Hunger, by Knut Hamsun
So how did the Scandinavians all get so grim, anyway? Ibsen, Munch, Strindberg, Kierkegaard, Ingmar Bergman — it’s a pretty grim list. Though Grieg is cheerful enough, I suppose.
In any case, I spent the unholy hours of the early morning reading this one: Hunger by Knut Hamsun, who might well be the grimmest of the lot. And now I want to wax lyrical about it, about how I don’t quite like it but can’t seem to forget about it at all. I don’t know. Give it a read. I have mixed feelings.
The novel is almost completely characterless and plotless. It is nothing but a minutely detailed catalogue or map of the experiences of a certain kind of personality undergoing extreme psychological distress.
The hero (more like an anti-hero, actually, along the lines of Dostoyevsky’s underground man, only considerably a little more self-satisfied) — the granddaddy of all starving artists — might be the most utterly introverted literary character I’ve ever encountered in literature. (At least only among the ones I’ve read.)
He is desperately trapped inside of his own head, and seemingly not all that displeased with this fact. The narrator’s voice is consistently detached, skeptical, and even amused in describing the most harrowing of circumstances, frequently charming and often quite hilarious. Ordinarily, this would be the sort of thing I’d be a sucker for, but I had a hard time getting over just how repellent I found his lack of interest in anything beyond his direct experience to be. It’s not just the novel’s lack of any sort of human relationship — I can be perfectly satisfied reading books without those, or I wouldn’t love A Rebours at all, for instance. But even there in A Rebours, the whole book is an obsessive list of things that Des Esseintes genuinely loves, even if they are only things.
Whereas here in Hunger, the main emotions expressed are merely just spleen and irritation, dread, and an overwhelming pride.
Of course, in cases like this, at least with me there’s always the danger of over-identification. And I found a number of the narrator’s mental states familiar enough for the book to be genuinely quite alarming. I’ve never experienced such genuine hunger like this, but I’ve got a glimpse: the things he describes aren’t so terribly different from what I’ve felt with high fevers, or going several days without sleep, watching other people trip on drugs horribly, and even a few frightening experiences of that sort of my own. Also, panic attacks, or those times when you wake up from a nightmare during a nap to find that the world has become some sort of strange hell, all magnified to massive, terrifying proportions.
I’ve only just seen the borders of that country of desperation, but I’ve seen enough that a detailed description of the interior that this book has delved into. It was all so unsettlingly familiar.
In spite of how off-putting I found it, there is no denying that this book was exquisitely written. And, stranger yet for a book so psychologically-oriented, it gives off a remarkably vivid sense of place, enough so that it’s disorienting to look up and find yourself in 21st-Century America — and not 19th century Oslo.