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.