Edvard Munch-Evening on Karl Johan Street-1892

The Norwegian writer Knut Hamsun remains a controversial figure. Isaac Bashevis Singer said of 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. They were all Hamsun’s disciples: Thomas Mann and Arthur Schnitzler…and even such American writers as Fitzgerald and Hemingway.” Henry Miller, whose literary tastes were somewhat idiosyncratic but perceptive, idolised Hamsun’s work and according to Charles Bukowski he was the greatest writer that ever lived. He is one of the four Scandinavian writers from the 19th/early 20th century (the other three being Ibsen, Strindberg and Undset) to have an impact outside of, and far beyond, Scandinavia.

Yet this is the man who presented his Nobel Prize for Literature to Joseph Goebbels, had a private audience with Hitler (though the deaf Hamsun keep on shouting over Hitler, who not used to been interrupted, was left in a rage that lasted three days), and whose books were burned in Norway at the end of the war while he was committed to a psychiatric hospital awaiting trial for treason. The charges were eventually dropped due to “impaired mental abilities”, but he was left financially ruined by a civil liability suit brought against him for membership of Nasjonal Samling (the Norwegian Fascist party) and the moral support he gave to the German cause, though he was cleared of any direct Nazi affiliation. Hamsun denied belonging to any political party and of being anti-semitic (to be fair there cannot be found in his novels any evidence that he was), yet his actions during the war pose a huge question mark, in Norway and beyond, as to the value of his writing, particularly the radical early novels.

Hamsun’s first and most famous novel Hunger (Sult) was published in 1890. It has been describes as, “one of the most disturbing novels in existence” and is rightfully considered the first work of 20th Century Modernism despite its publication date. Most English translations include as an introduction the long and laudatory essay The Art of Hunger by the American post-modernist writer Paul Auster.

The novel opening’s reads and feels surprisingly contemporary, not at all like a work written in the last decade of the 19th Century:

It was in the those days when I wandered about hungry in Kristiania, that strange city which no leaves before it has set its mark upon him…

The novel follows the unnamed narrator (who it is tempting to see as a fictionalised version of the author, as Hamsun was destitute for a good decade before the breakthrough came), a struggling writer as he wanders across Kristiania (present day Oslo), hungry and frequently homeless. He is literally the starving artist. However Hamsun is not concerned with social or class injustice, it is pointed out early on that all he has to do  to solve his present predicament is to get work on one of the numerous ships in Kristiania harbour. Yet he doesn’t, he chooses to starve. Frequently when he comes into some money, he recklessly gives it away, or when he does eat, he throws it up.

As the novel progresses the narrator follows every bizarre whim and becomes increasingly deranged. Every single interaction with another human being involves him brazenly lying, even in one instant becoming incensed when the victim of his outrageous fabrications shows signs of believing him too readily. The deeper we go into the novel the physical and mental deterioration caused by the prolonged starvation becomes more and more apparent in each harrowing scene. The narrator is nameless because he has become alienated from his self.

Hamsun has frequently been compared to his acknowledged influence Dostoevsky, yet he goes further in showing the grandiose egotism, irrational impulses and wildly fluctuating unconscious drives of his characters. He explodes the idea of a consistent and stable identity. He also goes further in exploring the themes of debasement and humiliation. Humiliation and self mortification of the flesh usually point toward the possibility of salvation, yet in Hamsun there is no transcendence or redemption.

In Hunger Hamsun achieved what all writers long to do, present a new way at looking at the world. Its psychological insights, bleakness and nihilism beckoned towards the new century and an art that radically diverged from all previous manifestations.

I will close with a passage from Hunger that details the narrator’s night in a cell where he has been given temporary shelter by a policeman and which demonstrates Hamsun mastery in portraying the inspired twists and illogical turns of the disordered mind:

Suddenly I snap my fingers several times and laugh. What the hell was this! Ha! I imagined I had found a new word. I sit up in bed and say, It doesn’t exist in the language, I invented  it-Kuboaa. It does have letters like a word-Christ, man, you have invented a word…Kuboaa…of great grammatical importance.

The word stood out sharply against the darkness before me.

I sit with open eyes, amazed at my find and laughing for joy. Then I start whispering; they might be spying on me, and I intended to keep my invention a secret. I had passed over into the sheer madness of hunger; I was empty and without pain and my thoughts were running riot. I debate with myself in silence. With the oddest jumps in my line of thought, I try to ascertain the meaning of the new word. It didn’t have to mean either God or amusement park, and who said  it should mean cattle show? i clench my fist angrily and repeat once more, Who said that it shall mean cattle show? all things considered, it wasn’t even necessary that it should mean padlock or sunrise. It wasn’t difficult to make sense of such a word. I would wait and see. Meanwhile i would sleep on it.

76 thoughts on “Hunger

      1. Hunger is a devastating book, though my favourite is his second novel Mysteries. Ibsen wrote the play The Master Builder about him (surprise Hamsun hated him). Kafka was undoubtedly influenced by him and he was huge in Germany and Austria just after the First World War. He books aren’t political. You have to think of the shock that reading Hunger would have to an audience in 1890, it feels more like it was written in 1930 or 1950 or even 1970 (apart from the technological differences.)

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      2. The passage you close with is … groping for a word to describe it … kuboaa maybe. (If finally it meant surprise.) Ahh, any way, brilliant in a totally crazy way. Good crazy, misunderstood genius kind of way. The earlier quote, I see why you describe it as contemporary – there is nothing at all to date it in its time period.

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      3. I like that, though. Concise and to the point. It’s a nice change from reading verbose, modified and descriptive writing. Not a commentary on the superiority of either one, just good to have variety

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      1. You have seemingly bottomless knowledge on such a diverse group of subjects. Even if I had time to read up on all these subjects, I’m not sure I’d be able to retain all this information. You’re a marvel.

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      2. I have a lot of books Meg, that’s all. Though I do find it amazing that Scandinavia which was on the peripheral of Europe politically and culturally in a tiny linguistic niche should have been so influential around that time with those figures getting international recognition and crafting a new sensibility.

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  1. Mr. Cake thank you for the great post on Knut Hamsun. The narrator, whether self-inflicted or circumstance creates the perfect environment for the deprivation of rational thought to take place, hunger. I only mention circumstances because, “he chooses to starve”. What truly is the narrator’s state of mind? While his faculties appear elevated in some areas (oddly aware of the internal self), they are lacking in other areas. I adore the passage that you included. I have to ask, can you separate the artist from his art? Which is a question I ask when working with the idea of both Clare and Pollock. I think the answer is no, and somehow it appears far more evident in artwork that is “disturbing”. Hamsun had the ability to capture honestly the element that makes these types of works just that, disturbing. I really don’t think that you can produce great thought-provoking art unless you are at some point close to or on the edge of sanity, and full of angst. But you know these are just my thoughts. Excellent post, I really enjoyed it. ~ Miss Cranes

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  2. Thank you for this. I love the painting and it goes so well with the piece. The in jail passage with the invented word is marvelous. A great discovery for me on a wet, rainy day in October. Thank you once again.

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  3. Fascinating! I wonder if the hunger is physical hunger or a lack of attention or understanding working in a vicious circle, because he does not address his hunger. Will definitely check it out!

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  4. Wow. I doubt I’d ever read something like this. I tried to read both Dostoyevsky and Kafka but didn’t like them. The passage at the end is interesting and pretty entertaining actually but a whole book of madness? I don’t know. I found it interesting how the tense changed so many times in that short excerpt. You know lots and lots, Mr. Cake.

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  5. I loved this book, I might read it again some day. I’m from Oslo, and it’s quite an experience seeing the late nineteenth century through Hamsuns eyes. I hated the main character a lot of times, though, which us not necessarily a bad thing, but he has this kind of disgust towards human beings sometimes. Maybe it’s the hunger, or maybe it’s his author’s nazi sympaties shining through, I don’t know. Most likely it’s a bit of both;)

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    1. This is one of my favourite books, it is so far ahead of its time. I also love Mysteries as well, that book has haunted me for around three decades. I agree with you about Hunger and Hamsun, it is profoundly disquieting to know that genius doesn’t necessarily reside only within the virtuous. I visited Norway once, a beautiful country with beautiful people, though a bit expensive with the krona bring the way it is. Thanks so much for the comment. I hope I did the book justice.

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      1. You did! It’s a great review. Happy you liked my country. I go there to visit my friends and family a couple of times a year, and yes, it is expensive. Jobs pay well though.

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      2. I did like it very much. I am also very fond of Munch who I have also written about on a couple of occasions. It was amazing the contribution that Scandinavia had on the arts and philosophy in the 19th century. Where do you reside now if you don’t mind me asking?

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      3. I live in Granada, south Spain. Wonderful city, the arabs had great taste in architecture. Munch was a great painter indeed. Talking about nineteeth century Norwegian artist, Theodor kittilsen is one of my favorites, especially his illustrations to Norwegian folklore tales.

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      4. I love Spain as well. Lucky you. I am going to check up on Kittelsen as you mentioned him in your comment on my Kubin post. As you can see my mind wanders in a strange kind of way but I will get round to it.

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  6. Recently bought Mysteries. Haven’t got to it yet. My translation of Hunger was a poor one. Serves me right for being cheap! Mysteries is the Penguin Classics edition so I feel on solid ground.

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  7. A great review and insightful analysis. I especially liked your discussion of the narrator’s disordered mind and this sentence of yours “The narrator is nameless because he has become alienated from his self.” The narrator felt real to me because like all real people he was slightly contradictory and hard to predict too. He will be lying at one point, but he will not think of committing some graver injustice against another to be fed. He does what he does – writes – but he cannot keep himself fed this way. I kind of interpret all this as the innate human battle against social pressures – even against the pressure to go and work on the ship. Why cannot he survive in this big city doing what he wants? It is not from his lack of trying, but his attempts are more often than not “pathetic” because he is not really that cunning and thinks about others too.Thought-provoking.

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