Should I go into influence and literary history and all that? I may enjoy it a little too much, but it is so important. It helps answer the “Why this book?” question, which in turn illuminates the “What is this book?” question, always the most important question.
The puzzle is the narrowness of Hunger. For a book of its stature and time – mainly the latter – Hunger is a narrowly focused novel. We are used to this now. Nothing could be more common. But compared to the social sprawl of Trollope and Zola, or the ambitions of Buddenbrooks or Hardy, or simply the amount of incident in a Stevenson or Kipling novel, Hunger might seem like a fragment of a novel.
The action of Hunger is repetitive and trivial (the narrator sleeps in the woods or tries to sell a blanket), the social context stripped away as much as possible,*and the ambition – well, Hamsun is working through or enacting some ideas of Schopenhauer and maybe Nietzsche, so he is plenty ambitious. Small-scope ambition, though. One character, one setting, one problem.
What I found inescapable both when I did not know what would happen and when I reread the novel was the intensity of the narrator, of his voice or perhaps I mean his presence. To what extent is he a genius, to what extent a lunatic?
I snapped my pencil off between my teeth, leaped up, tore my manuscript in two, ripped every page of it in shreds, threw my hat down on the street and jumped on it. “I am a lost man!” I whispered to myself. “Ladies and gentlemen, I am a lost man!” And I repeated that over and over as I went on jumping on my hat. (Ch. 4, 224)
The narrator is imbalanced – I mean not mentally but as a fictional creation – in the way we can find in Dostoevsky. Hamsun’s narrator is a cousin of the Underground Man and several characters from the big, sprawling, incident-filled, ambitious novels, characters like Crime and Punishment’s Raskolnikov.
Hunger has not penetrated too far into American or English literature, but it was much read by not just Scandinavian but German and Russian writers. Isaac Bashevis Singer claims that Yiddish and Hebrew writers like David Bergelson were influenced by Hamsun, too. “European writers know that he is the father of the modern school of literature in every aspect – his subjectiveness, his fragmentariness, his use of flashbacks [not really present in Hunger], his lyricism” – this is I. B. Singer, in the introduction to my edition of Hunger, p. ix. Too strong to be true, surely, but that is the idea.
Wild ideas popped up again in my head. What if I quietly went over and cut off the mooring ropes on one of the ships? What if I suddenly cried fire? I walked farther out on the pier, found myself a wooden box to sit on, and folded my hands; I could feel my brain moving nearer and nearer to chaos. I did not move this time, did absolutely nothing to prevent it. (Ch. 4, 231)
The next page is the last one, so salvation or catastrophe is near. I wonder if this is really what so many writers found interesting. I do not wonder that much, actually, since I know what they were writing. They were ready for fiction about chaos.
* Aside from the physical setting, Christiana, which is pretty interesting. I suspect it would be possible to track the narrator’s wanderings on a map.