It’s not often, if ever, you pick up a book to read that is a by a winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature that is also described as “One of the most disturbing novels in existence” which is one of the descriptions for Hunger by Knut Hamsun the current cover of which (pictured) belies the fact that it was written in 1890. I must admit I’ve not read anything quite like it before. It is a novel almost completely devoid of plot or action, one where the hero / anti hero is unnamed and thoroughly unlikeable, nothing really happens and the start and finish don’t provide any answers and infact I’m not even sure what the questions are. Despite this somewhat unpromising premise I found myself captivated in a somewhat darkly voyeuristic way to what was going to happen to the anti hero but also what was Knut Hamsun trying to say and capture with this darkest of novels.
The novel is set in a Scandanavian city (Christiania) and centres around the revolving door travails of the anti hero, a writer who is starving to the bring of his existence. His hunger prevents him from writing anything of any merit and his inability to publish anything means that he cannot earn any money for food so his spiral decline continues. He bombards the local press with unsolicited articles some of which are occasionally published earning him some money but despite his desperate need he gives most of this money away and the food he does buy he usually throws up shortly after eating it and thus his descent towards madness and death continues.
Time is played out in a strange way within the book, it’s unclear when the book is set from the narrator and despite the suffering of the anti hero there is neither social or political points being made, the book does not seem to be set of a particular time it simply exists. Days will be skipped over or missed and yet at other times you will follow the narrators rambling inner thoughts to the nth degree whereever they take you. Unlike say Dostoevsky’s writings Hamsun does not illicit any sympathy for his anti hero as it is clear that the situation he finds himself in is of his own making and indeed he could quite easily find his way out of it but he chooses instead to suffer as if he wants to take himself to the bring which he does, rejecting everything and leaving only two choices, to live or to die and over this abyss he dangles himself
I remained a while locked into the dark – this dense substance of darkness that had no bottom, which I couldn’t understand. My thoughts could not grasp such a thing. It seemed to be dark beyond all measurement, and I felt its presence weigh me down. I closed my eyes and took to singing half aloud and rocking myself back and forth on the cot to amuse myself, but it did no good. The dark had captured my brain and gave me not an instant of peace. What if I myself dissolved into the dark, turned into it?
Confusion reigns, he cannot collect his thoughts properly and he wanders the streets reaching the point of almost dying standing up, but then at the point of no return walks to the docks signs up on a ship and sails out of the city.
Is this art, philosophy, a study of the depravity of the mind, madness – I really don’t know. I don’t know much about literature in the 1890’s but there can’t have been anything written like this and in fact I doubt there has been before or since, it’s a unique piece of writing. You don’t read this for a laugh but despite all I’ve written it draws you in, sucks at the edges of your mind and soul, dares you to look, it’s challenging and difficult but compelling and original, fascinating and disturbing.