25 Points: Hunger

by Knut Hamsun
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008
272 pages / $16.00 buy from Amazon








1.  This is an article about Robert Bly’s (b. 1926) translation of Hunger by Knut Hamsun (b. 1859).  It was published by FSG in 1967.

2.  The cover graphic is the word HUNGER stylized as an open mouth with 2 rows of sharp teeth.  I bought my copy in January 2013 from a used bookseller in Toronto.  The clerk said it was her favorite book, esp this edition because she liked the cover.  The design is not credited in the edition notice.

3.  Knut Hamsun is clean shaven and wearing a monocle in a photograph taken in 1890, the year Hunger was first published in Norway.  In later photographs he is moustachioed and wears glasses.  In the last known photographs of Hamsun he wears a large white beard and squints.

4.  The first several times I read Hunger by Knut Hamsun was in a hardcover edition translated by George Egerton aka Mary Chavelita Dunne in 1899.  This review is not about that translation, nor is it about the 1996 translation by Sverre Lyngstad.

I am descended from Norwegians but know nothing of the language.  This article is not as much a review of the translation itself as it is a discussion of the fact of its publication in 1967.

5.  The main introductory essay to Bly’s translation is by Isaac Bashevis Singer (b. 1902) noted Jewish-American author and pioneer of modern Yiddish literature.

 “Writers who are truly original do not set out to fabricate new forms of expression,” says Singer, “or to invent themes merely for the sake of appearing new.  They attain their originality through extraordinary sincerity.”

6.  “People do not love alike, neither do they starve alike.” (Singer).

7.  Hunger is about a young man with artistic leanings living in Kristiania, Norway.  From biographical details about Hamsun we can guess that the story is based on Hamsun’s own experiences and takes place in in 1879-80.

Hunger itself does not offer much in the way of context.  It is a first person account of a young man living alone in a city.  He appears to have no awareness of anything outside his own need, which is mostly for food.  He is starving and desperate, but the private code by which he lives forbids him from taking work that he considers to be below his abilities.

8. His mental state throughout is ostensibly a result of his being hungry, rather than a symptom of mental illness or PTSD for example.  He cycles rapidly through extreme moods: hilarity, despondency, optimism, despair, loneliness, social anxiety etc.

9.  Doubt is the driving force behind the narrator’s racing thoughts.  His doubt tirelessly regenerates itself. Doubt is what drives the desperation and sets its parameters.  It is what keeps need always at the centre.

At every moment he is like a reckless gambler who has already placed his bet before realizing the stakes are too high, and then in a panic must cut his losses before waiting to see the outcome.

“He was a man before his time,” says Singer, “His skepticism, or perhaps it could be called pyrrhonism — doubting even the doubts — belonged to a later era.  To Hamsun man was nothing but a chain of moods that kept constantly changing, often without a trace of consistency.”

10.  “Fictional heroes who are estranged from their environment seldom emerge lifelike,” says Singer, “With most writers, such heroes are mere shadows, or, at best, symbols.  But Hamsun is able to portray both the environment and the alienation, the soil and the extirpation.  His heroes have roots even though they cannot be seen.”

There is almost no historical or social/political context in Hunger.  In most novels of the era that would be seen as a fault.  In Hunger it is seen as a strength.

As a reader I only interact with the narrator’s environment as needed.  That is because the novel is not about Norway or Europe: it is about being hungry. 

11.  Singer discusses Hamsun’s later Nazism and interest in epic/folkloric fiction.

A photograph of Hamsun shaking hands with Hitler is mentioned along side Hamsun’s later novels Growth of the Soil and Women at the Well, as though all are merely the features of a great writer’s career after-life.

Is Singer playing to Farrar Strauss and Giroux’s affirmative action/gimmick-driven marketing scheme?

Is Singer being gracious and trying to emphasize his point that Hunger is good enough that we can permit ourselves to overlook its author’s cultural illiteracy?

Does Singer’s articulation here owe anything to Hamsun?  That is: the willingness to record a succession of thoughts as they occur regardless of whether they are in meaningful sequence and in such a way that you can simultaneously regard them from a position outside of their own moral tradition?

12.  The second introduction is by Robert Bly, noted Norwegian-American poet and founder of a men’s movement which on first examination seems like a literary version of Promise Keepers or Focus on the Family. Second examination is pending.

 “How few books there are today in which a genius is the main character!” says Bly, “Fewer and fewer as serious novelists more and more tend to put people of lower intelligence than themselves into books, so that readers will feel at home.”

13.  Bly discusses Hamsun’s possible influence on The Master Builder, a play by Henrik Ibsen (b. 1828), noted Norwegian playwright.  Ibsen’s hero wonders if he has perhaps built too many homes for ordinary people and not enough cathedrals.

 “In these terms,” says Bly, “Hunger is a cathedral.  It is a cathedral because the whole novel is a resonating chamber for an unknown part of the personality.”

14.  The pages  I reread most frequently are pages 97 and 98.  The narrator has decided on a whim to go see Pastor Levison, in the hope of finding some relief from his suffering.

On his way to the pastor’s office he is trying to talk himself into it, egging himself on:

“Conscience, you say?  No rubbish–you are too poor to have a conscience!  You are hungry, hungry, this is a grave matter now, this is urgent!… Now: you are sorely troubled, you have been battling with the powers of darkness, with silent monsters in the darkness, 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!  The next thing is to fold your hands together and show you are a real crackerjack at believing in grace.”

15. Each new thought that the narrator has becomes a mockery of itself even before it is fully formed. Each new thought begins in earnest but by the end of its expression has compulsively undermined itself to the point of total impairment.

16.  What is the unspecified “later era” to which Hamsun’s pyrrhonism belongs?

17.  In both 1967 and 2013 Hunger has seemed unique and original.  It continues to seem unique and original for reasons including but not limited to those outlined by Bly and Singer:

It gives resonance to a previously unknown part of the personality

It suggests that no-one is alike, not even in starvation.

The originality of the prose style seems inseparable from the brutal sincerity of its author/narrator.

The uniqueness of the prose style seems inseparable from the unique experience of the author/narrator as he drifts toward death.

18.  Why do I keep reading Hunger?

Why am I fairly certain I will always want to keep reading Hunger?

Neither Bly nor Singer have explained what it is about this book that seems to separate it from the the other existential despair novels with which it is frequently categorized.

Is it because we are unalike in our loving and starving but completely alike in our dying?

Is it because Hunger is not a cathedral, it is a catacomb?

Is it because it is like a suicide note from someone who we know will never follow through?

19.  After getting kicked out of his last room, the narrator stops to look at an off-colour litho of Christ in which Christ’s hair appears green.

“Oh yes,” he says, “it was all transitory!  Just like grass thrown into a furnace!  It all ended with 4 pine boards and a burial shroud.”

20.  Probably 1000+ authors have claimed Hunger as an influence since 1890.  Maybe it is more like 5000+ but we have no way of really knowing.

Three contemporary published authors whose names I most closely associate with Knut Hamsun are Tao Lin (b. 1983), Zachary German (b. 1988) and Noah Cicero (b.1980), noted novelists and Muumuu House founders/participants.

I associate their names with Hamsun due to their writing having been frequently compared to Hamsun’s Hunger and/or they themselves having directly claimed Hamsun as an influence.

When I started reading HTMLGIANT in 2010, 1 or more of those 3 names were mentioned almost daily in the articles and comments sections.  It was not unheard of for comments sections to be 300+ comments long.  Now for various reasons their names are mentioned far less frequently.

21. In August 2010 I wrote an email to Lin thanking him for typing out an essay by Joy Williams and putting it on his blog in 2005.  He sent a brief response indicating that he was glad people were coming to his blog/archives through HTMLGIANT.

Since then Lin has gone on to sign a book deal with Vintage and publish the novel Taipei to mostly positive reviews.

I went looking again for the Joy Williams essay the other day and discovered that Lin’s entire blog and archives have been deleted.  I’m not sure about his numerous Twitter feeds.  There may be some that are still active.

Noah Cicero’s blog has not been updated since January 2012 though he has also gone on to continued success in publishing.

So far I cannot find a trace of any internet presence that Zachary German ever had.  Everything he wrote for the internet seems to have been deleted.

22.  In 2010 an HTMLGIANT article about Zachary German or Tao Lin could receive 400+ comments.

In 2013 a 1500+ word career suicide note from Erik Stinson scarcely rates 2 comments and I can confirm that at least 1 of them was written by a commenter who was inebriated at the time of commenting (me).

23.  Zachary German, noted author of Eat When You Feel Sad, is arguably the most Hamsun-like of the writers associated with Muumuu house.

He has indicated that he feels no further obligation to his audience at this time and I am inclined to accept that. That is partly because I think people will still read Eat When You Feel Sad 100+ years from now, for many of the same reasons I keep reading Hunger.

24.  What an author does with their career after-life is entirely up to them.

Is that Hamsun’s other great gift to our century’s young literary risk-takers?

The hero of Hunger gives up at the end of the novel and takes a job on a ship carrying ballast for England and then coal for Cadiz.

Knut Hamsun won the Nobel prize for literature in 1920 for a relatively unremembered novel called Growth of the Soil.  In 1943 he gave his Nobel medal to Joseph Goebbels.

25.  According to Wikipedia Hamsun died in 1952 at Grimstad and his ashes are buried in the garden of his house in Norholm.

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  1. Richard Grayson

      If you can’t think of other contemporary authors whom you associate with Hamsun, perhaps you need to widen your reading horizons.

  2. Michael

      Protip: cover designs are often credited on the back cover, so that publishers don’t have to change the interior text for every redesign.