Knut Hamsun’s Hunger is about pride in being human, the ridiculousness of everyday life, and the hopelessness of the two of those combined. As the title may suggest, the unnamed narrator is a hungry starving artist, struggling to write to earn money to pay for a meal. His life physically depends on his ability to write, but since at times in the book he’s gone one day, three days, and nearly a week without food, his coherency disintegrates. Hunger, at its heart, explores the human psyche in the midst of physical deprivation and emotional panic.
In the introduction, Knut Hamsun’s Hunger is compared to works by Camus, Dostoevsky, and Kafka. I’ve only read one Camus, The Stranger (thoughts here), which dealt with the hopelessness of life. Hunger certainly did make things seem pointless: the narrator was just trying to live, and the stories and articles he tried to write just seemed ridiculous in the middle of his extreme poverty.
On the other hand, Hunger was a perfect novel to read so close on the heels of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment (thoughts here). Much as Raskolnikov, the unnamed narrator in Hunger thought highly of himself. Trained to be a scholar and writer, he imagined himself a class above the people he met on the street. When a beggar (of a lower class) stopped him and asked for a bit of money to buy food, the narrator immediately went to the pawn shop and sold his vest for one and a half krone. He gave one krone to the beggar, saving only 50 øre for himself, despite the fact that he hadn’t eaten for more than a day himself (page 9).
Later, when he stays in the police station overnight because he’d lost his house key, he was too proud to request a free breakfast:
A ticket, a ticket for me too! I haven’t eaten for more than three long days and nights. A loaf of bread! But nobody offered me a ticket and I didn’t dare request one. That would have aroused instant suspicion. They would begin to poke around in my private affairs and find out who I really was… (page 70)
Despite the fact that he was starving, he feared admitting to strangers that he was not a journalist who had simply lost his room key; he did not want to admit that he was a starving writer that hadn’t written anything worthwhile in some time. He was prideful, as I saw Raskolnikov as prideful.
The narrator also couldn’t allow himself to steal, which ironically reminded me of Raskolnikov. Although the later did steal, he could not, in the end, tolerate his own action. Similarly, when the narrator inadvertently gained some money (a clerk gave change when it wasn’t due) and decided to use it for food, he ultimately felt guilty and gave it all away to a vendor: he wanted to keep his conscience clear of guilt, even when he hadn’t eaten for quite some time.
There are some religious elements to the narrator’s struggling, but it wasn’t as strong a theme as Raskolnikov’s internal religious struggles. On the contrary, the religion of Hamsun’s narrator actually appeared rather ridiculous, rather than helpful.
And then: Kafka. While I haven’t read Kafka, there are some aspects of this reading that made me think of him. I feel somewhat ridiculous referring to a “Kafka-esque” style when I’ve never read Kafka. Yet, the introduction used this section as demonstration of the Kafka-esque style, and I’d noticed it myself as I read:
I felt I was myself a crawling insect doomed to perish, seized by destruction in the midst of a whole world ready to go to sleep. (page 27)
But beyond the analogy to a bug (which recurs later in the text), the narrator occasionally shifted tenses from the general past tense (he told the bulk of his story in retrospect) and present tense, as if he is still living it. I found such tense shifts utterly fascinating. It seemed that telling the story brought the narrator back to those moments. But this also reminded me of Kafka (which again, I have never read): the narrator is becoming something he is not. For example, take this sample of tense shift that came just before the above-quoted insect passage:
Quite instinctively, I had again gotten paper and pencil into my hands, and I sat and wrote mechanically the date 1848 in every corner of the page. . . I sit there on the bench and write 1848 dozens of times; I write this number crisscross in all possible shapes and wait for a usable idea to occur to me… (page 26-27)
When the tense began to shift in the middle of a paragraph, it made the narrator seem a little less mentally complete. When I think of an unreliable narrator, I often think of narrators that are lying, whether obviously or subtly. In this case, the narrator was trying to be honest as he told his story. He still became unreliable, though, because his present was confused with the story he was telling. The pain (both physical and emotional) of starvation was very prescient even in retrospect.
Knut Hamsun was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1920 mainly for his 1917 novel The Growth of the Soil, a saga about Norwegian settlers told in third person. Hunger (in Norwegian: Sult) was written in 1890, when Hamsun was a relatively unknown beginning writer. It is told in a fascinating first person, and seems intensely personal, possibly because it is semi-autobiographical.
If this is Hamsun’s powerful early novel, I am quite excited to see how he treats his family saga. Hunger was a wonderful introduction to a novelist I look forward to reading more of.
A note on the translation, which is from Norwegian by Sverre Lyngstad: The translator’s note indicates that “the two English translation of Hunger hitherto available are both marred by egregious flaws.” Such flaws include the excision of erotic passages and misreading of the text, including elimination of the tense shifts that made it so interesting. As such, I’m grateful I read the translation I did. Beware the free online options! More likely than not, they are the flawed translations.