34. Hunger, by Knut Hamsun

23 Aug

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This book has an almost laughably Scandi and depressing premise: A young writer in the mid 1800s in the Norwegian capital of Kristiania (now Oslo) has fallen on hard times, has pawned almost everything he owns, and increasingly, is starving. He gets a bit of work here and there, but not enough to keep the roof over his head and food in his stomach. Hamsun won a Nobel Prize prize in 1920, and Hunger is almost universally lauded as being one of the first modern “psychological” novels, since it takes place entirely in a first-person POV of a character who is increasingly losing his mind.

(Just a side note on that: I don’t see anything in Hamsun that I don’t see in Dostoevsky…??)

The first time I tried to read it, I was too tenderhearted. The character’s predicament is  vividly and horribly life-and-death. His hair is falling out; his veins are bulging; at one point he tries to eat his own finger. It’s so gruesome I couldn’t bear it. But then along came the #20BooksofSummer challenge and I had to pick it up again. This time I tried to approach it from a more distanced perspective and think of the character as less of a real person. Some of his points of biography are the same as Hamsun’s, but the purpose of the story, I knew, was not autobiographical or really intended to be about the horrors of hunger. Instead, Hamsun’s aim was to present a person as a whole, including the passions, appetites, delusions and irrationality. He was trying to show, through his hungry man, a different type of man than the one acknowledged by his time. In this reckoning, the character’s fits, his madnesses and grudges and even the extremely vivid and erotic encounters he has with a woman who catches his fancy, are more important than his hungry condition. With that in mind, I was able to read and even very much enjoy Hunger. Though it was still intense, surreal and a horrible adventure.

3 Responses to “34. Hunger, by Knut Hamsun”

  1. Grab the Lapels August 26, 2016 at 8:48 pm #

    This sounds like a tough read. It reminded me of an interview Zarina Zabrisky did about her older relatives starving in Russia. She’s so conscious of food waste that it’s like a trauma instead of an awareness. Did I send you her book Iron, too? I can’t remember. I haven’t read that one in a while.

  2. wolvesofjoy September 11, 2016 at 2:32 am #

    Hamsun’s later books are better than his earlier IMO. I recommend ‘Growth of the Soil’ and ‘Wayfarers’.

    • An Anthology of Clouds September 11, 2016 at 2:35 am #

      Ok, thanks! I thought Hunger was great, so “way better” would be pretty awesome. Unfortunately I also bought Pan, which is a satire, which may be hard for me to understand from this cultural distance….

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