Author: Knut Hamsun
Type of Book: Literary fiction
Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: Well, it’s a book without a plot with an utterly unhinged protagonist. Possibly one of the most upsetting books I have ever read.
Availability: This book was originally published in 1890. My edition is from Farrar, Strauss, Giraux in 2008. You can get a copy here:
(If you have a Kindle, dig around because I saw a Kindle version going for free, though that may be because I have a Prime Membership on Amazon)
Comments: I’ve been putting off discussing this book because I don’t know where to start. Hunger really is a book without a plot – in this novel, the same thing happens every day with mild variations on action. There is no character arc because the protagonist is as vainglorious, horribly depressed, and lunatic at the beginning as he is at the end. This book frustrated me beyond belief and yet I read it through twice because I just had to do it. And as contradictory as it sounds, I hated this book the first read and loved it the second. This is all the more contradictory because even though I loved it the second time, I never want to read this book again.
This book is the literary equivalent of running your soul over a cheese grater. Over and over again. It’s hard to discuss such a book with any skill, though others have. Initially, I thought Paul Auster’s take on this book, printed in the copy I read, was wrong, but later I realized he was correct – he just interrogated the text from a different perspective. He looked at the book from an intellectual perspective and I looked at it from the perspective of someone who has gone insane and felt something akin to pain reading such lunacy.
So I am faced with a problem: how does one discuss a narrator whose highs and lows make Raskolnikov’s public behavior seem normal? How can I discuss a book wherein nothing really changes and there is virtually no character arc? I don’t know. I think all I can do is discuss the parts of this book that resonated the most with me, and even this is going to be sticky because even as I divide the book into specific elements I want to discuss, there will be significant overlap between these elements. For example, as I discuss how the protagonist cannot act in his own self-interests, lunacy caused by starvation also comes into play. In fact, it is tempting to just write the words, “Starvation in a land of plenty will make you insane” over and over until I hit a decent word count. Just bear that in mind – there is a lot of overlap when discussing the narrator’s mind and actions.
Before I begin, I need to mention that I read the edition translated by Robert Bly, widely considered to be the crappiest translation because he evidently “corrected” verb usage to eliminate mixed tenses. Mixed tenses, according to scholars of the text, were to show the disorganization of the protagonist’s mind. So my edition is actually a bit saner than the actual text. Though I sort of wish I had read a more faithful translation of the text, I suspect it is a good thing I read the less crazy version. As it was, the narrator’s mind was an utter vexation.
Hunger‘s narrator is trying to write in a very Dostoyevskian manner. He may be an excellent writer but his topics, “Crimes of the Future” or “Freedom of the Will” lean toward him being a self-impressed hack. His grand ideas are constrained by his grinding poverty and his mental disorganization. The novel is divided into four parts and begins with him leaving a boarding house (though he could have stayed had he just approached the problem with logic and patience) and living rough. The second part of the novel concerns his attempts to live in a borrowed shack as he tries to write. In the third part, he meets a woman who slowly realizes he is not what she thought he was and the romance is dashed. The fourth section of the novel takes place mostly in a very low boarding house where the narrator, terrified of the cold and of living rough again, hangs onto a roof over his head in a manner so servile and cringing it almost killed me to read it. He finally goes to enlist as a crew member on a ship, which some take as him finally moving on from his despair, but I read as suicide, an interpretation I will, of course, explain. Until then, I will just divide this discussion up into relevant chunks and hope that at the end I have given the reader a good idea of the protagonist and the struggles he faces as he starves nearly to death in a world that often notices him too well or does not notice him at all.
The Protagonist’s Strange, Grandiose Ego
The protagonist, as I mentioned is a writer and is very impoverished to the point of starvation. Yet he has a need to present himself as a man of means, a magnanimous giver to the less fortunate. But unlike most who want to present a facade of wealth, the protagonist often takes things a step too far and actually impoverishes himself further in an attempt to save face in front of others, selling literally the clothes on his back to give a pittance to people who often have more than he does. He does not do this from a need to help others, or from a place of charity. He does it because he wants to be seen as something he is not and it is a blow to his ego that he cannot bear when people realize how impoverished he is. This is particularly sad because his ego destroys any chance he has at maintaining the security he needs to write.
He makes his poverty very clear at the beginning of the novel. He looks shabby.
…my clothes were beginning to look so bad I couldn’t really present myself any longer for a job that required someone respectable.
He has no possessions.
By now I was so utterly denuded of objects that I didn’t even have a comb left, or a book to read when I felt hopeless.
He has no food.
If one only had something to eat, just a little, on such a clear day!
But when he meets a beggar who asks him for money, he questions him and once determining that the man actually had a trade, he says:
“Well, that’s different,” I said. “Wait here a few minutes, and I’ll see if I can’t find something for you, a little something at least.”
He simply cannot bring himself to tell the beggar that he too has nothing to give.
He goes to a pawnshop and takes off his waistcoat. All he has are the clothes on his back but he pawns his waistcoat for one and a half kroner.
I took the money and went back. Actually, pawning this waistcoat was a wonderful idea; I would still have money left over for a good, fat breakfast, and by evening my piece on “Crimes of the Future” would be in shape. Life began immediately to seem more friendly, and I hurried back to the man to get him off my hands.
Note how he has taken responsibility for the beggar. He needs to get him off his hands. He genuinely has a sense that he needs to help the man and that the man will be on his conscience until he helps him. It’s borderline Messianic.
But even the beggar picks up on the protagonist’s oddness.
The man took the money and began to look me up and down. What was he standing there looking at? I got the sensation that he was inspecting my trousers particularly and I became irritated at this impertinence. Did this old fool imagine I was really as poor as I looked? Hadn’t I just as good as begun my ten-kroner article? On the whole, I had no fears for the future; I had many irons in the fire. What business was it of this heathen savage if I helped him out on such a marvelous day.
He criticizes the man for staring at him and the man hands him the coin back. The protagonist begins to trip all over himself in order to save face.
I stamped my foot, swore, and told him to keep it. Did he think I intended to go to all this trouble for nothing? When you came down to it, I probably owed him the money, I just happened to remember an old debt, he was looking at a punctilious man, one honorable down to his fingernails. In short, the money was his… Nonsense, nothing to thank me for, it was a pleasure. Goodbye.
I walked off. At last I was rid of this painful pest, and could be undisturbed.
He hounded the man into taking the money he could not afford to give and that the man knew he could not afford to give, yet when he left the man had suddenly become a pest. He was a man of honor, insisting on paying a debt to a persistent, dunning debtor, not a deranged man who could not afford food who sold his clothes to be able to give money to a man who probably was not as poorly off as him.
There are several scenes like this in the book, wherein the protagonist, unable to endure that anyone looks at him as impoverished, gives away money he has earned or came upon by accident. For example, the woman with whom he had the failed affair sees him in part four of the book and sends a messenger with ten kroner. He had just been thrown out of his boarding house for non-payment and for being unpleasant, and he could have used the money for food, rent at a new place, or he could even have paid up at the place where he had been evicted and stayed on. Instead he thrust the money into the boarding house owner’s hand so she would understand at last the sort of man she had been dealing with and wanders off in his mania.
His attempts to appear as he was not, his insistence that he be treated with reverence rather than respect, causes a large portion of the problems he has in this book. Swinging wildly between servile and arrogant, self-loathing and grandiosity, it seems clear the protagonist’s low status in life plagues him and he would rather self-destruct than stomach anyone potentially thinking him poor. This creates a spiral in which the protagonist, a bit unhinged in the beginning, becomes more and more lunatic as starvation makes him crazier.
In a similar vein is the protagonist’s tendency to tell himself what his ego needs to hear. He is behind in his rent and cannot bring himself to talk to his landlady (this later has horrible repercussions because his self-eviction leaves him with nowhere to go but an abandoned workshop he receives permission to sleep in). He spins a narrative for himself wherein the room is not good enough for him, especially since he is a man of great intellect. Here are his thoughts as he rationalizes giving up the last form of comfort he has in life because of his extraordinary pride.
This really wasn’t any room for me; the curtains on the windows were a very ordinary green, and there weren’t even enough pegs on the walls to hang your wardrobe on. The sad rocking chair on the corner was actually a joke of a chair: if one started laughing at it, one could die laughing. It was too low for a grown man, and besides, it was so tight, one needed a shoehorn to get back out of it. In short, this room was simply not furnished in a way appropriate to intellectual effort and I did not intend to keep it any longer. I would not keep it under any circumstances! I had been silent in this hole and stood it here and stayed on here too long already.
Bear in mind, he has no money to stay there and has read a letter from his landlady asking him to pay up. He can’t afford those terrible green curtains and that skinny chair, and one is tempted to think he is making excuses, psyching himself for the inevitable by making it seem as if it is a legitimate choice he is making. But he does this so often in the book – affecting a superior attitude even when he is not in a state of extremis – that the reader is hard pressed to tell when he is assuming a delusional role and actually expressing his ego.
The Protagonist’s Strange Theater
The protagonist becomes more and more unhinged as the novel goes on, but even at the beginning, he creates creepy situations or elaborate theater that no one around him understands. As he does these strange things, he feels as if he has gotten one over on the people he baffles. He is certain that the people around him understand he has gotten one over on them, that they understand that they are less than him, butts of his joke. That is never the case and he never seems to notice he is making a fool of himself. But sometimes he engages in these weird situations because they seem to make him happy.
Take this scene, wherein he begins to follow two women shopping in town (one is the lady he later has a brief flirtation with – this scene is where she gets the impression he is a rakish drunk rather than an unhinged poverty case). He overtakes two women and brushes arms with one of them, an attractive woman who catches his attention. His reaction to noticing her and her noticing him is… interesting.
Suddenly my thoughts shot off on a lunatic direction, and I felt myself possessed by a strange desire to frighten this woman, to follow her in some way or other.
This reminded me a bit of Edmund Kemper, a serial killer who once said, and I am paraphrasing, that when he saw a pretty woman, part of him wanted to date her and part of him wanted to see her head on a pike.
He slows to permit the women to catch up to him and told the pretty woman she was losing her book. She had no book with her and she walked on. Her mild disinterest just goads him on further.
My malice increased and I followed the two. I was conscious all the time that I was following mad whims without being able to do anything about it. My deranged consciousness ran away with me and sent me lunatic inspirations, which I obeyed one after the other. No matter how much I told myself I was acting idiotically, it did not help; I made the most stupid faces behind the women’s backs, and I coughed furiously several times as I went by them.
He tells her again that she is losing her book.
“Book, what book,” she said in a frightened voice. “Whatever sort of book is he talking about?”
She stopped. I gloated cruelly over her confusion; the bewilderment in her eyes fascinated me. Her thought could not grasp my desperate and petty persecution; she has no book at all with her, not even a page of a book, and yet now she looks through her pockets, gazes repeatedly at her hands, turns her head and examines the sidewalk behind her, strains her small and tender brain to its limit to find out what sort of book I am talking about.
He gloated at what he thought was her confusion, assuming a position of superiority that is borne out as he mocked her silly little brain trying to figure out what he was talking about. He thought his mindgames caused her to try to find the book when she was really just trying to see what on her person would make anyone think she was losing a book, not realizing, of course, that he is insane. Her friend tells her he is drunk and to pay him no attention.
It is very telling what it is that makes him stop following the two women.
I was at their heels, as near as I dared all the time. They turned once, giving me a half-frightened, half-inquisitive look, and I saw no irritation in their manner, nor any wrinkled brows. This patience with my pestering made me ashamed and I dropped my eyes. I no longer wanted to torture them.
When it became clear they were not recognizing him in the manner he wanted – anger or outright fear – he gave up.
While he clearly felt some perverse, malicious drama following the women, he also engages in bizarre theater that is harder to pin down because he is performing for his own benefit. However, in some scenes, he begins a theater excursion, only to be forced back into some sort of reality wherein he has to save face. In part one, he finds himself inside a well-appointed building where he knew no one.
I rang a bell violently on the third floor. Why did I stop precisely on the third floor? Why did I choose this bell, which was farthest from the stair?
Though he clearly is in the middle of some theater that he does not understand, the whole thing takes a left turn when the woman behind the door answers and thinks him a beggar. His diseased ego kicks in and he asks her if there was a man there, an elderly man who needed assistance going out and was willing to pay for help. She looks at him strangely, and tells him there is no such man. But not content to leave it at that, the narrator is hell-bent to make this woman know, by God, he is a man of quality.
“Then I must ask you for your pardon again,” I said. “Possibly it is the second floor. In any case, I merely wanted to recommend for the post a man in whom I have taken an interest. My own family is Wedel-Jarlsberg.” Then I bowed once more and withdrew. The young woman turned beet red and in her embarrassment could not move from the spot but stood rooted staring after me as I went down the stairs.
My peace of mind was back, and my brain clear.
The protagonist, by this point, has been living on the street, has sold his waistcoat, has no access to a place to perform basic toiletries, yet he tells himself the woman blushes from embarrassment for not recognizing a man of quality. But most telling is how calm he feels afterward. This strange theater, his elaborate ruses, give him a buffer between himself and the people he senses look down on him. I very much get the feeling that the hungrier the man becomes, the more able he is to trick himself into believing that he can, through force of will, make people believe what he wants. Either that or he is so removed via suffering from common sense that he genuinely does not understand how bizarre he seems.
Still later, his theater serves no one but himself. In part two, he finds himself staring at what he calls a white cornucopia, which sounds like the sort of white, paper cups that people serve snowcones in. He stares at one of these discarded cornucopias and decides that there is money at the bottom. He wants to go steal it but a policeman is near.
Then I heard the policeman cough – and why did it suddenly occur to me to do the same? I stood up and coughed, repeating the cough three times so he would be sure to hear it. Now, won’t he jump for that paper cone when he comes near? I sat rejoicing over this joke, I rubbed my hands in ecstasy and swore magnificently. His nose will stretch when he sees that! After this trick, he’ll want to sink into the hottest puddle in hell!
It’s hard to follow but the protagonist thinks that the policeman will find silver in the cone and… And what? I don’t know, but the protagonist is certain it will be a bitter joke. The policeman finds the cone, picks it up, and throws it away, and this also somehow becomes fodder for the strange theater in the protagonist’s mind.
I sat there with tears in my eyes, hiccuping from shortness of breath, out of my mind with feverish laughter. I started to talk aloud, told myself the story of the paper cone, mimicked the gestures of the poor policeman, peeked into my empty hand, and repeated again an again: He coughed when he threw it away!
The narrator is clearly quite mad and there are so many irrational scenes in this book that it is hard to know the purpose of them other than to show the narrator, a weak man before he hits truly dire straits, is unhinged entirely and made completely irrational by the hunger he suffers. And he suffers greatly – more on this later.
But harder to understand are the times when he feels compelled to engage in this theater with no real explanation other than some sort of violent, uncontrollable need.
The Protagonist Cannot Act in His Own Best Interests
I’ve already mentioned how the protagonist, in possession of ten kroner given to him by his erstwhile girlfriend, decides to give the money away to the woman who has evicted him in an attempt to show her that he is a man of honor. I’ve also mentioned how he will pawn even his clothes in order to give money to beggars who are likely not as poorly off as he is. But his self-destructiveness, ironically presented in a manner wherein he is trying to preserve his ego, knows no bounds.
Take this scene when he finds himself locked out of the workshop he sleeps in. The police cannot help him open the door, but urge him to register at the police station as homeless. Doing so will give him a place to sleep and a means to obtain food, two things he needs in order to be able to write. Well, those things can happen if the protagonist is honest with himself and accepts that he is homeless and starving, but he doesn’t. He gives a false name to the officer on duty, telling him that he is a journalist who, after a night of revelry, lost his keys and wallet. The officer on duty gives the protagonist a knowing smile (and presumably mistakes the protagonist’s dreadful appearance as the result of hard-partying) and takes him to a cell.
But in the cell, the derangement caused by a lack of food and the madness latent in the protagonist both rear forth and prevent him from being able to rest in any manner. His mind races all evening, he experiences extreme highs (he creates a new word – Kuboaa – though he has no idea what it means) and extreme lows. He slept for a brief period of time once the sun began to rise, and the next morning realized that the gentlemen who had presented themselves as they were would receive food tickets. Since he was a temporarily impecunious reporter who claimed he had slept like a “cabinet minister” the police felt no need to offer him free food.
A ticket, a ticket for me, too. I hadn’t eaten for three endless days and nights. A loaf of bread! But no one offered me a ticket and I didn’t dare ask for one. That would have caused suspicion instantly. They would have wanted to poke around in my private affairs and find out who I really was – then they would arrest me for giving false information.
Even had he come clean, the police most likely would have chided him for his pride and permitted him a place to sleep and ensured he had food to eat. Maintaining this lie cuts the protagonist off from a major form of support that, had he utilized it, would have given him the foundation upon which to write. And while I mentioned that I don’t get the idea the protagonist is a particularly good writer, if I discuss it in depth, it would make this long essay even longer. But that this man refuses to do anything that will give him the comfort to write makes it seem as if writing is a very secondary thing to him, almost like a prop, a further form of theater to show himself as an intellectual. He does write but he cannot make enough money to support himself and his point-blank inability to foster his talent makes one wonder how much talent he even has.
There are other scenes, where he could have collected on debts owed to him but chose not to, where he tried to sell an item but gives it away to someone who has no money to purchase it. The protagonist is quite simply a man who has no idea how to behave in a manner ensuring self-preservation.
Starvation and Insanity
The protagonist is deranged and part of his mind shows a diseased will, but there can be no mistake that hunger strips his mind of the capacity to think soundly, especially as the book goes on. His hunger is of the sort I associate with death, the pre-terminal state wherein a starving person cannot keep down food because he has been starving for too long. There are times in the book when it is surprising he can even go on, so profound is his hunger. And as detestable as he often appears, one cannot help but feel pity for his plight. Hunger, as the title of the book implies, is the driving force in this book and shapes everything that happens to the protagonist. It may have been exacerbated by his strange need to maintain the appearance of being wealthy, but even had he spent every penny he earned or was given on food, he still would have been chronically hungry.
The book is full of scenes wherein he finally, finally gets access to food but cannot keep it down. He vomits up water, he chews on pieces of wood but real food nauseates him. In one scene, when he finally has money to get a plate of food at a cafe, the results are dire.
The food began to bother me, my stomach felt upset, and I would not be able to hold the food down very long. I walked along emptying my mouth, in every dark crook I passed, fought against the nausea which was making me hollow all over again, clenched my fists, steeled myself, stamped on the sidewalk, and swallowed again in a rage what was trying to come up – all in vain! I ran at last into a doorway, doubled over, blinded from the tears that sprang from my eyes, and vomited everything.
Money, so hard to come by, exchanged for food, and he cannot keep it down. He has clearly been starving for a long time – refeeding syndrome, an often fatal condition, can occur after only a few days of starving. The narrator is very physically sick and it seems that he has no way out. He does ask a man what one should feed a starving person who is beginning to eat and is told boiled milk works well. He gets boiled milk at a cafe and indeed can keep it down. But his poverty does not permit him to coddle his abused stomach this way for long.
It just gets worse for him. Take this pitiful scene:
I was bitterly hungry and didn’t know what to do with my exorbitant appetite. I writhed about on the bench and pulled my knees up against my chest as hard as I could. When it was dark, I shuffled over to the city jail – God knows how I got there – and sat down on the edge of the balustrade, I ripped one of my coat pockets out and started chewing on it…
He is struck with the idea of asking a butcher for a bone, the sort of bones a butcher would give away to someone who wants it for his dog.
I got a bone, a gorgeous little bone with some meat still on it, and put it under my coat. I thanked the man so warmly he looked at me astonished.
“Nothing to thank me for,” he said.
“Oh yes there is,” I said. “This was very good of you.”
He returns to the blacksmith shop, settles into the dark and begins to chew on the bone.
It has no taste at all; a nauseating odor of dried blood rose from the bone, and I started throwing up immediately, I couldn’t help it. I tried again – if only I could keep it down, it would do some good; the problem was to get it to stay down there. But I vomited again. I grew angry, bit fiercely into the meat, ripped off a small piece, and swallowed it by force. That did no good either – as soon as the small pieces became warm in the stomach, up they came again. I clenched my fists madly, started crying from sheer helplessness, and gnawed like a man possessed. I cried so much that the bone became wet and messy with tears. I vomited, swore, and chewed again, cried as if my heart would break, and threw up again. Then I swore aloud and consigned all the powers of the universe to hell.
This was hard for me to read. Very hard. This and all the passages like it. It is all the worse because it is starvation in the midst of plenty. It is a man dying on his feet from a lack of food outside of the constraints of war, genocide, famine or drought. From all accounts, this is something that Hamsun himself experienced and this passage of a man sobbing as his traumatized stomach vomits back up the food he needs to survive is harrowing in its implications because the narrator can not tolerate the ego hit it would take to admit he needs help and yet those around him seem largely indifferent to his suffering. He is starving alone yet with an audience and it is horrible to read and to contemplate. No wonder he acts out such bizarre theater toward those around him – they are watching him die and most don’t seem to care.
Interpretation of the Ending
Because this book evidently mirrors a terrible time in Hamsun’s life – a decade or more of his own suffering – it is tempting to believe the ending is a hopeful one because Hamsun survived and managed to get this book published. In part four, the protagonist, evicted from his home and having given away the money his ex-girlfriend sent him, goes on a sort of rampage, eating cakes and vomiting in the street. He finally goes to the harbor and finds a ship that is sailing to Leeds and then to Cadiz and persuades the captain to take him on as a merchant marine. The captain is reluctant but agrees when the protagonist promises to work hard, even to take two watches if it means he can have the job. The novel ends thusly:
When we were out on the fjord, I straightened up, wet from fever and exertion, looking in toward land and said goodbye for now to the city, to Christiana [Oslo], where the windows of the homes all shone with such brightness.
He’s leaving a place of brightness, where he failed utterly, where he almost starved. But then again, on the ship he will finally receive steady food, perhaps bread and water until he can stomach more. Isn’t he saved? Many seem to think this is the case.
I don’t think so. I think going onto the ship is a form of suicide, and not just because he is going to travel away from a city of brightness.
When the protagonist is in the jail cell, he has a waking dream that tells us quite clearly what he thinks of the harbor, of ships, of the sea.
God in heaven, how black it was! And I started again to think about the harbor, the ships, the dark monsters who lay waiting for me. They wanted to pull me to themselves and hold me fast and sail with me over land and sea, through dark kingdoms no man had ever seen. I felt myself on board ship, drawn on through waters, floating in clouds, going down, down… I gave a hoarse shriek of fear, and hugged the bed; I had been on such a perilous journey, fallen down through the sky like a shot. How good and saved I felt when I grabbed the hard sides of the cot! That is what it is like to die, I said to myself, now I will die.
There is a temptation to say that with death comes rebirth, but this does not have the ring of such an idea to me. Rather, it seems like the sea is where a man who cannot live in the brightness goes, and monsters are waiting for him. They take him down into the sea, kill him and his spirit, initially in clouds, floats down into hell.
For me, joining the merchant ship is the last straw – the protagonist is ready to die.
This is a hard book and I will never read it again. And there are a million ways to look at the text – despite the length of this discussion, I did not discuss much of this book – I barely broke the surface. But if you think you can stomach this sort of madness, this sort of hunger, this sort of repetitive lunacy as a man self-destructs, you will want to read this book. It’s not for everyone. I don’t even think it was for me. But I am glad I read it even as it haunts me.