‘It was in those days when I wandered about hungry in Kristiania, that strange city which no one leaves before it has set its mark upon him…’.
Knut Hamsun’s novel ‘Hunger’ has a daunting reputation as one of the cornerstones of modern literature and Hamsun himself is regarded as a towering influence on the development of the modern novel. No mean feat given that he wrote in Norwegian, a relatively minor language at least when considered from the perspective of numbers of native speakers.
I had known about the novel for years and kept meaning to read it, especially after seeing it described somewhere as reminiscent of, and indeed as even surpassing, Dostoevsky, who was then and still remains now my favourite author. All of which led to an inevitable sense of disappointment and even frustration when I finally got round to reading it and didn’t quite feel the same transcendent rush as everyone else. I mean, if a book is described as ” [o]ne of the most disturbing novels in existence”, an opinion repeatedly echoed by a good number of critics, and you end up coming away from it without feeling suitably traumatised or horrified, you think well either there must be something wrong with me — I’ve become depressingly inured to such bleakness in literature — or with everyone else for being so easily taken aback.
But, even if it didn’t manage to live up to my high expectations or to engage me as profoundly as I’d hoped given all the hype I did nevertheless end up really enjoying it. I consider it to be a thrilling master work by a author who does deserve a good measure of the praise heaped upon him for this book, even if it tends to be a bit excessive.
‘Hunger’ is written in a strangely detached first person narrative and details a short but very traumatic period of time in the life of a disturbed young Norwegian writer living in late 19th century Oslo then called Kristiania. The novel begins with the narrator on the verge of a terrifying downward spiral, one fraught with innumerable moments of shame and extreme despair, and ends with him confronting the prospect of a total mental breakdown, a fate which he avoids or at least postpones by drastic means; deciding to completely forego Kristiania itself he offers himself up for service as a deckhand on a ship bound for Egypt.
We find him, at the start of the novel, deeply dissatisfied with the meagre, parlous state of his lodgings and more generally aggrieved by the wholesale destitution into which he is beggining to sink. A deeper source of malaise lies in his inability to convince anyone to publish the articles into which he pours so much of himself. He starts to feel worn out by the continual rejection by newspaper editor — which of course, like any other typical starving artist, he is convinced he doesn’t deserve.
As the novel progresses the narrator increasingly finds his main source of adversity in the struggle to hold onto as much of his sanity as he can, to maintain whatever tenuous grip on reality that there remains to him. In one particularly memorable passage of the book he just about manages to convince himself that he hasn’t suffered the complete breakdown of his mental faculties which he suspects months of living in total destitution on the edge of starvation have brought about thanks to the fact that he still has the ability to be observant of his surroundings — and rather astutely so as he boasts in his narrative.
Throughout the book the narrator’s behaviour is manic, constantly veering from merely highly strung towards being dangerously erratic, impulsive and unreasonable, his mood suddenly turning volatile, and, his thoughts thick with chaos and absurdity. However when he does turn violent, the violence is always directed into himself and ends up becoming its target. His proneness to these hysteric spells is of course exacerbated by a lifestyle of scarcity and dire need — but on the other hand his instability, his inability to make his way with others, seems to be the primary cause of his descent into misery and squalor.
It’s as if he suffers from some kind of Tourettes syndrome: stopping strangers on the street or knocking on random doors in the midst of some kind of delirium, taking a perverted pleasure in gauging the reactions to his absurd and senseless acts and most of all, to his random and colourful extemporaneous lies: lies that he finds so compelling that he almost immediately begins to believe them himself.
Hamsun’s brilliance in ‘Hunger’ lies in his ability to make the narrator’s unfolding version of events deeply compelling rather than just squalid or depressing, to get the reader to not only sympathise but even to start to identify with him. Hamsun manages this both through the lucidity and immediacy of his writing but also by making the narrator’s descriptions both cogent and rational, as if we were privy to a still functioning voice of rationality in the narrator’s head aloofly scrutinising his spontaneous madness: Hamsun doesn’t try to directly manifest the narrators’ instability and madness in his manner and style of narration.
The narrator is occasionally able to channel his intense manic spontaneity into some form of worthwhile creative endeavour, into the impromptu writing of articles and plays which often come to him as if by a possession — but only when the inspiration hits him; otherwise this manic creativity becomes the engine of his madness. He is an extreme example of the archetype of the creative artist driven by, and helpless in the face of an incessant need to re-create and refashion his reality in the attempt to externalise some kind of surplus inner vitality: mental illness and the artistic impulse sit side by side the one merging into the other.
As the plot advances, and aside from a few brief moments of respite, the trajectory of the narrator’s decline is relentless: although perversely his situation never seems to deteriorate as rapidly as his ability to cope with it. Things begin to look up during the few moments the narrator gets to spend with Ylajali, the pretty girl he starts to take a romantic interest in and who, on her part, is also deeply drawn to him — even taking it upon herself to appear with her face covered by a black veil and to keep a silent anonymous vigil outside his lodgings at night. Their relationship then gradually develops beyond this initial mutual fascination, and Ylajali (the absurd imaginary name the narrator gives the girl) starts to pull him out of the extreme solipsism into which he is sunk.
But then with so much at stake, his chance to escape the encroaching darkness, he begins to suffer from a unprecedented level of self-consciousness at his behaviour and actions. He notices how much his looks have starts to wither as a result of extreme living; he is deeply ashamed by his gauntness and relentless hairloss – his hair is literally coming away in clumps as he sits across from her — and the tattered rags he is forced to wear, the uniform of his destitution.Of course it can’t last and in an excruciating denoument to their relationship he ends up alienating even her.
Things go from bad to worse to staggeringly worse, and in the final part of the book the narrator’s desperation in striving to keep a roof over his head and avoid falling back into his previous condition of want and helplessness leads him to completely jettison any last vestiges of dignity and pride he may previously have held fast onto — indeed he is now convinced that a misplaced sense of self worth had previously been his downfall — into a sort of craven timidity. But even his complete and utter humiliation at the hands of the scumbag family who own his lodgings cannot secure him much of a reprieve and having debased himself utterly he ends up back on the street.So that finally he has to throw the towel in and accept failure, to recognise that the only way out of this spiral is for him to leave and to put as much distance between him and the site of all of his defeats as he can. Give up and start all over again.
For me of power of the book lies in its remorseless honesty. Hamsun never flinches in his depiction of his narrator’s most shameful and pitiful moments and invests them with a kind of veracity that must have its roots in the authors own personal experiences of the more grim side of the human experience.
Maybe in the end ‘Hunger’ didn’t disturb me as much as it had others because I still saw a lot of hope in the mere fact of the narrators persistence, in his reluctance to admit defeat, the fact that he keeps at it: especially at the end when things looked so overbearingly bleak he still manages to escape, to find a reprieve. The bleakness is always tempered. At the same time I feel that to a great extent Hunger lacks the profundity that Dostoevsky attained in works like Notes from Underground which covered a similar territory.