Hamsun, Knut: Hunger

Introducing the book, the proposer said that he had picked it up at an airport, attracted by the reviews. What he had found particularly interesting was the depiction of the state of mind of the protagonist, exploring a hypo-manic state – reckless with money and disorganised – that he had observed in the course of his work. “Hunger” was written in 1890, and was Hamsun’s first published work. It was described as being semi-autobiographical. It had been filmed twice. Hamsun went on to write many more books.

Hamsun was born in 1859 and had been brought up in rural poverty in Norway. He had had little in the way of formal education, training as a rope maker. He had succeeded in working his passage to America, where he had among others met – remarkably – Mark Twain. His first marriage had lasted 8 years, but his second had lasted for the rest of his life. He won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1920.

Unfortunately he was most remembered in Norway for his political allegiances, supporting Nazism, being a close friend of Quisling, and going so far as to give his Nobel Prize medal to Goebbels. He had been put on trial after the war for treason, and had been lucky to escape the death sentence on the basis that he was suffering from insanity. He had died in 1952, aged 92.

There was general agreement that the book was about a state of mind – a psychological study. It was not clear whether the protagonist’s state of mind was caused by hunger, or whether his state of mind had led him to sink into the poverty which had produced the hunger – different members of the group took different views. (There was no sympathy for the view expressed in Paul Auster’s introduction to the new translation that some new thought about the nature of art and the artist is being proposed, “first of all an art that is indistinguishable from the life of the artist who makes it … an art that is the direct expression of the effort to express itself .. .an art of hunger: an art of need, of necessity, of desire … ”. In fact there was no sympathy at all for Mr Auster, whose bombastic introduction was roundly condemned).

Some had found it an engaging and enjoyable read. The translator’s style certainly flowed easily (although his 30 page annex on his virtue compared to his predecessor translators was heavier going). However, others had found the book repetitive, and had been sneaking glances at the last page to see how much further there was to go.

For some the protagonist’s inability to take advantage of the money and other opportunities for food that came his way was also intensely frustrating. On the other hand the way his pride got in the way of meeting his hunger was psychologically perceptive, and the repetition reflected the repetitive problems to which his semi-insanity condemned him. A notable feature was that – despite his wandering mind – the narrator anchored his story very concretely in terms of space (the precise locations in “Kristiania”, corresponding to specific Oslo streets) and the passage of time (perhaps in the absence of the meal-times that normally punctuate time).

The book was clearly very innovative for the 1890’s, with a minimal plot and a focus on the internal world, and could be seen as leading on to the modernist work of the twentieth century. Critics had commented on the resemblance to the work of Kafka and Hesse’s “Steppenwolf”. The resemblance to Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” was also picked up in criticism, but in this case the influence was the other way round, as that book was written 25 years previously. Some of his word play (e.g. inventing words with private meanings) and the exploration of his failing grasp on reality – were also very modern in feel.

The very abrupt ending as he opted to go to sea was for some a cop-out – a sort of “with one bound he was free”. On the other hand each of the three previous parts had ended on a positive note, and the assertion of his power of freedom was intriguing. The ending also fitted in well with the ever-present sense of the sea surrounding “Kristiania” (Oslo) e.g.:

“The sea out yonder swayed in a brooding repose. Ships and fat, broad-nosed barges ploughed trenches in its lead-coloured surface, scattering streaks left and right, and glided on, while the smoke rolled out of their funnels like downy quilts and the piston strokes came through with a muffled sound in the clammy air”.

The novel was not one of social protest. Many members of society in the town, and indeed the police, were portrayed as generous. However, the protagonist, because of his egocentric character, was unable to take advantage of their generosity. His hunger, noted one member reaching for a particularly fat crisp, was self-inflicted.

The protagonist’s ability to attract sexual interest struck one of the few implausible notes, given his supposed state of emaciation and poor hygiene. And the scene in which the landlady’s husband watched through the keyhole as she had sex with the lodger was certainly striking but did not relate to the rest of the novel – as if he had recorded some personal experience but failed to assimilate it onto his imagination.

Some of the Group were reminded of “existentialist” work, although we then debated what that term meant. Looking at it in philosophical terms, it was generally accepted that Sartre’s phrase “existence precedes essence” was the prime axiom of existentialism. Man freely chooses what he is and, though he cannot choose his fortune, he does choose his attitude to it. This was not true of the hero of “Hunger”. On the other hand, the sense of hopelessness and absurdity in “Hunger” was typical of existentialist literature.

It was interesting that Hamsun had produced such a work having had little formal education. On the other hand, many nineteenth century writers were autodidacts, and he was clearly very widely read. We discussed Scandinavian writers who were contemporaries and might have influenced Hamsun. Ibsen was at the peak of his career in 1890, the year in which he wrote “Hedda Gabbler”. The Danish philosopher Kierkegaard, often referred to as the father of existentialism, angst and existential despair, had died 35 years earlier. But it was difficult to see any direct link with either writer. Nietzsche, the philosopher for whom for whom Hamsun later expressed admiration, had completed his writing by 1890, but was not well known at that time.

How would we rate this work? Did the fact that a book was innovative and influential make it of higher quality than if it had been written today? We did not quite resolve this question. Was it an “outlier” in statistical terms, given that there were few works of a similar nature? But if there were very few that were similar before it, there were more afterwards that were similar and perhaps influenced by it. Would you recommend it to a friend? Yes, if they liked discussing books – no, if they were looking for plot.

In conclusion the proposer (glancing in disbelief at the volume of cashews and crisps consumed) said he would explore the views of Nordic friends on “Hunger”, in the context of the Scandinavian tradition of gloom and depression, such as found in Bergman.