Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Review: The starving of the artist as a young man


Nobel Laureate Knut Hamsun’s Hunger is probably one of the most famous Scandinavian novels. And when you recall that it was written in 1890, it makes it all the more remarkable. It takes on the bleakness of Dostoevsky with the spare prose of someone like Hemingway. While people were still reading the longwinded prose of Dickens, this must have come as a shock – especially since the subject matter isn’t terribly reader friendly.

The nameless narrator is roaming the streets of Christiana (now Oslo). He is a writer who only occasionally gets to write for the local papers and journals. He doesn’t seem to have a great relationship with any of the city’s publishers: they know him, they take pity on his plight, but there’s no jocularity, no friendship between them. He doesn’t get assignments from them; he’s the one pitching the essays he pens with a measly pencil – one of his main possessions.
Thus the narrator refuses to live or write by any one else’s standards but his own. Which of course makes him live on the edge of existence: he can’t pay rent and is thrown out by his kind landlady, he doesn’t have money in a bank account and eats whenever he pawns one of his few belongings (first, his waistcoat). On top of this he refuses to beg, to take money that isn’t earned, which makes this project even more difficult.
The narrator isn’t someone that we want to sympathise with, as the introduction by Paul Auster tells us: ‘Pity plays no part in Hunger. The hero suffers, but only because he has chosen to suffer. Hamsun’s art is such that he rigorously prevents us from feeling any compassion for his character. From the beginning, it is made clear that the hero need not starve. Solutions exist, if not in the city, then at least in departure.’ This is clear and apparent as one wades through this book; there’s something obnoxious about this writer – is it his ‘standards’? is it his voice? is it his eccentricities and inability to connect truly with anyone else in Christiana? – but there’s something compelling about his self-created pain that makes the reader want to continue on his masochistic journey.
For no one understands him, not the prostitutes, not the shopowners (who don’t understand his generosity-turned-layaway payments). Maybe his ‘Freedom of the Will’ – the first piece of writing he talks about – is just too ‘free’ for others. Though this kind of runs against some of his more insightful observations: ‘The sorrowful, flutelike sound of the organ shivered in me, my nerves began to vibrate like a sounding board, and an instant later I slumped backward on the bench, whining and humming with the music. What odd things the feelings stuck to when one was hungry! I felt drawn up by the notes, dissolved in them, I began to flow out into the air, and could see very clearly what I was flowing over, high over mountains, dancing on in waves over brilliant areas . . .’
Hunger for the modern audience may not be as affected as Hamsun’s own cohorts. It’s hard to imagine this plight of the artist – it almost feels too romantic in its pains, in its aesthetic concept: ‘Everyone fails once in a while, and they always fail precisely in the most simple problems: that doesn’t mean anything, it’s just chance.’ The existentialism presented here doesn’t resonate as intensely as that found in something like Crime and Punishment or The Stranger. But it’s certainly building towards those pillars of literature.
As aforementioned, the introduction to the Farrar, Straus and Giroux edition ($15) has an introduction by Paul Auster, which can be found in his Collected Prose trade paperback original – a definite volume for the Auster fan (and one that, after reading his memoirs, you’ll understand why he has such an interest and love of Hunger). Though I wonder if the Penguin edition/translation would be better…

1 comment:

Rebecca Reid said…

this sounds very good. I love Crime and Punishment and enjoyed The Stranger too, so sounds like it is one I should read!