Intense! Moving! Unforgettable! A few resonant ‘power words’ which could help me to describe Mr. Knut Hamsun’s Hunger to some extent, but they do little to fully encapsulate my innermost feelings about this novel. Quite simply Hunger, is one of the most powerful books I’ve ever read, in any genre, whether fictional or factual, and given that I’ve read countless biographical accounts relating to some of history’s most harrowing events, this is quite a statement to make, but it is one that I wholly stand by.
Warning: the following may contain small spoilers
Stunning in its delivery, Hunger is one of the few books that has the ability to truly touch your soul. What makes the novel so intense is not the storyline; for the most part the story is devoid of plot. Rather the sense of sympathy and desperation one feels for the main character (a struggling writer on a psychological roller-coaster ride, stricken by poverty, who always seems as though he is about to draw his final breath), is, for me, the novel’s crowning glory. This mechanism of ‘survival doubt’ is superlatively engineered into the story by Mr. Hansum. There are times, usually at the start of a new ‘chapter’ when the writer’s survival seems assured (he himself proclaims many times that his latest work will be the one that end his difficulties). Inevitably however, the character’s situation diminishes, and the reader’s confidence can do nothing but diminish along with it, until, through some fortune turn of events, the main player draws himself back, if usually only temporarily, from the ‘abyss’.
As intense as Hunger is (and it really is intense at times, with the writer’s moods elevating and lowering as often as the paragraphs change), I also found the novel to be quite humourous in parts. The writer’s ‘unnecessary’ and continual bickering with people he meets, is only surpassed in humour by the intense arguments the writer often has with himself, which more often than not, involves some form of self harm. In essence this personal self loathing is of course a sign of utter madness and desperation, the mark of a madman, but one cannot help but raise a smile when the main character is found in the middle of the street bawling at himself, with onlookers staring aghast.
The writer’s obstinate stupidity also makes for a number of humourous scenes, such as when he declares his homelessness at a police station, falsifies his name and circumstances, and consequently misses out on a desperately needed meal. Humour can also be found in the unrealistic value that the main character quite often places on his own personal artifacts. Of course in desperate times especially, one would be inclined to place an inflated value on their personal effects, and Hamsun is primarily illustrating this fact. However it still brings a note of humour to the proceedings, especially when the character attempts to pawn various belongings.
I’m well aware there is controversy surrounding the author of this work, (Mr. Hamsun evolved with quite repugnant notions of Nazi idealism), but that is irrelevant to this novel and should not, in my opinion, be brought into consideration. Hunger stands on its own as one of the finest psychological works ever written. It is a book that I will invariably think about often. It is a book that has well and truly touched my soul.
Favourite quote: [Note: The main character is mad at himself for raising the notion in his head of asking for a loan of money] “I started running to punish myself, left street after street behind me at full blast, pushed myself on with suppressed shouts, and screamed mutely and furiously at myself when I felt like stopping…[…]…not being able to run any further I threw myself down on some steps, ‘No, Hold it,’ I said. And to torture myself properly I got up again and forced myself to remain standing”
Favourite scene: The main character’s early encounter with an old man on a park bench. Fraught firstly with curiosity about a package the man is holding, the writer moves on to take great delight in relaying outrageous lies to the old man which he swallows up without question. A sublime piece of writing!
What this novel has taught me about writing: A structured plot is not always necessary to produce a good story. The human condition can often produce a compelling tale on its own, provided one engages completely with the psyche of his character(s).