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The Reality of Narrating Hunger

Charles Yuchen He

Cover of Hamsun Hunger [1]Hunger
Knut Hamsun
Translated by Sverre Lyngstad
Canongate Books, 2016
272 pp
ISBN 9781782117124






Some books become emblems of their age, icons of their movement, and eventually milestones in literary history. The books that everyone still talks about, that become reference points for all other writing. Then there are the books that always remain in the background, best remembered as the books that prophesised, through their influence, the great canonical works of art whose status they themselves would never reach. Knut Hamsun’s Norwegian classic Hunger is a rare in-between: acknowledged as a milestone, but not canonical in any particular movement.

Narrated in the first person, the novel tells the story of a young nameless writer who wanders around in Kristiania (today’s Oslo) trying to write to support himself. He ends up in a vicious cycle of hunger: he cannot write without food, but he must write in order to feed himself. The reader follows the absurd logic and irrational ramblings of the narrator during his long episodes of starvation, as he desperately writes against his own body’s need for sustenance. Hunger is not only a violently realistic depiction of the physical and psychological effects of starvation, but it also questions the nature of fiction writing.

Central to Hunger is the narration of madness and disbelief. The spectacularly insane acts that the protagonist performs suggest that he is genuinely mad, but at other times, he only seems to feign madness: “[I] threw a kiss at the window and behaved like a lunatic. At this moment, too, I was conscious of what I did.” Even if he is mad, his madness is inconsistent. The narrator performs erratic deeds on countless occasions that are introduced as pranks or lies, but many times he believes in his own stories, which sometimes seem to be true. The reader distrusts the narrator, but is left without closure. The narrator’s character resists summary and seems to consciously evade predictability at any cost, to indicate a sense of control over the reader’s grasp of his character – which perhaps is another sign of madness. The paradox becomes apparent: if someone tells you he is a pathological liar, would you believe him? James Wood hails Hunger as the first of an exceedingly rare kind of novel with narrators that are “unreliably unreliable.”

Our disbelief in the narrator is further intensified by the shifts in verbal tense. The novel opens in the past tense but shifts, randomly it seems, between tenses:

It was in those days when I wandered about hungry in Kristiania, that strange city which no one leaves before it has set its mark upon him. […]
Lying awake in my attic room, I hear a clock strike six downstairs.

This oscillation constantly pokes holes in the fabric of the text’s fictionality, baring its own artifice. We are reminded of the novel’s collapse of narrator and protagonist: if the narrator dies in the story, how would he be able to write about it? As Derrida elaborated on the impossibility of writing, we ask if it is ever possible to write in the present tense, since someone – the writer – cannot both live life and write about it at the same time, without incorporating the act of writing into the story itself. Hunger turns the realist idiom on its head. Instead of the ‘normal’ person’s sober account of an insane person, we only get the ‘mad’ person’s version of his own story.

Published in Copenhagen in 1890 – more than twenty years before the flowering of the ‘high modernist’ movement – Hunger is remarkably modernist in its narrative techniques and its exploration of human consciousness. It is easy to fall to the temptation of calling it a forgotten masterpiece because of Hamsun’s later political associations, as many reviewers have done. By the end of his life, Hamsun became a Nazi sympathiser and publicly expressed his support for the occupation of Norway. For example, Rob Woodard writes in the Guardian [2] that “Hamsun is a writer who today is shunned by much of the literary establishment […] because of his far-right political views.” Woodard is right regarding Hamsun, but wrong regarding Hunger: this particular novel was never popular in the English-speaking world. Its 1899 translation by George Egerton failed to make an impact, and it was only after Hamsun’s Nobel Prize in 1920 that he received any substantial attention in Britain and North America. By that time, Hamsun’s work was very different in theme, narration and politics. He was re-introduced as a conservative realist writer, with his 1917 settler epic Markens Grøde (Growth of the Soil), set in the harsh Norwegian wilderness, as his magnum opus. His earlier anarchist novels were neglected. It was not until Robert Bly’s 1967 translation that English readers re-discovered the early Hamsun’s proto-modernist masterpiece.

Certainly, Hunger and Hamsun are no longer household names as they were in Germany, Russia, and the Scandinavian countries, but they are far from forgotten. Among the more recent writers who have acknowledged Hunger‘s influence are Paul Auster, who has written an afterword to this edition, and Isaac Bashevis Singer, who went so far as to say that “the whole modern school of fiction in the Twentieth century stems from Hamsun, just as Russian literature in the nineteenth century ‘came of out Gogol’s greatcoat,’” in his introduction to the 1967 translation. James Macfarlane sees Hunger as the “missing link” between Dostoyevsky’s psychologically oriented novels and the modernist works of Joyce and Woolf, and the work is featured as a milestone in the history of Western narratology in James Wood’s How Fiction Works (2008).

This reissue of Sverre Lyngstad’s masterful 1996 translation not only features a commentary on the two previous translations of the text to English, but also an appendix highlighting all three translators’ choices for particularly tricky or ambiguous words. In contrast to previous translations, notably Robert Bly’s version, which has been criticised for taking too many liberties, Lyngstad’s pays meticulous attention to Hamsun’s innovative and slippery use of Norwegian. Lyngstad’s translation, widely accepted by Hamsun scholars, is in my view the translation that best captures the manic pace and the disturbingly angular precision of the writer’s style in the original. With Lyngstad’s excellent translation, Hunger can once again be appreciated by English readers. Having read the novel in Swedish, then in Norwegian, and finally in English, I can personally attest to how difficult it is to translate Hamsun’s use of language. The added appendix is invaluable for literature students, but I can’t imagine it being of much interest to the common reader who hasn’t read Hamsun in the original.

Composed under the conditions of real starvation and “hysteria” – to use Hamsun’s own term – Hunger is a remarkable piece of work. Its brutal realism and psychological closeness to the protagonist and narrator go to such extremes that they push the novel towards black comedy and the absurd; surprisingly close to Kafka, and Beckett’s early prose. The black comedy of Hunger explores the commodification of writing. At one point the protagonist holds up a finished piece of fiction and approvingly weighs it in his hand, concluding that it was worth “five kroner, by a rough estimate,” like one would measure potatoes by the kilo. As he gradually fails to maintain the quality of his writing, yet refuses any help, the narrator’s behaviour becomes increasingly erratic and self-punishing. The unstable narrative creates a dizzying sense of intoxication, but the descriptions of objects and things are rendered in minute detail: restaurant menus, bills, street names and signs are incorporated into the narrative. Hamsun’s use of language is at once disorientating and chillingly precise.

Today, Hamsun’s novel feels much ahead of its time, anticipating both the narrative innovations of modernism, and its themes of urban disorientation, alienation, madness, and the complex human psychology. Jean Rhys wrote in a private letter in 1934 that Hunger gave her “a great kick” and praised its freshness 44 years after its initial publication: “translated 1899 and might have been written yesterday.” Like many of the writers of the Modernist movement, Hamsun intended to create a new kind of literature, blasting away the conventions of realist fiction that he saw as bourgeois parodies of real human characterisation. Hamsun initially wished Hunger to be published anonymously, as the narrator’s true story. The novel created a sensation upon its original release, both in Hamsun’s native Norway and in Denmark. After two disastrous trips to America and four periods of starvation to the brink of death, the novel took all of Hamsun’s experience of the extreme sides of life to write.

Hunger is Hamsun at his most extreme. It is an unflinching account of the conditions of literary production, both an anarchistic revitalisation and stabbing questioning of the oxymoronic name of a form known as ‘realist fiction’. Never again does he write with such maddening intensity as if his life was at stake, which in many ways it was. Nor does he ever physically go to such lengths for the sake of his art.

More than a hundred years after its initial publication, Hunger should not only be read for its historical significance as a landmark of modernist prose narration, but also for its themes of urban alienation and madness that inspired women writers Jean Rhys and George Egerton. Its language of human commodification and darkly comic depiction of the brutal realities of trying to work oneself out of hunger is as fresh a read today, in the age of austerity and anxiety, as it was when it was first published.

Charles Yuchen He [3] is reading for a MSt in modern English Literature at St Anne’s College, Oxford.