Knut Hamsun Hunger Criticism

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Hunter T. Stagg (review date 15 February 1921)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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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 translated, it is said, into seventeen languages. And at last they are being brought to America, a country in which, as a poverty stricken young man, the author twice sought without success a place in the sun.

So few of Hamsun's writings have been rendered into English, and those few at such long intervals and with so little enterprise, that one is justified in calling Hunger the first to reach us. That it will not be the last seems guaranteed by the widespread interest the book has awakened. It is in many ways a distressing, and in no way a pleasant book, for the hunger that is its theme is not that of the spirit but of the flesh, a plain unvarnished craving for bread with which to keep life in the body. Knowledge that the story is, as Edwin Bjorkman tells us in his introduction, largely autobiographical, was not needed to give it that vividness which makes for actual pain in the reader's own breast as he watches the bitter struggle for existence of one poor journalist in the city of Christiana. Vividness is, indeed, the essence of Knut Hamsun's style. If hunger ever took a visible, touchable form it does in this book.

And if vividness is the essence of his manner, violence, often to the point of brutality, is the outstanding characteristic of his method. In unfolding his story Hamsun spares us not one significant detail of the hero's terrible degradation through starvation. He has subtlety, too, for he has known how to enhance the awfulness of that degradation through the upspringing now and then of a little hope. He has, finally, deep artistry; for while the reader sometimes revolts from the harshness of the scenes depicted, as a psychological study of a proud, sensitive nature in the grip of the most primitive of all forces, hunger, the book would not be complete without, say, the pitiful passage where the hero is reduced to childish wailings: “Lord God, I feel so wretched!”—or the later ironic touch when, after a period of delirium, he secures a bit of food and finds his stomach too weak to retain it. There are other scenes of which one can only say they are very nearly appalling in their frankness, but it is these, and others such as these, which for their humanness one remembers longest.

If crudities of style and construction be noted in the book it must be remembered that Hunger is Hamsun's first novel, first published in 1890. In spite of them it is a gripping work, hard to leave unfinished. It marks Hamsun, moreover, a valuable addition to the imported literature of our own land, and the sizeable list of books to his credit with which Mr. Knopf has promised to...

(The entire section is 56,698 words.)