Let’s Discuss — Hunger by Knut Hamsun

Small loose tufts came away, flakes that got between my fingers, and scattered over the pillow. I did not think anything about it just then; it was as if it did not concern me. I had hair enough left, anyway. I tried afresh to shake myself out of this strange daze that enveloped my whole being like a mist. I sat up, struck my knees with my flat hands, laughed as hard as my sore chest permitted me only to collapse again. Naught availed; I was dying helplessly, with my eyes wide open staring straight up at the roof. At length I stuck my forefinger in my mouth, and took to sucking it. Something stirred in my brain, a thought that bored its way in there a stark-mad notion.

Supposing I were to take a bite

​Have you ever heard of the term “starving artist” ? This is a story about the starving artist*. Readers follow a stream-of-consciousness induced by a young mans’ desire to gain fame as an author, fill his pockets, and more urgently, satiate his stomach. We meet our narrator in a bare room in an upper floor of a building in Kristiania**. He has nothing but the clothes on his back and the thoughts in his head.

The book doesn’t follow a strict plot as it’s dominated by internal monologue, so we’re given a firsthand account of the psychological state of our starving artist. Embarrassed by his condition; perpetual homelessness and unemployment, he’s very much concerned about how others perceive him. At the same time he thinks so highly of himself and holds low opinions of everyone and everything else. In his day-to-day interactions he lies frequently to create a semblance of success and purpose–but it’s a veneer; a crutch to comfort his bruised ego and painful shame. He morphs every uncomfortable moment (in his mind) into a trial, where he somehow overcomes temptation, buffers respectability and enables his superiority complex. And it’s like this for majority of the novel.

I was reluctant to include a passage of this length, but I don’t think Hamsun’s form can be appreciated in snippets:

I woke very early in the morning. It was still quite dark as I opened my eyes, and it was not till long after that I heard five strokes of the clock down-stairs. I turned round to doze again, but sleep had down. I grew more and more wakeful, and lay and thought of a thousand things.

Suddenly a few good sentences fitted for a sketch or story strike me, delicate linguistic hits of which I have never before found the equal. I lie and repeat these words over to myself, and find that they are capital. Little by little others come and fit themselves to the preceding ones. I grow keenly wakeful. I get up and snatch paper and pencil from the table behind my bed. It was as if a vein had burst in me; one word follows another, and they fit themselves together harmoniously with telling effect. Scene piles on scene, actions and speeches bubble up in my brain, and a wonderful sense of pleasure empowers me. I write as one possessed, and fill page after page, without a moment’s pause.

Thoughts come so swiftly to me and continue to flow so richly that I miss a number of telling bits, that I cannot set down quickly enough, although I work with all my might. They continue to invade me; I am full of my subject, and every word I write is inspired.

This strange period lasts lasts such a blessedly long time before it comes to an end. I have fifteen twenty written pages lying on my knees before me, when at last I cease and lay my pencil aside, So sure as there is any worth in these pages, so sure am I saved. I jump out of bed and dress myself, It grows lighter.
​See what Hamsun did there? This entire scene is symbolic. Our narrator awakens early and is suddenly hit with inspiration. The physical awakening is matched with an inspirational awakening, and then paired with a morning shift from dark to light in a matter of minutes. The sentences lend themselves to the psychological race his mind is running. Our narrator is hopeful. But I’m here to tell you it’s in vain…I just want to point out how Hamsun’s style*** engages the reader.
While the primary stimuli is hunger, there are other forces that influence the narrator…for example, there is recurrent mention of God. However, I’m not convinced our artist is actually god-fearing, or of faith–he’s certainly not pious. He appeals to God when things aren’t going his way and credits himself when things do. I’m not going to linger on this subject–just be aware it’s there, particularly with the presence of the “Commander”. This figure aids our narrator with freelance work, food and money. Out of pure kindness he gives without expecting return. Twice he tells the narrator “I know you can write for it” after giving an advance. To me he was really saying, I know you’re worth it–I know you desire life and purpose, and I can help you, if you’re ready to accept my help.

When he had gone a few steps, I remembered all at once that I had not thanked him for this great assistance. I tried to overtake him, but could not get on quickly enough; my legs failed me, and I came near tumbling on my face. He went farther and farther away from me. I gave up the attempt; thought of calling after him, but dared not; and when after all I did muster up courage enough and called once or twice, he was already at too great a distance, and my voice had become too weak.

By the end of Hunger readers will know what poverty does to the soul of man; makes him disagreeable. It makes him observant and opportunistic…experienced. Scarred. And so our experienced starving artist encounters a captain on the pier one day, and asks if there are any positions open on his vessel. This is important because it’s the first time the narrator pursues work that isn’t completely self-involved. He convinces the captain he can carry his own weight and more. Without much question, the captain permits him to sail along and then the story ends…rather abruptly too. The starving artists’ suffering ends when he commits himself to honest, hard work. In return he is awarded food, shelter and more importantly purpose. The ending is a significant contrast. I almost want to call it simple…in the sense that all he had to do to end his hardship as a writer or “journalist” (as he would call himself), is commit to “real” work– get out of his own head and engage in society by making a living through a means not connected to romantic ideas and artistic musings.

* He relies on temporary fixes to sustain him, until he gets established through his artistic work. At times he is both voluntarily starved and involuntarily starved.

**Oslo, Norway

***Hamsun’s mantra for modern literature–intricacies of the human mind ought to be the main object of modern literature, to describe the “whisper of the blood, and the pleading of the bone marrow”