More of everything. The old or familiar is as precious as the new or diferent. But we may not know it. We are wayfarers voyaging through time and cannot reverse ourselves.

What we need to make the journey in its fullest, Hamsun implies, is a compelling affection. Or failing that, a sense of the immense possibilities of the journey. All of which is easily enough said. The trick is in showing it through men and women acting out lives. Such is the genius of Knut Hamsun.