Recent Comments

    Secret Sorrow – Knut Hamsun


    Become a Patron!


    Knut Hamsun (1859–1952) was a major Norwegian writer, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1920. Hamsun’s work spans more than seventy years and shows variation with regard to the subject, perspective and environment. He published more than twenty novels, a collection of poetry, some short stories and plays, a travelogue, and some essays. Because of his support for the Nazis, he was charged with treason and committed to a psychiatric hospital. In 1943, he sent Germany’s minister of propaganda Joseph Goebbels his Nobel Prize medal as a gift. Otto Dietrich describes in his memoirs how the meeting between Hamsun and Hitler was the only time that another person was able to get a word in edgeways with the Führer. He attributes the cause to Hamsun’s deafness and notes that Hitler remained incensed for several days.


    I’ve just met him for the fourth time. He follows me wherever I go, I can never feel safe from him, he appears right in front of me in the most out of the way places. Once I even met him in my room in Kristiania; he had got in before me
    and was standing there …

    But let me begin at the beginning.

    I met him for the first time in Copenhagen. It was Christmas 1879; I had a place in Klareboderne.

    One day as I was sitting alone in my room—I remember very clearly that I was supposed to be copying out some music, and that it was causing me a great deal of trouble, since I was quite unable to read music—there was a knock on my door. Light and subdued, like a woman’s knock. I shout: Come in! and a man enters.

    A man of about thirty, pale, with a somewhat glowering expression, and narrow in the shoulder, remarkably narrow. He wore a glove on only one of his hands.

    He removed his hat as soon as he entered and his large eyes remained fixed on me the entire time as he approached where I sat writing. He apologised for intruding like this; he’d seen me entering and leaving the lodging house a couple of times and it occurred to him that we were old acquaintances. Didn’t I remember him from Helsinki, from the police-station in Helsinki?

    I had never been to Helsinki, there must be some misunderstanding …

    No? Then perhaps it was Malmö. The more he thought about it the more certain he was that it was in Malmö he had bumped into me.

    But I hadn’t been to Malmö either.

    He mentioned a couple of other places, and each time I answered he said, ‘Just wait now! I’m convinced I’ve met you before, I just can’t recall where.’ Finally he mentioned Kristiania, and I grudgingly conceded that we might possibly have come across one another there. He made me feel unsure of myself, and I could not rule out the possibility that I might once have met him in Kristiania.

    ‘I don’t have any particular news for you,’ he said. ‘It just occurred to me to drop in and say hello to a fellow-countryman and old acquaintance.’

    We conversed briefly, on matters of no importance, I’ve completely forgotten what. All I remember is that he formulated himself in a curiously ambiguous way, as if he were really saying something quite different from what he actually said, and that in general he gave the impression of being a secretive man.

    When he rose to leave he once again apologised for disturbing me. Among other things he said:

    ‘I get bored. I can’t think what to do any more. Sometimes I play a practical joke on the police, just to pass the time. But it’s so easy I can hardly be bothered.’

    He said this seriously, but I chose to treat it as a joke.

    At the door he turned as though suddenly remembering something and invited me to go for a drive with him that evening, ‘for old time’s sake’. At first I said no—I really can’t explain why—but a moment later I accepted his invitation. he last thing he said to me was that I mustn’t take any money with me. One could never be too careful. I could leave my money with my landlord, he said. I didn’t quite get it, but said yes anyway and promised to be outside The Horse at five o’clock.

    Alone again I thought about the man and what he had said. I found it strange that he should have come to visit me. And what was all that about money? To begin with it all seemed very curious, but I soon forgot about it. When you’re
    travelling you soon get to know people, strangers can become friends in less than an hour. I was at The Horse at the appointed time.

    The weather was so mild and the streets so muddy that we had to use a carriage. We had the hood up and the windows closed. We drove west through Copenhagen, past Ladegaarden, out along Rolighedsvei and past the waterworks. All that long way we hardly exchanged a word; anyway the carriage rumbled terribly. Once we had crossed Grøndals Bridge and were approaching Utterslev the stranger takes a piece of rope from his pocket and begins playing with it, all the while staring fixedly at me. It’s dark in the carriage, but I can see perfectly well what he’s doing. We’re sitting on the same seat, but turned to face each another, watching each other. Suddenly he says:

    ‘You’re not scared, are you?’

    At the same time he holds the rope up to my face.

    I lied, answering with a quavering voice:

    ‘No, what is there to be scared of?’

    But I was shaking with fear and thought of pulling the bell at once and alerting the driver. It annoyed me to have that piece of rope dangling in front of my eyes, so I got up and moved to the front seat.

    We drive on like this for a while. Shortly afterwards he turned his gaze away from me and slowly put the rope back in his pocket, as though he had changed his mind about something. Then suddenly he sits bolt upright in his seat, points out of the window as though in great alarm and says:

    ‘Look! Over there!’

    Instinctively I turned my head, and at the same moment felt an icy grip around my neck. The scoundrel stood half-upright in front of me with his cold fingers round my throat. I don’t know if I screamed, I don’t think I did. Suddenly it occurred to me that this person just wanted to scare me, or to tease me, I was convinced that he didn’t want to throttle me. It made me angry and I pushed him back as hard as I could. He kept his grip. I felt behind me for the bell-pull, fumbled after it, found it at last and pulled. Still he kept hold of me. He heard clearly that the bell rang, yet he would not let go. We struggled together for some time. He cut me on the throat, just below my right ear, his effrontery knew no bounds, he gave me this wound with a nail or a screwdriver, which he twisted, and it hurt. Then at last I’m able to punch my way free, swinging out and hitting him with solid, brutal blows wherever I could. Then the cabby opens the door, and for the first time I realised that the carriage had stopped.

    ‘Shall we turn back?’ asked the driver.

    In complete confusion I climbed out of the carriage. My travelling companion remained sitting where he was, calm and collected.

    ‘Yes,’ he replied, ‘Let’s turn back.’

    ‘I’m walking back,’ I said. ‘As far as I’m concerned you can drive this chap to hell.’

    ‘Walking?’ repeated the driver. ‘On foot?’

    The stranger said nothing. Didn’t even look at me. Now I got really angry. I shouted to the driver to get going, jumped back into the carriage and slammed the door shut. In my extreme anger I felt remarkably, almost unnaturally, strong.

    I pressed myself unnecessarily close to my fellow-passenger, took up as much room as I could, squashed him into a corner. As I twisted and turned in my seat I hit him several times with my elbows. He accepted this, did not react. Not until we were once again in Copenhagen did he say, with a smile:

    ‘Well, I presume you’ll report me for this?’

    I did not reply.

    He put both his feet up on my hat, which I had removed and placed on the seat opposite me so that I could sit upright in the carriage. He brought his heels down hard on the crown and I heard it crack. I became more and more convinced that his sole aim was to frighten me. I felt an intense humiliation.

    ‘But if you are going to report me,’ he continued, ‘you’d better do it straightaway. I’ll be long gone by the time anyone tries to arrest me. I assure you, probably even before daybreak tomorrow I’ll be over in Skåne. You’ll be wasting your time!’ He continued in this vein, about how he’d be gone in a very short while. Then suddenly he said: ‘Or maybe I can’t be bothered. Maybe I’ll have the pleasure of greeting you again tomorrow, on Østergade?’

    He didn’t say it in a challenging, taunting way. His voice was low, almost melancholy. My hat was gradually being squashed flat under his feet.

    I responded that I would have the honour of ignoring him completely, that I would pass by him as though he were thin air if I should meet him again, and walk right over him if he should happen to block my path. I wouldn’t waste my words even if they would get you hanged, I said. I despise you and I can’t even be bothered to throw you out of the carriage window.

    I couldn’t have done that anyway, but all the same I said it, the way one says such things. And he accepted it.

    Back at The Horse we both got out. I walked off—hatless—while he remained behind to pay the driver.

    That was the first time I met him. I still have the mark on my throat he gave me that evening.


    Some years later, maybe three or four, I was on a short visit to Germany and making the trip from Hamburg to Bremerhafen. The train wasn’t due to leave for another ten minutes when I reached the platform, so I had good time. I walked along looking for a good seat and got almost as far as the engine. There a man waves to me from the window of a carriage and to my great surprise I recognise my ‘old acquaintance’ from the drive through Copenhagen, the man with the dark eyes. I recognised him at once.

    I give a start, I feel at once extremely uncomfortable and walk straight past his compartment. But as I did so it occurred to me that I might be giving the impression I was afraid of him, and being now several years older anyway I was not disposed to pass up the chance of another encounter with this interesting person. So I turn round, still as though looking for a seat on the train, and stop in a casual and indifferent sort of way outside his compartment. I open the door and enter.

    The compartment was empty, apart from him.

    I squeezed past him on the way in and he drew his knees back to let me by. In doing so he looked up as though he hadn’t seen me before; and yet I was convinced that he had been waving to me just a few minutes previously. I had
    even somewhat unwillingly touched my hat and nodded to him, but he made no response.

    I sat down in the corner. I was irritated with myself for that little nod and steeled myself to offer him a show of the most sublime indifference. He didn’t seem to have aged in the slightest since our last meeting, but his clothes were different. On that first occasion they had been smart, almost elegant; now they were much plainer, a light-coloured, hard-wearing travelling outfit. On the seat directly opposite him was a leather suitcase.

    The bell rings and the train sets off.

    I made myself comfortable and put my feet up on the seat. About quarter of an hour passed. I acted as though oblivious of my travelling companion. He seemed lost in thought.

    Then he reaches into an inside pocket and pulls out an oilcloth bag that looks like some kind of first-aid kit. He opens it and begins examining a number of rusty iron tools which he takes out one by one. They were queer-looking things with hooks on, some flat, some round, some fine, a mixture of large and small. It was obvious to me that this was a collection of jemmies. Nor did he make any attempt to hide what they were. Indeed, he twisted and turned these implements in his hand as if he were already picking locks with them. He even tried to open his suitcase with a couple of them. It was as though he were deliberately trying to show me what the hooks were for. All this time I sat and watched.

    Careful! I thought to myself. He’s doing this deliberately to taunt you. There’s something behind all this. He’s leading you on, trying to tempt you in some way.

    Ten minutes passed. He takes a small, shiny file from his breast pocket and begins cleaning the jemmies with it. And after he’s cleaned each one he places it on the seat beside him. Note how I was sitting: with my legs up on his seat and stretched out towards him. My shoe was almost touching his coat. He sits there, scraping away.

    Then, absentmindedly, as though lost in thought, he places one newly sharpened jemmy on my leg and starts on another. The man uses me as a worksurface.

    I sit there and allow it to happen. I didn’t move. Sat waiting for him to do it again. And sure enough, he placed another jemmy on my leg, then another, and another. He treated me as though I were a cushion, as though I were part of the seat. By the time he was finished there was a row of some six of these little hooks ranged along my leg.

    I stood up. Not suddenly, but quickly enough to make them all fall to the floor before he could prevent it. I had just one thought in mind: to return some of his profound contempt.

    He didn’t say anything when the jemmies fell. Just picked them up again in silence, one by one.

    At that moment the conductor arrived. To my great surprise I observed that my travelling companion made not the slightest attempt, even now, to hide the hooks. All the time the conductor was present he left them on open display. Not until he had gone did he return the case and its contents to his pocket. It was almost as though he had been waiting for just such an opportunity to show off his dangerous tools.

    We journey on for perhaps another half hour, we pass stations, stop, journey on, and still my travelling companion says nothing. Quite deliberately I conducted myself as though I were alone in the compartment. I put my feet up on the seat again, yawned noisily, sang now and then, all just to show him my awesome indifference. Yet none of it seemed to bother him. I lit a cigar and tossed the burning match onto his hand, just threw it away as heedlessly as if there were no one at all sitting there, and I saw it hit his hand. The only reaction was a slight twitching of the mouth as he drew back his lips slightly, almost as though he wanted to smile. Otherwise he sat quietly.

    After we had journeyed a little further in this fashion he suddenly looked out of the train window as though he recognised the countryside, got to his feet quickly and picked up his suitcase by one of its straps. He stood like that for a few more minutes until the train came to a halt at a small station. Then he gives me an ironically deep bow, very deep, in complete silence, without looking at me, takes a couple of paces backwards, bows again, and with a broad smile turns and leaves the compartment. He hailed a porter to carry his baggage and walked off. Throughout the entire journey he had neither spoken to me nor looked me in the face.


    Years passed, three years, and I met him again in an obscure part of New York, in a gambling den. I was there before him and was sitting at the roulette table when he entered. An attendant offered to relieve him of his hat and coat but he merely shook his head and kept on both. Moments later he removed his hat and carried it in his hand. He turned his attention to the roulette table.

    Space was made for him and he began to play. It seemed to me that he followed my bets with more interest than his own. I lost consistently, playing black and a double, black and a double, all the time, always losing. Maybe this
    was what interested him so much.

    Suddenly he says to me straight across the table, in Norwegian:

    ‘Don’t you realise that you’re being cheated?’

    He ran the risk of others besides me understanding his words, and if there were any that did then he would be lucky to get away without spilling his blood. But he said it anyway, in a loud voice, looking directly at me as he spoke.

    I pretended I hadn’t heard him and carried on backing the same number and colour as before. And I lost just as heavily. I felt a burning and perverse obstinacy: if that person tried once more to involve himself in my affairs then I would speak to the croupier. I was angry and upset. There could no longer be any doubt that I was being cheated, I could see as much myself: the croupier had a key in his hand which he surreptitiously held close to the wheel whenever it was about to stop, and it had already occurred to me several bets ago that there might be a magnet in this key. But I chose to do nothing, just kept on playing and losing my little bets.

    Then the stranger says to the croupier:

    ‘Put that key in your pocket!’

    His voice was cold and imperious and the croupier obeyed him at once, merely explaining that it was the key to the bank, he kept it in his hand for convenience. But he did as he was told, instantly. I found his obedience insulting and I became angry with him. I pushed my last ten chips onto the black, stood up and left without waiting to see what happened.

    After that I did not meet my man again until last winter in Kristiania. I was living up on St Hans’ Hill then, I had a fourth-floor room. As I returned from the dining-room after supper one day I found my secretive friend standing in the middle of my room. I had left the key in the keyhole and he had simply let himself in. All he does is hold out his hand and ask for 16 kroner—16 kroner—then he thanks me, thanks me most humbly—twice—then heads for the door. He stops and says:

    ‘My God, how stupid you are!’

    He said it turned towards the door, in a tone of utter contempt.

    My old bitterness revives and I take a couple of steps towards him. When I see that he is about to open the door and disappear I cannot stop myself from saying:

    ‘Wait! You haven’t stolen anything here, have you?’

    I say this expressly to hurt him; I did not suspect him of having stolen anything, I merely wished to humiliate him.
    He seemed not in the least embarrassed or angered by my words; he simply turned towards me and said, in surprise:


    And with that he sat down in a chair, opened his coat and from his breast pocket took out a handful of papers, among which I saw a route-map and a small red wallet full of money, absolutely stuffed with notes, several hundred kroner. He held it out to me:

    ‘And what would you have that I might find worth stealing?’ he said, smiling.

    He had trumped me again. He always trumped me, shamed me, condemned me to ignominy no matter what. He stood up and left and I did nothing, made no attempt to stop him leaving. I let him go. Only when I heard his footsteps on the staircase far below did I think to open the door and then bang it shut again so that it sounded through the whole house. That was all I did.

    In his contempt for me he had simply left my 16 kroner behind. I found them on the chair he had been sitting on. And in my shame and anger I left them there for days before picking them up, hoping that he might come back and notice that I had neglected to reclaim them.

    Later I heard that he had also visited my landlord and conducted himself in a bizarre fashion. My landlord, who was a police constable, would have nothing to do with him; in his opinion the man was insane. Among other things, the intruder had attempted to buy an antique Dutch coffee pot made of brass that was standing on the stove. He had practically refused to take no for an answer.


    Such are the details of my several encounters with this most peculiar person. Recently I have learnt to think of him without rancour. He interests me greatly, and I look forward to meeting him again. I believe I understand now something of his nature and of the reasons for his absurd behaviour. Just a few months ago I met another person, a woman in her thirties, who told me something about herself that put me on the trail. She had once committed a crime which would have earned her several days on bread and water, and the incident continued to disturb her greatly. It was not conscience, nor contrition, but rather an inexplicable longing to be found out. For some time she had positively invited suspicion of herself, but to no avail. Her success in avoiding detection made her heedless and reckless; she wearied of not being unmasked even when she colluded in her own detection. She took steps to make her secret hard to keep. She exposed herself wilfully to arouse people’s suspicions. But no matter what she did, no one ever suspected her, no one ever reported her.

    The circumstances of her story made me think of my secretive friend, the man with the dark eyes. No doubt he hoped again and again that his behaviour would be enough to drive me to report him to the police. But in this he had failed.

    A superior type of person, with a blemished and strangely twisted soul. A human being in psychic pain, suffering, perhaps, because a secret that might bring shame upon him was fated never to be revealed.

    Translated from the Norwegian by Robert Ferguson

    Selected by Frank Wynne

    About Frank Wynne

    Born in Sligo, Ireland, FRANK WYNNE has been a literary translator for twenty years. His authors include Michel Houellebecq, Patrick Modiano and Virginie Despentes. He lived for many years in Central and South America, and has translated a number of Hispanic authors, including Tomás González, Andrés Caicedo and Javier Cercas. In the course of his career, he has won the IMPAC Prize (2002), the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (2005), and has twice been awarded both the Scott Moncrieff Prize and the Premio Valle-Inclán. He has spent time as translator in residence at Lancaster University, City University, and the Villa Gillet, Lyon.

    You must be logged in to post a comment Login