Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 22, 2021

Hunger, by Knut Hamsun, translated by George Egerton

Hunger (Sult) (1890) by Norwegian author Knut Hamsun (1859-1952) is, as Wikipedia and 1001 Books tells us, a very significant book in the history of the novel.

Hamsun’s reputation has suffered from his Nazi sympathies, but his early, semi-autobiographical portrait of the writer as a hungry young man is a seminal modernist classic.  Influenced by Dostoevsky, Hamsun here develops a kind of Nietzschean individualism that rebelled against both naturalism and the progressive literary politics associated with Ibsen.  The urban angst of Hunger prefigures the alienated cityscapes of Kafka, but with an insistence on tensions between everyday economics and colloquial reverie worthy of James Kelman.

(1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, Edited by Peter Boxall, ABC Books, 2006 Edition, ISBN: 9780733321214, p.206)

Wikipedia tells us Hamsun pioneered techniques of stream of consciousness and interior monologue and Isaac Bashevis Singer called Hamsun “the father of the modern school of literature in his every aspect—his subjectiveness, his fragmentariness, his use of flashbacks, his lyricism. The whole modern school of fiction in the twentieth century stems from Hamsun.”  He influenced numerous authors including Thomas Mann, Franz Kafka, Herman Hesse and Ernest Hemingway, and he won the Nobel Prize in 1920 “for his monumental work, Growth of the Soil.

But all of this is forgotten as you read the book.  Reading this portrait of a distressed young man at the end of his physical and psychological tether is an intensely emotional experience.  It’s only 134 pages but it took four days to read it, because it is so overwhelming.  It was written in the late 19th century but when we read it today it is with a consciousness of how serious poverty was before the Russian Revolution propelled capitalist economies into developing welfare reforms.  In extremis, the unnamed narrator has nothing to turn to but judgemental charity and the spasmodic kindness of friends, and today in the 21st century that is still how it is in many countries around the world.  His vivid depictions of the state he is in, are brutal.

Although there are comic episodes to relieve the tension, it is the poignant moments that will stay with me.  Wandering about in a market where he has (literally) no money to buy anything, and indeed he has pawned his waistcoat to give some money to a beggar, he comes across the woman who had potted plants for sale.

The heavy crimson roses—the leaves of which glowed blood-like and moist in the damp morning—made me envious, and tempted me sinfully to snatch one, and I inquired the price of them merely as an excuse to approach as near to them as possible.

If I had any money I would buy one, no matter how things went; indeed I might well save a little now and then out of my way of living to balance things again. (p.22)

This yearning for roses despite his acute poverty, and his fantasy that he might save up for some from his non-existent earnings is quite heart-breaking.

The reader, invested in his survival almost from the first page, segues from moments of anxiety, alarm, hope, exasperation and despair as the young man sabotages himself repeatedly.  He is very confident in his ability to earn a living from his writing; he thinks that he just needs the right conditions to get his stories down on paper and editors will accept them for publication.  But he does not have the right conditions: he hasn’t paid his rent and has been asked to leave, he spends a night sleeping rough and he is reduced to scribbling his stories on a park bench.  When one of his stories is accepted and he is able to rent a windswept loft, he loses his keys in a bizarre sequence of events and spends a night in a pitch-dark police cell for the homeless.  And when he is offered a bed for the night with a family, he behaves in such a peculiar way that he is asked to leave there too.  A last gasp attempt to sell his tie and his shaving tickets to a friend fails because he abandons the attempt, overcome with embarrassment, leaving the packet behind.

(Apparently at this time, men did not shave at home, they bought books of tickets to be shaved at a barber.)

He is always so acutely aware of of what others might think of him that he tries desperately to conceal his straitened circumstances.  A friend lent him a blanket but he doesn’t want to be seen carrying it when he’s homeless, so he gets it wrapped up to look as if he’s carrying a parcel.  He lies all the time to save face, giving false names, refusing help, rejecting a small loan from an editor and pretending to be employed.  It’s a way of preserving his fragile self-esteem, and pride is all you’ve got when you’ve got nothing, but it’s self-destructive too.

His interior monologues range from fantasies to hallucinations to dialogues with God, who he thinks is orchestrating his miseries as a test while Demons are grinding their teeth in frustration because he hasn’t yet committed an unpardonable sin.

The cumulative effects of hunger are wearing him down, but he’s not bitter.  When he finally stoops to begging, he gets nothing for it.  His last desperate attempt at the pawnshop sees him cutting the buttons off his coat, but they’re worthless.  It is a relief when there is a reprieve: he he meets a friend, similarly penniless, but able to helps him out a little.

However, he becomes aware that he’s talking to himself and having freakish thoughts, and the reader can’t always differentiate between his deluded state and what is actually happening.  As a portrait of a man on the edge of an abyss, Hunger is unforgettable.

Author: Knut Hamsun
Title: Hunger (Sult)
Translated from the Norwegian by George Egerton
Publisher: Dover Publications, 2003 (first published 1890)
ISBN: 9780486431680, pbk., 134 pages
Source: Personal library


Responses

  1. I agree. I read it while I actually visited Norway, and spotted some of the locations in the book. It took me over 2 weeks to finish, I couldn’t read it fast at all. And to see the markets, and retrace some of his steps was rather amazing. An intense read!

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    • Hi Malvina, That would have been a terrific experience. Do they have literary tours in Oslo, like they do in London and other cities?

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      • I went on a literary tour of Scandinavia, through the Australian company ‘Australians Studying Abroad (ASA)’. Our tour lecturer Susannah Fullerton gave us daily lectures as we travelled along, sometimes several, so we were very well informed. It was terrific, highly recommend it. We did have local tour guides as well, so win, win. (And yes, one in Oslo.)

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        • That sounds wonderful!
          I don’t really have regrets about any of my trip to Russia in 2012, but — surprisingly given its literary history — we could not find much in the way of literary tours, only a couple of day tours. We’ve done self-guided ones in London and loved them.

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  2. I read this some years ago – one of the strangest and most powerful novels, and I still think about it.

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    • Yes, I think I’ll remember it for a long time.

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  3. Oh, I haven’t read this since my 20s and I remember being very affected by it. Must revisit!!!

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    • I’m surprised we didn’t read it at university where (apart from the poetry and drama side of things) we were exploring the development of the novel.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I read this at a very young age and have never forgotten the experience. Norway was very poor much like Scotland with high numbers of immigrants. How progressive it is today with policies that take care of their population very unlike Scotland although the source of that wealth oil that is causing much division for us all.

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    • It does show how societies can change for the better, we just have to keep working at it.

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  5. This sounds such an important read although heart wrenching.

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    • Yes, it is heart-breaking. It reminded me of things I’d read in that series on poverty in Australia that The Guardian ran a little while ago.

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  6. It seems that there will have to be something done about the uber rich for how else can things change much for the poor.

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    • I’m encouraged by the coalition of nations which has agreed to start taxing them properly.

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  7. Terrific review. Like the other readers who left a comment here, it stayed with me.
    I also had a hard time reading it (like the Sandrine Collette I wrote about recently) and as you’ve read on my blog, I’ve seen a very moving theatre version of it.

    The worst with these books, Hunger, Les larmes noires sur la terre or the play Love I wrote about, is that we see other humans struggling with basic needs and trying to keep their dignity. It’s hard to read and impossible to really understand what they go through.

    And yes, it could be any of us tomorrow.

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    • Thank you, Emma. It must have been a very powerful play.
      What saddens me, is that prior to Thatcher and Reagan, governments were beginning to do something about that, and we’ve lost that.

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      • It was. And yes, we’ve lost the sense of solidarity, even if it’s less the case in the EU than in the USA or in UK.

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        • Yes, that’s true. Even the problem of climate change can’t unite us…

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