Knut Hamsen won the Nobel Prize in 1920, and his first novel, Hunger, by itself would justify the award. Hamsun writes from experience, and that clearly makes the novel extraordinarily compelling in a way that few writers have been able to accomplish throughout my reading life.
According to the overflap of this edition, Hamsun, struggling for 10 years as a writer, went to a publisher in 1888 with this sentence and an unfinished novel-
“All this happened while I was walking about starving in Christiania- a strange city no one escapes from until it has left its mark on him.”
It was first published in magazine form, and two years later the novel was published.
Hunger is about a young struggling writer, living on the erratic and insubstantial income he receives from the occassional publication of articles in the local newspaper. The hero rarely complains, but describes his own decline in all its detail. His ever present Hunger, his ongoing starvation, is almost like another character in the novel that moves along what becomes a psychological page-turner. Hamsun wastes no time and sets the mood in the first pages- “As soon as I was wide awake, I took to thinking, as I always did, if I had anything to be cheerful about today.”
Most of us have at some time described ourselves as “hungry.” It is difficult to imagine the horror of real hunger-
“Nothing to do, I was dying with open eyes, helpless,staring up at the ceiling. Finally, I put a forefinger in my mouth and started sucking on it. Something started to flicker in my brain, an idea that had gotten free there, a lunatic notion. Suppose I took a bite? Without a moments hesitation I shut my eyes and clamped down hard with my teeth.
I leaped 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.”
Those are many low moments. But then there are successes. An article is published and a substantial meal is purchased, a room is had for the day, and a candle- to write into the evening. The determination to survive as a writer is always there. There is pride, honorability, friendship, joy, and a brief flirting with love. And always, the hunger returns.
I have no doubt that Hunger is and will remain firmly entrenched on my top 10 list.
On a side note, I finished this as I was sitting on my deck- it is finally getting warm enough in Michigan to spend time outside. I love reading outside. I usually keep my camera around just in case something interesting wanders into the yard. As I was reading Hunger, it occurred to me that for the most part, it is humans- those with the greatest capacity for intelligence, that struggle the most with starvation. How odd. I watched throughout the evening and caught a number of lifeforms foraging in the yard. I realize that on occassion, usually due to the intervention of man, that other animals can starve too. But isn’t it odd that there are so many humans that have to? Foraging in the yard.