Kakhaber Loria                                                                                                                                                                         # 6

The Puzzles of “In the Fairy Country”

 “This will be the best thing I have ever created” --- Knut Hamsun remarked while working on the book, which was finally called “In the Fairy Country- Felt and Dreamt in Caucasus”. The world-wide famous writer who already owned the whole cycle of masterpieces of 1890s, spent several years working on one of his best compositions.

“In the Fairy Country” is in many ways interesting book, but the complete idea still doesn’t exist about it. As for the difficulty of literary perception of this work, it is mainly caused by the relationship between empirical reality and artistic invention. At the first sight, “In the fairy country” is a description of traveling and a researcher of Hamsun’s biography or his works can’t avoid it. “Norwegian Dostoevsky” as Hamsun is often and fairly called really traveled in Caucasus with his first wife --- Bergljot Beck in 1899. It is also worth mentioning that Hamsun as a reader had a fascination towards describing trips as well as towards memoirs, hunting histories and the collection of letters. For example, in 1927 on the question of a famous publishing agency “Gyldendal”, which book he appreciated most of all, he responded without hesitation that “The History of a Polish Refugee” (author --- Rufin Piotrovski) was his favorite book, where the real escape from Siberia is described. Hamsun’s --- as a reader’s special interest towards documental literature is confirmed from different facts, as well as from the memoirs of his contemporaries. Moreover, in one of the letters a Norwegian master of word remarks: “I don’t know even one writer having done it like this (describing traveling – K.L.) Goethe, Hugo, Biornson […] Haine”. The fact that Ibsen has not created such a composition is one more

“obvious confirmation” that the latter should not be considered as a great writer. (Hamsun’s vituperating coming outs towards Ibsen are widely known).

Despite long wandering and living abroad, first in America: 1882-1884 and 1886-1888, later in Paris: 1893-1895 Hamsun, in his letter dated with July 29, 1902, considers the traveling in Caucasus to be the only trip in his life. He had been dreaming for such a “trip for a travel’s sake” long time, but sometimes the problem was money and sometimes other things. In 1899 his dream became true when he received a writing scholarship. It can be supposed that a lot of things from the above-mentioned provoked an extremely positive mood that accompanied the writer’s trip in Caucasus and later which was described in the book. Although, “In the Fairy Country’s” literary specificity can’t be explained only with such factual-empirical occasions. From this point of view it is important to draw an attention how Hamsun’s attitude towards this book is changing while working on it.

While traveling in Caucasus the brilliant Norwegian writer used to keep a diary and notes, took and collected rich photo materials. Thus, he was preparing to write a documental book and this is clearly shown in Hamsun’s letter addressed to his German friend and publisher --- Albert Langen. “It (the book) should have rich illustrations, I have got lot’s of wonderful photos with me” --- Hamsun wrote to him about his “Caucasian book” (as he first named the not-ended composition). He also informed his Finnish friend and a second-hand-book dealer --- Hagelstam from Venice: “My illustrated traveling book seems to published like brochures, simultaneously in “Gyldendal” and Munchen”. But finally, the book was neither published in brochures, nor in with illustrations. Time was passing and while working on the book Hamsun more and more separated from the traditional form and rules of the genre. The photos of different cities, local places of interest or photos of wonderful landscape were no more appropriate for the aesthetic side of the text. Little by little the book turned from “documental-actual to eternal-existential”(Martin Nag) and took the final form as “Hamsun’s Caucasian Mystery” (K.L.).

It is not occasional how the title of the literary work was improved. The so called “first draft” (“Caucasian book”) was of neutral character and was far away from any kind of mystery. But according this Hamsun’s final choice is wide dimensional. Hamsun gives an intrigue even in the title, he straightly hints on the high level of fantasy in the book. It should be noted as well that like number of European languages, the word dream has two semantic meanings in Norwegian. Thus, the title of the book in the original is more loaded and it in many ways reverberates to the semantic content of the composition itself.

Generally, it can be remarked that Hamsun not only masters the art of literary puzzles but he likes creating them very much. As for his biography (and traveling in Caucasus is a part of his biography), it is so turbulent, strange and full of contradictory moments, that not a single articles and books have been written about it. To one of these specially successful books the author --- Robert Ferguson called “A puzzle --- Knut Hamsun”. In this context Konstantin Gamsakhurdia’s incomparable essay on the great Norwegian should be mentioned as well, where the Georgian classic declares with his usual artistry: “Nagel was called an apostle of mystery (to the main hero of Hamsun’s brilliant novel --- “Mysteries --- K.L.) and Hamsun himself is obsessed with this wonderful whim”. But other Georgian literators could hardly understand Hamsun --- the man obsessed with the wonderful whim. For example, when the thing deals with the “fairy” adventure of the great writer in Caucasus. The thing is that “In the Fairy Country” a lot of things carry fairy nuance and Hamsun properly to the creator of irrational-virtual reality and the omnipotent magician “stirs with each other” the factual reality, “subjective reality” and what’s more important --- the dreamt with his magic stick or pen. Thus, the above-mentioned book can only conditionally be considered to be the description of a trip and discussing it from the evaluating position of documental work is a kind of principled mistake. Although, this quite awkward mistake is still being made by some Georgian literators coming out from patriotic excitement or other kind of circumstances. So, the evaluation sounded once more in 1999, in the Georgian writers’ union is the very echo of a kind of principle mistake: Bjørn Rudborg and Ole Petter Førland, who traveled according to the great writer’s routine in Russia, Georgia and Azerbaijan on the centenary date of Hamsun’s trip. They wrote a broad and profound epilog to Hamsun’s book of an anniversary edition, where they highlight that while meeting at writers’ union they listened to some critical evaluations from Georgians, especially, “for not properly understanding the true identity of Georgia” by Hamsun. Though this evaluation is rather compassionate compared to the evaluation Nodar Kakabadze and Nodar Rukhadze gave to Hamsun’s wonderful writing in the “Literary Georgia” at one time: “There are a lot mistakes and curiosities in this book and generally, it is written from the wrong position (!!! ---K.L.). While being here, the writer was surrounded by a number of uneducated people and people of not obvious nationality. And it is not surprising that the foreign writer could not make out in the existing situation in Georgia.”

A famous Georgian literator Mikheil Kveselava gave us a trial of reading the “book written from the wrong position” with a more justified aesthetic position, but his letter “Traveling in the Fairy Land”, firstly, has an extremely essayistic coloring and coming out of this, it is boundlessly full of free associations; and also, it mainly deals with Hamsun’s other literary works. At the same time, M. Kveselava makes the following comment concerning one of the most lyric episodes of the book: “If it had been described in the literary work, it might have seemed sentimental to the reader, but as a real fact of life, of course, it is impressive and characteristic”… If bringing a weak dandelion into conscience with the water of Tergi by the passengers seems a documentary created fact to the literator and additionally, he categorically assures that “in the Fairy Country” is not a literary work, he seems to be unable to properly assess the level of artistic fantasy and mystic opportunities of the great Norwegian “obsessed with mysterious whim”. Akaki Gatserelia’s assessment of the above-mentioned book is perceived to be absolutely misunderstanding, when the famous critic calls it not more than “the essay of his (Hamsun’s- K.L.) impressions in our country”.

A more or less heterogeneous idea is expressed in the Norwegian literary studies concerning Hamsun’s “Caucasian Mystery”. Although, it should be noted that generally, while analyzing the book our Scandinavian colleagues take a certain caution towards some aspects, as they have got quite a poor knowledge about Caucasus and especially, about the factual realities in Caucasus of that time. Accordingly, for instance, it is not easy for them to draw a “demarcation line” between felt in reality or literary mystification while his traveling. Though, they mainly correctly see the serious meaning of this composition in Hamsun’s creative biography.

Coming out of the characteristic of the interesting composition, it is inappropriate to discuss any kind of meaningful and aesthetic aspect without taking Hamsun’s whole creative way deeply into consideration: Starting with his first, but according to literary point of view, really amazing novel “Starvation”, ending with the masterpiece “Again on the Grown Paths”, that is of artistic-biographical style and was written in his old age. “In the Fairy Country” was published in 1903 and a deep individualism and a vividly expressed neo-romanticist –modernist style characteristic for the cycle of 1890s (“Starvation”, “Mysteries”, “Pan” etc.) can still be clearly noticed. At the same time, the social-utopian world-view that reaches its final face in the novel “The Land Mercy”--- awarded a Nobel Prize, is vividly recognizable in this book. It might be supposed, that besides the frank patriotic subjectivism for what a number of Georgian literators demand or expect only the description of documental reality from Hamsun, it is not enough for them to have a complex knowledge about the famous writer’s creative heritage that accordingly, sometimes causes quite doubtful conclusions.

As we have already noted, the sub-title of the composition --- “In the Fairy country” prepares us for a lot of strange things, but the book supposed to be of a documentary style appeared to be of much more mystic character, than it could be imagined from the title or even from the first pages. It is true, the narrator cheats with a minor level from the very beginning when he says that he had been given a state scholarship to travel( actually, he had been given money in order to have a free time, not to bother himself and to write his genuine works), but this small “naughtiness” can’t be compared to what happens later on the papers of this strange “trip”. The thing is that from the very beginning Hamsun, but more specifically, the narrator tries to create a feeling that he travels for a certain project or beforehand planned idea. But nobody knows what kind of project it is. This issue, like number of other ones is not found out in the composition. Moreover, the narrator “fits” newer and newer roles while traveling and he presents himself to encountered people in this way. It is true the narration is accompanied by a masterly chosen humorous mood, but one thing is of vital importance: Why he no more passes off as a missioner, nobleman, ethnologist, general, historian, watch repairer, geographer etc. but never as a writer. The fact that according to this “literary game” the narrator is and at the same time is not famous Knut Hamsun is recognizable because neither the exact date of traveling, nor the narrator’s identity, or who accompanies him while traveling is mentioned in the composition. Only once, on the first pages, there is a hint that the traveling companion is the narrator’s wife, but of course, nobody tells us her name or surname. Later, the latter is mentioned quite scornfully, as a “friend of traveling” who “naturally” has nothing in common with “felt” and even more with “dreamt”: This all is only the exclusive sphere of the “anonymous” narrator. In order to make the “literary puzzle” more vague, the narrator gives the encountered people his friend’s visit cards instead of his own, as if he had left his at home. It doesn’t matter that there are women’s cards among the, the receivers don’t know the Latin alphabet anyway. By the way, one of the cards belongs to already mentioned Hagelstam from Venice. After finishing the trip Hamsun stupefies that Finnish friend with his impressions so mush that he immediately started traveling almost with the same routine. He also dedicated a book to his traveling but as researchers remark, compared to Hamsun’s “In the Fairy Country” the book appeared to be poor and non-poetic and actually, only the trip and nothing else is described there. According to this point of view the second great Norwegian --- Fridtjop Nunsen’s trip led with almost the same routine but with the opposing direction in 1925, causes much more interest. On the one hand, the book which was called “Towards the Volga through Caucasus” is pleasant to read, but on the other hand, the comparison of certain episodes and general context with Hamsun’s book vividly shows the noticeable difference in genre, that exists and naturally, should exist even between the masterly written description of traveling and free artistic composition created on the motives of traveling. This can be felt especially, when one reads the books of the two greatest Scandinavians in a more or less parallel regime and an interesting question emerges by its own way: Might Hamsun’s book even conditionally be called a description of traveling or this is a novel, where the narrator is the main hero. This might be a kind of “Mysteries”, but now “Mysteries” already from Caucasus.

A number of strange people live in Hamsun’s “Fairy Country”. The people whom Hamsun calls mainly Caucasians are never hurrying or sleeping. The time is stopped there. In this context the author absolutely virtuously manages to artificially polarize the dichotomy of orient-oxidant. The writer tries to hide everything that connects Caucasus to the West and intensifies the contrastive colors of the West-East perspective to the utmost: The West --- this is “America” and accordingly, it is bad; The East and Asia --- are on the contrary. This is the way Hamsun creates the aesthetic mystery about Caucasus and this is the way the book, full of positive superstitions, is created. But the author needs these superstitions to create “literary puzzle-strangeness” things and this does not mean, as some Georgian literators think, that Hamsun knew their unreality less than others.

Alongside with all kinds of strangeness, a mysterious illness --- “Caucasian Fever” is mentioned several times in this many-ways peculiar book. The author was infected as soon as he stepped on the Georgian blessed land. It is true that the Norwegian “treats” the “sickness” with cognac (Hamsun is an ironist of a rare taste), but if not this “illness” and the fantasies caused by “fever”, the book could have probably transformed into “an essay of impressions”. “Caucasian Fever” appears to be a mysterious phenomenon of special contact towards foreign landscape: Caucasus is a “fairy country” and its greatness can be perceived in the condition when the rational dimension is partially cancelled. According to the point of view it would be appropriate to notice the analogy with the novel “Starvation”, where the first person narrator --- the main character perceived the fairy or mysterious side of reality on the background of abnormal physical condition (hunger).

There are a number of “lyrical turnings” in the composition that makes the textual material more diverse. According to this point of view, not to mention others, this time Hamsun episodically but still successfully uses the literary technique, that if not absolutely identical, still looks like the “stream of consciousness”. (By the way, according to a number of Scandinavian researchers the novel “Starvation”  is completely written with the technique of “ stream of consciousness”). At the same time a police-detective “mini-novel” wrapped in mystery is being developed alongside the traveling, where on the one hand a really encountered person participates and on the other hand, one can clearly feel the increased level of artistic mystification. Although, “Caucasian fever” reaches its highest temperature at a mysterious night in Kobi: It is difficult to say whether it is, as Hamsun later thinks about the Persian dervish having met in Batumi, a “simulating craziness” or only a dream, where the narrator imagines himself to be the knight riding a white horse, who should introduce the freedom ideals of community to the “poor Caucasian women. It should also not be forgotten that at the time when Hamsun was traveling only one year had passed since the right for general voting for men was imposed in Norway and there was a fight both in society and in press for gaining the same rights for women. And Hamsun as a passionate publicist takes an active part in this disorder.

As it has already been noted, it is difficult to say what the narrator is specially looking for in the “fairy country”, but he still finds the way to God and home. Traveling in new places becomes the traveling in one’s own spirit and memory and accordingly, an extremely strong nostalgic stream enters the text. It should be remarked that this is one of the most important aspects and dimensions of the book, that draws a rarely available portrait of the writer, but background of the intensifying feelings and emotions the author “obsessed with an amazing whim of mystery” still turns his eyes and pen towards artistic twisting-words and mystification: It is true that the author misses his native Norland abnormally (by the way, after finishing his trip he ran towards his native places of the Northern Norway, where ha had not been for 20 years) but being bewitched by the wonderful nature of Caucasus, after leaving the place he soon greatly misses the country. On the one hand, coming out of the inner logic of the composition and at the same time psychologically motivated feeling, Hamsun strengthens with introducing a mysterious nuance, characteristic for him: “… and I drank water, the water of the river Mtkvari and that was the greatest craziness, as one having drunk the water of the Mtkvari even once will always miss Caucasus and have a strong desire to come back”. By the way, the Norwegian apostle of mystery will once again draw his attention to this “magic characteristic” of the water of the Mtkvari: “Tomorrow we are leaving again for Baku and then for the East. Thus, we will be out of the country soon. But I’ll always miss the place and a great wish to come back here. As I am the person having drunk the water of the Mtkvari”. This is the ending of the strange book. Though, in reality, instead of leaving for Baku, Hamsun left for Constantinopol by ship but how important it is that the great creator doesn’t give up playing a really artistic-aesthetic game and mystic skills until the last word of the text. With this he puts those readers and researchers into a very awkward situation who still think that the place of this composition is on the literary shelf alongside with other traveling descriptions.





Gatserelia 1989: Gatserelia A. ”Knut Hamsuni da sakartvelo”, Tbilisi: Sakhalkho ganatleba, 1989.

Hamsun 2000:  Hamsun K. ”I Æventyrland. Oplevet og drømt i Kaukasien”(Med etterord av Bjørn Rudborg og Ole Petter Førland), Gyldendal, Oslo, 2000

Kakabadze ... 1971:  Kakabadze N., Rukhadze N. ”Knut Hamsuni da sakartvelo”, Literaturuli sakartvelo, 1971

Kittang 1996: Kittang  A. ”Luft, vind, ingenting : Hamsuns desillusjonsromanar frå Sult til Ringen sluttet”, Oslo : Gyldendal, 1996.

Kveselava 1980: Kveselava M. ”mogzauroba zgaprul mkhareshi”, Tbilisi: Publishing House "Saundje", 1 / 1980

Nansen 1941: Nansen F. ”Gjennom Kaukasus til Volga”, Jacob Dybwads Forlag, 1941

Wærp 1999: Henning Howlid Wærp ”Knut Hamsun som reiseskildrer:I Æventyrland”,  i ” Hamsun i Tromsø II” : rapport fra den 2. internasjonale Hamsun-konferanse 1999



Volume 2, issue 1


Rustaveli Institute of Georgian Literature

Georgian Electronic Journal of Literature