Book Review: “Hunger” By Knut Hamsun

HungerI’ve been trying to add more quote-unquote literature to my repertoire of finished books. When I was a child I hated reading anything set in the real world. I found books without magic or elves or talking animals to be unbearably boring, and I had no desire to read anything that had any sort of lesson to me and my own life. As an adult, however, with a healthy respect for the written word as well as for a thrilling tale, I’ve come to realize that some of our greatest writers deal only in the real world. This, I’m told, is what’s called ‘literature’. Of course there’s some sci-fi literature as well, and you could argue that Tolkien’s “Lord Of The Rings” was fantasy literature, but otherwise, most ‘literature’ is set solidly in the world we deal with on a daily basis.

Not to mention that my time at university gave me a deep enjoyment for the sport of over-analyzing literary or historical works. With literary critique in high fashion these days as a sport for those high-minded and pretentious intellectuals such as myself, I’ve set about trying to learn more about this vast, expansive category of books known as ‘literature’.

So when I came across a book I’d never heard of, but that billed itself as ‘A true classic of modern literature,’ a ‘descent into madness,’ and an attempt to write about ‘the mysterious workings of the human mind,’ I knew I had to read it.

However, after having read the book, I have to disagree with the title. While on the surface it is a novel about a starving writer sinking slowly and somewhat deliberately into insanity via a self-imposed period of hunger, it is, from a psychological perspective, a novel about pride. In that sense perhaps Pride would have been a more apt title. Here I disagree not only with the novelist himself, Hamsun, but also with Paul Auster (who wrote the introduction), who argues that the book is entirely about hunger. “The young man wanders through the streets: the city is a labyrinth of hunger, and all his days are the same.” But I disagree. The young man’s hunger is merely a symptom of his pride, by his unwillingness to seek any sort of living other than the noble, intellectual one he desires, where he writes revolutionary philosophical articles and is rewarded in kind with reverence, praise, and money.

But his pride is a duality; not only is he too proud to seek humble, gainful employment, he is also too proud to admit that his hunger and his poverty is somehow deserved, that it is his own unwillingness to debase himself with some kind of ‘common’ job that has landed him in this miserable position. And so his pride – and his hunger – go in circles. The pride is the root disease; the hunger is merely a symptom.

The first enormous lie the anonymous narrator tells is one of such astonishing disbelief it’s almost endearing. The man, having just pawned his waistcoat at the local pawnshop, realizes that he has left his pencil in the waistcoat and without it, he cannot continue to write. He rushes back to the pawnshop, desperate to retrieve the pencil. But once he arrives at the shop, he is consumed by another desperate bout of pride. “I became more and more taken with the man [the pawnshop owner]; at that moment it was extremely important for me to make a good impression on this person.”

‘It would never have occured to me,’ I said, ‘to go to such trouble for just any pencil,’ […]

‘With this pencil,’ I went on straight-faced, ‘I wrote my great work on the Philosophical Consciousness in three volumes. You have heard of it, I trust?’

It seemed to him that he had heard the name, the title only.

‘Yes, that’s it! That was mine! So it isn’t really surprising if I wanted that tiny stub of a pencil back: it is very precious to me, it is almost a human being to me. In any case, I am tremendously grateful to you for your kindness and I will remember you for it – no, no, I will remember you for it without question: a promise is a promise, that is the sort of man I am, and you certainly have deserved it. Good day.’

I strolled to the door, keeping the posture of a man who can place another easily in an important post. (Hunger, 18)

To be seen as poor and impotent is an anathema to our anonymous narrator. Indeed, no, to appear at a pawnshop must be explained or somehow remedied with a lie, that the narrator is in fact a very important intellectual person, someone who ‘can place another easily’ into a similarly important position. This explains why, quite often, whenever he comes into a bit of money, whether through charity or his own efforts, his first response is to immediately turn around and give it to someone else. After he has pawned his waistcoat, he goes immediately to a man who earlier was begging money from him. “‘Here you go,’ I said, giving him one of my coins. “I’m delighted that you came to me first.”‘ But then the interaction begins to devolve.

The man took the money and began to look me up and down. What was he standing there staring at? I got the sensation that he was inspecting my trousers particularly, and I became irritated at this impertinence. Did this old fool imagine I was really as poor as I looked? Hadn’t I just as good as begun my ten-kroner article? … What business was it of this heathen savage if I helped him out on such a marvelous day? (Hunger, 10)

The narrator’s first reaction, upon sensing himself criticized even in the slightest, is to huff and puff up his feathers like a rooster and immediately begin to disdain the man who has dared to look at him funny. He is suddenly an ‘old fool’ and a ‘heathen savage’ in comparison to our proud and infallible narrator – a pauper himself, let us remember, who is giving the ‘old fool’ coins from his pawned waistcoat – who is attempting to elevate himself to the rank of nobility by giving away coins to a beggar on the street.

After that, the young man speeds away to a cafe, where he decides it’s time to eat.

The window was crammed with food, and I decided to go in and get something to take along.

‘Some cheese and a French loaf!’ I said, and threw my half krone down on the counter.

‘All of this is to go for bread and cheese?’ the woman asked in an ironic tone, without looking at me.

‘The entire fifty øre,’ I replied, not at all upset. (Hunger, 11)

After giving two-thirds of his pawnshop money to a beggar, the proud young man refuses to accept change for his simple purchase of bread and cheese. He is, after all, a rich man in his own imagination, a wealthy man, one who can afford to throw down a half krone in an authoritative voice and disdain the idea of receiving change for his small bite of breakfast. It would be like walking into a Starbucks, ordering a croissant and butter, and refusing to accept change after paying with a ten dollar bill.

When, later in this section, he comes to be hungry and upset again, the man doesn’t even think of his foolishness and wasted money from earlier. In this way, his hunger is neither the result of misfortune nor an outside imposition; it is, rather, a condition of his pride and incessant desire to make a good impression on others.

The most fascinating aspect of this novel is the remarkable introspection which Hamsun gives us into his character. At every turn we are subjected, as is the protagonist, to the whimsy of his subconscious; he follows every single one of his slightest impulses, like a madman. He has no self-control and his moods, both good and bad, are as fleeting as the wind and can change almost even within the same paragraph. His starvation, as the book goes on, drives him to more and more insane fits of ups and downs; if he lived in our time, he certainly would have been diagnosed as bipolar, possibly even schizophrenic, for the voices that echo in his head are relentlessly different and yet ultimately all stem from the same pride and haughtiness of a young man who considers himself above the poverty to which he has committed himself.

Even the fact that he follows these impulses so blindly is, in my opinion, a manifestation of his pride. Were he less proud, he might stop for a moment to consider whether it is wise to obey the whimsy of his subconscious; since he is proud, and considers himself above all those around him, he refuses to consider the possible consequences of his actions before he proceeds, thinking only that every whimsy in his head is a legitimate course of action, every emotional impulse valid and reasonable.

The scene in the book which I thought might as well have summed up the entire novel, which was in a way representative of the whole story, comes when the young man, angry at himself for being dazed and unable to think clearly, decides in a fit to bite his own finger.

Finally I put my forefinger in my mouth and started sucking on it. something started to flicker in my brain, an idea that had gotten free in there, a lunatic notion. Suppose I took a bite? Without a moment’s hesitation I shut my eyes and clamped down hard with my teeth.

I leapt up. Finally I was awake. A little blood trickled from the finger, and I licked it off. There wasn’t much pain, the wound didn’t amount to anything, but I was suddenly myself again. I shook my head, walked to the window, and found a rag for my finger. While I stood puttering about with that, my eyes suddenly filled, I cried softly to myself. The poor bitten thin finger looked so pitiful. My God, I was a long way down. (Hunger, 130)

Here is a man pitying himself over a – literally – self-inflicted wound. He has bitten himself and he cries, not from the pain, but from the ‘pitiful’ appearance of his thin, bloody finger. He pities himself not for the hunger itself, but for the hunger’s indication of his decrepit station in life; not for the pain, but for the thin and meager appearance of the finger. His pride forces him to turn the blame outward, away from himself, and thus he can resume his self-pity and bemoan the tragedy of his life.

I found it particularly interesting that the novel was somewhat autobiographical, as the author himself suffered a brutal ten-year period of intermittent starvation as he struggled to support himself. The descriptions of the pain of hunger that go into the novel can only have come from true experience of the condition.

I very much enjoyed this novel, not only as an exploration of psyche, but also for the chance to look inside a man’s head as he descends into madness. If you are a fan of psychological novels, this one is highly recommended, not least for its intensity and disturbing quality.

5/5 stars.