Thursday, February 21, 2013

Hunger, by Knut Hamsun

Staff Review by Chris Saliba

Hunger is an early existential novel about a writer trying to make a living by his pen, and failing miserably.

Knut Hamsun (1859-1952) was a Norwegian novelist. His name had not crossed my path until customers in our shop started bringing his novels to the counter and praising his work. Charles Bukowski also mentions Hamsun as one of his favourite writers. Having read Hunger, I now know why.

Hunger, published in 1890, was one of Hamsun’s early novels. Despite its Victorian publishing date, it is distinctly modern and looks forward to writers like Kafka, Sartre and Beckett. While Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground (1864) is considered the first existential novel, Hunger is perhaps the second.

The story is a pretty simple one. The narrator, a young, struggling writer, tries to live by his pen. His publishing successes are few and far between. Consequently, he doesn’t have much money, if any, for lodgings and food. Things get worse and worse until his clothes are ragged, he has nowhere to stay and he suffers great hunger.

It’s hard to be completely sympathetic with the narrator. He should get a real job and work like everyone else, rather than pursue his self-deluded dreams of literary grandeur. But herein lies much of the novel’s appeal. Hunger explores the mind isolated and unhinged from reality and society, hence its status as existential novel. The narrator, who is never named, vacillates between self-loathing and a ridiculously inflated sense of self-worth. He often imagines he is being persecuted, then fantasises about insulting people who he feels are belittling him. There is a great friction between the narrator’s very low social status and his lofty aspirations. This gives the novel a great hallucinatory feel.

Hunger, it can only be surmised, was written from personal experience. It’s hard not to feel that Hamsun went nearly mad in similar circumstances as a struggling writer. Many of the scenarios, situations and personal confrontations have the ring of truth. Anyone who has lived on the dole and struggled to eke out the barest existence will vouch for the novel’s psychological truth. When you live this low on the social scale, without money, work, or any level of self-esteem, mental illness is only a step away. The narrator dances on this dizzy precipice until the novel’s final page when he takes a radical and unexpected direction.

The chief achievement of the novel is its psychological authenticity and intensity, the bouncing around between an exalted self-worth and a chronic inferiority complex. The narrator must constantly try to figure out what reality is and where he fits into it, if at all. Again, Hamsun must have experienced these turbulent mental states to write about them so truthfully. The novel’s genius lies in its eschewing of a typical 19th century story-telling mode to take a stripped down, existential style that is decades ahead of itself.

Hunger, by Knut Hamsun. Published by Text Publishing. ISBN: 9781921145544  RRP: $23.95