10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
This review is from: Hunger (Paperback)
Knut Hamsun was a forerunner to the great literary existentialists like Sartre, Camus and Kafka, and Hunger is a deeply powerful and at times distressing novel which, like the work of the above, concentrates as much on the anger, angst and depression in the mind of the main character as on external events.
The story follows the ordeals of an empoverished writer living in Kristiania - now Oslo - in the late nineteenth century, and much of it pertains to his daily struggle to find food and a bed. The hunger of the title refers not only to the constant gnawing pain in the emaciated narrator's belly but also to his hunger for recognition as a writer, a vocation constantly frustrated by the effects of his starvation and lack of a home on his ability to write.
The narrator is extremely vividly characterised, and comes across as a complex man with many faults as well as some attributes. He is arrogant, often putting on the airs and graces of a wealthy man by walking `with the bearing of someone having the power to make a high appointment'. Indeed, he is engulfed by his own act of haughtiness, as evidenced by his matter-of-fact acceptance of other people's subjugation in his presence - ` she timidly pressed closer to the wall to make room for me since I was giving myself such airs, and I instinctively put my hand in my pocket for something to give her'.
This scrabbling around for coins to give the `commoners' is one of the more frustrating aspects of his character - whenever he comes into some money through writing or by other means, he tosses it at others to make an impression of his superiority.
Hamsun also artfully outlines the narrator's ability to lie seamlessly - sometimes to earn respect, as in the night he spends in jail when, not wishing to be seen as a homeless person, he pretends to be a rich journalist out too late, or the time he pretends to have already written a three volume tome which is only a thought in his head - but often also to complete strangers for no apparent motivation other than to puff up his own ego. Indeed, his frequent fits of euphoria, omnipotence and delusions of grandeur and throwing around of what little money he has, together with his rapid and inevitable descent into deep depression, had me diagnosing him as suffering from bipolar (manic depressive) disorder at one stage - he definitely shows many of the symptoms and signs. Certainly, his lies and arrogance do him no favours, as in when he spurns - by not asking - a free meal at the jail, or refuses an advance from the kindly editor of the paper to which he contributes.
Yet for all his disagreeable characteristics, the reader still feels immense pity for the narrator. The desperation of the poor in those days is palpable - there seem to have been no alms houses, homeless dormitories or soup kitchens, and the few opportunities there were for the homeless, such as spending the night in a cell in jail, sound so deeply unpleasant that it is hardly surprising that the narrator did not resort to them more often. And he does have decent characteristics too, as evidenced by his sticking up for the paralysed father of his landlady when the old man is goaded by her children, or his ability to reach out and be totally honest with the girl who loves him.
Hunger is an extremely potent novel showing the pits of desperation that the human body and mind may reach in adverse circumstances. Remarkably, many of the anxieties, fears and causes of black depression are still the same today, more than 100 years after Hamsun wrote this dark, heart-rending and soul-wrenching book