I was drawn to this novel, originally published in 1890, after attending this year’s Melbourne Writers Festival, where Indonesian author Eka Kurniawan, author of the successful “Beauty Is A Wound”(Translated by Annie Tucker), spoke, in his conversation he spoke of the influences, whilst at university, that led him to choose a career as a writer. Thinking it must romanticise the writer’s life I purchased a copy a few months ago, and now I am participating in the “Classics Club”, where I intend to read 50 classics over the next five years, I thought a great place to start this excursion was with the tale of the art of writing.
Knut Hamsun was born in 1859 into a poor peasant family in central Norway, moving to Hamarøy at age three, an area north of the Arctic Circle, he became a “sort of indentured servant to his uncle”. Although ambitious to become a writer he became a scribe and reader for his uncle, worked as a store clerk, peddler, shoemaker’s apprentice, schoolmaster, sheriff’s assistant, and road construction worker before emigrating to America. There he lectured, worked as a farmhand and a store clerk before ailing health (misdiagnosed “Galloping consumption”) forced his to return to Norway. Scratching out a meagre living as a writer he returned to America to finance his literary ambition. Again, returning to Norway he eventually presented to the editorial office of Politiken, where the Swedish writer Axel Lundergård described him (via the words of Edvard Brandes) thus; “I have seldom seen anybody so down and out. Not just that his clothes were tattered. But that face! As you know, I’m not sentimental. But the face of that man moved me.”
Hamsun himself describes his book as “an attempt to describe the strange, peculiar life of the mind, the mysteries of the nerves in a starving body.” In a letter to an American friend in late 1888 he speaks about what the subject of literature should be”…The mimosas of thought – delicate fractions of feeling; one wants to delve into the most subtle tissues of psychic life. Delicate observations of the fractional life of the psyche.” (taken from the Introduction to the Penguin Classics edition by translator Sverre Lyngstad).
After the publication of “Hunger” Hamsun went on to write a number of other celebrated novels, with two others “The Growth of the Soil” (1917) and “Victoria” (1898) also appearing on my Classics Club reading list. In 1920 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature “for his monumental work, Growth of the Soil”. As an open sympathizer of the Nazi occupation of Norway he forfeited his considerable fortune to the state and died in poverty in 1952.
Why Eka Kurniawan chose the life of a struggling artist from reading this work is a conundrum I’ll probably never understand. Like Hamsun’s own life our story is of a writer living in abject poverty, attempting to write another simple newspaper article to fund his next meal.
These people that I met – how lightly and merrily they bobbed their bright faces, dancing their way through life as though it were a ballroom! There was no sign of grief in a single eye that I saw, no burden on any shoulder, not even a cloudy thought maybe, or a little secret suffering, in any of those happy hearts. While I, who walked there right beside these people, young and freshly blown, had already forgotten the very look of happiness! Coddling myself with this thought, I found that a terrible injustice had been done to me. Why had these last few months been so exceedingly rough on me? I couldn’t recognize my cheerful disposition anymore, and I had the weirdest troubles wherever I turned. I couldn’t sit down on a bench by myself or set foot anywhere without being attacked by small, trivial incidents, miserable trifles that forced their way among my ideas scattered my powers to the four winds. A dog streaking past, a yellow rose in a gentleman’s buttonhole, could start my thoughts vibrating and occupying me for a long time. What was the matter with me? Had the Lord’s finger pointed at me? But why exactly me? Why not just as well at some person in South America, for that matter? When I pondered this, it became more and more incomprehensible to me why precisely I should have been chosen for a guinea pig for a caprice of divine grace. To skip the whole world in order to get to me – that was a rather odd way of doing things; there was, after all, both Pascha the second-hand book dealer and Hennechen the steamship agent.
Despite our narrator’s suffering, and the example quote above, he doesn’t wallow in self-pity or spend his whole life acting as a victim, our story takes us through his mental anguish from extreme hunger, the hallucinations, despondency, the clarity of thought and the wanderings of his own mind;
So far not a sound disturbed me; the soft darkness had hidden the whole world from my sight and buried me in sheer quietude – only the desolate, muted voice of stillness whispers monotonously in my ear. The dark monsters out there would suck me up when night came on, and they would carry me far across the sea and through strange lands where no humans lived. They would bring me to Princess Ylajali’s castle, where an undreamed-of splendor awaited me, exceeding that of all others. And she herself will be sitting in a sparkling hall where all is of amethyst, on a throne of yellow roses, and she would hold out her hand to me when I enter, greet me and bid me welcome as I approach and kneel down: Welcome, my knight, to me and my land! I’ve waited twenty summers for you and summoned you on every white night; and when you grieved I wept in this room, and when you slept I breathed lovely dreams into you…And the fair one takes my hand and pulls me along, leads me through long corridors where big crowds of people shout hurrahs, through bright gardens where three hundred young damsels are playing games and laughing, and into another hall where all is of brilliant emeralds. Here the sun shines, beguiling choral music floats through the galleries and corridors, and waves of fragrance waft toward me. I hold her hand in mine and feel the wild beauty of enchantment race through my blood; I put my arm around her and she whispers, Not here, come further still! And we enter the red hall where all is of rubies, a foaming splendor in which I swoon. Then I feel her arms around me, she breathes upon my face and whispers, Welcome, my love! Kiss me! Again…again…
At times this novel reminded me of Dostoyevsky’s “Notes from the Underground”, with our hero here showing generosity in the face of all the doom, giving away his last possessions, his shaving vouchers, proclaiming to giving the policeman five kroner if he had anything. His descent into delirium from hunger includes chewing on wood shavings, castigating himself for his selfishness in needing money for food, assuming lofty characters to restore some dignity, which ends up with him not getting a meal voucher. This is a bleak portrait of a writer in despair.
There are also numerous references to decline, decay, with bugs featuring, our introduction mentioning Kafka’s “Metamorphosis”, a work published twenty-five years after “Hunger”.
I sit on the bench and write 1848 dozens of times; I write this number crisscross in all possible shapes and wait for a usable idea to occur to me. A swarm of loose thoughts is fluttering about in my head. The mood of the dying day makes me despondent and sentimental. Fall has arrived and has already begun to put everything into a deep sleep; flies and other insects have suffered their first setback, and up in the trees and down on the ground you can hear the sounds of struggling life, puttering, ceaselessly rustling, laboring not to perish. All crawling things are stirring once more; they stick their yellow heads out of the moss, lift their legs and grope their way with their long feelers, before they suddenly give out, rolling over and turning up their bellies. Every growing thing has received its distinctive make, a gentle breath of the first frost; the grass stems, stiff and pale, strain upward toward the sun, and the fallen leaves rustle along the ground with a sound like that of wandering silkworms. It’s fall, the very carnival of transience; the roses have an inflamed flush, their blood-red color tinged with a wonderfully hectic hue.
Our narrator remains nameless throughout, even when in conversation (which is rare) nobody refers to his name, and when he meets a girl our novel says, “After long negotiations we told each other our names.” However these are not revealed to the reader.
A novel full of darkness, with vivid descriptions of the dark (can you have vivid darkness?)
I lay awhile looking into the darkness, a thick massive darkness without end that I wasn’t able to fathom. My thoughts couldn’t grasp it. It struck me as excessively dark and I felt its presence as oppressive. I closed my eyes, began to sing in an undertone, and tossed back and forth in the bunk to distract myself, but it was no use. The darkness had taken possession of my thoughts and didn’t leave me alone for a moment. What if I myself were to be dissolved into darkness, made one with it?
We also have the movement of the seasons, in fact the novel is split into roughly four equal sections, personally I thought it may follow the seasons but both part one and part two cover some part of fall, with part three being the harsh times of winter. As I read I thought we would have a rebirth in the final part, a “spring”! You will have to read this yourself to find if that is in fact the case.
A novel that shows you can still have dignity in the face of downright despair, a disheveled hero, a narrator that has pawned all his possessions (he even attempts to pawn his buttons), one who is unravelling before our eyes.
I will be revisiting Hamsun as part of the Classics Club challenge with “The Growth of the Soil” (1917) and “Victoria” (1898) also on my reading list. A worthy inclusion on the list, and I can understand why Eka Kurniawan may want to be able to recreate such writing, but to want to follow our hero? I think not.