Thursday, 22 November 2012
Hunger - Knut Hamsun
This is a book that I approached wary of its great reputation but neither my wariness nor its reputation spoiled my appreciation. It seems to look backwards to Dostoievsky and forwards to Samuel Beckett. I also found parallels with Robert Wasler's Jakob Von Gunten, which I finished not long before this.
Both books deal with renunciation, although in Jakob Von Gunten the renunciation is deliberate but not successful whereas in Hunger it is successful but not deliberate.
The sense in Hunger is of a man who is acted upon, even by his own decisions/impulses. He seems to be reeling from the buffeting he takes from life, a buffeting that is amplified by his own pride, his desire to keep up appearances. This leads him to turn down help and to give away money and possessions at times when he is in great need of them.
The book explores the interstices between need and pride and between need and morality. Even while the unnamed narrator is displaying the greatest of pride, or morality, there is a sense of inexorable need growing to the point where it will overpower both. As in Beckett the human animal is reduced to choosing from a very limited menu of options, and the sense of corporeality is at times overwhelming. "Here I was walking around so hungry that my intestines were squirming inside me like snakes, and I had no guarantee there would be something in the way of food later in the day either."
The narrator is an aspiring writer and spends time every day trying to write articles that he can sell to one of the newspapers, something that he has some sporadic success with. However, each time the money runs out it is as if hunger has grown stronger and his ability to withstand it less so. "I wasn't nearly as good at starving as I used to be: a single day could now put me into a near daze, and I suffered from constant vomiting as soon as I drank some water."
These quotes make the book sound purely harrowing but it also lyrical and humorous. The narrator describes the world around him in very particular and often startling ways. His opinion is that "The intelligent poor individual was a much finer observer than the intelligent rich one." At times it is as if he is drunk on the world around him. "It's autumn, the very carnival of transience; the roses have an inflamed flush, their blood-red colour tinged with a wonderfully hectic hue." "I had passed over into the sheer madness of hunger; I was empty and without pain and my thoughts were running riot."
Much of the humour is generated when the narrator tries to cover up his all too apparent poverty and distress. It is difficult to explain, however, why you are trying to sell the buttons from your coat.
At times it is as if words can take the place of food and he can feed upon them. "I was completely taken up with my own tales, wonderful visions hovered before my eyes, the blood rushed to my head and I lied like a trooper." He spends time on a park bench, his office, waiting for inspiration to strike: "If only a single scintillating thought would come, grip me utterly, and put words in my mouth!"
At other times this faith in words and their ability to lift him from his decrepitude is shaken and hunger gains the upper hand: "..I had been much better off then than now; one night I had written a story worth ten kroner, now I couldn't write anything anymore - I was completely unable to, my head grew empty as soon as I tried."
At one point, reduced to gnawing on a bone he got from a butcher but unable to keep any of the raw meat down he rages into the empty night. Even here he is not totally abject, trying to make his raging, despair fuelled words more fluent and striking. As he continues to rage it is almost as if he is redrafting an article, or a story. "Alas, it was nothing but rhetoric and literature, which I tried to get right even in the middle of my misery."
Even giving up hope is done with a flourish, the narrator addressing himself as if he is an audience: "'I'm lost!' I whisper to myself, jump up, tear my manuscript to bits, every single sheet, toss my hat in the gutter and trample it. 'I'm lost!", I whisper to myself. 'Ladies and gentleman, I'm lost!'"
At first pride means that he is able to resist temptation but this diminishes as hunger wipes out his moral sense. "Rotten patches were beginning to appear in my inner being, black spongy growths that were spreading more and more." The hunger is not just for food but also for sexual companionship and respect, but gradually these lose importance and food and shelter become his sole imperative.
This is a convincing and powerful book and fully deserves it reputation as a classic. Short, uncomfortable but compelling, it is a book I will return to.