Friday, September 30, 2011

423. Hunger – Knut Hansom

History: This novel was published in its final form in 1890. Parts of it had been published anonymously in the Danish magazine Ny Jord in 1888. The novel has been hailed as the literary opening of the 20th century and an outstanding example of modern, psychology-driven literature.
Hunger encompasses two of Hamsun's literary and ideological leitmotifs:
His insistence that the intricacies of the human mind ought to be the main object of modern literature. Hamsun's own literary program, to describe 'the whisper of the blood and the pleading of the bone marrow', is thoroughly manifest in Hunger.
His depreciation of modern, urban civilization. In the famous opening lines of the novel, he ambiguously describes Kristiania as 'this wondrous city that no one leaves before it has made its marks upon him.'
Plot: The novel's first-person protagonist, an unnamed vagrant with intellectual leanings, probably in his late twenties, wanders the streets of Norway's capital in pursuit of nourishment. It is clear from the opening chapter he is mentally unstable, accosting women on the street with strange behavior, yet physically he is healthy. Over four episodes he meets a number of more or less mysterious persons, the most notable being Ylajali, a young woman with whom he has a semi-sexual encounter. This woman haunts him and he attempts to refind her to no avail. He has a self-created code of chivalry, giving money and clothes to needy children and vagrants, not eating food given to him out of respect for their kindness, and turning himself in for stealing. Essentially self-destructive, he thus falls into traps of his own making, and with a lack of food, warmth and basic comfort, his body turns slowly to ruin. Overwhelmed by hunger, he scrounges for meals, at one point nearly eating his own (rather precious) pencil. His social, physical and mental state are in constant decline. However, he has no antagonistic feelings towards 'society' as such, rather he blames his fate on 'God' or a divine world order. He vows not to succumb to this order and remains 'a foreigner in life', haunted by 'nervousness, by irrational details'. He experiences a major artistic and financial triumph when he sells a text to a newspaper, but despite this he finds writing increasingly difficult due to the lack of food - he can't write without food, and can't eat without writing. At one point in the story, he asks to spend a night in a prison cell, fooling the police into believing that he is a well-to-do journalist who has lost the keys to his apartment; in the morning he can't bring himself to reveal his poverty, even to partake in the free breakfast they provide the homeless, since this would bring their attention to the fact that he'd lied about his identity and would land him in further troubles. Finally as the book comes to close, when his existence is at an absolute ebb, he signs on to the crew of a ship leaving the city.
Review: "Hunger" is one of those books that most young men probably dream of writing, and which they occasionally manage to pull off. The unnamed narrator stumbles about Christiania (now Oslo), a penniless man of letters, pawning his waistcoat (vest) for a kroner and a half, munching the odd bit of bread, but basically hovering in half-starvation and scheming about brilliant articles that he'll write which will not only enable him to buy food and pay the rent but which will also make his name as one of the best young writers of, etc. etc.
It probably sounds awful. It isn't. It's a masterpiece, if only because there's a curious gap between the experience and the telling of it. The narrator is entirely without self-pity. He never whinges - he curses, he daydreams, he fantasises, but he is always aware of his folly even when he's in the midst of it. This is what gives the book its incredible readability. Everything is portrayed in a crisp, early-morning light, everything is vividly _there_, there's no Holden Caulfield-type nostalgia or sentimental reverie. (During the 1960s, it was made into an incredible film - remarkable for a book which is mostly interior monologue.)
"Hunger" shows a man reduced by his condition to a point where physiological and mental impulses blow him around like a paper in the wind. He entertains grandiose ideas but can't sustain them for more than a few moments. He engages in pointless antics and gives way to spur-of-the-moment impulses. Though he wails and cries, it's clear he enjoys his degradation. He may be the genius he thinks he is, but could equally well be a charlatan. His contacts with other people are minimal and glancing, and only add to his degraded state. You see life as lived from the bottom, in an atmosphere where desperation acts as a kind of drug.
The book is essentially plotless, and is structured almost symphonically, in four parts (or "movements"). I can imagine a bunch of modern creative-writing types, with their Perfectly Plausible Plots and insistence on the Show-Don't-Tell rule, tearing "Hunger" to pieces. No matter: the rambling, the violent mood swings, and the violation of fictional protocols actually give it strength. Next to most of the novels of its time, "Hunger" must have felt like a blow to the face. A sometimes painful but often exhilarating blow. Written after Hamsun's return from an ill-fated tour of America, Hunger is loosely based on the author's own impoverished life before his breakthrough in 1890. Set in late 19th century Kristiania, the novel recounts the adventures of a starving young man whose sense of reality is giving way to a delusionary existence on the darker side of a modern metropolis. While he vainly tries to maintain an outer shell of respectability, his mental and physical decay are recounted in detail. His ordeal, enhanced by his inability or unwillingness to pursue a professional career, which he deems unfit for someone of his abilities, is pictured in a series of encounters which Hamsun himself described as 'a series of analyses.' In many ways, the protagonist of the novel displays traits reminiscent of Raskolnikov, whose creator, Fyodor Dostoevsky, was one of Hamsun's main influences. The influence of naturalist authors such as Emile Zola is apparent in the novel, as is his rejection of the realist tradition.
Opening Line: “It was during the time I wandered about and starved in Kristiania.”
Closing Line: “To Kristiania, where the windows gleamed so brightly in all the homes.”
Quotes: “I suffered no pain, my hunger had taken the edge off; instead I felt pleasantly empty, untouched by everything around me and happy to be unseen by all. I put my legs up on the bench and leaned back, the best way to feel the true well-being of seclusion. There wasn't a cloud in my mind, nor did I feel any discomfort, and I hadn't a single unfulfilled desire or craving as far as my thought could reach. I lay with open eyes in a state of utter absence from myself and felt deliciously out of it.”
Rating: Awful.

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