A Lost Classic: Hunger by Knut Hamsun
It’s uncertain where the term “starving artist” originates, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find it attributable, at least in part, to the 1890 novel Hunger by Knut Hamsun. Hamsun’s unnamed narrator is a high-minded writer with a strong sense of destiny: he’s meant to write brilliant, canonical treatises on literature and philosophy, but late nineteenth-century Norway just isn’t appreciative of his genius. He barely earns enough from selling his articles to keep a room in a shabby boarding-house and buy enough bread to keep away each day’s ravenous hunger. Much of the time he wanders the streets of Kristiania (the former name of the capital, Oslo) looking for opportunities for food and publication, tramping about simply to keep warm at the onset of a bitter Scandinavian winter.
Despite being little better than a vagrant, our narrator clings to his tattered dignity. When he becomes homeless, he wraps up his blanket in paper to disguise it as a parcel, refuses the meal ticket allocated to the city’s homeless, and flaunts his potential achievements to the pawnbroker who gives him a few coins for his spare clothing. He thinks himself better than anyone else blighted by poverty: “I was a white beacon tower in the middle of a dirty human ocean full of floating wreckage.” Yet all the while he is so hungry he sucks on wood shavings, stones, and even a dog’s bone to fight off debilitating stomach pangs.
In a situation where words literally equate to bread, he vacillates between elation at publishing an article and temporarily satisfying his hunger, and utter destitution and despair. His meager earnings never last long enough. Like George Gissing’s New Grub Street, published a year later, Hunger could almost function as a cautionary tale for the idealistic freelance writer – literature is not an easy road to success, but a sentence to hard graft, penury, and possible starvation.
Most of the novel’s characters have no names, a fact that emphasizes the anonymity and universality of desperate struggle. (In his excellent London Review of Books article on both Hunger and Hamsun’s letters, James Wood refers to the narrator as Andreas Tangen, but this seems to be just a false name he gives to a guard.) The protagonist mostly interacts with generic figures of authority – policemen who move him along when he falls asleep in the park, officious landladies, shopkeepers, and editors – or fellow pathetic figures that mirror his own helplessness: another hobo in the park; his landlady’s elderly, paralyzed father; and a “strange sick cat,” nearly hairless, that reminds him of himself, especially as undernourishment causes clumps of his hair to fall out. Poverty has made him old before his time and reduced him to something like an animal or even a vegetable: “Rotten patches were beginning to appear in my insides, black spongy areas that were spreading.”
The only meaningful interaction the narrator has over the course of the novel is a few meetings with a lovely young woman whose eye he’s caught despite his pitiful state. He gives her the mythical name ‘Ylajali’ and has one surprisingly frank sexual encounter with her at her room, as another kind of hunger briefly comes to the fore. Like Thomas Hardy, Hamsun had the sexual aspect of his work toned down to suit Victorian sensibilities, though it was easier to hide Hamsun’s explicitness in translation. In 1899 the first English translator of Hunger, George Egerton (the pen name of Irish writer Mary Chavelita Dunne), managed to omit all traces of sensuality, as Janet Garton describes in her notes on translations of Hunger:
“in common with many other Victorian translators of Scandinavian literature, [Egerton] felt it incumbent on her to censor the sexual content. She has taken out all scenes which contain anything more erotic than a kiss, and thus the central scene of the hero’s pathetic failure as a seducer of his dream-lover Ylajali is gone.”
Hunger’s effects are not just physical, but also mental and psychological. The protagonist’s behavior is increasingly erratic and irrational. He seems to suffer from hallucinations, and is so dissociated from his self and his actions that he “watches” himself and curses his own uselessness. He talks to himself and devises punishments and tortures; masochism is only a symptom of his self-alienation. He also feels himself separated from God, and in an echo of classic tragedies from the Book of Job onwards, he curses his maker:
“Carried away by rage, I shouted and roared threats up to the sky, shrieked God’s name hoarsely and savagely, and curled my fingers like claws…now I turn my back on you for all eternity…I know that I am going to die, and I mock you anyway…I will renounce all your works and all your ways, I will exile my thoughts if they think of you again, and I will rip my lips out if they say your name once more. Now if you do exist, I will tell you my final word in life or in death, I tell you goodbye.”
In return for being persecuted and belittled wherever he goes, he will mock the Almighty: “I will tell you one thing, my dear Lord and God: you are a you-know-what!”
There is not much plot to speak of in Hunger; it is a novel all about atmosphere and emotion rather than action and event. As Paul Auster asserts in his 2006 introduction to a new edition, “It is a work devoid of plot, action, and – but for the narrator – character. By nineteenth century standards, it is a work in which nothing happens. The radical subjectivity of the narrator effectively eliminates the basic concerns of the traditional novel.” Wood notes Hamsun’s debt to Fyodor Dostoevsky, who similarly believed that plot was a dispensable element in a novel: “He took from Dostoevsky the idea that plot is not something that merely happens to a character, but that a really strange character leads plot around like an obedient dog.”
When reading this strange character’s first-person account, you can feel his bone-chilling cold, gnawing hunger, and grasping helplessness. Even the abrupt and surprisingly optimistic ending – it seems our hero’s luck has turned when he’s taken onto the crew of a sea voyage to Leeds and Cádiz – can’t erase the gloom of what’s gone before. The narrator could just as easily have starved or committed suicide – and I was left wondering if the depression and starvation wouldn’t all begin again if his stroke of luck is not repeated and he ends up alone in Kristiania after the voyage.
As it happens, the publication of Hunger marked a change of fortune for Hamsun himself. Prior to 1890 he had experienced firsthand the grinding poverty that his narrator describes. He was one of seven children born to a poor tailor father on a smallholding, and at age nine was indentured to a cruel uncle who ran a post office and punished his nephew with beatings and the withholding of food. Hamsun later attributed his lifelong nervous habits and occasional suicidal tendencies to his time with Uncle Hans. He had minimal schooling and left education outright at age 15, when he took up a succession of odd jobs to make a bit of money: store clerk, sheriff’s assistant, peddler, elementary school teacher, and apprentice to a shoemaker and then a ropemaker. On two stays in Scandinavian communities in America’s Midwest in the 1880s, he worked as a secretary to a Norwegian Unitarian priest, a navvy, and finally a Chicago tramcar conductor.
All along he devoured books in an attempt to develop a nobility of mind and spirit that would outweigh his physical circumstances. Wood describes him in terms that also capture the mixed shame and arrogance of Hunger’s narrator: “He was always self-conscious about his peasant origins, and tried to drown them out with a noisy extravagance of opinion, and by proclaiming a Nietzschean aristocracy of spirit.” His intellectual pretentiousness often seemed at odds with the fact of his destitution: he read Euripides and Aristotle between tramcar stops during his sojourn in America, but colleagues poked him in the chest to hear the rustling of newspaper between his layers of clothing. Like his protagonist, Hamsun started his writing career with fiery polemical journalism. He even published a few melodramatic love stories written in the style of Icelandic sagas, but it wasn’t until Hunger that he found the widespread acclaim he’d always felt he deserved. He would go on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1920, for Growth of the Soil.
Hamsun was part of a general European reaction against realism, and an early adopter of Émile Zola’s “naturalism,” a literary style of the 1880s to 1940s that eschewed supernatural influence, insisted on the inescapable effects of heredity and environment, and was often characterized by sexual frankness and pessimism. Some of his Scandinavian contemporaries included August Strindberg, Henrik Ibsen, and Sigrid Undset, a fellow Nobel laureate. Many have noted the (post)modern literary techniques Hamsun premieres, such as interior monologues, stream-of-consciousness, complicated use of tenses, as well as lack of interest in traditional topics like marriage and social interaction.
It was all, Wood explains, Hamsun’s “strike against the novelistic representation of coherence.” He stated in an 1890 letter that romantic relationships and society’s power plays held no fascination for him; “What interests me is the infinite susceptibility of my soul, what little I have of it, the strange and peculiar life of the mind, the mysteries of the nerves in a starving body.” In his preface to the 1967 Robert Bly translation of Hunger, Isaac Bashevis Singer contends that “The whole modern school of fiction in the twentieth century stems from Hamsun. They were completely Hamsun’s disciples: Thomas Mann and Arthur Schnitzler…and even such American writers as Fitzgerald and Hemingway.” Indeed, Ernest Hemingway once claimed that “Hamsun taught me to write.”
It seems, then, that this minor name from Scandinavian literary history has had more influence than one might suspect. One reason Hamsun is largely forgotten nowadays, in addition to a dearth of his work in English translation, is that he was a strident supporter of Nazi Germany and urged Norway to cede peacefully to German invasion during World War II. In 1946, when he was 86 years old, he was put on trial for treason but acquitted on grounds of “permanently impaired mental faculties,” and later spent a few months in a psychiatric hospital. His association with the Nazis has wrecked his reputation, which seems a shame given the impact he had on modern world literature. Growth of the Soil, Pan, and especially Hunger are still well worth the reader’s time.
 Garton, Janet. “Norwegian.” The Oxford Guide to Literature in English Translation. Ed. Peter France. Oxford: OUP, 2001. 572-4.
(All direct quotations are from the 1967 Robert Bly translation.)