Knut Hamsun - Hunger
The narrator begins the story with almost nothing to his name. He is behind in rent, has pawned most of his possessions, has virtually not furniture and clothing. He is mad at the world, at his fortune, at a snaggle-toothed old lady in a butcher's shop who passes him by. He considers that the world has rejected him, cast him down, declared him to be no good. And yet, when walking later on that same day as the encounter with the old woman, he spies an old man, who begs for money for milk, and he pawns a piece of the clothing he is wearing to help him out.
He does have a few possibilities, however. On occasion, he is able to earn some money writing articles for newspapers, small things, of little value, but they feed him. He has the idea of an essay, 'Crimes of Futurity', which he considers will earn him a nice sum. But then, as the day grows, he discards this idea, 'I could no longer be satisfied with writing an article about anything so simple and straight-ahead as the 'crimes of Futurity'', and decides to work on a treatise, a 'Philosophical Cognition', which would, 'give me an opportunity of crushing pitiably some of Kant's sophistries'. But, he has lost his pencil, and cannot write this opus.
The narrator is a man who is happy that he is unhappy. He considers that the Creator is against him, but then finds himself humming and in good spirits. He teases a poor young girl for no reason whatsoever, and is glad while recollecting the sensations he felt. He is certainly a strange character, as the following shows: 'I half rise and look down at my feet, and I experience at this moment a fantastic and singular feeling that I have never felt before--a delicate, wonderful shock through my nerves, as if sparks of cold light quivered through them--it was as if catching sight of my shoes I had met with a kind old acquaintance, or got back a part of myself that had been riven loose.' Often, he wants to give random people something, and is upset that he cannot. He is, for the most part, a positive narrator, enjoying the sights and sounds, the flora and fauna. However, with what seems to be for no reason whatsoever, he will fly into a mental rage at something or someone, spewing out venomous thoughts - or even words and deeds, if he is worked up enough. But tis feeling passes quickly, and then, it is almost as though the narrator is uncertain as to why the person attacked would feel offended or put out. An interesting character, indeed.
As the story progresses, and his lack of money continues, a burning hunger - both physical and mental - grows. He becomes weak through lack of food, and this has the affect of causing his oddities to expand, become more random, intricate, strange. One night, when so hungry he can hardly stand, he checks himself in as homeless at the local police station, then spends the night worrying about a hole in the wall, 'a downright intricate and mysterious hole, which I must guard against!'. He descends into a hungry madness, sucking on woodchips for sustenance, and speaking to God: 'Yes, you should say, I have invoked God my Father! and you must set your words to the most piteous tune you have ever heard in your life. So--o! Once again! Come, that was better! But you must sigh like a horse down with the colic. So--o! that's right.'
The narrator's madness is certainly interesting to observe. He experience dizzying highs - such as when sitting on a bench, or deciding to cut off his buttons to sell at the pawnshop - and terrible lows, whenever he thinks about food. He dashes between exuberance and despondency, up and down like a yo-yo, his reactions all the more bizarre, absurd and exaggerated as his hunger grows. Within all this, there is sympathy for the character. He is by no means a bad man, just a victim of unfortunate circumstances. The novel begins with the narrator focusing upon describing places and sights, but as it progresses, everything becomes internalised. He talks to himself, arguing, haranguing, pleading, cajoling. His thoughts are punctuated with exclamation marks quite often, giving them an added urgency or absurdity, depending on the sentence: 'The green blanket!'. It is interesting that, even though the character is thinking wrong thoughts and performing bad deeds, he is still an exuberant, jolly fellow, and that is what makes him such a joy to read.
The ending is expected, but does not suffer because of this. We witness the massive fall into madness, then brief spurts of lucidity followed by further plunges. Inexplicably, a young girl falls in love with him, which allows the narrator a madness of a different sort, but only for a short time. He does not overcome his 'hunger' as such, but this is unnecessary. The hunger within him is something that is not fully sated by food, it is more of a spiritual, mental hunger that can only be assuaged by thoughts, by feelings, by writing.
Other works by Knut Hamsun under review:
---Growth of the Soil
---The Ring is Closed
The Nobel Prize in Literature 1920 was awarded to Knut Hamsun "for his monumental work, Growth of the Soil".
-Nobel Prize in Literature 1920 Citation
About the author
Knut Hamsun was born in Norway in 1859. He was presented with the Nobel Prize in literature in 1920. An unfortunate affiliation with Nazi Germany, and in particular a positive eulogy for Hitler in 1945, saw Hamsun's star fall very far in the decades following. There has since been a revival of his literature in recent times, though his life and politics make such revisitings uncomfortable for Norwegians. Hamsun died in 1952, aged 92.