Monika Zagar Faculty Profile
Should a writer’s unsavory political views impeach the literary value of a body of work? What if the writer in question was a modernist trailblazer—admired by Kafka and Mann—whose evocative and innovative novels earned him the world’s premier literary prize? Is it useful to place problematic politics in the context of the writer’s life and times?
These are some of the provocative questions being pursued by GSD associate professor Monika Zagar, a Scandinavian studies scholar whose study of the Norwegian writer Knut Hamsun (1859–1952) is one part literary analysis and one part historical detective work—with sophisticated philosophical musings added for good measure.
Zagar, who joined the GSD faculty in 1994, is conducting research on Hamsun in Norway this year (from a sabbatical home base in Slovenia, where she grew up and where her mother still lives). She became intrigued by the still unsettled ground around the literary reputation of Norway’s premier early modernist, who in the course of his long life enjoyed both the height of acclaim and the depths of ignominy. His stream-of-consciousness novels (such as Hunger  and Mysteries ) as well as the more realistic The Growth of the Soil (1917) earned him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1920; in 1946, following two decades of pro-Nazi articles and letters, he was tried for treason.
“I started this work because there’s this tragic discrepancy that begged to be explored between Hamsun as the writer of some of Scandinavia’s best fiction and Hamsun as the writer of some very ugly polemical pieces,” says Zagar, who is interested in Hamsun's harsh views of women as well as of various racial groups. “I’m trying to understand how his world view developed—how did he come to make the tragic political choices he did?
“It’s like a puzzle, putting together the pieces of his background—his family, his temperament and interests, the social context in which he grew up. Around 1900, just as he was reaching a peak of his powers, Scandinavia was undergoing significant change, becoming a truly industrial society and a dramatically more modern one, which meant more diversity.
What was Hamsun’s exposure to people of different backgrounds, races, classes, religions? What were his experiences with women, especially educated women and women who fought for political causes? What were the scientific views about race during the time in which he came of age?”
The dark side of modernism?
Zagar’s work takes her from libraries to historical archives and even to biologists and historians of science who might be able to shed light on how Hamsun’s “disparaging views of other races—Native Americans, ‘Orientals,’ blacks—reflected prevailing scientific debates of the day.” Her work—which will form the basis for a book tentatively titled “Hamsun and the Exotic”—implicitly raises questions about modernism itself, she says, noting that GSD is sponsoring an April conference that will look at modernity “not only as progress, but as something with a dark side, usually manifested as a longing for a simpler, more traditional life, for easy solutions—which can very easily turn into something totalitarian.”
Zagar stresses that the point of her work is not to explain away Hamsun’s “dark side,” but to see “how the hard facts of social reality and life’s circumstances are reflected through the prism of one personality—you feed all of these experiences into this person, and this is what comes out. ”Many of Hamsun’s contemporaries had backgrounds similar to his and shared many of his racial assumptions, Zagar notes. Yet few went on to embrace Nazism as he did; many leaned instead toward the left. “Hamsun is a very complex figure, to put it bluntly,” says Zagar. “What ‘tipped the scales’ for him?”
For Zagar, shedding light on Hamsun’s political development could help to settle the controversy that has dogged his literary reputation, keeping his work out of classrooms. “People feel either that he was a Nazi and absolutely should not be taught, or that he is such a great writer that he should be exonerated or perceived narrowly, with his fiction writing considered entirely apart from his political views, as if they were only a minor mistake,” Zagar says.
In contrast, Zagar aims to “position Hamsun’s texts in a broad cultural setting and illuminate the entire Hamsun canon from different perspectives, particularly those of gender and race.” Doing so, she says, “may reveal a consistency that might explain his support for the Third Reich.”
“Should Hamsun be more widely read?” Zagar muses. “As a writer of brilliant and important works, yes—but with a lot of discussion of the entire canon of his work. I don’t think we want to read only writers who are ‘on the right side’ or to brand work inherently ‘fascist’ because those who wrote it expressed fascist political views in other contexts. You get a more fruitful result when you look critically at the alignment between literature and politics.”
The real question, Zagar suggests, becomes “What do we have to read to give a complete picture of this complex writer? Do we need to read the polemical pieces to understand the novels? Are there echoes that go back and forth between the two? We have to chart our way from good fiction into bad politics and see how the two hang together.”
Interests shaped by background
Grappling with political complexity comes naturally to Zagar, whose childhood in the socialist republic of Yugoslavia (Slovenia became an independent parliamentary democracy in 1991) was shaped in part by the altered fortunes of her parents, who lost their extensive land and property holdings to the country’s postwar Communist government. (Zagar and her mother recently succeeded in reclaiming some of this property.)
Visiting Norway as an undergraduate literature student in the 1970s,Zagar was as captivated by Norway’s social and political traditions as she was by its tradition of literary innovation. “Norway seemed to combine the best of what we had in Yugoslavia when I was growing up with a more democratic and socially responsible approach,” she explains.
“It seemed the rational way to go. Scandinavia had private property, efficiency, all those things—plus a good social welfare system financed on a progressive tax scale, generous educational support, and a strong egalitarian spirit. It was not completely laissez-faire, as we saw the United States being at that time. It seemed to be a wonderful role model for how my own country should develop—and in fact, I hope Slovenia will use the Scandinavian experience as a guide as it approaches full membership in the European Union.”
Wide-ranging scholarship Zagar began pursuing Scandinavian studies in earnest when she moved in the 1980s to California with her husband, Al Fisher, a computer consultant and California native who had been working in Algeria. (The pair met in Ljubljana, the Slovenian capital city, when Fisher came to install a large computer for a research institute.)
Completing both an M.A. and a Ph.D. at the University of California, Berkeley, she presaged her later work on Hamsun by focusing her doctoral dissertation on Dag Solstad, another writer whose political activities “were in many ways as intriguing as the texts he produced in the 1960s and seventies.”
Solstad, a widely admired contemporary writer of naturalistic fiction, was also a member of a Maoist group in Norway. “He intrigued me because he was trying to turn Norway into a one-party culture—and here we were in Yugoslavia trying to get more plurality
in our political system, ”Zagar says. She came to understand that Solstad’s views reflected an intellectual elitism—a longing for a society in which “intellectuals have a strong role in leadership and are listened to,” says Zagar, who sees Solstad as a good example of “how modernism can conflate with an inherently reactionary idealism.”
Zagar came to Minnesota straight from graduate school, delighted to land a position at a first-tier research university. Scandinavian studies departments are found most often at smaller colleges, she notes. “I wanted to be able to do both research and teaching and I wanted to teach graduate students,” she says.
“I also felt that Minnesota, given its immigration patterns, would be a very good place to be. And I liked that Scandinavian studies had just been merged with the German department— to me, it seems a natural fit; there’s a lot of shared history and culture. Linguistically, of course, it’s the same group, except for Finnish. The combined department has been fruitful for exchanges in all kinds of areas.”
Zagar’s work today ranges across the landscape of Scandinavian literature, encompassing Karin Blixen and Peter HØeg as well as writers of the new generation such as Linn Ullmann and Frode Grytten She is especially interested in studying the lives and work of Norway’s many leading women writers and in exploring the intersection of literature and culture as she is now doing with Hamsun.
“I think when you teach language and literature, you want always to set it against a cultural background,” she says. “Today, part of that background is the contemporary geopolitical context. The world is globalizing; Europe is becoming less important. But think of Scandinavia—the wonderful and often innovative literature that has thrived there … the tradition of enabling women writers to flourish … the interesting social and political models … and also the many cultural and political complexities you find in these countries. It’s endlessly fascinating territory.”
FOCUS: Norwegian language & lit; modernism; Scandinavian women writers.
EDUCATION: Ph.D., M.A., U of California, Berkeley (Scandinavian studies).
RECENT PUBLICATIONS: Ideological Clowns: Dag Solstad Between Modernism and Politics (U of Vienna, 2001).
“Modernism & AestheticDictatorship or Dag Solstad’s Journey from the 1960s to the 1970s” (Scandinavian Studies, 2000).
FAMILY: Daughter, Lena, 9; dog, Mutt (“a Slovenian mutt we got during my sabbatical”).
HOME: A light-filled condo in a century-old building in St. Paul”s Cathedral Hill neighborhood—“one of the few areas in the Twin Cities where you don’t have to have a car all the time. It’s like Oslo in that sense.”
PUTS DOWN THE BOOKS FOR: Art exhibitions. “I just go to everything—contemporary, ethnographic, historical. I just wrote a short article on a Münch exhibit for a European newspaper.” Also plays tennis, bicycles, and scouts countrysides for wild mushrooms “to make into soups and risottos.”