Knut Hamsun’s 1904 classic, Mothwise, is set in the remote northern Norwegian trading post of Rosengaard. Ove Rolandsen, telegraph operator, eccentric scientist, and local Casanova, trades wits, fists, and kisses with a host of quirky neighbours. He serenades the curate’s wife and fights a drunken giant, but taking on Trader Mack, the town’s fish-glue magnate, is a more difficult matter.
Fishglue. This most neglected of products is one of the key elements of Mothwise and you may never have read a piece of literature in which it figures so prominently. If you have read any Hamsun before then some of the other constituents may be more familiar: the setting in the far North of Norway where the sun never sets for two or three months that makes people act in such peculiar ways, the tales of love in all its many forms that bind and break across tiny isolated fishing communities and the characters that amuse and irritate and shine and disappoint that live and breathe from beginning to all-too-soon an end.
Hamsun himself might have felt more affinity with fishglue than might be obvious: his marriage of six years to Bergljot is falling apart, he has no home and nowhere to write, he hardly sees his barely two year old child, it’s six years since his last novel came out, his recent play has been refused by major producers and he is having to ask around colleagues to borrow money to survive as well as being seriously in debt. He cannot settle anywhere… so begins Richard Eccles’ introduction to this wonderful tale of ordinary life in Northern Norway more than a hundred years ago.
‘[Hamsun] has a magnifying glass on his eye, like a jeweller’s.’ Robert Bly