Knut Hamsun’s “Victoria” & E-books vs. Audiobooks

I recently read and enjoyed the Nobel Prize winner Knut Hamsun’s poetic novella, Victoria (1898).  The style is graceful and melancholy, and though we may feel uneasy about the alternation of ecstasy and torment in the pre-pharmacological/electronic age, Hamsun moodily explores the difference between intense emotions and real experience.

This is the kind of book you love in adolescence.  I was discomfited by Hamsun’s romanticism, but I also felt nostalgic for a simpler time. The lyrical Norwegian novelist’s books were in vogue in the seditious ’70s, when I found them at used bookstores, drawn to the psychedelic/pop art covers.

From what I remember of that more idealistic time, I liked anything offbeat or rebellious.  And there is an underlying theme of resistance in his strange little novels.  Dreamy prose, romanticism, class differences, alienation:  Victoria had all the components, and the style was elegant.   This time around I read the Penguin, translated by Sverre Lyngstad in 2005.

Hamsun asks questions about love and idealism.  Can you fall in love and maintain a passion unconsummated? The poet-hero, Johannes, a miller’s son, is obsessed with Victoria, a neighbor at the castle.  When asked as a child to row Victoria in a boat with her brother and a snobbish friend to the island, he plans to show her the caves, the quarry, and birds’ eggs.  But the class-conscious (and brutal) Otto, a 15-year-old “gentleman,”  treats Johannes like a servant, and tells him to go back and mind the boat. Johannes is surprised but not disheartened because he lives in his imagination.

As the years go by, Johannes and Victoria admit on various occasions that they love each other, but drift apart. Johannes returns to the city and becomes a successful poet.  One day he runs into her while she is spending a few days in town.  And in one of many beautiful passages, Hamsun describes their not-quite chance meeting.

A day in September.

This out-of-the-way street was his favorite promenade; here he strolled as in his own room, because he never met anybody, and there were gardens behind both sidewalks, with trees having red and yellow leaves.

How come Victoria is walking here?  What can have brought her this way?  He was not mistaken, it was she; and perhaps it was she who had walked there yesterday evening, when he looked out the window.

Victoria tells him she has read his poetry, and he emphasizes that the poems are about her. He notices she is wearing a ring, and asks if she is engaged to Otto, now a lieutenant. She is tight-lipped about this, and seems angry that he brings it up.  Before they part, she tells him that she loves him.

And nothing comes of it. Victoria is engaged to Otto. She expects Johannes to marry Camilla, a beautiful young girl he saved from drowning.  And in one of the most grueling scenes in the novel, they misunderstand each other at her engagement party.

It ends in tragedy.  How could it otherwise? Ironically, the writer survives, but Victoria dies.  Nineteenth-century writers often kill off women. Will Johannes be able to write again?  Of course he will.

No, it’s a lovely book, but not quite for me at this time of life.

Coincidentally, the 19th-century Swedish novel, Niels Lyhne, by Jens Peter Jacobsen, tells a similar story, with a poet at its center and doomed love.  Was this the Scandinavian love story of the 19th century? (It was a coincidence that I read these two together.  And I thoroughly enjoyed Niels Lyhne, too.)


Publishers tell us book sales are thriving.  Well, if they say so.  Judging from our independent bookstores, which stock fewer  titles every time I visit,  the physical book has not quite triumphed.

E-book sales are flat, but reporters gloss over the publishers’ control of the (now high) pricing of e-books, which cost as much as paperbacks. Books are much nicer, granted, but e-books have their advantage, in terms of lightness and the size of type.

The studies say people don’t understand what they read on e-readers. I wonder what on earth they mean. The experience may not be quite as pleasant, but type is type.

And I wonder why audiobooks aren’t studied and compared to books.    The experience of listening to a book is even further from the experience of reading a book.

But then I figured it out.  Audiobooks are expensive!