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3.0 out of 5 stars An Influential Novel, 24 Mar. 2013
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This review is from: Hunger (Paperback)
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.
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