Book Review – Hunger by Knut Hamsun

Those starving for good fiction should feast upon this offering by Knut Hamsun. It’s a veritable banquet of savory literary techniques that will leave readers returning for seconds. The author’s first book whet readers’ appetites for more of his work. They certainly weren’t fed-up with this one. I’d read Hunger before and just had to return for seconds. It certainly left me feeling satisfied.

When reading Hamsun I find myself recalling a line spoke by Antony in Julius Caesar.

The evil that men do lives after them;

The good is oft interred with their bones. (Act III Scene Two)

Hamsun’s life challenged that expression a bit. To be clear: there’s no excuse for Hamsun’s reprehensible conduct during the Second World War. His support of Adolf Hitler mystifies the mind. A native Norwegian, the Nazis occupied the country from April 9, 1940 until the cessation of European hostilities on May 8, 1945. He had no excuse for not knowing better.

With that legacy, the continued popularity of his work bewilders as well. That is, until one reads it. Isaac Bashevis Singer observed that “The whole modern school of fiction stems from Hamsun.” Writings from an author this gifted just couldn’t become interred with his bones.

It amazes me that a book written in 1890 could possess such relevance today. Hunger contained the most intense character study I’ve ever read. It told the tale of a freelance writer living in Christiana (now Oslo), Norway. The character found himself in financial difficulties while struggling to make a living through his craft. As any writer reading this can guess: this is not a story set to end well.

The author presented the narrative in the first person point-of-view. This gave readers unique insight into the character’s mind. I found it extraordinarily clever how the Narrator utilized every opportunity to avoid giving his name. The following passage shows his most clever evasion.

“I would like to see Mr. Christie,” I said.

“That’s me!” replied the man.

“Indeed!” Well my name was so-and-so. I had taken the liberty of sending him an application. I did not know if it had been of any use.

He repeated my name a couple of times and commenced to laugh. (Page 30)

The quality of writing here impressed me. It showed great talent on the author’s part to craft this passage without giving the character’s name. (By my count the Narrator slipped twice in the story and did reveal it.)

The use of an unreliable narrator is my favorite literary technique. Hamsun kept me guessing with this one. The man lied chronically. While starving to death, he used the following ruse to beg for food.

All at once it enters my head to go to one of the meat bazaars underneath me, and beg a piece of raw meat. I go straight along the balustrade to the other side of the bazaar buildings, and descend the steps. When I had nearly reached the stalls on the lower floor, I called up the archway leading to the stairs, and made a threatening backward gesture, as if I were talking to a dog up there, and boldly addressed the first butcher I met.

“Ah, will you be kind enough to give me a bone for my dog?” I said; “only a bone. There needen’t be anything on it; it’s just to give him something to carry in his mouth.”

I got the bone, a capital little bone, on which there still remained a morsel of meat, and hid it under my coat. I thanked the man so heartily that he looked at me in amazement. (Page 91)

The most memorable passages in the book concerned the subject of hunger. The one that has haunted my nightmares for years follows:

At length I stuck my forefinger in my mouth, and took to sucking it. Something stirred in my brain, a thought that bored its way in there—a stark mad motion.

Supposing I were to take a bite? And without a moment’s reflection, I shut my eyes, and clenched my teeth on it.

I sprang up. At last I was thoroughly awake. A little blood trickled from it, and I licked it as it came. It didn’t hurt very much, neither was the wound large, but I was brought at one bound to my senses. (Page 72 – 73)

I think of Hunger as the literary equivalent to a multi-course meal. This review provides samples from the delicious masterpiece Hamsun cooked up. I think it appropriate to conclude with one of the book’s passages regarding writing. Perhaps it describes the author’s own experience while crafting Hunger:

Thoughts come so swiftly to me and continue to flow so richly that I miss a number of telling bits, that I cannot set down quickly enough, although I work with all my might. They continue to invade me; I am full of my subject, and every word I write is inspired. (Page 20)

Hamsun’s inspired writing has gone on to inspire many others.

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