Can you love a book, yet revile its author?

The answer must be yes. In an interesting piece in yesterday's Los Angeles Times, book critic Matt Shaer remembers the case of Knut Hamsun, 1920 Nobel laureate in literature.  On the strength of Hamsun's novel "Hunger," he was considered a "leading humanist."

At least he was until 20 years later, when he turned to Nazism with such enthusiasm that he mailed his Nobel medal to Joseph Goebbels in a gesture of admiration."Personally and politically," Shaer writes, Hamsun "was a monster" – a man who "berated his friends and cheated on his wives" and who "could be horrible to his children."

And yet this was also a man who wrote, "beautifully, poetically and savagely," an author of whom Isaac Bashevis Singer once said, "The whole school of fiction in the 20th century stems from Hamsun."

It brings to mind a short piece from the New Yorker's Book Bench last year about the poetry of accused Bosnian Serb war criminal Radovan Karadzic. A New Yorker blogger tells the story of Bosnian writer Semezdin Mehmedinovic who felt such anger at a television appearance by Karadzic that he began to physically tear apart a copy of "There Are Miracles, There Are No Miracles," Karadzic's book of verse for children. But watching was one of the book's enthusiastic readers, Mehmedinovic's 11-year-old son, who, according to Mehmedinovic, "threw a fit before my very eyes."

The cause of the boy's upset: "My son knew the author of the book, and he couldn’t let himself believe such a man would want to harm him."

Which raises the question: When we read and feel we connect deeply with an author, who or what is it that has actually spoken to us? And why is it that learning something about that author's life can sometimes provoke deep disappointment?

Does the confusion that may result come from knowing the author too little – or is it that, when we read him, we simply know him differently?

Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor’s book editor. You can follow her on Twitter at  

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