Saturday, August 16, 2014

I was in the mood to conquer obstacles - Knut Hamsun's Hunger

Knut Hamsun, Mysteries, 1892.  I will be writing about this novel, which I have not yet read, in conjunction with Caravana de recuerdos, at the end of October.  Please, join us, anyone.  The novel is supposed to be good.

I have read Hunger (1890) and Pan (1894).  I recently reread Hunger and hope to get through Pan again before long.  The disadvantage of picking Mysteries as the joint book is that it at around 340 pages by far the longest, which is still not very long.  But Hamsun is intense, exhilarating but also exhausting.  Hunger is just over 200 pages, Pan just under.  Even a short book can feel like too much, especially when it is as concentrated as Hunger.

All of this happened while I was walking around starving in Christiana – that strange city no one escapes from until it has left its mark on him…  (first sentence, ellipses Hamsun’s)

And this is what the narrator does.  He is a freelance writer who has trouble writing,  and thus has trouble eating.  Perhaps the causality should be reversed.  Shall we watch him write?

I had taken my pencil and paper out again and was sitting mechanically writing 1848 in all the corners.  If only one good thought would rush in, then words would come!  That had happened before, I had had times when I could write out a long piece with no effort at all, and it would turn out to be first-rate besides.

I wrote 1848 twenty times, wrote it crossways and intersecting and every possible way, waiting for a usable idea to come.  (I, 32)

This is not the way to make a living writing for newspapers, especially given the narrator’s ambitions:

My courage had now returned; it was not enough any longer to write an essay on something so elementary and simple-minded as “Crimes of the Future,” which any ass could arrive at, let alone read in history books.  I felt ready for a more difficult enterprise, I was in the mood to conquer obstacles and I determined on a consideration in three parts of Philosophical Consciousness.  (I, 12)

This will involve a thorough refutation of Kant, or at least a reworking of “the problem of Space and Time” (13).  Norwegian newspapers must have been loads of fun circa 1880.

In each of the novel’s four parts, he has reached a material crisis – no food, no money, just some hope for money that will allow him to stagger forward.  The money obviously does appear at least three times, or else the novel would come to an abrupt end.  Come to think of it, unless the narrator is a ghost, that first sentence suggests that he keeps body and soul together, however tenuously.

This tension between the demands of the material world and this intellectual’s radical desire to be free of it.  He wants to exist in a state of perfect integrity, but his attempts to do so inevitably lead to violations of integrity, the most basic of which is the pain of hunger.  Few things so inescapably pull us back into the physical world as hunger.  I suppose I should be thankful that the workings of the excretory system were still taboo.  I am sure a later novelist has written that book, Hunger re-written for the bowels.

The translation is Robert Bly’s.  I have done nothing yet to make the novel sound as good or interesting as it really is.


  1. "Norwegian newspapers must have been loads of fun circa 1880." I got a good laugh out of that; thank you!

    Hunger is my favorite novel, and I've read it at least ten times since I first read it during college, almost thirty years ago. The novel has so much depth, that every time I find myself reading it from a different angle (poverty, artistic integrity and idealism, humor, religious faith) and catch something that I never noticed before.

    Your comment clearly points to the integrity/idealism angle - the narrator is endlessly contemplating (yet only sporadically writing) these abstract philosophical treatises that could probably find a home only in academic journals, but being outside of academic circles all he sees as a publishing outlet is the newspapers. It shows just how divorced from reality he is that he actually thinks newspapers would publish his works. And also explains why newspaper editors treat him with polite and bemused indifference.

    I thoroughly enjoy your blog. It introduces me to so many writers and books that I never would come across, and even though I'll probably read only a few of them (my to-read list already being enormous), it's a testament to your skill that I keep reading and savoring your postings anyway.

  2. And yet again you provoke me to add another author and title to my TBR list; however, I really appreciate (and smile about) your self-deprecating final sentence -- methinks you protest too much (about your persuasive and informative exposition).

  3. I want to read along! Send more details, please.

  4. Rt, thanks. I just don't feel I'm quite getting it, though. My new post stays with one scene, so that gets me closer. Pete does a much better job above - yes, that is the appeal of Hunger.

    Maybe the problem is that I have not mentioned Dostoevsky yet, or Schopenhauer. The religious angle Pete mentions was my biggest surprise this time. I had never noticed or forgotten it. The narrator frequently describes his suffering in Christian terms, with what I take to be sincerity. He does not otherwise appear to be religious, so the language reveals an additional dimension of his psychology.

    Pete, thanks for the great comment. I'll keep trying.

    Dorian \ banff - I hope you can join, that would be great. However, you have the details. I'll read Mysteries and with luck write about it in the last week of October, and Richard will do the same. No other schedules, check-ins, or promises. At Wuthering Expectations, readalongs are on the loosey-goosey side. There must be a normal English synonym. Flexible is the word I wanted. Or forgiving.

  5. I love Hamsun. He was such an oddball, and I think the poor man was put in a mental hospital for a while. I know he made some unfortunte fascist remarks, though I believe they were miscontrued. (Maybe I'm just being hopeful,) His books are beautifully written and very atmospheric and sad. There is something about those Scandinavian novelists.. I've most recently read Pan, only because it was a library reject.:) I do have his Growth of the Soil (? is that the title?), but I understand it is less moody and atmospheric than his other books. Somehow it just sits on the shelf...

    I'm catching up both on blogs and 21st century lit this month, so I hope to catch up here. I recently revised my "blogroll," after accidentally deleting it, so have added yours and a few others to remind me to visit.

  6. Pan as a library reject - now that makes me sad. I am glad it fell into sympathetic hands.

    Hamsun was an all too real Nazi fellow traveler, but my understanding is that he was not at all a Nazi himself, but rather had a gross misunderstanding of Nazi ideology. Hamsun made some terrible mistakes during the war (the stay in the mental hospital came with the Allied victory), but I think of him as a tragic figure.

    I am perhaps too influenced by the superb 1996 film Hamsun, with Max von Sydow as the title character.

    I will write one more post about Hamsun - thanks for the encouragement.

  7. Having found Mysteries on my shelves I will be joining in the readalong although I may stretch the meaning of flexibility if I keep up my current rate of reading and blogging. I, too, loved Hunger, which I read a couple of years ago

  8. Good news! In his context, "flexibility" is endlessly stretchable.

    I was very tempted by the renunciation theme you mentioned. It is odd to think of Hunger as a descendant of Goethe, but it is.