Stuff I’m Reading: Hunger, by Knut Hamsun

by |
12/22/2008 2:00 PM |

Ah, yes, Knut Hamsun, the Norwegian Nobel Laureate who eventually went crazy and gave his medal to Goebbels as a token of affection, but not before inventing the unreliable narrator, among other things.

This book is, I’m told, one of the first real attempts at an interior, psychological first-person narrator. As such there’s something of a conflict (appropriate given Hamsun’s combativeness) between language that’s accessible, almost plain at times, and a more classical sense of diction and objectivity. But rather than take an amateur’s guess at where specifically the crazed, unnamed writer protagonist fits into the evolution of narration, I’m interested a definitely prescient assumption Hamsun seems to make. Note the title: not “madness” but “hunger.” This early psychologically attuned monologue treats consciousness as a physical phenomenon — mental states are portrayed as almost biochemical ones. The narrator’s behavior is altered by how much food he has in his stomach; by the weather; by the sights and sounds and people he encounters. Rather than a fixed consciousness interacting with an outside world, he’s a semipermeable vessel.

For what it’s worth, recent editions of this book have a Paul Auster forward that initially seems overwritten, but ends up making good points about the narrator as a harbinger of Modernism — in the literary and indeed social sense — who divests himself of connections to social conventions, religion, and ultimately objective reality.

2 Comment

  • Here’s how I see it:

    The tension between “madness” and “hunger” in Hunger is fundamentally tied to the narrator’s notions of goodness. The protagonist is, in fact, a broke-ass journalist who works hard on the pieces that he sells to the newspaper. When the ship comes in on an article, he cashes his check and spends his kroners helping those around him. Granted, he spends a good deal on booze, but the underlying tension in the book is between capitalism and socialism. He participates in capitalism by selling his articles, but he can’t help but spread the wealth when he sells something. He gives his money away; he leaves it on the street (though he’s without an apartment); and he gives his cash to the less fortunate. In effect, he’s a gold-hearted do-gooder whose inclinations aren’t meaningful in a capitalistic system. His own inclination to contribute to the social good (in his reportage and in the way he distributes his income) is fundamentally unsuited to a society in which one must make money to survive. If there’s an underlying “theme” there it is this: money can satiate one’s earthly needs, but spiritual desires aren’t easily bought with governmental currency. The protagonist’s hunger isn’t sated by anything other than the complete redistribution of his own monetary wealth — money that, arguably, would be better spent to sustain himself. Every member of congress would do well to read this book… but, of course, they’re douche-bags, so good luck.

  • I haven’t read this but your description of the themes made me think of Boleslaw Prus’s “The Doll”, and I see both books came out in the same year, or close to it- 1890: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Doll_(novel).

    there you go, best of 1890…