Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Strange book from a soldier's rucksack

Bookworms who travel tend to fall in love with unlikely and unpromising places on the strengths of one really great used bookstore. There is a bend in the road in the Hudson Valley I will never forget, a storefront in downtown Omaha, and a big ugly box on the outskirts of Fort Bragg: that would be Edward McKay Used Books.

I'll admit it lends romance that it's in a military town, Fayetteville, North Carolina. My first crack at college came courtesy of the U.S. Navy, and I spent one summer on a helo carrier, reading in my rack like a fiend. Most of my fellow sailors invested their wages and time in obscure porn (long before the internet age, without seeking any of it out, I had seen it all ...), but there were plenty of adventurous readers on the USS Saipan.

Fort Bragg is home to the 82nd Airborne Division and the Special Operations Command. If it's hot out there somewhere, they have been there, doing dangerous things. I'm hardly a military worshipper, and I have opposed much of our foreign policy that has ended up in troop deployments, but I won't deny a certain romance attached to shopping at Edward McKay and thinking that many of these treasures must have literally parachuted at one time into a theater of war and kept a soldier company until he could get back home, hopefully alive.

There is, of course, no romance at all attached to the fact that at least some of these artifacts must have been brought in by a widow or rack mate, who had no use for a dead soldier's library or simply couldn't stand to look at any of his things anymore.

I just spent a week with extended family on the outskirts of Fort Bragg, not the first visit, and as usual my luggage came home about thirty pounds heavier with used books. The first of them I've finished, Pan (1956) by the Norwegian writer Knut Hamsun (translated by James W. McFarlane), would make an apt but strange soldier's companion.

Apt, because the hero is a military man, Lieutenant Thomas Glahn, who spends much of his time in lonely outposts - though he occupies his mind by reading the book of nature, rather than any work of author origin. His observations are often startlingly poetic: "A little green caterpillar loops its way along a branch, without pause, as though it could not rest. It scarcely sees anything, although it has eyes; often it rears up and feels the air for something to catch hold of; it looks like a bit of green thread slowly stitching a seam along the branch."

It was for language like that, picked out by random page flips, that I bought the slim book. Any bookworm soldier who did the same before me would soon have been surprised to find himself in the tangles of a dark mind. The hero is a military man, apparently retired, and a hunter, but he doesn't limit himself to shooting game. After one outburst with a woman he loves and fears, he shoots himself in the foot. After another, when he has decided to go away, and she has asked if she can keep his dog (Aesop) to remember him by, he shoots his dog and has the corpse delivered to her.

Of course, I'm a strange person who is drawn to strange art, so the book pleased me greatly. Lt Glahn reminded me of the oddball heroes conjured up by my favorite prose writer, Robert Walser, who was Swiss. No wonder. Both Hamsun and Walser were Northern European wanderers who had known the loneliest roads and the deepest solitudes, positions of servitude and difficulty in overcoming all of this awesome aloneness to connect with another, especially a woman, and they transferred these experiences onto their narrators and heroes.

An American reader would probably be surprised and impressed, as I was, to learn that this obscure (to us) Norwegian writer won a Nobel Prize in his day. An American soldier would, I hope, be appalled to learn that Hamsun later sent his Nobel medal to the Nazi Joseph Goebbels, and that he met personally with the Fuhrer. That meeting was, apparently, a comic scene, as the mostly deaf novelist struggled to make his case to the grisly dictator, mostly offering petty complaints about the Nazi occupation of Norway. Nobody was laughing, back home. His flirtation with the Nazis made Hamsun the subject of bookburnings. He remains a local hero Norwegians love to hate.

I would like to think in some distant internet cafe, a sleepless solider on furlough made these same discoveries about Knut Hamsun, searching for information about the author of this powerful, peculiar book. I would like to imagine that he had by his side the very same copy of the very same edition of the book that I have just finished. I hope that he made it home, alive, and passed along this Pan to the next traveler through Edward McKay, because, after all, a soldier has to travel light, especially a paratrooper, and he would be needing new books for his next journey, his next jump.


Samuel said...

Pan - what a wonderful book. Love the opening line: "These last few days I have been thinking of the Nordland summer, with its endless day."

Among contemporary writers I understand that Per Petterson has a strong link to Hamsun, but I've never read him to know. A couple years back Gerard Donovan wrote a novel called Julius Winsom which was directly influenced by Pan. That's a wonderful book too.

Interesting that you noted a Walser connection. I mentioned Hamsun, together with Thomas Mann, in the review of The Assistant I wrote for the Quarterly Conversation. I was half hoping to be called out on that - since Hamsun isn't a German writer, and you might think that Walser wouldn't have encountered him - except for the now little-known fact that Hamsun was immensely popular in the Germany of Walser's time. I think it's almost certain that he read him, although I'm not aware of any mention of Hamsun in his prose pieces or conversations.

Coincidentally, I happened just last week to see the 1996 film "Hamsun," with Max von Sydow playing Hamsun in his Nazi-plagued dotage. Good film, based in part on his late memoir, "On Overgrown Paths."


Confluence City said...

Thanks, Samuel. I'll be sure to follow these tributaries back out from the confluence. I reviewed my former classmate Susan Bernofsky's first Walser novel translation (The Robber) when it was new (it's magnificent), and in fact her translation of The Assistant was awaiting me in the mail when I returned from Fort Bragg. It's in my satchel, and next on my list. I plan to read it some over a beer this evening! And, of course, review it here if nowhere else.