Knut Hamsun: Hunger

Several months ago I experienced a sudden urge to go to the bookstore and buy Hunger (Sult, 1890; tr. from the Norwegian by Sverre Lyngstad, 1996) by Nobel Laureatte Knut Hamsun. For some strange reason, when I returned home with the book I no longer had the urge to read it, and it sat on my shelf until the other day when, still not having an urge to read it, I decided it was high time to work on the pile of boughten but neglected books.

hunger

Here we meet an unnamed young man — a starving writer who is apparently a bit of an autobiographical version of Hamsun. In the book divided into four parts, we watch the man wander around Norway’s capital Kristiania (called Oslo since 1924) looking for food, going from bad to worse to lucky or blessed to bad to worse again and again. During his wanderings he encounters several characters, most of whom seem to pity him. He yearns for and yet rejects any overt attempt to help him. Proud, when he has to sell items to the pawnshop, he does so under various pretexts, though he probably is not fooling anyone.

And without disclosing much of the plot, that is about it concerning how the plot moves. The interesting aspect of the novel is his mental decline as he becomes “drunk with starvation.” Sometimes he plays petty pranks on the people he meets in the street. Sometimes he is downright mean. However, rather than resent these people who have what he needs, he views their lives as fairly blessed by God, the opposite of what he considers himself to be:

These people that I met — how lightly and merrily they bobbed their bright faces, dancing their way through life as though it were a ballroom!

Since he is a writer, some interesting aspects of his decline are shown in the writing projects he takes on. Here is an early one:

Needless to say, I would have an opportunity to deal a deathblow to Kant’s sophisms . . . On second thought, I would not attack Kant; it could be avoided, after all — I just had to make an imperceptible detour when I came to the problem of time and space.

As his mind digresses, however, he finds writing more and more difficult:

My thoughts gradually began to compose themselves. Taking great care, I wrote slowly a couple of well-considered pages, an introduction to something; it could serve as the beginning to almost anything, whether a travelogue or a political article, depending on what I felt like doing. It was an excellent beginning to many things.

However, this being a young Hamsun, we know that writing will help him get through some of the difficulties, but not all.

As happened just recently with The Unbearable Lightness of Being, my enjoyment with the book was not found while reading it. I would actually find myself on the train with nothing to do but read (a most enjoyable situation in which to find oneself) but without the desire to work through the pages of this short book. I’m willing to say that it was my mood or that every other moment of the day is so busy my mind didn’t want to engage. Still, I think it is because I read Coetzee’s The Life and Times of Michael K earlier this year and found its writing about the decline of a starving man to be far superior to this. Then again, perhaps Coetzee is in debt to Hamsun, who was one of the pilgrims of modern writing about the inner man.

And in retrospect I have some thoughts on the book that make me think it was worth the read. For example, here is one of the more complex and intriguing encounters the narrator has, this one with a prostitute:

I went with her. When we were a few steps past the cabstand, I stopped, freed my arm and said, “Listen, my friend, I don’t have a penny.” And I prepared to go.

At first she refused to believe me, but when she had gone through all my pockets without anything turning up, she got peeved, tossed her head and called me a dry stick.

“Good night,” I said.

“Wait a minute,” she called. “Those are gold-rimmed glasses, aren’t they?”

“No.”

“Then go to blazes!”

And I went.

Shortly afterward she came running after me and called me once more. “You can come anyway,” she said.

I felt humiliated by this offer from a poor streetwalker and said no. Besides, it was getting late and I had to be somewhere; nor could she afford such sacrifices.

“No, now I want you to come.”

“But I won’t go with you under those circumstances.”

“You’re on your way to someone else, of course,” she said.

“No,” I answered.

Alas, I had no real bounce in me these days; women had become almost like men to me. Want had dried me up.

13 thoughts on “Knut Hamsun: Hunger

  1. Stewart says:

    Interesting to see that Hamsun is in Penguin Classics over your way. Here he’s published by a few different publishers, although Souvenir Press has the bulk of them.

    I bought Hunger ages ago too, with the intention of reading it, but it’s sat there staring off the shelf at me. In fact, it’s been leapfrogged by The Dreamers which has made it into my immediate reading pile.

  2. I hope to get another perspective on this book, Stewart. But I’m really anxious to see your thoughts on The Dreamers. You seem to be enjoying Adair quite a bit, and you’ve got me convinced I need to try him soon.

  3. workingwords100 says:

    So this is what Norway was like before the more fair government took over? Interesting insight on life other there.

    Did the novel take place in the late 19th century or early 20th century?

  4. I’m pretty sure it takes place in the late nineteenth century. It was first published in 1890 when Hamsun was 31. The character in the novel is supposedly somewhat autobiographical and happens to be a little over 20. So it’s safe to say that this is Norway in the 1880s or so.

  5. Rob says:

    I read this back in the days of Rebel Inc. When they’d just been taken over by Canongate, they used to do a great deal where if you bought a book from their website, they’d send you another random book for free. I found some interesting titles that way, though I think this one was a deliberate purchase. I can’t remember quite put me onto it now. A reference in John Fante, maybe?

  6. What were your feelings about the book, Rob? As you can see, I was more or less uninterested but found some of it worth the time.

  7. E. Madsen says:

    Hamsun is a favourite of mine, and is best read in the original Norwegian. English does not do him any justice, most of the translationns are old and archaic, done in the 20’s. I wish someone would initiate a series of new translations, Hamsun is a modern writer even today and deserves to be widely read.

    As far as Hunger goes, it should not be considered as just another novel and compared to other novels. Hamsun himself declared: “Hunger is not a novel!” If considered as such it will be found monotonous, to be missing “plot” and what not. In fact, that is the whole point. It is a literary description of the workings of a starved mind, and an anology over the creative process. It’s about language, not story.

    Excuse my bad English. I am Norwegian and know quite a bit about the subject, and I will not mind answering any questions:)

  8. E. Madsen, I definitely appreciate your perspective. I’m afraid I don’t know a bit of Norwegian, so I probably won’t get the full effect of Hunger. I did have issues with the translation I read. It’s the one by Sverre Lyngstad from maybe a decade ago. Nothing felt poetic or particularly well put.

    That said, I don’t have problems with books that don’t have a typical “plot.” I’m pretty sure my main problem was with the writing. It just didn’t connect with me and the subject.

    What other Hamsun works do you recommend, and are there any particular translations that are better than others?

  9. E. Madsen says:

    Well, none of the ones I know are any good. Sad, really. Hamsun is easily up there with the big ones.

    Hunger is absolutely the wrong book to start with! Although it is good in its way, it has more to do with how early it was in portraying stream of consciousness. But in real danger of putting of a reader after just a few pages.

    I would rather recommend starting with say Mysteries, Under the atumn star, Growth of the soil or Wanderers. These are books spanning his whole career and often regarded his best through each of his many different periods. And if you are interested in Hamsun in general, his last: On overgrown paths, offer some insight to the man himself.

    Another thing is age. A young reader will often ble seduced by Hamsuns style and typical outsider heroes and their strange, selfdestructive behaviour – and identify with them.

    This last bit not very well put… but age is aboslutely important. I know that Fante and Bukowski came to love Hamsun at an early age and were influenced by him in their own writing. I guess you just fall in love or you don’t:)

  10. Because of your advocacy, I will not give up on Hamsun. It might be a while before I get to another of his books, but I will visit him again. Especially if another translator takes him on.

  11. Stewart says:

    It’s the Sverre Lyngstad translation I have too, published by Canongate, and it contains an appendix citing a comparison of linguistic choices between Lyngstad’s own and Robert Bly’s 1967 translation.

    Interestingly, a couple of days ago we got a five star review of Hamsun’s Pan, also translated by Lyngstad.

  12. E. Madsen says:

    Lyngstad is certainly the most up to date. But as I have read them, they do seem oldish. This may have to do also with Hamsun eagerly experimenting with syntax, indirect speach etc.

    And fact is that Hamsun lends himself poorly into English and this may be the reason for his modest status in the English speaking world. Good then, that these translations are at least strong enough to enchant new readers there anyway!

    Hamsun biography is no less interesting than his works. Look up http://www.hamsun.at and http://www.hamsun.no, where you will find photos of Hamsun, and also scanned pages of manuscript, done in his beautiful hand.

  13. Trevor says:

    Here’s an interesting article on Hamsun and his politics, brought up on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of his birth.

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