Knut Hamsun: Batumi and Hamsun by Charles Kinney Jr.
The Black Sea is a micro-version of the Mediterranean: predominately Christian to the north, heavily Muslim to the South. Like the Mediterranean, the Black Sea links many different nations, languages and people. The cities on the Black Sea, Yalta, Sochi, Batumi, like Athens, Rome, Alexandria, have represented not only different ideologies and competing nations throughout history, but viewpoints of the people who have traveled there.
Batumi is Caucasus Georgia’s jewel in the crown. Tucked away in the southeast corner of the Black Sea, it is a thriving tourist metropolis. It is a lively, open place, where Georgia has the most contact with foreigners. They come for the sea, the sun, the wine and the warm hospitality of the Georgian people.
It is the same place that forged a strange but strong cultural link between Georgians and (oddly) Norwegians. Knut Hamsun (1859-1952) is recognized as one of the forefathers of stream of consciousness writing. Using interior monologue, now familiar to most readers, was revolutionary when Hamsun started using it. Norway’s King Haakon VII called Hamsun, “Norway’s soul.” His backlash against realism and naturalism was exciting, daring and controversial. He won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1920. He is credited with influencing some of the heavyweights of the genre of the 20th century, including Hemingway, Kafka, Hesse, and Miller.
Hamsun was also a travel writer. Given a grant by the Norwegian government, he traveled via Finland to Russia, to Azerbaijan, Armenia and finally to Georgia, with the prize being Batumi and the Black Sea. It was this trip that inspired “I Æventyrland – opplevet og drømt I Kaukasien” (In Wonderland – Experiences and Dreams in the Caucausus) in 1899.
The sea and the travel opened Hamsun’s eyes and allowed him to create beauty. 100 years later, his book is widely read in multiple languages by visitors to Batumi. The Georgians have an infinity for a man from a far-off mysterious land who praised Georgia and Georgian society. The Georgian Hamsun Society counts over 100 members, and plaques, such as AN OUTSTANDING NORWEGIAN WRITER LIVED IN THIS BUILDING, honor Hamsun throughout Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital.
Somehow, there is always a somehow in literature, something happened to Hamsun’s vision. Batumi, like the rest of Georgia, was swept under the Soviets. It fell into stagnation and decline. Hamsun fell under the sway of the Nazis, including giving his Noble Prize medal to Joseph Gobbels and praising Hitler, all the while Norway was occupied by the Nazis. Hamsun even wrote a eulogy for Hitler, saying, “He was a warrior, a warrior for mankind, and a prophet of the gospel of justice for all nations.” Hamsun, put on trial for collaboration, fell into disrepute.
Batumi is hellbent on rebuilding itself at a breakneck pace, with the remnants of the Soviet era crumbling into nothingness. Norway, rich on oil and looking for international stature, has carefully re-cultivated Hamsun’s image. It opened the Knut Hamsun Center in 2009. Time makes (nearly) everyone forget.
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