Hunger, Knut Hamsun
Hunger Knut Hamsun
Sult (1890; Hunger) is Hamsun's breakthrough novel about a young writer struggling to maintain his dignity while trying to survive in a desolate and lonely world.
Published in 1890, Hunger was a literary breakthrough for Hamsun, establishing him as one of the most important writers of his time. Written from the perspective of a struggling writer living in the city of Christiania, near Oslo, Norway, the story is somewhat autobiographical, reflecting Hamsun's own struggle as he worked to establish his literary reputation. Today, the work is acknowledged as a work of powerful originality, infused with Hamsun's unique writing style, and a premier example of the psychological novel. Following the publication of Hunger, Hamsun went on to write several other novels, including Mysteries (1892), Pan (1894), and Growth of the Soil (1917). The last earned Hamsun a Nobel Prize in Literature in 1920, thus paving the way for his work to be translated into other languages, and becoming accessible to larger audiences.
Hamsun was born in 1859 in Lom, Gudbrandsdal. His parents, Peder and Tora Pederson, were forced to move the family to the town of Hamaroey for financial reasons. There, a wealthy uncle had acquired a farm called Hamsund, which they were to farm. Hamsun was separated from his family at the age of nine to go and work for his uncle, who also owned and ran the town post office. The young Hamsun was ill-treated by his uncle, who often starved and beat him. Years later, Hamsun would continue to refer to the abuse he suffered at the hands of his uncle, which he believed, was responsible for many of his chronic nervous illnesses. In 1874, Hamsun managed to escape from Hamaroey. He lived itinerantly for the next few years, working various petty jobs. Simultaneously, he also published several books, even presenting literary lectures for interested audiences. However, he was unable to interest a major publisher in his work. Disappointed with the failure, Hamsun moved to the United States in 1882. Once again, Hamsun was faced with a life of labor, with little literary success. He returned to Norway in 1884, publishing an article on Mark Twain under the name of Knut Pederson Hamsund. Hamsund returned to the United States in 1886, moving back to Norway permanently in 1888. It is believed that his harsh experiences in America influenced his political views deeply and were partly responsible for his reactionary politics later in life. Hamsun continued to write and lecture, publishing the first few chapters on Hunger anonymously. When the novel was published in its entirety, it finally brought with it the literary success Hamsun had been seeking for many years.
Plot and Major Characters
Hunger is a monologue related by a struggling artist and is considered one of Hamsun's most autobiographical works. Regarded as one of the first examples of psychological literature and the stream-of-consciousness technique later developed by writers such as James Joyce, the novel is largely devoid of plot and character development. Instead, the narrative focuses on the thoughts and actions of the first-person narrator, a struggling artist, who lives in Christiania, Oslo, hoping to strike success. Divided into four parts that are very similar in form, content, and style, the book follows an unnamed narrator as he attempts to find food, lodging, and work while dreaming of making it as a writer. Instead, he finds himself alone, with nowhere to live, and nothing to eat. Alone in the big city, the protagonist reaches catastrophe in each section of the book, saved at the last minute by random events, such as the sale of an article, help from an old friend, and eventually at the end of the book, a job on a ship that takes him away from the desolation of the city.
Many critics consider Hunger an illustration of the literary views Hamsun had expressed in his other early works. Although Hunger is very autobiographical, drawing deeply on Hamsun's years of suffering, loneliness, and struggle both as a child and later, as an artist, it is also a literary experiment. As such, it describes an artist-hero struggling to survive while trying to maintain the purity of his artistic thoughts and inspiration: “Nothing escaped my eyes. I was sharp and my brain was very much alive, everything poured in toward me with a staggering distinctness.” The novel is very different from Hamsun's other works, in that it focuses its attention solely on a single character—characterized by many critics as a Dostoievskian hero, sick in body, suffering from physical depravity that forces him to have hallucinations and paranormal ideas. The entire narrative, thus, focuses on the effects of an intense physical condition—hunger—on the psyche of one man. In addition to a study of the psychological effects of hunger, Hamsun's novel is also a work of protest. His focus on the protagonist is also interpreted as an act of resistance on the part of Hamsun, who reacted strongly to the realistic, socially-focused novels of nineteenth-century Scandinavian literature, especially the works of such writers as Henrik Ibsen. In fact, Hamsun's literary lectures shortly before the publication of Hunger focused often on his opposition to a theory and practice of literature that advocated the highlighting of social problems. Thus, the action and focus of this book is particularly significant in the way it focuses entirely on the protagonist and his thoughts, with no concern for any issues of social injustice or politics.
Hunger was published to great critical success in Norway in 1890, and Hamsun was hailed as one of the most significant Norwegian writers by many. International recognition followed later, once he received the Nobel Prize in 1920. Although much attention is paid to Hamsun's controversial political and social views, he also is acknowledged as one of the most significant precursors of stream-of-consciousness literature, and writing focused on the subjective, mostly due to his work on Hunger. In many ways, this novel exemplifies the contrasts that characterized Hamsun himself, notes Edwin Björkman in his introduction to George Egerton's translation of that work. Lauding him as “the foremost creative writer of the Scandinavian countries” after Ibsen and Strindberg, Björkman writes that Hunger is a novel about an unusual theme, told in a strikingly different format, heralding the neo-romantic movement in Scandinavia. In his biography of Hamsun, Robert Ferguson notes that the writer himself considered Hunger a work representative of his own perspective on the role of the writer. According to Ferguson, the novel remains largely undated except for a few minor details because of Hamsun's complete focus on the inner workings of an individual mind—for the first time in literature, writes Ferguson, consciousness itself is a hero. According to Paul Auster's analysis of Hunger, the radically subjective viewpoint expressed in the work immediately eliminates any connection with traditional narratives. Instead, writes Auster, Hunger is a work of existential art, a story in which a human being looks into the face of death, with no hope of salvation.
Fra det moderne Amerikas aandsliv [On the Cultural Life of Modern America] (essays) 1888
Sult [Hunger] (novel) 1890
Mysterier [Mysteries] (novel) 1892
Pan, af Løitnant Thomas Glahns papirer [Pan] (novel) 1894
Victoria: En kaerligheds historie [Victoria] (novel) 1898
Rosa: Af student Parelius' papirer [Rosa] (novel) 1908
Livet ivold [In the Grip of Life] (novel) 1910
Markens Grøde [Growth of the Soil] (novel) 1917
Konerne ved Vandposten [The Women at the Pump] (novel) 1920
Siste kapitel [Chapter the Last] (novel) 1923
Landstrykere [Vagabonds] (novel) 1927
August (novel) 1930
Men livet lever [The Road Leads On] (novel) 1933
Ringen sluttet [The Ring is Closed] (novel) 1936
Paa gjengrodde stier [On Overgrown Paths] (memoirs) 1949
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SOURCE: Stagg, Hunter T. Review of Hunger, by Knut Hamsun. Reviewer 1, no. 1 (15 February, 1921): 23-4.
[In the following review of Hunger, Stagg lauds Hamsun's powerful and vivid writing style.]
It seems inevitable that the conspicuous success in this country of a foreign writer hitherto unknown to us should be followed by an influx of other translations from distant and little exploited pastures of literary endeavor. Upon the heels of Blasco Ibanez's financially triumphant introduction to the American public came other Spanish authors, whose bids for favor proved less ingratiating. Then Latin America was raked—is still being raked—for material offering the elements of popularity.
France, of course, we knew, and Russia. Scandinavia, too, but not so well, and chiefly through the theater at that, so the publishers turned northward and presently Johan Bojer burst upon us to be accorded without delay a prominent place in our list of novelists no one can afford to neglect. Now, through the doors of Alfred A. Knopf, comes another welcome addition, Knut Hamsun, whose first work to reach us inspires only wonder that it was so long in finding its way across the Atlantic. This writer, a Norwegian, has been awarded the Nobel Prize for literature for 1920. He is sixty years old, and his works have been famous in European countries for at least a quarter of a century, being...
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SOURCE: Coles, Robert. “Knut Hamsun: The Beginning and the End.” New Republic 157, no. 13 (23 September 1967): 21-4.
[In the following essay, Coles summarizes the major action and themes in Hunger, concluding with a short history of Hamsun's literary career and political struggles.]
On February 19, 1952 a man of 93 died near Grimstad, Norway. He was a writer, indeed one who had won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1920. He was also at the time of his death an officially recognized traitor, allowed by his nation to live out his last years at home only because of the “permanently impaired faculties” that advanced age was supposed to have caused. Now, fifteen years later, Knut Hamsun's first novel, Hunger, has been translated into English by the American poet Robert Bly; and at the same time we are offered a translation by Carl Anderson of the last writing Hamsun did, while a prisoner and forced inmate of a mental hospital between 1945 and 1948.
Some lives are themselves epics, and Hamsun's was an epic life, as long and rich and defiantly unique as anything he wrote. He was born Knut Petersen, the son of a faintly aristocratic mother and a father who farmed for a living, but loved to recite legends and walk endlessly in the woods. When the boy was four his parents took him north, from a valley in central Norway to the region near Bodö, way up the coast, in...
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SOURCE: Ferguson, Robert. “1888-1890: The Breakthrough: Hunger.” In Enigma: The Life of Knut Hamsun, pp. 99-121. London: Hutchinson, 1987.
[In the following essay, Ferguson creates an outline of events in Hamsun's life immediately preceding the publication of Hunger, including several anecdotes about Hamsun's relationships with other writers during this time.]
The question of anonymity, and Hamsun's lifelong violent ambivalence towards the concept and consequences of personal fame, brings us at once up against one of the central paradoxes of this strange man. So far, we have met a Hamsun who was a tireless promoter of himself as personality and writer, keenly and noisily airing his views in newspaper debates, bringing himself through personal letters to the attention of editors and writers, famous and influential strangers. The Norwegian memoirist Peter Egge wrote that he first heard of him through a journalist colleague of his, Arne Dybfest, who told him that when in America, he had met in a newspaper office a man ‘who ceaselessly advertised himself, and who was a consummate bluffer both in what he said and what he wrote’. Those repelled by Hamsun's personality found in his decision to publish the Hunger extract anonymously one more example of the calculated coquetry on which his whole approach to his reader was based.
For years Hamsun had been preoccupied...
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SOURCE: Riechel, Donald C. “Knut Hamsun's ‘Imp of the Perverse’: Calculation and Contradiction in Sult and Mysterier.” Scandinavica: An International Journal of Scandinavian Studies 28, no. 1 (May 1989): 29-53.
[In the following essay, Riechel studies two of Hamsun's early novels, noting that the narrative effects in both Hunger and Mysteries are achieved from a combination of ambiguity, irony, and self-contradiction.]
Nietzsche once wrote that becoming accustomed to irony and sarcasm spoils one's character: in the end one resembles a snapping dog that besides knowing how to bite has learned how to laugh1. Perhaps such habituation spoiled Knut Hamsun, who in his life and in his art always seems to have manoeuvred for the last laugh, to the fascinated discomfort of his readers. Hamsun's ‘insistence on ambiguity’, to use Robert Ferguson's words, ‘his rejection of certainty, his juggling with lies that turn out to be true, and truths that turn out to be lies, his recognition and reproduction of the calculating nature of the mind's voice’2 identify him as a Modernist in Nietzsche's wake. Neither Hamsun's ironic habits nor Nietzsche's profoundly ironic mind are measured in the least by the philosopher's early admonition, and definition, in Menschliches Allzumenschliches, that irony is appropriate only as a pedagogical method....
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SOURCE: Auster, Paul. “The Art of Hunger.” In The Art of Hunger: Essays, Prefaces, Interviews and The Red Notebook, pp. 9-20. New York: Penguin, 1992.
[In the following essay, Auster offers a thematic analysis of Hunger, characterizing the work as a pioneering text about artistic achievement.]
What is important, it seems to me, is not so much to defend a culture whose existence has never kept a man from going hungry, as to extract, from what is called culture, ideas whose compelling force is identical with that of hunger.
A young man comes to a city. He has no name, no home, no work: he has come to the city to write. He writes. Or, more exactly, he does not write. He starves to the point of death.
The city is Christiania (Oslo); the year is 1890. The young man wanders through the streets: the city is a labyrinth of hunger, and all his days are the same. He writes unsolicited articles for a local paper. He worries about his rent, his disintegrating clothes, the difficulty of finding his next meal. He suffers. He nearly goes mad. He is never more than one step from collapse.
Still, he writes. Now and then he manages to sell an article, to find a temporary reprieve from his misery. But he is too weak to write steadily and can rarely finish the pieces he has begun....
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SOURCE: Sandberg, Mark B. “Writing on the Wall: The Language of Advertising in Knut Hamsun's Sult.” Scandinavian Studies 71, no. 3 (fall 1999): 265-96.
[In the following essay, Sandberg proposes that although Hunger is often regarded as a subjective novel of private literary expression, it is equally valid as a text that links itself, via its language, to the public world of news, economics, and advertising.]
Here is an opening scene: the unnamed main character of Sult [Hunger] awakens in his rented room. He hears the bells outside ringing six o'clock and people beginning to walk up and down the stairs. The walls of his room, papered with old issues of the newspaper Morgenbladet, provide him with his first reading material as he comes to consciousness. He notices in order, over by the door, “en bekjendtgjørelse fra fyrdirektøren” [an announcement from the lighthouse director] and then “et fett, bugnende avertissement fra baker Fabian Olsen om nybakt brød” [a fat, bulging advertisement from Baker Fabian Olsen for newly baked bread] and finally, as it grows lighter and lighter in the room, he sees “de magre, grinende bokstaver om ‘Liksvøp hos jomfru Andersen, tilhøire i porten’” (7) [the lean, grimacing letters of “Burial shrouds at Miss Andersen's, through the gate to the right”]. He continues reading these advertisements—for two whole...
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SOURCE: Axelrod, Mark. “The Poetics of Peripatetics and Peripety in Hamsun's Hunger.” In The Poetics of Novels: Fiction and Its Execution, pp. 140-70. London: Macmillan, 1999.
[In the following essay, Axelrod examines the use of space, travel, movement, and change in Hunger.]
Published in 1890, Hunger is probably Hamsun's best known and, arguably, his best written novel. Sizeably autobiographical, it deals with the time Hamsun existed in Kristiania (Oslo) and is extraordinary in terms of psychological depth and poetic temperament. But one cannot easily dismiss the effect starvation had on Hamsun and to that extent one cannot discount intentionality. As Robert Ferguson writes of Hunger in his biography, Enigma: The Life of Knut Hamsun: ‘In writing it he drew on the experiences he underwent during his two most desperate periods in Kristiania in the winters of 1880-81 and 1885-86, and probably, also drew on the experiences of his winter in Chicago in 1886-87. The many small correspondences of fact and fiction—the narrator's visit to the castle, for example, and his address at Tomtegaten II—as well as the autobiographical details that crop up in letters to Erik Frydenlund and Johan Sørensen, indicate that the book is Hamsun's self-portrait in fiction’ (Ferguson, p. 110). Implicit in that notion is that the voice of the protagonist is often the voice of Hamsun...
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Blythe, Ronald. “Starving Differently.” Listener 91, no. 2344 (28 February 1974): 281.
Brief, positive review of Robert Bly's translation of Hunger.
Cahill, Edgar H. “Purity in the Sixth Printing.” Nation 113, no. 2928 (1921): 181.
Reviews the sixth printing of Hunger by Alfred A. Knopf, faulting the publisher for censoring the work.
Gustafson, Alrik. “Man and the Soil, Knut Hamsun.” In Six Scandinavian Novelists: Lie, Jacobsen, Heidenstam, Selma Lagerlöf, Hamsun, Sigrid Undset, pp. 226-85. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1940.
Detailed analysis of Man and the Soil, including information on Hamsun's personal life and literary career.
Keates, Jonathan. “Through Starving Eyes.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 3760 (29 March 1974): 313.
Brief review of Robert Bly's translation of Hunger.
McFarlane, James Walter. “Knut Hamsun.” In Ibsen and the Temper of Norwegian Literature, pp. 114-57. London: Oxford University Press, 1960.
Critical evaluation of Hamsun's major works, including Hunger.
Næss, Harald. “Vagabond.” In Knut Hamsun, pp. 128-57. Boston, Mass.: Twayne, 1984.
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