Hunger, by Knut Hamsun and translated by Sverre Lyngstad
I’ve read few novels as unsparing as Knut Hamsun’s Hunger. Written in 1890 it follows the needless descent of a young writer into starvation and alienation. The novel doesn’t blink, doesn’t look away even for an instant. Put that way it can sound like a work of social critique, but it absolutely isn’t. It’s much more interesting than that.
The unnamed narrator lives in Kristiana, now known as Oslo. He survives by writing freelance newspaper pieces and pawning his few possessions bit by bit (down to the buttons on his coat). Increasingly though he’s too hungry to write, and the pawnshop gives less on each visit as he slowly works through anything he owns of any value. As time goes on he goes longer and longer without food, becomes more and more estranged from the society around him.
The book opens with him living in a dismal one room apartment, barely furnished. He’s not paid the rent in an age, and time is running out there. He has to leave, and when he packs it becomes quickly evident quite how poor he is:
I decided to buckle down at once and get going with my move. I took out my bundle, a red handkerchief that contained a couple of clean collars and some crumpled newspapers I had carried my bread home in, rolled up my blanket and pocketed my stack of white writing paper.
He finds his situation deeply embarrassing. The blanket isn’t even his, it’s a loan from a friend. As he wanders the streets desperately trying to fill the long days (“I couldn’t go to a café with empty pockets, and I didn’t know of any acquaintance I might look up at this time of day.”) he worries about how he seems to people, keen to maintain some minimum form of appearances:
Meanwhile the green blanket was an inconvenience to me; nor would it do to walk around with a parcel under one’s arm in plain sight of everybody. What would people think of me? So I wondered how to find a place where it could be left for safekeeping for a time. Then it occurred to me that I could go over to Semb’s and get it wrapped; that would make it look better right away, and there would be nothing to be ashamed of any more in carrying it. I entered the store and stated my errand to one of the clerks. He looked first at the blanket and then at me. It seemed to me he mentally shrugged his shoulders in contempt as he accepted the parcel. I felt offended. ‘Be careful, damn it!’ I cried. ‘There are two expensive glass vases inside. The parcel is going to Smyrna.’ That helped. It helped a lot. The man begged my pardon in every movement he made for not guessing right away there were important articles inside the blanket. When he had finished his wrapping, I thanked him for his help like someone who had sent precious objects to Smyrna before, and he even opened the door for me when I left.
The text follows his internal monologue, which moves from depression to euphoria as his brain fills alternately with despair or wild schemes that will restore his fortunes. Perhaps his next article will be bought by a publisher? Surely it will! He can feel now how well written it is, how subtle the thoughts and arguments in it are. Rereading it though, perhaps it’s worthless after all, and anyway he can’t finish it as the hunger causes his head to pound and blocks his focus.
Here there is no Cartesian dualism. The narrator is his body, and his body is hungry. His mind can turn away from food, but not indefinitely and as his hunger increases his character begins to erode. At first he is scrupulously honest, but how honest can one remain without food? It’s important to him to think of himself as an honourable man, but as his hunger grows so does his ability to self-justify his actions. Theft becomes a possibility, sharp dealing, the hunger eats away as much at his conscience as it does his strength. Always however, his hunger remains profoundly physical.
My hunger pains were excruciating and didn’t leave me for a moment. I swallowed my saliva again and again to take the edge off, and it seemed to help. I hadn’t had enough to eat for many, many weeks before this thing came up, and my strength had diminished considerably lately. When I had been lucky enough to get my hands on a five-krone bill by some manoeuvre or other, the money generally didn’t last me long enough for my health to be fully restored before a new hunger spell descended upon me. My back and shoulders had borne the brunt of it; I could stop that gnawing pain in my chest for a moment by coughing hard or by walking extremely bent over, but there was nothing I could do for my back and shoulders.
As the narrator’s plight continues his behaviour deteriorates. He begins to laugh when nothing is funny. Smashes his head against lampposts. Shouts meaninglessly but aggressively at strangers. He becomes paranoid. You’ve almost certainly seen people behaving like that in real life. Most of us cross the road to avoid them.
It’s easy to read this as an attack on the lack of a social welfare safety net, and of how society can ignore the artist. The thing is though, none of that is quite right. As you read it becomes apparent that there is a safety net, he’s just too proud to use it. At one point he’s locked up by the police, and in the morning they give bread to the homeless that they’ve imprisoned overnight for vagrancy. In his pride he pretends not to be homeless, to have been sleeping rough simply through drunkenness, so they don’t feed him.
Time and again he spurns possible help, too proud to accept it. His situation is terrible, but it’s not the fault of a society that will do nothing to aid its most vulnerable. That’s not what’s happening at all. Still, if it’s partly his fault (and it’s only partly, poverty itself begets poverty), does that make it less awful?
Hamsun here is making it hard for us to have the comfort of pity. One can’t read this and simply think, oh, isn’t all this shocking. Something should be done. Hamsun ultimately makes it clear that the narrator’s situation is fairly easily escaped, just not on the terms he sets for himself. That’s why I talked about the book being unblinking, what we’re examining here isn’t the society that the narrator falls between the cracks of, but his internal experience of his situation. His plans, justifications, thoughts, flights of emotion.
Hunger is famously semi-autobiographical, and because of that it’s easy too to assume that the narrator has talent as a writer since Hamsun himself does. If so, do we have a condemnation of how a bourgeois society ignores and devalues art? The text though is largely silent on how good the narrator actually is. He does write some decent pieces for some of the local newspapers, but nothing spectacular. He’s driven to write, but does that actually mean he’s good at it? Again the reader is denied the comfortable option, it becomes apparent that it’s the narrator’s idea of himself as a writer which is itself in part the source of his predicament.
Hunger then is an inward-facing novel. Time here passes not steadily, but psychologically. When the narrator has food a week can be disposed of in a sentence, then a single hungry half hour can take a page. The focus here is on the internal experience, things exists as they are perceived, not as they are in the world. Everything is seen through the prism of the narrator’s viewpoint.
The point of interest here is the process of thought, which is of course a process of language. In one scene the narrator imagines he’s created a new word, but he doesn’t yet know what it means. It’s an act of mania, and the text follows his ricocheting thoughts as they echo around his head. I’ve read plenty of novels which feature stream of consciousness, but few that capture it so accurately.
In a sense, Hunger is the collapse of 19th Century narrative fiction. The characteristics of the 19th Century novel, the detailed descriptions of the characters’ environment, the interest in social context, the godlike authorial perspective casting its gaze over a panoply of richly detailed fictional personalities, all of that is discarded here. Instead we have a descent into the self which results in the collapse of that self. The narrator is left without god, without society, without the values he called his own, ultimately even without language that he can rely on.
This edition of Hunger comes with a hugely perceptive foreword by Paul Auster. It’s well worth reading, and while it contains spoilers it’s fair to say that this isn’t really a book where knowing the ending matters. I could quote the entire foreword, and even were this not easily the best translation into English available I’d recommend this edition just to get hold of what Auster has to say. Auster describes Hunger as “existential art”, “a way of looking death in the face”, death “as the abrupt and absurd end of life.”
This is the essence of Modernism. It is the confronting of meaninglessness, an act which is intrinsically absurd since it is an attempt to bring meaning to meaninglessness, an attempt which by definition cannot succeed. At the end of his essay Auster evokes Beckett:
Hamsun’s character systematically unburdens himself of every belief in every system, and in the end, by means of the hunger he has inflicted upon himself, he arrives at nothing. There is nothing to keep him going – and yet he keeps on going. He walks straight into the twentieth century.
Of course, none of this occurs in a vacuum. I talked before about how this differs from 19th Century fiction, but that’s shorthand, because this is 19th Century fiction. It’s the strand of it though that was moving away from the dominant form of that time, and which would soon(ish) give rise to writers such as Joyce, Beckett, Woolf and indeed eventually Paul Auster. If you’ve any interest in any of them and haven’t read this, you’re in for a treat.
I’ll end with a word on translations. Get this one. There’s an 1899 translation by George Egerton which while accurate is censorious, removing the novel’s (admittedly few) erotic scenes and so fundamentally changing the tone of the book. There’s then a 1967 translation by American poet Robert Bly, which is I understand riddled with questionable interpretations, errors and outright changes. There’s a lengthy translator’s afterword here which explores the difficulties with the previous translations in forensic detail, but the upshot of it is that if you’re reading this in English then this is the copy you want.
Hunger sat on my to be read pile for some time. The prompt to finally read it came from this review by Emma of Book around the Corner. That’s the beauty of the blogosphere. What newspaper would have released a fresh review of a book from 1890, however well regarded? Emma did though, and her review inspired me and led to my discovering this extraordinary work. Blogs aren’t for me a replacement for newspaper reviews (though that’s a topic for a blog entry all its own), but they do provide something that increasingly the newspapers don’t. Breadth of coverage.