February 8, 2023

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Knut Hamsun: “Hunger” – male, humiliating and full of hatred

If the modern novel does indeed begin with Knut Hamsun and the Hunger, as Yiddish writer Isaac Bashevis Singer ported in the back of the remake, this figure stands on admirably shaky ground. The great masterpieces of modernity, influenced in one way or another by Hamsun, are about many things at once, and not only literary scholars know them.

The Hunger, on the other hand, is an obsessively monosyllabic book that seeks to portray one thing with heartbreaking loathing. But the nature of the matter is still debated today: Does this first-person account of a vagabond young intellectual in modern-day Oslo embody the spiritual homelessness of the modern world? Is it impotent nationalism in the time of the Swedish-Norwegian Confederation? Does Hamsun open a literary dispute with his contemporaries? Or is it just hunger that is not metaphorical at all?

Hamsun knew bitter poverty himself

At any rate, Hamsun had first-hand experience with poverty. He has lived in America for several years and finally returns to Norway distraught. The life of the protagonist in the novel – between different places, occasional jobs from newspapers, among feelings of inferiority, arrogance and intense hunger – was also Hamsun’s life.

“The Hunger” tells us not of a state, but of a capricious one, with a narrator who sometimes swims with the tide and sometimes against it, feeling sometimes like a saint and sometimes like a demon.

In her clever conclusion, Felicitas Hobby writes that the narrator walks through the world “constantly stirred between blame and self-accusation”. Not only have we known since Theweleit how such a sentimental disposition with disgust for the body, nihilism and almost childish fantasies of purity, like the fairytale yearning of Ylayali, combine so effortlessly. “The Hunger,” on at least one reading, is a proto-fascist novel.

Fascist and Hitler admirer

The fact that Hamsun later became a real fascist and admirer of Hitler is of only secondary importance. Even more important was the reason why Hamsun was so disgusted with America. His report On the Intellectual Life of Modern America was published in parallel with Hunger.

Hamsun’s disgust did not refer to the conflict between the masses and the individual, as Karl of Knausgaard wrote in Hamsun’s tribute, which is certainly wrong. Hamsun was annoyed by the presence of blacks, which he emphasized with all sorts of racial mischief, of which “monkey” is the most harmful.

All this is no reason not to read The Hunger, especially in the new translation by Ulrich Sonnenberg. Ten years before the turn of the century, Hamsun creates an archetype for the 20th century with his narrator.

At the end, the narrator gets on board the “Copégoro,” a vague name that sounds a bit like urination, i.e. the consumption of feces. He is going to Leeds, that is, to Albion, hated by Hamsun.

It would be nice to be able to say that he disappeared along the way. Unfortunately, he is still with us: manically offended, full of silent rage at everything unworthy of strangers. After all, he can tell a good story. Readers must decide for themselves how much it’s worth.