ENIGMA

The Life of Knut Hamsun By Robert Ferguson

Farrar Straus Giroux. 453 pp. $30

IN KAFKA'S Diary for September 1911 he records this anecdote, told to him by the morbid Czech artist Alfred Kubin: "He grins mockingly for no reason. During the conversation, without interrupting it, he put one foot on his neck, took a large pair of paper-shears from the table, and trimmed the frayed edges of his trousers."

This was Knut Hamsun at his Berlin publishers, Langen. He had conquered the world of Scandinavian letters -- not as fast as he would have liked, but with extreme low cunning and sureness -- with his early novels Hunger, Mysteries and Pan, in the early 1890s. He began at the bottom, alienated almost everybody who mattered, absolutely refused to keep his shockingly iconoclastic ideas to himself -- yet crept and crawled disgustingly to the very people whose reputations he felt it necessary to shoot down, so that he might the more quickly establish himself in a position where he could shoot them down the more effectively . . . And he won. Nor did he ever climb down or mellow. By the turn of the century he was Scandinavia's great young writer, respected everywhere -- except by himself.

Until he effortlessly took the Nobel Prize in 1920 (it does come easier to Scandinavians), after which he became more creatively predictable but not less personally provocative, Hamsun went around behaving in the way Kubin had described (even if he could not actually get his foot right on his neck): just like "a bohemian author," a pose and a profession he affected to, and indeed in one part of himself did, deeply despise.

Few European novelists writing in the heyday of naturalism -- which was, among many other things, the exercise of romantic relish in the delineation of objective squalor -- are as thrilling as Hamsun is in his first novels, and is in Mysteries in particular. Mainly influenced by Dostoevsky, but from scratch startingly original too, he went further even than Zola: his field of enquiry was not only that of poverty and deprivation, but also that of the mind in its secret wanderings.

He was the first overtly phenomenological novelist, the first to deal, with unabashed candor, with such questions of identity as, "Are we anybody at all?" "Are we all liars and cheats?" "How can any motive be altruistic?" He seemed to respectable -- but also to not so respectable -- Norwegians to be a nihilist; to an extent he was. Yet he was also a strict traditionalist, a "man of the soil" in the good old Norwegian tradition, a tradition that had no time at all for writers, scamps or tramps (he had been all three). Nor did that rugged, unpleasant, suspicious and soured side of him have time for them, either. He desperately needed to be famous, yet needed as much to be not merely independent but actually hated and even despised. He understood the half-crazy genius Strindberg and of course got on very badly with him. He was mean and generous, hateful and charming -- the original crazy mixed-up kid, but quite obviously a genius, and one well able to look after himself in a way that Strindberg certainly couldn't.

Those who have not read those first novels (they now exist in good translations) have awaiting them the shock of true discovery -- of themselves as well as of much else. The man who hated everyone wrote almost incomparably well and excitingly about the joys of being alive. To read of Nagel in Mysteries is to understand almost for the first time what it is to feel young, defiant and different. But that novel is also a masterpiece of subtle construction; interior monologue in it is like interior monologue never had been or will be again.

BUT THERE has been no good biography of Hamsun, until now, even in Norwegian. It has taken an enthusiastic and very highly intelligent English critic to do it. Of course, there have been some excellent specialist studies, but nothing at all on this general level. Why?

Alas, because Hamsun was an enthusiastic supporter of the Norwegian Nazis, and of Hitler -- whom during the war he visited. Scandinavians have therefore very naturally been inhibited about writing of him. He is, after all, quintessentially one of them, and they don't like to think of themselves as being like that. Nor indeed are they. But is this vileness, they ask themselves, a price we must pay to achieve such piercing knowledge, such lyricism? Sweden wasn't occupied by the Nazis, so its people had rather less difficulty with their pro-Nazi travel writer and explorer Sven Hedin, who was anyway not of similar calibre. Hamsun successfully interceded for many Norwegians during the war, but pretended after it that "he had not known" (an old and tired excuse: he had known very well). He was so old that the Norwegians merely fined him a huge amount, and sent him for a time to an old people's home. They have forgiven him now, because he was a very great writer; but they did not do so until recently, and none of them will have any truck with his Nazism. It is profoundly disturbing that he could be so great a writer and a Nazi. But with the turn of the century his writing did go off: his lapse, which Robert Ferguson does all he can to explain as an impulse to obstinacy and need to shock gone somehow wildly wrong, will simply remain as a hideous slur on a shining reputation.

No need to worry about the value of this book. It is scholarly, very readable, warm, intelligent, shrewd, refreshingly unpretentious, invaluable, essential. A magnificent achievement.

Martin Seymour-Smith is the author of "Robert Graves: His Life and Work" and "The New Guide to Modern World Literature."