Monday, August 18, 2014

I could feel my brain moving nearer and nearer to chaos - Hamsun's intensity, Hamsun's influence

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.


  1. I have actually had this one on my radar for a few years but I have not read it.

    You make a good point about the narrow focus of present day novels and how that has not always been so.

    Looking at the world in small fragments is fine with me. I do like it when the level of detail is inversely proportional to the size of the fragment.

  2. Maybe the progression towards the modern, non-experimental novel could be seen as: Notes from the Underground, Niels Lyhne, Hunger, The Process; depicting in turn disillusion, hopelessness, hope for chaos and finally the actual chaos.

  3. Ah, "to track the narrator's wanderings" reminds me of the pleasure-filled folly so many have enjoyed as they have tried to recreate _Ulysses_ and _The Sun Also Rises_ ... just to name two. How do you think the narrow focus and brevity of _Hunger_ compares with _Notes from the Underground_? As I noted previously, _Hunger_ (because of your provocative enthusiasm) has moved much higher in my TBR list. Soon, when I have read it, I will better understand your comments.

  4. humblehappiness - yes, perfect!

    I would not say that the present-day novel is narrow - even setting aside the maximalist fiction of someone like David Foster Wallace, most fiction is social and full of variety. Or attempts to have variety. A lot of it is narrower than intended, or narrow in other ways.

    What I mean is that the monomaniacal Hunger-like novel is just another common form. Thomas Bernhard's rants, Malone dying, Charles Kinbote's index cards, Krasznahorkai's weirdos. Just another Modernist tradition now.

    RT - Google Maps makes the path-tracing fun so easy now. I did it with The Savage Detectives a couple of years ago, with maps of Mexico City and Paris. It is all a question of how much information is provided, how many street names and squares. Hamsun provides a lot.

    Hunger has always reminded me strongly of Notes form the Underground. I think most readers have felt that similarity. Both narrators are so intense. You have to surrender to their subjectivity a bit, or else give up on the book.

    The funny thing is that one of Dostoevsky's great strengths is his polyphony, all of those competing points of view. How risky to give all that up for just one.

  5. Google Maps is really one of the great new tools for exploring literature in this way (you'll have a ball with Carl Jonas Love Almqvist when you get to him). I first tried it with French author Laurent Gaudé, in a novel set in Naples, in which he places an entrance to hell at a well-known monument on the bay front. And what do you know, there it was, right there on Street View: the entrance to hell.

  6. All super interesting. The modernist tradition of monomania that you describe, Tom, has also been called expressionism. So to add to humblehappiness's excellent list: Rilke's Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, Musil's Törless, Söderberg's Doctor Glas. Maybe the hinge from realism/naturalism to expressionism is Freud, esp the case studies.

  7. Street View was a big help with Saramago's Year of the Death of Richard Reis. The view has not changed that much - I could go on walks in Lisbon with Reis.

    What Hamsun is doing is certainly consistent with Freud. I assume that is part of why he was a good fit for later writers. They are trying to make sense of Freud, and here are these Hamsun novels that already seem to have it figured out.

    This is really a way to use the term "Expressionism"? I had no idea. Musil and Hamsun seem so distant from, I dunno, Metropolis or Die Brücke. But then I only use the terms "realism" and "naturalism" as mockery, so what would I know.

  8. Yeah, definitely. I think the link between literary expressionism and cinematic and artistic versions is in the idea of distortion. The canted angles of Mabuse or Caligari are like the ruthless focus on an individual's subjectivity, particularly an individual in mental distress in Hamsun, Rilke, Musil, etc. But in these visual modes, distorted perspectives are indicative of distorted psyches (the outside tells us something about the inside), whereas in literary modes those distorted psyches are emphasized to the exclusion of the exterior world (the outside has been swallowed by the inside). In both cases, though, the idea of a coherent, objective phenomenal reality is abandoned.

  9. I see, sort of. Mostly I see I should avoid the term "expressionism" when referring to fiction. You have put up some ideas that I resist, which is not your problem.

  10. It seems unlikely that Raul Brandão ever read Hamsun, but the similarities with Húmus are there; perhaps via the common source of Dostoyevsky.

  11. I would enjoy reading a study of the spread of Dostoevsky's books around the world.