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Victoria

The miller’s son was walking around, thinking. He was a husky fellow of fourteen, tanned with sun and wind and full of all sorts of ideas. 

When it first appeared in 1898, this fourth novel by celebrated Norwegian writer Knut Hamsun captured instant acclaim for its poetic, psychologically intense portrayal of love’s predicament in a class-bound society. Set in a coastal village of late nineteenth-century Norway, Victoria follows two doomed lovers through their thwarted lifelong romance. Johannes, the son of a miller, finds inspiration for his writing in his passionate devotion to Victoria, an impoverished aristocrat constrained by family loyalty. Separated by class barriers and social pressure, the fated pair parts ways, only to realize—too late—the grave misfortune of their lost opportunity.”

This was a great find, by a Norwegian author I had never heard of before who was fairly famous in his day. Victoria is a slim but lovely little book. It has a beautiful but tragic story in its midst, and along the way a lot of really nice description and intriguing stylistic choices. Being late 19th century, the book isn’t overwritten at all, although it is written in an older-sounding style.  The book is certainly psychologically intense; the love that Johannes feels for Victoria is ultimately self-destructive and the couple is doomed right from the very beginning. There are so many things in the way: their difference in class, the fact that Victoria is engaged to an officer, and also the fact that Victoria is kind of fickle. Maybe it’s just me, but I found her kind of similar (although not as bad) as Daisy Buchanan from The Great Gatsby. Daisy is really a rotten person; I wouldn’t say Victoria is that; more like she is fickle and flighty. She clearly loves Johannes, but she doesn’t have the guts to do something about it. Or does she truly love him? 

There are so many of the best elements in this novel: ladies, gentleman, millers and their sons, and great descriptions of the wealthy and the poor in the late nineteenth century in Norway. The book was kind of dreamlike also, and it wasn’t so grounded in a historical period. In the middle section, Johannes is living in the city, and right after he meets Victoria again, he goes walking in a kind of trance through the town, and what he sees there is masterfully described. 

Another thing that was interesting the book was that it would switch from past tense to present tense and back again all in a few sentences. At first that was interesting stylistically, but it started to get annoying after a while, especially when one comes across such passages as “The speech was nice and long and was received with a great deal of noisy cheer…Johannes emptied his glass. A few minutes later his agitation is gone, his composure has returned; the champagne burns with a low flame in his veins…He casts a glance to where Victoria is sitting; she’s pale, seems anguished, and doesn’t look up. Camilla, however, nods to him and smiles, and he nods back.” (pg. 48). I don’t know…it just felt kind of awkward to me, that sudden transition between past and present, although it certainly was interesting, and I’d have to read more criticism to understand that choice. 

I really enjoyed Victoria; it was a great find. The writing was excellent, and so was the story. It’s a very, very short book, but it doesn’t take as quick as you might think to read it. Still, I probably read it in a few hours total, although broken up since I was traveling. Victoria really should be more well known than it is, and I recommend it. I might also read some of Knut Hamsun’s other works. 

82 pages. 

Rating: ****

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