The Ring Is Closed

The Ring Is Closed

by Knut Hamsun, Robert Ferguson


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Featuring an iconoclastic hero who refuses to accept the standards of his society, this novel is one of the Nobel Prize–winner’s greatest works. The only son of a miserly lighthouse-keeper and an alcoholic mother, Abel grows up in a remote Norwegian village then travels around the United States. Upon returning from America as a young man, Abel falls in love with his longtime acquaintance Olga, the pharmacist’s daughter. Haunted by the secrets of his travels, however, Abel determines to live on the barest of necessities and pursue a life without desire or ambition. Available in the United States for the first time since the 1930s, this controversial novel features themes that are strikingly contemporary.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780285638686
Publisher: Souvenir Press
Publication date: 07/09/2010
Pages: 352
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 7.70(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Knut Hamsun was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1920 for Growth of the Soil. He has been recognized as one of the greatest literary figures of the 20th century and as the inspiration for much of modernist fiction, especially the work of Ernest Hemingway.

Read an Excerpt

The Ring Is Closed

By Knut Hamsun, Robert Ferguson

Souvenir Press

Copyright © 2009 Gyldendal Norsk Forlag AS
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-285-63954-6


WHEN PEOPLE GATHER ON THE COASTAL BOAT DOCK THEY don't gain much by it, but then it doesn't cost them much either, so it works out even, with maybe a little minus for the wear and tear on the shoes. So if it doesn't exactly do any harm, it's not often anyone profits by it. An unforgettable experience, a sight fit for the gods, some sort of benediction or other? No no no. A few people and boxes ashore, a few people and boxes on board. No-one says anything, neither the mate at the ship's rail nor the agent on the dock needs to say a word, they look at the papers, they nod.

That's about it.

People have a pretty good idea what they're going to find there each day, still they go.

Is there really never anything else?

Well, now and then there's the blind hurdy-gurdy man who gets led down the gangway and causes a stir among the young, or some dandified sportsman who disembarks with his skis and his rucksack, even though it's now the month of May and Easter is long gone.

But then that's about it.

Quite a crowd here by now. As well as children of all ages there are the town's older residents and elders, buyers and fishermen, a couple of Customs men just passing the time, Smith the photographer with his wife and daughter, and a great many others. Now and then Captain Brodersen would show up, the man who used to command the barque Lina but then retired to become the lighthouse-keeper. For a while the captain stands in conversation with Robertsen the Customs man, whom he addresses as Mate, then he steps down into his boat and rows back out to the lighthouse.

No lack of young girls here either: Lovise Rolandsen, the well-built and nubile daughter of an artisan family, a bit dry and boney but blue-eyed and really not too bad at all. Usually she was with Lolla, no great beauty either but with a fine body and good breasts, she looked as if she could whinny. When that handsome sportsman came ashore she shifted her feet twice and stared at him. The chemist, who was a bit of a wag, once described her as overqualified.

But it was the children, dressed in every conceivable hue of blue and red and yellow and black and grey, who dominated. There were perhaps twenty of them, pretty children, little girls mostly, some of them big and already in love, walking out with the big boys. One of the chemist's daughters was a definite centre of attraction, she sat on a crate and held court. Her name was Olga and the others followed her lead. The lighthousekeeper's son was squeezed in among them, but he wasn't considered of much acount. A cheeky little lad, freckled, not yet been to Confirmation, his voice was breaking too, Olga said he spoiled the mood. She couldn't stand him. Why didn't he go home with his father? Look, there he's goes, he's rowing!

Abel said nothing.

But he wasn't always so quiet. From a time when they were much younger than they were now he and Olga had been in the habit of quarreling about everything. Once she boasted that her father could throw a stone at a magpie and hit it. But my father can do card-tricks, said Abel.

They had shared a lot of things through their childhood years. They were as mischievous as each other when they stole carrots from Fredriksen's country mansion and didn't go to him afterwards and own up. Once they drowned a cat together, a big tomcat that had clawed open the chest of Olga's cat, another tom. Naturally a murder like that had to be accompanied by an oath of silence and carried out in the dead of night, for this was a well-known cat, he lived at the customs shed. They made a thorough job of it: a heavy stone in a sack, the cat into the sack, string tied around the neck and the whole bundle tossed overboard into deep water. Each of them took an oar as they rowed back to the quay, each one in it as deep as each other, but it was Abel who had blood on his hands.

He might have won Olga's eternal gratitude for this service but instead squandered it all just a couple of days later. She'd climbed up on the roof of one of the shacks down by the vacant lots and Abel was standing stood down below laughing and looking up her skirt instead of helping her down. It made her so mad she hopped right down on him without a moment's thought and tumbled both of them into the nettles and the piled rubble so that they both bled.

For a long time after that they weren't friends.

But time passes and everything shapes itself to time, they grew up, they matured. They went to the cinema and saw the pirates and the horse-racing and the dancing dogs, along with the others they played on the merry-go-round down on the vacant lots. The chemist's daughter had started wearing finer clothes than the other little girls, finer even than Lovise Rolandsen and Lolla, who were both grown up. But Abel didn't changed a lot . He wasn't much to look at, but his friends stuck with him because he was helpful and was always able to find a way out of a tight spot. During the summer egg-gathering once him and another boy got into mortal danger, but it was after he had learnt to swim, so he was able to save both himself and his friend. He had strangely small fists, strong enough and work-lined, but quick as those of a thief.

He wasn't rated as highly as Helmer, who was already apprenticed to a blacksmith, and nowhere near as high as Rieber Carlsen, who was enrolled at secondary school by this time and was destined to be a someone. But then both these gentlemen were older. Yes, but he wasn't even respected as much as Tengvald and Alex, who were the same age as him, what could the reason for that be? They had been taught better manners at home, they had uncles and aunts who slipped them a few extra shillings, their shoes were in a better state of repair, and sometimes the sandwiches they took to school with them for their dinner had slices of expensive banana in them. No, Abel had none of these worldly refinements, he was from the lighthouse, where his father sat and watched over the lamp at night and slept during the day and lived his modest little life. That's the way it was.

And yet Brodersen the lighthouse keeper could have lived in a little more style if he'd wanted to. But he didn't want to. He was so frugal.

Brodersen got married again fourteen years ago. His first marriage was childless, Abel was the son of his second marriage. For many years he'd commanded the barque Lina and made a profit, and people thought he must be very comfortably off. And maybe he was too, but if so he didn't flash it around and he kept his son Abel on a shoestring.

But Abel didn't know any other way and he thought it was all quite alright. He thought the lighthouse on Holmen was just as good as any house in town, and anyway he had treasures out there that were beyond the dreams of town-dwellers. What did they have compared to him? He boasted of the place to his friends, said it was the only place he'd ever known and that he'd never swap with them, they could just keep their houses, even the chemist's house, big, with a balcony and an extension, you could keep that too.

You're just lying about your lighthouse, said Olga.

Come and see, said Abel.

And he went on about it for so long that one day Olga and a group of little girls came out to the lighthouse with him. She took Tengvald along too, him being an especially looked-up-to older person.

The visit didn't work out too badly, the landscape on Holmen was scaled-down and strange, with secret hideaways between the rocks. It was fun to see the hedgehogs and the rabbits, and pretty too, with all the flowering bushes planted out along the friendly patches of earth. Here was the wreck of a cutter that was used as a barn, and these seagulls here came back to breed year after year, and here too was the endless soughing of the sea, all of these things unknown and strange to the children.

Well, said Olga and the little girls, it's certainly different out here.

But it didn't overwhelm them so much as to strike them dumb: What's this hole for? Is this the well? Yes, but what about when gulls fly over the well and do their ... you know what I mean.

Ha ha ha!

And not one single little road, just mountains and mountains ... no, sorry, Abel, but really ...

We haven't been inside yet, said Abel.

They went inside and raced up into the tower. It was a disappointment. The keeper explained to them about the lamp and about the rotating screen, but it was too early to turn it on, so they didn't get to see the powerful light beaming across the sea. So they probably thought, well, it's just a big light.

We haven't looked in the living-room yet, said Abel.

They went down to the living room. There was a large collection of curiosities the lighthouse keeper had picked up cheap in foreign countries, furniture from the Australian outback, a ship in a bottle, empty coconut shells. Abel described it all to them the way he'd heard his father do, but the children weren't interested.

We better get home before it gets dark, said Tengvald.

The little girls stuck their noses into the kitchen and into the cubbyholes, but one door was kept locked, Abel's mother wasn't always sober.

A place of contrasts, that lighthouse home on Holmen: a father who was teetotal and parsimonious to the point of meanness, and a mother who drank to cure her bronchitis and her loneliness. She was still only in her forties.

With the coming of the Christmas holidays things went bad again, the people who were usually away all returned home and Abel went back to being a nothing again. He put up with it fairly well, but he wasn't old enough and wise enough to keep out of the way, he imposed himself and he was rejected. And now that he'd finally got himself a new cap the others had bought hats, and Tengvald new shoes as well.

But the winter was alright, in its way. Around that time he quite often sought out Lili's company. She was a bit younger but tall and pretty for her age, she was kind enough to listen to what he said, and since she lived on the other side of the bay and had a long way to go to school he sometimes gave her a lift in the boat. That's so nice of you to do that, she said. That's just the way I am, he replied.

And things didn't work out too well for him in the spring holidays either, first at Easter and then Whitsun. He might have stayed at home at the lighthouse and not taken any chances, but he was still not smart enough to realise that and when the postboat arrived a trip to the dock was always a temptation. The girls turned against him: Here comes Abel, of course, they said when they saw him coming. All he ever talks about is his lighthouse, said Olga. And then when he sat down with them and prodded with a stick in the sand she said: Ugh, now you're getting us all dusty!

But Lili was different, she was a friendly girl, one he could get on with. Olga was a witch, and yet in all those years she was still the only one for him. He even went so far as to deny the lighthouse, and to speak slightingly of the lamp and the gulls and the rabbits. All he got was laughter: Yes wouldn't you just know it, he's on about his lighthouse again!

No matter which way he turned, he was facing a wall.

One evening he waylaid Olga with a present, a gold bracelet he had stolen from Jesus in the church. The old, unmarried daughter of a priest had hung this costly bracelet on Jesus in gratitude for something or other, and there it stayed, hanging on his wrist throughout the spring, and because it was a holy place and a beautiful gift and a pious gift, no-one had the heart to remove it.

But Olga wasn't brave enough to take the bracelet from Abel's hand and thank him for it. Of course she tried it on, with her eyes shining and her beating and all that, but then she gave it back and said: What on earth do you think you're doing?

Abel said nothing.

I don't want it, she said, so you'd better put it back.

Abel said nothing. He was pale, disappointed.

Let me just see it again. Oh goodness ... and it fits me too ... but you must understand ... When did you take it?

Just now. Whitsun, he said.

I've never heard anything as wicked. Did you climb up and take it?

Reluctantly, haltingly, he confessed that he had let himself to be locked inside the church on Whit Sunday, stolen the bracelet at night, and slipped out again at Mass on Whit Monday. Quite a lad, godless as you please.

In intense excitement she asked him: Did you spend the night in the church? Weren't you afraid?

For a moment his mouth trembled, but he made a gesture with his fist as though hitting something away.

Didn't you see anything?

Abel said nothing.

Olga with finality: Anyway, you're insane. How are you going to get it back on him again?

Dunno, he said, wretched. And for the second time he felt himself on the verge of tears.

We have to get hold of the key to the church, she said. Can you do that?

He said: Yes, I think so. The sexton has it.

Together they made up their minds that things had to be put right, the wrong had to be righted. When he stole the church key from its place on the wall he was as light-fingered as when he had had taken the bracelet from Jesus' wrist. Olga stayed outside by the church-windows and kept a lookout while he hung the bracelet back.

But his mad gesture didn't win him her lasting favour. On the contrary, she threatened him sometimes, hinting that she knew something about him, that she could get him sent to jail. She was a damned witch and he had to keep out of her way.

He rowed Lili home each day so as to have someone to be with. There were only two windows in her house, it had just one room, the smallest house in the whole village, her father worked at the sawmill so he didn't have a big house. Abel once went all the way inside with her carrying two loaves that she'd bought in town. It wasn't too comfortable inside, the place smelled of something, whatever it was, the clock had stopped, the bed was unmade. There were food and clothes on the little table by the window, and on the window-sill some boiled potatoes still in their jackets.

Lili looked embarrassed. Would you like to sit down? she asked hesitantly and wiped off a chair. Mother, this place is in a terrible mess today!

You can say that again! the mothers rejoins. But I've just got in, so I've not had time to tidy up here. I'm washing clothes today.

Mother does the laundry for some of the casual labour at the sawmill, Lili explains.

Someone has to do it, Abel replies in his most grown-up way.

Yes, he took comfort in Lili's company in those bad times when he had no-one else. And it was quite okay that she was from a poor home and not one of the snobs. Lili was calm and good, even when he kissed her once later that summer she didn't give a start and jump back, she just put a hand over her eyes. He was ashamed of himself for what he'd done, so he gave her a quick shove and shouted out last one home is a ... whatever it was, and set off running.

And time passes, the summers, and winters, and years. And Olga didn't deliberately break the peak of his cap, and when he saw what had happened he laughed feebly, but she did say: That serves you right! But then felt bad about it afterwards. Now the peak hung down with one broken half on each side and was a sorry sight.

He climbed down into his boat, baled it out boat and rowed home. Next day he was back at school again just his usual self. He had started wearing the cap back to front, but with the peak dangling down he didn't look good in it.

Olga took him to one side and said: You can hit me if you like.

When I hit something it leaves a hole! Abel answered, and swaggered away from her. It was something he'd heard someone say down on the dock.

Yeah! She called after him, the peak was nothing but cardboard.

Shut your mouth!

Just varnished cardboard.

Your father sells worming powder ...

It was Lili who came up with an answer: You can buy a new peak for the hat from Gulliksen's. My father did that once.

How much did he pay?

I don't know that. But I'll put it in for you.

That's so kind of you.

He was Confirmed the same summer as Olga. The sexton gave them instruction in the schoolhouse, and Olga didn't know anything and was often left dumb and blushing furiously when she was asked something. Once he rescued her by tipping all the things off his desk so that the sexton lost his temper with him. She never found out that he'd done it for her sake. Of course, Olga was a witch, but it made him unhappy to see her in a fix for just for old Pontoppidan's sake, she knew a lot more than that old sexton about all sorts of things, now she was quite the young lady, she used perfume and had Visiting Cards that she handed out to people. After Olga was Confirmed she was going off travelling with her mother.


Excerpted from The Ring Is Closed by Knut Hamsun, Robert Ferguson. Copyright © 2009 Gyldendal Norsk Forlag AS. Excerpted by permission of Souvenir Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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