Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Knut Hamsun - Hunger

Knut Hamsun's Hunger is, quite seriously, Fight Club coming straight from the 1890s. Some argue that it was the inspiration, effectively, for the books that were in themselves the inspiration for Fight Club and all that other bleak post-modern jazz. This, then, is the bleakest of them all.

“One of the most disturbing novels in existence” says Time Out, and they’re not far off. Hunger, or Sult in Norwegian, was written in 1890 by Hamsun, a Norwegian novelist who went on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1920. His many other novels attracted much critical praise, although none were stylistically as direct and uncompromising as Hunger.

Hunger is the crux of Hamsun’s claims to mastery. This is the classic novel of humiliation, even beyond Dostoevsky” says the Observer. Hunger is the deeply painful, despairing account of a young writer, existing on the edge of starvation, which blends physical intensity with a psychological paranoia. Its central – and effectively only – character is deeply unsympathetic, and indeed mentally unstable. Throughout, the demoralising, debilitating effects of hunger are written with uncomfortable vividness. What little hope the sparse plot may occasionally offer is dashed with tremendous unfeeling, so that the novel exists only in the monotony of despair. Such is its power, its profundity of effect, its sheer absence of positive relief, that the novel should not be described as merely disturbing, but also as peculiarly vicious.

Such is Hunger's status as a cult classic that it has recently been republished in an updated format, borrowing for its cover design the traditional imagery of the modern thrillers which it so overbearingly resembles. This 2006 Canongate edition features, in addition to the definitive Lyngstad translation (previous attempts erred heavily in the translation of Hamsun’s style), an excellent introduction by Paul Auster. Those of you familiar with Paul Auster will know that that makes it a work of art in itself, but in addition to an excellent lyrical portrait of the book, his introduction delves quite astutely into the literary and philosophical qualities of the novel. From the neutral, characterless facts which make up the structure and plot of the book, ‘the bare bones’, it follows primarily for Auster that Hunger: “….is a work devoid of plot, action and – but for the narrator – character. By nineteenth century standards, it is a work in which nothing happens. The radical subjectivity of the narrator effectively eliminates the basic concerns of the traditional novel.”

Hunger has become for many one of the first modernist books, using its radical differences to portray its central character in an astoundingly novel manner. Or as the Irish Times says, it is “…A work of pioneering modernism… black, funny, evocative, exasperating. A magical and terrible insight into the human soul.”

The elements which define Hunger as a uniquely modern work are many and diverse, but not completely obscure. It is a novel partly of nihilism, of existentialism and, in many ways, of sheer emptiness. The tale of starvation, as Auster notes, has no “redeeming social value”; although “it puts us in the jaws of misery, it offers no analysis of that misery, contains no call to political action”. It is debatable whether the novel brushes with pseudo- or proto-Nietzschean ideas, especially as Hamsun “who turned fascist in his old age during the Second World War” turns out to be a pretty despicable guy. Yet Hunger is so wildly cynical, so tragically comic and so utterly cutting that it would be hard to square it with any kind of fascist or semi-fascist ideology. Its central character is both maniacally deluded and pathetically weak, subsisting in a life of total physical and spiritual poverty, so that he could hardly be seen as some kind of super-man.

Perhaps, as a novel of survival and unflinching realism, Hunger may well be an artfully exaggerated masterpiece of modern auto-biography. However, as Auster remarks, making an interesting comparison to Joyce’s own masterpiece:

Hunger; or the portrait of the artist as a young man. But it is an apprenticeship that has little in common with the early struggles of other writer. Hamsun’s hero is no Stephen Dedalus, and there is hardly a word in Hunger about aesthetic theory. The world of art has been translated into the world of the body – and the original text has been abandoned. Hunger is not a metaphor; it is the very crux of the problem itself.”

The modernism of this novel derives equally from its style as it does from its content. Hunger is a relentlessly subjective book, inhabiting all the follies and duplicities of its protagonist’s conscious and unconscious thoughts. Existential, and nihilistic, it abandons many of the fixed notions of traditional literature – again, as Auster says:

“Historical time is obliterated in favour of inner duration. With only an arbitrary beginning and an arbitrary ending, the novel faithfully records the vagaries of the narrator’s mind, following each thought from its mysterious inception all through all its meanderings, until it dissipates and the next thought begins. What happens is allowed to happen.”

Finally, it is the radical nature of this novel which ultimately assures it its power and status; a potent combination of abstraction and realism derived from nothing less than the rejection of all tradition and assumption, until there is no existence or meaning left; and for Hamsun or his character “there is nothing to keep him going – and yet he keeps on going. He walks straight into the twentieth century.”

Auster’s introduction in the modern edition, from which I have rather too liberally quoted here, was in fact originally written in 1970. My own first introduction to the book was actually from the 1999 Rebel Inc. anthology Rebel Yell: A Century of Underground Classics. It contained a series of introductions and short excerpts from a selection of cult classics, amongst which was Hamsun’s Hunger. The introduction there, by Donald MacLean, was equally superb, an enthusiastic paean to a book which, if it “were published today… would seem like the work of an exciting new voice, a voice by turns startingly direct and seductively lyrical”. Like Auster, he explores the subjectivity, immediacy and literary nihilism of the novel, and digresses into the controversial issue of Hamsun’s own personality, but at base he seeks only to enthuse on the intensity of Hunger.

Here below is an extract, roughly the second half of the excerpt printed in Rebel Yell. Little more needs to be said, except to note that Hunger is as relevant today as it was over a century ago, and the whole novel still proves as powerful, and as disturbing, as any of the other thrillers that abounds in modern literature. Enjoy!

"I had fallen asleep where I lay and was awakened by the policeman. There I was, mercilessly called back to life and my misery. My first feeling was a stupid amazement at finding myself out in the open, but this was soon replaced by a bitter despondency; I was on the verge of crying with grief at still being alive. It had rained while I slept, my clothes were soaking wet, and I felt a raw chill in my limbs. The darkness had become even thicker, I could barely make out the officer’s features in front of me.

‘Stand up now, will you!’ he said.

I got up immediately; if he had ordered me to lie down again, I would also have obeyed. I was very depressed and quite weak, and besides I started almost instantly to feel the pangs of hunger again.

‘Wait a minute, you dummy!’ the officer called after me. ‘You’re walking off without your hat. There, now go on!’

‘It seemed to me too there was something I had forgotten,’ I stammered absent-mindedly. ‘Thanks. Good night.’

And I shambled off.

If only one had a piece of bread! One of those delicious little loaves of rye bread that you could munch on as you walked the streets. And I kept picturing to myself just the sort of rye bread it would have been good to have. I was bitterly hungry, wished myself dead and gone, grew sentimental and cried. There would never be an end to my misery! Then I stopped suddenly in the street, stamped my feet on the cobblestones and swore aloud. What was it he had called me? Dummy? I’d show that policeman what it meant to call me a dummy! With that I turned around and rushed back. I felt flaming hot with anger. Some way down the street I stumbled and fell, but I took no notice, jumped up again and ran on. On reaching Jærnbanetorvet Square, however, I was so tired that I didn’t feel up to going all the way to the pier; besides, my anger had cooled off during the run. Finally I stopped to catch my breath. Who cared a hoot what such a policeman had said? - Sure, but I wasn’t going to swallow everything! – True enough! I interrupted myself, but he didn’t know any better. I found this excuse to be satisfactory; I repeated to myself that he didn’t know any better. And so I turned around once more.

God, the sort of ideas you get! I thought angrily: running around like a madman on sopping-wet streets in the dark of night! My hunger pains were excruciating and didn’t leave me for a moment. I swallowed my saliva again and again to take the edge off, and it seemed to help. I hadn’t had enough to eat for many, many weeks before this thing came up, and my strength had diminished considerably lately. When I had been lucky enough to get my hands on a five-krone bill by some manoeuvre or other, the money generally didn’t last me long enough for my health to be fully restored before a new hunger spell descended upon me. My back and shoulders had borne the brunt of it; I could stop that gnawing pain in my chest for a moment by coughing hard or by walking extremely bent over, but there was nothing I could do for my back and shoulders. Anyway, why didn’t my prospects simply brighten up? Didn’t I have the same right to life as anyone else, like Pascha the second-hand bookdealer, or Hennechen the steamship agent? Didn’t I have the shoulders of a giant and two stout arms for work, and hadn’t I even applied for a job as a woodcutter on Møller Street to earn my daily bread? Was I lazy? Hadn’t I applied for work and listened to lectures and written reviews and plugged away like crazy day and night? And hadn’t I lived like a miser, eaten bread and milk when I had plenty, bread when I had little, and gone hungry when I had nothing? Did I live in a hotel, did I have a suite on the ground floor? I lived in a godforsaken loft, a tinsmith’s shop abandoned by everybody and his brother last winter because it snowed in there. So I couldn’t make head nor tail of the whole situation.

I was thinking about all this as I walked along, and there wasn’t as much as a spark of malice, envy or bitterness in my thoughts..."

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