Review: Hunger by Knut Hamsun

Hunger by Knut Hamsun book cover
Hunger (1890), Sult in the original Norwegian, is the story of an unnamed journalist who haunts the streets of Christiana (now Oslo), treading the fine line between existence and death. Maintaining his high ideals, he refuses help while he struggles to provide for himself but, with his writing barely earning him a wage, he is forced to pawn his scant belongings to survive, all the while continuing in his own self-delusion of artistic integrity and respectability. As the narrator wanders about, chewing on wood shavings and vomiting what little food he is able to get hold of, desperately seeking nourishment, both essential and creative/spiritual, he spirals into a terrifying cycle of starvation and redemption which leads him to suffer wild delusions and become disturbed by insignificant events, often misunderstanding the behaviour of others. Lost and deluded, he shuns every chance at intimate human contact, and attempts to live a self-sufficient life, alone but blinded to his own sorry state.

The central character’s lacks identity; he exists in the present without a name, a past, or any clear roots. His acts of ludicrous generosity, delusion, indecisiveness and violence – in short, his fragmented self, riddled with anxiety and confusion – represents the struggle to exist in an age that lacks moral certainty and which seems Absurd. The inauthenticity of a mind torn between an internal reality and suffocating social constructs draws on the ideas of Kierkegaard and is built upon by later modernist and existential literature.

The theme of hunger couldn’t be more central to the human condition, in either a literal of metaphorical sense. It would be easy to read Hunger as simply an example of psychological naturalism, in which the idea and effects of starvation on the body and mind are intricately explored. Indeed, Hamsun had an intimate knowledge of this existence and there is more than a hint of biography in the novel. But the hunger here is something more, more even than a critique of the dark side of modernity – the urban alienation – which is often ascribed it. Hunger points to something more important: the suffocating strictures in which all men are held. The central character is not a man shunned by society and left to rot, rather he is a man afflicted by vain pride and self-importance. He considers himself above other men, and refuses to expose his desperate state, choosing to isolate himself. Indeed, he regularly worsens his own situation by pompous acts of generosity that he can ill afford.

The mouth is both the site of ingestion and also of exclamation, and there is a sense that the central character is purging and purifying his body while in search for words, perhaps representative of Hamsun’s own search for a new form of literary expression. His continuing preoccupation with manners and respectability in the face of his own impending downfall invokes the absurdity of the situation, which is perhaps more common than might at first be assumed.

This is also a novel about the solitary pursuit of writing, in which the writer must understand intimately the world around him but is destined to sit outside of its society, perceiving the everyday from a unique and disconnected stand point. The hopelessness of artistic creation, the delusion and arrogance of the writer as he attempts to interpret a world indifferent to his existence are here rendered quite beautifully. The frustration of the protagonist as he struggles to provide sufficient food and shelter to allow his creative spirit to flourish is painful.

Hamsun was an outsider in his own life, and his potent early novels reflect a radical desire for change in literature and perhaps in the wider world. His pioneering literary voice was one of the earliest to attempt to explore the human psyche in all its intricacy. Hunger should be considered as important an exploration of alienation as Kafka’s The Trial and Doestoevsky’s Notes from Underground.

Hamsun was intensely interested in the interior workings of his characters’ minds, and was concerned with the working of his own consciousness. Hamsun challenged the naturalism of the likes of Zola and, by removing the barrier of the formal narrator, allowed an intimate relationship between reader and the internal machinations of the central character – transforming the human consciousness into the protagonist; a truly revolutionary move. The stream of consciousness style is progressive and the influence of Hamsun’s early fiction on the modernist literature that followed can hardly be underestimated. From Hemingway, Joyce, and Woolf to Gide, Hesse, and Mann, his influence was far-ranging.

So much of the novel is wrapped up in the moods and whims of the central character; it is involving, disorienting and always engaging. The continual cycle of threat to survival and narrow escape is absorbing. Hamsun switches between past and present tense regularly, disorienting the reader and suggesting a confused meshing of the past and present, which has yet to resolve itself to a comfortable mode of existence.

However, at times, the self-defeating circularity of the narrator’s behaviour can become tiring for the reader, but this is the reality of an addled mind. That Hamsun manages to sustain a novel on the inner machinations of such a troubled character is an achievement, and proof that the humanity of any story is what makes it worth telling.

That the central character is a journalist attempting to write for the masses whilst maintaining his high ideals, points to a conflict felt for the first time in the nineteenth century. With the increase in literacy of the population and the increasing ability to print and distribute efficiently, writers were afforded a new freedom of expression but were also forced to compromise high literary style for efficient, popular prose, and write on topics that appealed to a wider audience.

As Hunger is such a troubling book in places, the fact of just how funny it is, is often ignored. The narrator’s surreal arguments with himself and with others are wonderfully amusing, if often pointing to something much darker below the surface, as are his extreme attempts to conceal his own position and maintain a respectable façade.

By the novel’s conclusion, the central character has not progressed towards his high ideals, but neither has he submitted wholly to the existential imperative to provide and seek nourishment. Rather he steps out of his reality, fleeing Christiana and setting out on a journey into the unknown.

Hunger belongs to a group of European novels that marked a dramatic shift in the conception of the novel at the end of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth. Hamsun recognised that literature was ripe for a change and he shunned the mundane and traditional, seeking to create something fresh and new. Hamsun’s work was for a long time undervalued by critics in England and America, swayed perhaps by his political leanings and controversial life, but Hunger is undeniably a remarkable, harrowing novel that holds an important place in the development of modern literature.

This is a startling, modern read; an intimate, intelligent, harrowing novel that holds a truly important place in the history of European literature.

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Reviews of Hunger on Amazon (UK)
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Anonymous said...

Finally, I have time to read your excellent review.
I was more down-to-earth than you when I read Hunger. Probably because I'm not good at philosophy (never read Kierkegaard and don't think I ever will. It's far beyond what I'm able to grasp)and because I thought about Ask the Dust by John Fante for the parts about the starving writer (and still confident in his talent) and I also thought about Down and Out in Paris and London by Orwell.

Thanks for bringing your review to my attention.


Matthew Selwyn said...

Emma, thank you for stopping by - and sorry for bludgeoning you into reading my review! I'm pleased if it was of interest, even in a small way.

I thought you drew some interesting references in your review and certainly ones that I passed by.

theskylarksings said...

I quite enjoyed your thorough and insightful review.

Also, I was beginning to think I was a little crazy for laughing at something that others found so serious (namely my English professor, who seemed to think I was disregarding or degrading the book...)

The theme I found most interesting was the systematic deconstruction of societal norms. It's like Hamsun wasn't just trying to point out the ridiculously restricted place the novel was "supposed to" occupy but also the whole of humanity: from everything from economics, to love, to time, to religion. It seemed to me that he was saying that the spaces these things were "supposed to" fill were cast in shapes that humans had created.

I also thought there were some pre-Freudian echoes in this book. (As in I think that Sigmund Freud must have absolutely loved this book and based all his ideas on it.)

Anyway, thanks for writing. :)

--- skylark

Matthew Selwyn said...

Thanks for the comment skylark - really interesting to get your thoughts. Your English professor definitely needs to lighten up - Huner is really funny, there's nothing wrong with laughing through serious topics. Solemnity is not all it's cracked up to be.

I think you're right, too, Hamsun manages to encompass a lot of themes through the story and he is very good on twisting societal norms. I think you're right, Freud would have enjoyed this. I think Hamsun's politics coloured later opinions, but I'm sure the likes of Sartre and Camus would have found plenty to admire in Hunger (although I'm happy to be corrected if anyone knows otherwise).

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