Hunger
by Knut Hamsun (Sult, 1890)
translated from the Norwegian by Sverre Lyngstad (1996)
Penguin Classics (1998)
242 pp

hunger

Several months ago I experienced a sudden urge to go to the bookstore and buy Hunger, 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.

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.

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