Knut Hamsun’s Hunger

Reading Knut Hamsun’s 1890 novel Hunger in the present day, it’s very difficult to see what was so original about it, but this is because we take for granted the fiction of Kafka, Camus, Mann and Joyce – all of whom owe a stylistic debt to Hamsun. Hunger is, as my book jacket informs me, a “psychologically driven” novel, which means that the plot is incidental, and that the real drama lies in the thoughts and feelings of our narrator-protagonist, an unnamed writer struggling to earn a living in Kristiana (present day Oslo). Hamsun takes us inside the mind of a man literally starving to death, subsisting on bread and water when he has food at all, and forces us to observe, from front row seats, his impending mental and emotional breakdown.

And yet Hamsun also very deliberately prevents us from pitying his creation, his starving artist. In the first place, as he makes clear at several points throughout the novel, the protagonist’s predicament is largely voluntary, for at any moment he could leave Kristiana and find work in the countryside, or at sea. He wants to make a living as a writer, and this decision alone leads him to suffer. Worse, still, is his intellectual arrogance and monstrous egotism. Given the opportunity of regular work at a local newspaper, he deliberately chooses “outré subjects,” complex philosophical topics that take him hours of painstaking labour to complete – on “Crimes of the Future,” for example, or a three-part dissertation on “Philosophical Consciousness.” These are invariably rejected as being too specialized for public consumption, but he does not swerve in his style or subject. His interactions with fellow citizens are no better. He lies profligately, either to protect his fragile self-image or to sport with strangers. At one point, for example, he encounters a beggar on the streets, a man in much better shape than him, despite his obvious need, and yet our protagonist pawns his only jacket – as winter is approaching! – to give this man money. When the beggar realizes the desperate state of his benefactor, he pauses in confusion, setting off one of the narrator’s many inner tirades:

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? On the whole, I had no fears for the future; I had many irons in the fire. What business was it of this heathen savage if I helped him out on such a marvelous day? The man’s stare irritated me, and I decided to give him a little lesson before I let him go. I threw back my shoulders and said, “My dear man, you have gotten into a very bad habit, namely, staring at a man’s knees after he gives you money.”

His vanity is such that he cannot honestly reconcile himself to his destitution, and his pride is such that he often turns down help from others, even when it is most needed. “Better to starve,” he concludes, than to accept an advance from his newspaper employer. Ultimately, however, his poverty becomes a trap from which he cannot escape. In his state of starvation, he cannot muster the focus necessary to write: “I had noticed very clearly that every time I went hungry a little too long it was as though my brains simply ran quietly out of my head and left me empty.” And without writing, he cannot earn the money he needs to end his starvation. Midway through the book, unable to pawn off his jacket buttons, indebted to his landlord, he loses even the roof over his head, and is reduced to sleeping on park benches.

As his physical hunger consumes him, he becomes increasingly bitter and resentful – at life, at his fellow citizens, and at god. Here is one of his earlier spiritual cries, marked by the special egotism of the man who can sincerely believe himself to be singled out by God:

What was the matter with me? Had the hand of the Lord reached out and pointed at me? Well then, why me? Why not just as well at some man in South America? When I pondered these things, it seemed more and more incomprehensible why precisely I should have been chosen as the guinea pig for a whim of God’s favor. It was an extremely odd way of going about things, to leap over the whole human race in order to arrive at me […].

Of course, it is not God who has leapt over the entire human race, but our narrator, whose egotism prevents him from seeing outside of himself, with the predictable result that he becomes “more and more bitter against God for His constant persecutions.” His pride, even in small things, is boundless. When he resists pawning off an item of clothing that does not belong to him, despite his terrible hunger, he praises his own nobility of character, in terms that would not be out of place in the manifesto of a school shooter or mass murderer: “The awareness that I was honorable rose to my head, filled me with magnificent conviction that I had character. I was a white beacon tower in the middle of a dirty human ocean full of floating wreckage.” Our protagonist lives in a constant state of despair, punctuated by the briefest periods of possible happiness, when he glimpses some fleeting hope of a reprieve from his hunger, but these are few and far between, and offer no lasting shelter against his growing existential dread:

I opened my eyes. How could I keep them closed when I couldn’t sleep! The same darkness was brooding around me, the same fathomless black eternity which my intelligence fought against and could not grasp. What could I compare it to? I made the wildest, most desperate efforts to find a word black enough to suit that darkness, a word so hideously black that it would blacken my mouth when I said it. God in heaven, how black it was!

It’s significant that he singles out his intelligence as his sole weapon against the dark, for the conclusion we are gradually being thrust towards is that intelligence alone is no defence against the spiritual trap into which our narrator has fallen. In an earlier passage, he is even more explicit in invoking faith as a means to ward off the darkness:

Now: you are sorely troubled, you have been battling with the Powers of Darkness, with silent monsters in a darkness so immense that one gets the horrors just thinking of it, you hunger and thirst after wine and milk, and receive them not. That is the state that you are in. Now you stand here, not worth a tinker’s damn. However, you do believe in grace, thank the Lord for that, you still have not lost your faith!

But his faith, too, will be taken from him. As his destitution increases, as his hunger begins to gnaw at him, he takes to chewing wood chips to find some relief from the pangs of his stomach. When this fails, he turns his wrath on the sea of humanity around him. “To console myself, and give myself a little shield, I took to finding every possible fault with the happy people going by me: I shrugged my shoulders in disgust and looked contemptuously after them as they went by, couple after couple.” This, too, does not suffice. In what is perhaps the novel’s climax, and certainly its most disturbing passage, he turns his hunger on himself:

Nothing to do, I was dying with open eyes, helpless, staring up at the ceiling. Finally I put my forefinger in my mouth and started sucking on it. Something started to flicker in my brains, 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.

There is something infinitely regressive about this act of self-consumption; I am reminded of that ancient alchemical symbol, the Ouroboros, commonly depicted with a serpent eating its own tail. In any case, this last act of desperation is quickly followed by a final renunciation of God:

Carried away by rage, I shouted and roared threats up to the sky, shrieked God’s name hoarsely and savagely, and curled my fingers like claws… I’ll tell you this, you sacred Baal in the sky, you do not exist, and if you do, I’ll curse you so that your heaven will start shuddering with hellfire! I’m telling you this, you know I offered myself as your servant, and you rejected me, you pushed me away, and now I turn my back on you for all eternity because you did not know your time of visitation!

What, exactly, is left to this man, without god or family or vocation, without even the food he needs to sustain himself?

In a particularly good introductory essay to my edition, the novelist Paul Auster focuses in on the reason for our special obsession with Hamsun’s nameless narrator:

Hamsun’s character systematically unburdens himself of every belief in every system, and in the end, by means of the hunger he has inflicted upon himself, he arrives at nothing. There is nothing to keep him going – and yet he keeps on going. He walks straight into the twentieth century.

This, indeed, was 20th century man’s predicament, and though our current century is yet young, the problem of meaning remains. In fact, it might now be more acute than ever before. Nietzsche and Dostoevsky foresaw what a godless world would mean for man, and what secular ideologies might tempt us with purpose, and they would perhaps feel vindicated by Knut Hamsun’s example. After winning the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1920, he became a committed fascist, donating his Nobel medal to Joseph Goebbels and dining with – and eventually even eulogizing – Adolf Hitler. Like Hamsun’s protagonist, we will keep on going – what choice do we have? – but absent some sustaining force or belief, our fate is as uncertain as his.