Monday, April 23, 2012

Hunger by Knut Hamsun

Groundbreaking but not earth-shattering
This novel by Nobel Prize-winning Norwegian author Knut Hamsun relates the thoughts and actions of an unnamed, unemployed, and starving narrator who ekes out a meagre existence in the city of Kristiania (known today as Oslo). Besides selling an occasional philosophical article to the local newspapers, this man has no means of reliable income and does not put forth much effort into acquiring any. Though apparently well-educated, he exhibits obvious signs of mental illness. It’s unclear, however, whether his psychological problems are the result of his hunger and unemployment, or vice versa. He considers himself to be singled out for persecution by God, and curses the Almighty defiantly. While he recognizes his own wretchedness, his preoccupation with personal dignity and civilized propriety often results in him turning down money or food that may be of valuable use in prolonging his life. Through this first-person account of a troubled and delusional mind, Hamsun provides a sometimes bleak, sometimes comical vision of the frustrating insignificance of an individual lost within the framework of modern civilization.

Hunger was first published in 1890, but in style and substance it is decades ahead of its time. It demonstrates one of the first uses of the stream of consciousness narrative mode, and in its preoccupation with internal human psychology as opposed to concrete plot events, it is a precursor to much of the modernist literature of the early 20th century.

Unfortunately, one of the characteristics of modernism evident in this book is the lack of a satisfying plot. Hamsun’s primary concern is providing a psychological profile of his character, and little attention is paid to the structure of the story. The narrator wanders the streets, running into friends, acquaintances, and strangers, pathologically lying to them about his wretched condition. Sometimes he lucks into money which he self-destructively squanders. There’s no progression forward towards a finality. The scenes of this novel could be shuffled like a deck of cards with little consequence to its overall effect. A few paragraphs of conclusion are tacked onto the back end of the book, but the ending is such a convenient resolution that it seems a little silly in its disregard for the preceding tone of the overall narrative.

Hunger is an important novel, but that doesn’t necessarily make it an enjoyable read. While I appreciate its influence on the history of world literature, the book itself is good but not great. It did produce a profound enough effect on me, however, that I hope to read more of Hamsun’s work in the future.

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