on 8 July 2008
Intense! Moving! Unforgettable! - a few resonant 'power words' which could help me to describe Mr. Knut Hamsun's Hunger to some extent, but they do little to fully encapsulate my innermost feelings about this novel. Quite simply Hunger, is one of the most powerful books I've ever read, in any genre; whether fictional or factual, and given that I've read countless biographical accounts relating to some of history's most harrowing events, this is quite a statement to make, but it is one that I wholly stand by.
Stunning in its delivery, Hunger is one of the few books that has the ability to truly touch your soul. What makes the novel so intense is not the storyline; for the most part the story is devoid of plot. Rather the sense of sympathy and desperation one feels for the main character (a struggling writer on a psychological roller-coaster ride, stricken by poverty, who always seems as though he is about to draw his final breath), is, for me, the novel's crowning glory. This mechanism of `survival doubt' is superlatively engineered into the story by Mr. Hansum. There are times, usually at the start of a new `chapter' when the writer's survival seems assured (he himself proclaims many times that his latest work will be the one that end his dificulties). Inevitably however, the character's situation diminishes, and the reader's confidence can do nothing but diminish along with it, until, through some fortune turn of events, the main player draws himself back, if usually only temporarily, from the `abyss'.
As intense as Hunger is (and it really is intense at times, with the writer's moods elevating and lowering as often as the paragraphs change), I also found the novel to be quite humourous in parts. The writer's `unnecessary' and continual bickerings with people he meets, is only surpassed in humour by the intense arguments the writer often has with himself, which more often than not, involves some form of self harm. In essence this personal self loathing is of course a sign of utter madness and desperation, the mark of a madman, but one cannot help but raise a smile when the main character is found in the middle of the street bawling at himself, with onlookers staring aghast.
The writer's obstinate stupidity also makes for a number of humourous scenes, such as when he declares his homelessness at a police station, falsifies his name and circumstances, and consequently misses out on a desperately needed meal. Humour can also be found in the unrealistic value that the main character quite often places on his own personal artifacts. Of course in desperate times especially, one would be inclined to place an inflated value on their personal effects, and Hamsun is primarily illustrating this fact. However it still brings a note of humour to the proceedings, especially when the character attempts to pawn various belongings.
I'm well aware there is controversy surrounding the author of this work, (Mr. Hamsun evolved with quite repungent notions of Nazi idealism), but that is irrelevant to this novel and should not, in my opinion, be brought into consideration. Hunger stands on its own as one of the finest psychological works ever written. It is a book that I will invariably think about often. It is a book that has well and truly touched my soul
This is an amazing book which drags you into the murky world of the narrator and forces you to feel his anguish, despair and humiliation as he struggles to find enough to eat to keep himself alive. The emotions provoked by the book are so strong that at times I found myself confused about where I was so thoroughly did I feel transported to the Christiania inhabited by the author.
The writing is so vivid that it is impossible not to be completely drawn in. On a number of occasions the narrator takes what he perceives to be 'moral decisions' which left me furious with him - he would rather starve than betray his conscience - and I actually found myself trying to reason with him. At times I had to put the book down so infuriated was I with his actions - I think I was going through the anguish of hunger with him and when he had a chance to get food and passed it up, it was more than I could bear!
At other times I was captivated by the humour and eccentricity of the book ... the narrator's mood swings, delusions and interactions with others make for very entertaining passages.
I highly recommend this book - it is both disturbing and memorable and I know it will stay with me for a long time.
on 20 December 2001
Published in 1890, "Hunger" represents a breakthrough from traditional romantic European writing. Influenced by Dostoievsky and Nietszche, and anticipating Kafka, Joyce, and Camus, Hamsun creates a novel with intense personal (partially autobiographical) narration (using first and third person), developing on the theme of alienation and artistic obsession. It represents Hamsun's masterpiece in his first literary production stage, in which social/political issues are of no concern, only the individual and his stream of consciousness.
It is a plot less novel, the setting is Christiana (now Oslo), and the main character is a starving, homeless young journalist, with a mercurial personality. His reactions have no middle term, he moves from extreme joy to acute depression, from arrogance to humility, on the verge of irrationality. It clearly reflects the author's early poverty, his pathological passion with aesthetical beauty, and an enormous driving force to perfect his concept that "language must resound with all the harmonies of music." "Hunger" anticipates Freud and Jung in their understanding of human nature, and creates a new literally hero, the alienated mind.
Of Norwegian nationality, Knut Hmsun won the Nobel Price for Literature in 1920. In real life he was ostracized by his countrymen and the literary community as a result of his radical individualism, and political/social views. Yes, Hamsun was a convicted Nazi, friend of Hitler and Goebbels, an advocate of the "pure" race (Jews should be expelled from Europe, Blacks should be returned to Africa), and he applauded German invasion of Norway. Needless to say, when WWII was over, he dearly paid the price: Imprisonment, confiscation, and poverty. When he died at the age of 92 (1952) he showed no remorse and held firmly to his beliefs.
The question arises: to what extent can we separate art from the artist, creation from the creator? Maybe another Nobel Laureate, Isaac Bashevis Singer, himself a Jew, can answer this question for us when he states: "the whole school of fiction in the twentieth century stems from Hamsun."
on 23 November 2009
I am so glad I picked this book up. It manages to be very intense, despite the fact that nothing really happens. The main struggle is in the internal world of the narrator, as he simply tries to cope and survive day to day. The psychological ups and down are very well written - his mood seemingly changes with the wind, and can flip and flop within a page of text. The characterisation is quite simply superb. He is sympathetically portrayed, and incredibly flawed, and is a victim of circumstance, but also perpetuates the cycle. It's such a human struggle I just couldn't put it down.
The key to this novel is the empathy you feel for the narrator. When his pride stops him accepting food you want to scream at him, when things don't go his way you hope for him, when he gets into a scrape you want to be there for him. In literature, if ever you encounter a character you want to scoop from the page and save from the world (or in this case themselves) you have something really special in your hands.
If by now it sounds like a depressing read: homelessness, poverty, loneliness, starvation, and hopelessness are all rather bleak reading - but the intensity of it is thrown into light relief by some comical episodes, stemming from his prideful delusions, mood swings and interactions (bickering with others in the street, and especially with himself).
I have given Hunger 5 stars because it has everything I look for in a great book. I have remembered it long after reading it, I genuinely cared about the fate of the main protagonist, and I have absolutely no qualms about recommending this book.
on 2 October 2013
This intense portrayal of a destitute writer suffering extreme hunger evokes empathy for the human condition of destitution, and demonstrates the psychosomatic reality that our mentality depends crucially on our physicality.
Hunger is a physical condition, but it drives mental intensity and anguish. It accentuates some mental functions and capabilities. Pain has a similar psychosomatic effect. Our rationalities are therefore not as objective or absolute as Enlightenment thought pretends. But human society is neither understanding of the connection between behaviour and condition, nor compassionate to the person.
It's very strange that with this literary realisation, Hamsun became and remained a Nazi. Did his own writing not evoke empathy for destitute people within himself? Was his portrait of a society which excluded unfortunate people in fact prescriptive? Or was `Hunger' a technical intellectual exercise rather than a novel with moral intent? Canongate has not addressed these issues in publishing Hamsun.
on 24 March 2013
Given that hunger was written in the late 1880's, it is certainly reasonable to call it a fore-runner of the artistic movement that came to be called modernism. Knut Hamsun's novel abandons notions of plot. It would have the reader believe that there is no structure in that for example the novel is divided into 4 parts with no chapters to structure is as a whole. It moves away from nineteenth century realism and focuses on the inner life or psychology of its main character and narrator. In doing so there is of course no third person omniscient narrator. This must have been disconcerting for readers when the novel was first published.
Hamsun's sets his novel in what used to be the capital of Norway, namely Kristiania. We follow the story, which is almost like a memoir, of the almost nameless first person narrator as he wanders about the city mainly hungry and in a state of penury. I say almost nameless narrator because later in the novel he does offer a name to a number of people he meets - he calls himself Andrea Tangen. However, we are never sure whether to take him at his word and believe that he gives a correct name. Every now and again our narrator makes a living by writing articles for a newspaper. He inspires to be a writer. In his wanderings he encounters a number of people and situations almost as if to suggest that these encounters are propositions to test his moral scruples. On his wanderings he eventually meets and becomes partly preoccupied with a young girl whom he calls Ylajali.
It is said that Hamsun's novel had an influence on modernist writers such as James Joyce. The hallmarks are clearly there in the novel that would allow one to make such a claim. For example, as stated above, there is little or no plot and structure. It would appear to be an early example of what later came to be known as the psychological novel - that is exploring the inner life rather than addressing realistic social issues. Further, Samsun has his character invent a work, "Kuboaa" that does not appear in any known language. And the novel gives an early display of what we now call interior monologue or streams of consciousness.
Samsun's approach allows him to present a complex character and by exploring his character's psyche under the trying circumstances of hunger insights into the human condition, from the perspective of desperation, are revealed. The narrator strives to be honest and when he commits his first act of dishonesty by taking change from a shop keeper that does not belong to him he ponders it for a while and then to some extent justifies it by saying: "I hadn't undertaken to live any more honestly that other people, there was no agreement". Later he redeems himself by returning the money.
To some extent the novel is not an enjoyable read in the sense of having a good plot and as a result being a good page turner. Rather it is a fascinating read in that it arouses one curiosity. Two things stand out that appeal to one's curiosity. First, the narrator's observations and descriptions of his surroundings are at times enticing. Towards the end of the first day of our introduction to the narrator he tells us: "The day was on the wane, the sun was sinking, a soft rustle arose in the trees round about, and the nursemaids sitting in groups over by the seesaw were getting ready to push their baby carriages home". Second, as he wanders around Kristiania, he effectively draws a map of the city. He takes us to cafes, jail, cemeteries, local squares and the harbour just to mention a few of the places. This had the effect of bringing the story alive by giving the reader a clear sense of place and time.
I suppose one of the reason why many consider Hunger as a great novel is because it raises profound questions. It asks us to consider the writer's struggle to write and find inspiration. As his landlady reminds him of his rent arrears he tells her that he is working on an article that would allow him to pay his rent. He goes on: "I may feel inspired to write tomorrow, or maybe even tonight; it's not at all impossible that the inspiration will come sometime tonight and then my article will be finished in a quarter of an hour, at the most". Furthermore, Samsum by not giving the narrator a name sucks the reader into empathising with the narrator and then asks the question how would act or behaviour in the narrator's position.
This was not a novel that I enjoyed reading rather I found it thought provoking and stimulating. One could see that it has left a mark as an influential novel. It has its place in the canon of great literature and for reason, among others, it is worth reading.
on 27 October 1999
This novel is quite unlike most things you have read before, and for anyone familiar with Henry Miller, the existentialists, the Beats, etc., it will make a lot of sense as to who exactly influenced those writers. Hamsun was Norwegian, and this is a gritty, horrific, painstaking exploration of a twentysomething writer's personal hell as he endures 'hunger' - both literal and in spirit. The fact that it is also a very funny novel may sound surprising, but such is Hamsun's originality and skill. His detractors must have had a field day denouncing this as a 'one-gimmick' book or a pile of self-indulgent tosh, but I thought it brilliant and a must for anyone interested in existential literature. It's incredibly vivid, incisive and self-aware writing, and one of those books which is still frighteningly relevant today.
on 7 July 2001
This really is an extraordinary and extreme novel - quickly read but hard to get out of your head. The publishers, Canongate's 'Rebel Inc', have issued it alongside books by Fante, Brautigan and Trocchi, but 'Hunger' deserves to be seen as more than a 'cult' novel, it really is a key work of modernism. The translator Sverre Lyngstad is obviously an authority on the text and provides a detailed preface and appendix explaining why his version is so much better than Robert Bly's. No doubt he is right, although the zealous tone of his attack on Bly made me wonder whether Lyngstad had spent too long immersed in the world of Hamsun's egotistical and cruel hero. British readers may find Lyngstad's use of American slang off-putting - sometimes the protagonist sounds more like Huckleberry Finn than a starving fin-de-siecle European intellectual (at one moment of tension he even utters the word 'Gee'). However, as with 'Crime and Punishment', it is the particular intense incidents and a compelling underlying story that make this book so memorable.
I first read "Hunger" when I was in my twenties and I was stunned. It seemed such a tour de force of...something. I didn't know what it was, but to me it was authentic in a way that all literature should be. Hamsun's nameless hero was certifiably mad--crazy by almost any standard, yet he was sane I thought in his deliberate alienation from bourgeois society, from the relatively unfeeling and "dead" conventional ways of life that most people pursue. Rereading the novel some decades later I see his alienation not so much a deliberate choice but as one forced on him by his nature. He alienates himself from society because he believes he is superior and because he cannot help himself. Despite his abject poverty his greatest drive is to avoid losing face or what he thinks of as his honor.
Thus he would rather starve that steal; he would rather go without food than ask for money from people he knows since in doing so he would lose face. When he gets change from a five kroner note that isn't his he feels so guilty that he tosses the money at a street cake seller to show that he doesn't need to stoop to stealing to survive. He is above that. Yet later he demands that the cake seller give him cakes for his money, saying that he had paid in advance! Near the end after getting an anonymous ten kroner note from a messenger, he cries out that "This humiliation was the worst of all! Accepting ten kroner in beggar's alms without being able to throw them back to the giver...." (p. 223) He is the man who cannot beg regardless of how hungry he gets.
In this way we see the radical swings in his moods and mentality. These swings of apprehension, understand and feeling are at the very heart of the novel. What Hamsun has done is examine very minutely his own heart and soul during such times (he himself experienced years of hunger when in his twenties just before "Hunger" was published in 1890). And what he discovered was the most amazing heights of emotion followed quickly by the most extreme lows and then back again. He saw these swings as natural to the human condition, these fantasies of mind as real or even more real that the cobblestones of the city or the sun overhead. States of mind come from within but are triggered by some outside event; yet one might find joy in the absurdity of life, a quick sense of power and exhilaration from some small, even imagined, triumph over someone met in the street. One might feel oneself a great hero by refusing a meal ticket since no matter how hungry one is above charity.
Even though Hamsun's hero rants and raves like a lunatic and even though he goes around in dirty rags and sleeps in the street, the people of Christiania (now Oslo) treat him rather kindly. No one whiplashes him. The cops don't throw him in jail. No teenage boys beat him up for kicks as happens to some of today's homeless. Instead they laugh at him--not to his face, but off to the side, after he has wandered off. They pity him as does the whore with the veil, who in her pity finds some excitement in wanting to love this pathetic creature who tears his hair out, who will not take a job but insists on proving to himself and the world that he can make a living from his writing.
What makes this work as literature is that, although Hamsun's hero is maintaining his pride through petty acts and rationalizations and lies to himself, the reader can see (thanks to Hamsun's artistry) that the people around him are amused at his foolish and insane pride, the kind of pride that can...well, as Hamsun's hero himself says on page 227, "...a man can die, you know, from too much pride."
Why pride? From an evolutionary standpoint if a man loses honor or has no pride in himself then he is treated accordingly by his tribe. In dominance rank he is among the lowest and gets just the scraps of society; he gets few or no reproductive chances. Certainly no woman would want to marry him and have his children. We see this poignantly when he is asked by an acquaintance about the woman he was walking with who is a prostitute. To puff himself up he declares that he is her fiancé.
Although Hamsun's hero won't steal, he will lie. He allows himself to lie because he feels deep down that he is not lying. Once he gets his act together as a writer, the recognition and honor due him will come and, yes, such a woman and many others will want him to be their intended. It is all a matter of "gleaning his teeming brain" (to recall Keats).
But the hunger of this novel has a symbolic value as well. The artist must suffer; he must feel and experience extremes in order to have the emotional and experiential authority to be a great artist. Kafka, no doubt thinking of this novel, wrote a short story entitled, "A Hunger Artist," the title implying what Hamsun consciously or unconsciously believed: that the artist must hunger greatly before he can succeed.
And indeed that is exactly what Hamsun himself did. With the publication of this novel began a great career that propelled him to recognition as one of the great literary figures of the modern era, whose work became widely imitated. In 1920 not long after the publication of his novel, "Growth of the Soil," he was awarded the Noble Prize in literature.
on 6 December 2011
I would like to start off by saying that Sult, or "Hunger" as it is translated into, is one of my favorite books. As a native Norwegian, I have read it numerous times in the original language, and consider it to be one the greatest literary accomplishments, period. Understand that this comes from someone who primarily reads English books; Norwegian works cannot expect favouritism from me.
Unfortunately this translation does not fully convey the protagonist's mood, which is perhaps the novel's greatest merit. This, I think, is mostly because the feverish nature of the narrator's ramblings and the masterfully portrayed mood swings rely so heavily on Hamsun's sentence structure and symbol usage. In this translation (perhaps in all of them), those qualities are sacrificed to great extent so that the English may run smoother. If you've read older English literature you'll be very familiar with sentences that run on due to excessive use of commas, semi-colons and rather intricately structured sentences. You'll also agree that although such works are often difficult and occasionally just plain annoying, they work upon you in a different fashion than modern prose. Sometimes, such works are translated into modern English, and inevitably something is lost in the process. This translation is not simply 'Norwegian-English', it is 'Old-ish Norwegian-Modern English'. Much was lost in that process. I am not familiar with the other translations, hence I have no alternatives to recommend. Some may think my rating is unduly harsh, but for a work of this caliber, nothing but a superb translation is tolerable. If someone can't do a work justice, he ought to leave it alone.
Furthermore, some passages are just badly translated. Sloppy, even. Here's an example:
"Det begyndte tilsidst at irritere mig at have dette skrøbelige Menneske foran mig hele Tiden. Hans rejse syntes aldrig at ville tage Ende; måske havde han bestemt sig til akkurat det samme sted som jeg, og jeg skulde hele vejen have ham for mine øjne."
"In the end I was getting increasingly irritated by having this decrepit creature in front of me all the time. His journey would never end, it seemed; maybe he was going to the exact same place as I, and I would have him before my eyes all the way."
Here's my translation -- make of it what you will.
"It began at last to irritate me, to have this feeble being before me all the time. His journey never seemed to reach its end; perhaps he was set towards the very same place as I, and I should have him before my eyes the entire way."