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7667 words
SHJ Issue 9
Spring 2014

A Portrait of a Consciousness Starving to Express Itself:
Knut Hamsun’s Hunger

by Thomas E. Kennedy

Knut Hamsun’s 1890 novel Hunger is an intimate portrait of a writer and of the writing process and of a consciousness starving to express itself; it is as startling now as when it first appeared.

A New Yorker essay by Adam Kirsch a few years ago compared “the pulp poetry of Charles Bukowski” with Hamsun’s Hunger, which Bukowski admired. Kirsch describes Hunger as “the story of a young writer demented by poverty and ambition. And,” he continues, “Bukowski came much closer to this experience than almost any other American poet.”

Hamsun, Kirsch asserts, “seems to take us to the edge of insanity...[and] shows that the most frightening symptom of madness is the immolation of self-esteem, the urge to humiliate oneself at the same time as one humiliates everyone else. And this,” he further asserts, “is the risk Bukowski never takes. Even at his most unheroic, he is the hero of his stories and poems, always demanding the reader’s covert approval.”

We see this urge repeatedly in Dostoevsky—perhaps most particularly in The Possessed. For example, you have Stavrogin in The Possessed attending a social gathering at which he overhears a politician boasting to the circle around him that no one leads him by the nose, and Stavrogin promptly takes him by his nose and leads him around the room, scandalizing all present and humiliating both himself and the politician—and treating the reader to a belly-laugh, if the reader is inclined to laugh at such things. But there was a reason for Stavrogin’s mad behavior which only was explained in the 20th century when a chapter materialized that had been deemed too scandalous to be published by the newspaper serializing the novel in the early 1870s and was left out of the serial.

The reason that Stavrogin is tormented is because some time before he had seduced a fourteen-year-old girl and afterwards sat in the next room, fully cognizant of the fact that she was hanging herself. It was only thanks to the discovery in 1927 of a hand-corrected proof and a hand-written copy by Dostoevsky’s wife that the chapter was published in English. My Modern Library version of The Possessed is copyrighted 1936 and includes the previously suppressed chapter, but placed at the end of the book, as a supplementary text, whereas it should have been placed earlier in the novel. In any event, there is a reason for Stavrogin’s madly impulsive behavior—he is haunted by guilt over a great sin he has committed.

But the unnamed narrator in Hunger has no such history, no past other than what he tells Ylajali toward the end of part three, more than three-fourths of the way through the book, that earlier that year he had been working very hard—writing, presumably—and even though he had money, he kept forgetting to eat and went crazy, but that that was over now. Except that now he has no money and nothing to eat, cannot find work, is virtually homeless, and has pawned everything of value he had.

And interesting as Adam Kirsch’s observation is about Hunger’s narrator’s behavior, that it is the behavior of a self-humiliating madman, the perception it conveys seems to me not quite central to what the book achieves in its unfolding, and not quite full enough a description of the main character of Hunger, who is far more multi-faceted than that: he’s proud, arrogant, terribly insecure, generous (two or three characters appear throughout the novel that owe him money), immensely creative, warm, affectionate, fiercely honest (which is underscored by his two brushes with what he considers “dishonesty”), extremely sensitive, industrious, ambitious, righteous, just, self-effacing, slyly humorous, heroically stubborn, ironic, optimistic, pessimistic, perceptive, self-justifying.... And I’m certain many more descriptive elucidations, both pejorative and positive, could be added to that list.

In short, he is something like you and me, isn’t he? Of course he is more extreme than most, but don’t we, behind our masks of more or less normality, fluctuate along that gamut of qualities and character traits? To say simply that he is mad and impoverished and ambitious is, I think, an impoverished description of this complex creation by Hamsun.

The 2003 DVD version of Henning Carlsen’s masterful 1966 film of Hamsun’s novel (with Per Oscarsson’s nothing less than magnificent portrayal of the main character) includes a trailer with a 26-minute discussion of the work by Paul Auster and the author’s grand-daughter, Regine Hamsun. There, Mr. Auster suggests that the character has brought it all on himself, that it is all “self-inflicted.” And perhaps it is, to some extent, but more interesting, I think, is the question of why and how and what the book is really about. Whether it is about the “self-inflicted” hunger of the narrator or whether it is about the hunger for greater things, a portrait of a consciousness starving to express itself, or about many different sorts of hunger and a city in which a more or less sane man wanders amid and is buffeted by the general refusal to acknowledge those hungers and the lack of satisfaction of them, where people seem to be “dancing through life as if gliding across a ballroom.”

From the book you don’t quite get—or at least I didn’t quite get—the impression that Paul Auster seems to assert. In the novel, the man is half-mad from hunger, but also determined to write and looking for work, too. Perhaps he is half-mad, but his hunger is far greater than for food, even as great as his hunger for food is.

Jan Kjærstad, a celebrated Norwegian author, writes in his introduction to a reprint of the first fragment of Hunger (which appeared in a Danish literary journal in 1888), “Not food, but language, writing, story, saves the principal character from degradation.”

Isn’t this the story of every serious writer? You may fill your belly, but still you are not satisfied. Not until you find some words, some truth in language, are you satisfied even if your belly is full.

To my mind, Hunger is a journey, a visit to a place as much as Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground is about St. Petersburg—“that most abstract and pre-meditated city,” and perhaps as William H. Gass’s visit to “The Heart of the Heart of the Country” is a visit to a state of depression, lovelessness, and emotional poverty with little compensation other than wit and language.

Hamsun’s novel is about a journey to a “strange city which no one leaves before it has set its mark upon him...” But the difference, I think, is that Hamsun’s narrator has a clear purpose and has not, like Gass’s narrator, “retired” from love or passion. He is not merely estranged or depressed, and he does not really have a “past” but he does have a goal. He hungers to write. Maybe you have to be half-mad to think that anything you write can be of value in this brief, fleeting life in which we do not know from what we came or what will happen, or how or when we will die and what happens or doesn’t happen after that.

Hamsun’s novel, I think, is about being in the city of this hunger, descending into it, and about leaving again in time to evade complete dissolution in madness and live to tell the tale. That “strange city” is a city of hungers—nearly everyone in the novel can be said to be hungry—Ylajali for erotic adventures in her loneliness, the “Maiden” for gossip to fill his apparently empty life, “scissors” for news items to fill his empty pages, the landlady for paying customers to put food on the table of her family and lazy husband and unpaying guests, “Uncle” to increase his wealth at the expense of the valuables of others in need, the cake vendor and beggar just to get by, and the narrator for food, dignity, self-expression, love, and a warm, clean, well-lighted place. To a considerable extent, the book is autobiographical both literally and metaphorically; one can trace the forward trajectory of its fictional main character via the real person of Hamsun and where he goes when he leaves Kristiania and what happens next. (Kristiania is the former name of Oslo when it was still owned by the Danes and then by the Swedes.)

In fact, in the late summer of 1888, Hamsun sailed home from the United States to Copenhagen and stopped in the Norwegian capital only because the ship docked there for 24 hours. Previously, earlier in the 1880s, Hamsun experienced hunger, cold, and poverty not only in Oslo (or Kristiania), but also in Chicago in the winter of 1886-87—all of which informs his powerful novel.

But what happened to him standing at the rail of that ship, Jan Kjærstad tells us, looking out at the city of Kristiania (Oslo) from the deck, is that an enlightened sentence occurred to him, and much like the main character of Hunger, he scribbled it down—no doubt with a stump of pencil—the sentence which later became so famous that virtually any reasonably educated citizen of Norway, and many elsewhere, can utter it by heart: “It was in those days that I wandered about hungry in Kristiania, that strange city which no one leaves before it has set its mark upon him...” Perhaps he was inspired at the rail of that boat by more sentences as well, and an insight into what he wanted to do, a breakthrough.

Hamsun then proceeded on that ship to Copenhagen, wrote the first fragment of what would eventually become Hunger, showed it to the editor of one of Denmark’s leading newspapers, Edvard Brandes, brother of the then prominent literary critic, Georg Brandes. Edvard Brandes read the pages and told Hamsun, “You can look forward to a very great future.” Brandes had recognized what readers of the fragment would also see when it appeared anonymously in the literary journal Ny Jord (New Earth) —that Hamsun had revolutionized Scandinavian literature—perhaps, in a sense, world literature—considering the effect his writing had on writers as diverse as Thomas Mann, Ernest Hemingway, Franz Kafka, Andre Gide, Henry Miller.... Hemingway once said in an interview, “Hamsun taught me to write.”

In a September 1890 essay entitled “From the Unconscious Life of the Mind,” Hamsun himself described the book that was to follow from that fragment as “a book about the delicate fluctuations of a sensitive soul, the strange, peculiar life of the mind, the mysteries in the nerves of a starving body...the whisper of the blood and the pleading of the bone marrow...”

But Brandes told Hamsun that the fragment he had written of “Hunger” was too long to publish in a newspaper and too short to publish as a novel. So he suggested that Hamsun expand it into a novel, and Hamsun went home to his apartment on the north side of Copenhagen—Sankt Hans Street #18—and wrote the novel that would be published in 1890.

However, it was not a novel that would use the then standard devices of plot and narrative arc. Each of its four parts are somewhat structured but not in a traditional, so-called “realistic,” suspense-building mode, although a plot can be identified in it, and a climax. But he did use the stream of experience that became what Henning Carlsen calls “the portrait of a soul”—I would prefer to refer to it as the portrait of a consciousness starving to express itself—and for so much more. Rodin, in his 1897 sculpture of Balzac, said that he had done what nobody had ever thought of before—he took a man’s soul and put it in his face. This is in a sense what Hamsun has done in this novel, seven years earlier: sculpted a portrait of a man’s consciousness.

The artistry of this novel is interesting in that there are really no so-called (by E. M. Forster) “flat characters.” Each character has a distinct identity, a spark or more of humanity—“Uncle,” the narrator’s acquaintance who is referred to as the “Maiden,” Ylajali, each of the landladies, the landlord, each of the policemen, “scissors,” the two editors, the cake lady, the organ girl, the streetwalker—everybody is finely, if briefly, drawn. It is as though Hamsun took the exercise Flaubert set for Maupassant ten or fifteen years earlier, even if Hamsun was against realism and naturalism and Maupassant stood for the two:

“When you pass a grocer sitting in front of his door,” Flaubert told Maupassant, “a concierge smoking his pipe, or a cab rank, show me that grocer, that concierge, their attitude, their physical appearance and by the skill of the picture you draw of them, their whole moral nature as well and do this in such a way that I cannot confuse them with any other grocer or concierge; and with a single word show me how one cab horse is different from the fifty others ahead or behind it.”

At the time of the publication of Hamsun’s novel, James Joyce and Virginia Woolf were only eight years old. Although I have not been able to find a record of it, Joyce, I am convinced, read Hunger because he taught himself to read Scandinavian so that he could read Ibsen, and Hamsun’s novel is not only stream of consciousness—it is, like Joyce’s Ulysses, a portrait of a consciousness, and would have been available in both Dano-Norwegian and English to Joyce when he was in his formative esthetic years.

Virginia Woolf likely read the novel, too; it was translated into English in 1899 by George Egerton—a pseudonym for a woman named Mary Chavelita Dunne Bright, a feminist, self-described “Irish” author whose 1893 collection Keynotes was dedicated to Hamsun, who was briefly her lover. Her book was influential and successful, a prototype stream-of-consciousness fiction, and she was one of the first women writers in English to portray female sexuality—oddly, she bowdlerized Hamsun’s main character’s sexuality; for example, Ms. Bright left out the “sweet miracles of [Ylajali’s] breasts”—maybe too shocking for late 19th century England—maybe too shocking for contemporary USA as well, considering what an uproar was caused not too long ago by a costume malfunction. But maybe Mary Bright’s omission was because on the question of gender equality, Ms. Bright was opposed—women, in her view, were clearly superior.

Hamsun’s novel is the story of a journey to the heart of Hunger as surely as the journey to the heart of Conrad’s darkness (from 1899). The journey begins with the unnamed main character already in Kristiania and it ends when he leaves “that strange city which no one leaves before it has set its mark upon him.” The journey is into the strange city of hunger, but the hunger is both real and metaphorically multifaceted—the hunger for food, but also the hunger for love, for justice, for work, and so many other things, but primarily the hunger to seek expression of what is true and real without compromise. These hungers, in fact, intoxicate and lead one to the edge of madness, and the hunger for truth is conflicted always by the fact that the hunger of the body tends to compromise the hunger for truth with a willingness to work at so-called “meaningless” jobs instead of seeking what might be real and true beyond that hunger. And one can exist in such a place for only so long before being driven into madness and despair. His hunger for enlightenment and truth is never directly stated, but the book so produced is enlightened and truthful to experience. And there is that recurrent image of the Director of Lighthouses.

Wikipedia asserts that Hunger “hails the irrationality of the human mind in an intriguing and sometimes humorous” manner, but also speaks of Hamsun’s “insistence that the intricacies of the human mind ought to be the main object of modern literature.” He certainly does that in Hunger, but he constructs the irrationality of the mind in a somewhat rational manner, dramatically portraying the hungry journey toward death and enlightenment and the traps of compromise along the way.

The novel is divided into four parts of nearly equal length, about forty to fifty pages each.

The first part begins with the character awakening to a day in the strange city. He lies in bed and looks around his shabby room—“like a horrible broken down coffin” (page 4)—whose walls are papered with newspaper advertisements. His eyes roam around the walls—a “notice from the Director of Lighthouses,” an ad just beside it “for freshly baked bread” and finally to “the thin grinning letters advertising ‘Shrouds at Madam Andersen’s, main entrance to the right’”—a phrase which will reappear a couple more times in the book, always with that exquisite twist, “entrance on the right.” These details, of course, are in no way coincidental or irrational. They stake out the parameters of existence and of the character’s journey, navigating between hunger and death toward the light and escape. In a sense he is in a coffin and must extricate himself.

When the journey begins, autumn has already arrived, “that lovely cool time of year when everything turns color and dies” (page 4), and he is already starving. He has been unable to find work, though not for want of trying, and he has sold or pawned everything he owns that is of value, all his books, even his comb. But he still has paper and pencil and continues to write and to submit his work to the newspaper.

The sight of a beggar hobbling along in front of him in the street annoys him to distraction, yet when the man turns and asks him for change to buy milk, he is eager to help, hurries to pawn his vest and gives the bulk of what he gets to the beggar. His generosity is driven by pride as well as the impulse to help—perhaps to be a “sweet miracle” himself, to give milk. If you think about it, a woman’s breasts are sweet miracles; it is miraculous that they are the only part of the human body that only give nourishment and cannot be used as weapons, to strike or butt or claw or kick or knee or elbow or shoulder.... But when the beggar recognizes him as a fellow pauper and tries to give the money back, he stamps his feet in fury and insists the man take the coin. The remainder of the money he uses on bread and cheese for himself (for which he is mocked by the baker woman—“All of it?” she asks archly).

On that first day of the novel, the narrator’s consciousness is extremely unstable—perhaps because he does eat that day and too quickly—and his consciousness is by turns keenly perceptive of all the details around him, flickering into and out of identity, and acutely creative, moving back and forth between cheerfulness and fury. The instability of his consciousness is exaggerated due to his extreme hunger and quick ingestion of food, but it seems to me that what Hamsun is doing is studying consciousness under the magnifying glass of hunger and chemical imbalance and portraying its instability as well as examining—concretely—creativity.

He meets the woman here and creates a completely new word—“Ylajali”—with which to name her, by turns experiencing cruelly-playful emotions and shame when she responds patiently to his cruel playfulness. He follows Ylajali home and she looks down from her apartment window at him, clearly interested, while he wonders that she doesn’t send someone down to drive him off.

Then the nearly blind man sits beside him on a bench in the park, and the narrator makes up a fantastic story which is at once absurd and comic, but which also explores elements of creativity, and the way that fiction is built of received details— he gives Ylajali’s address as his own and, questioned, creates a preposterous name for the landlord of the building and embellishes his story lavishly.

Is consciousness—so-called “normal” consciousness—stable? How often during a day do we experience some inexplicable shift of mood, some intense moment of disassociation from our own identity, some fleeting despair or elation? Maybe based on the need to eat something. Perhaps consciousness is not as stable as we assume and must pretend it to be. Perhaps Hamsun is using his narrator’s extreme state to demonstrate not his abnormality and madness but the exaggerated state of a normal instability.

Regardless of whether it is motivated partially by pride, his act of generosity to the beggar is impressive—he is giving up one of his needed garments; however, it leaves him without a pencil—he has forgotten to retrieve it from the pocket of the vest he pawns to give the beggar money for milk. On page 14, after his first preliminary adventure with Ylajali, he returns to the pawnbroker to get his pencil back, and he makes up an extravagant story about why he would go to so much trouble to get back an insignificant stump of pencil, but it has “simply made me what I was in this world, had put me in my right place in life, so to speak...” (Ironic— for what he is in the world is impoverished, starving and homeless.) Then he stops speaking for a moment, and he has not yet told an untruth, but goes on to claim that with that pencil he had written a three volume monograph about philosophical cognition, and he becomes ridiculous—but does he really in the long run? Here, the book becomes a kind of metafiction in which Hamsun, via the narrator, is creating the anti-realistic, anti-naturalistic reality which will expand the future of fiction. So in some manner that little stump of pencil will indeed write great things.

When he makes up his grandiose lies to the pawnbroker about the stub of pencil, is there not a kernel of both truth and real magic in it. After all, the narrator is a writer. In some way, the narrator is Hamsun. And the book in which the narrator is living is self-reflexively becoming the work he grandiosely claims to the pawnbroker to have written, which he claims to have been his breakthrough, at the same time as it will become Hamsun’s breakthrough novel. The pencil is magic. It contains the potential of an instrument that can record his own process of cognition and will—in fact, does so—in the form of Hamsun’s novel. All you need is a stump of pencil, paper, and the alphabet. He believes in the magic of his pencil to distinguish himself, to earn him 10 crowns, to achieve greatness, to achieve truth—and his pencil does not let him down. He finds inspiration and proceeds to follow it, gratifying the deeper hunger gnawing at his soul.

Yet when he leaves the pawnbroker (“Uncle”), pencil retrieved, he sees “the bright faces” of the people on the street, “dancing their way through life as though it were a ballroom,” and his mood darkens. He feels singled out by God for suffering and cannot write, cannot think. Hungry, he feels his “brain trickled quietly out of my head, leaving me empty,” feels as though God has stuck “his finger down into the network of my nerves and gently, quite casually, brought a little confusion among the threads.”

He tries to write but “after a few lines, nothing more [is] acted upon and distracted by everything around me, all that I saw gave me new impressions...”

“Flies and gnats stuck to the paper and disturbed me; I blew on them to make them go away, then blew harder, but it was no use. The little pests lean back and make themselves heavy, putting up such a struggle that their thin legs bend. They just cannot be made to budge.... They brace their heels against a comma...and stand stock-still until they find it convenient to take off.” (18-19)

(Coincidentally, that quotation moves from past to present—pages 18-19 in the book; I think this is his movement into the intensity of creativity which always takes place in the present tense. The bottom of page 28 and top of 29 he also shifts from past to present. It seems to me he goes into present tense when he is creating, writing—which is when he becomes most intensely alive—as he does when he hears a clock strike and becomes conscious of time, which also shifts him into present.)

The flies and gnats—here both real and metaphorical—that distract a writer from writing are so accurately, realistically depicted, and they are like “the strange trembling letters that [later] stared up at me from the paper like small unkempt figures.” He blows on them, and the gnats seem to be like the words of his breath, refusing to comply to his will.

Then he hears a loud piercing clarinet note from elsewhere in the park, and his head is cleared so he can think the most subtle thoughts again... “a delicate mysterious thrill spreads through my nerves, as though they were flooded by surges of light...”

So our narrator, keenly aware of every detail around and within him, is “flooded by surges of light” (rather like a lighthouse), though when not focused on writing, his imagination goes amok and creates absurd lies to tell a nearly blind man who sits down on the bench beside him—but in all of it, he is riffing off of Ylajali and the street she lives on and her landlord, and he convinces the blind man of his wild lies just as later in the book (Part Three, page 121), he creates preposterous, fictional errands to visit a made-up character—a fiction within his fictional reality—and even convinces the carriage driver that he knows the man, too, and gets the coachman to assist in creating details about this non-existent character named Joachim Kierulf, a wool dealer—that he has red hair and carries an ashplant walking stick: “Ha-ha, to be sure, no one has ever yet seen that man without his ashplant in his hand.” (Incidentally, “wool” is used in Dano-Norwegian—maybe also in English—as a metaphor for unclear words.)

Back to Part One, after his burst of creative lying to the nearly blind man, he tries to write but perceives that his head is emptying, and then suddenly a couple of good sentences occur to him (28-29) and “presently they’re joined by others” and “I write as if possessed...every word I write is put in my mouth.” And “Now if these pages were really worth something, then I was saved!” And “It is the best thing I have ever read.” What writer is not familiar with that astonishing glow of a newly created draft? He has written fifteen to twenty pages throughout the night, and now it is growing lighter in his coffin-like room, and he can make out the notices on the news-sheet wallpaper—the notice from the Director of Lighthouses and “the fine skeleton-like letters concerning Madam Andersen’s shrouds, main entrance on the right.”

Could there be a finer description of the hunger to write and of the writing process and all its stages of despair and elation, enlightenment and inspiration and death fear?

But at this point his landlady throws him out of his room. Before he leaves he bows to the Director of Lighthouses and Madame Andersen’s shrouds (entrance on the right). He delivers the “sketch” he has written to the editor, gets it past the cynical watchdog he calls “scissors,” but it takes some time for the editor to read it—the time between creation and recognition with no guarantees of the reward of acceptance or payment.

Homeless, he goes to sleep in the woods on the damp ground, “a brooding darkness” all around him. Next day, he goes to see about the application he has put in for a job as a bookkeeper only to find that he has inadvertently dated the application “1848”—a year he had been thinking about, and a distraction which he will later describe as a “slip of the pen,” and one of his gossip-hungry acquaintances will assume he means embezzlement (revealing more about the acquaintance than the narrator.) In fact, the year 1848 was characterized by revolutionary activities, by a liberation movement in many countries—Germany, Poland, Italy, the Habsburg Empire, and Denmark, too—and was marked by a defeat for the liberation movement, perhaps reflected in Hamsun’s novel by the narrator’s dire situation.

After more misery and waiting and starvation and a plea for help that is turned down with a flat “No,” while he runs the emotional gamut from pride to self-pity to arrogance, he receives an acceptance of his piece by the editor—ten crowns with a note that it is “promising work,” which the narrator interprets as “a little masterpiece, a stroke of genius.”

Part Two (53-91) opens with him sitting in a cemetery writing. (This might sound odd to Americans, but in northern Europe, cemeteries are arranged like parks with benches and greenery—you can even picnic in many of them—even drink, even smoke pot!) His money is gone. It’s 2:00 am, but he has just written a piece that “seemed the best thing I had ever done.” (Which will certainly sound familiar to many writers. When the first draft still seems like genius.) But he is starving and questions his fate—he has sought work, was not lazy, has studied, read, written, is thrifty, does not live extravagantly. All of which is true.

A policeman shows him friendliness, and he almost weeps, so overwhelmed is he to be acknowledged with kindness, to be treated like a human being. Rather than sleep on the damp earth in the woods, he decides to go to the jail to sleep, but out of pride tells the guard that he is a journalist and was simply out too late and got locked out of his building. In his cell, they turn off the gas light, and he tries to find a word black enough to signify the darkness in the cell (still a writer), imagines the dark ships of the harbor that want to suck him up and sail with him through dark kingdoms no humans had ever seen and can feel himself descending, descending—he wakes, screaming and raving and terrified at being locked in the dark. Finally, he sees a patch of dawn and waits patiently for daybreak and release. After this he has a terror of prison cells.

All the others who have slept the night in prison receive meal tickets but because of his lie, the guard assumes he won’t want one. He wanders off, eats a wood chip and wonders that he hasn’t thought of that before. He is staying for free in an abandoned tinsmith shop now. He has written something that he submitted to the editor, but nothing has been accepted since his “promising work.” He curses God—even polishes and refines the prose of his curse of God—making the “h” in “He” capital, big as a cathedral.

Even in his poverty, however, he wants to help others with a little money—the shoemaker beggar, the stable boy, the organ girl—but ends up getting mocked and laughed at. Finally, he talks his way past “scissors” to the editor who takes his manuscript with a promise to read it, but advises him that there is too much fever in his writing (sounds like the New Yorker used to be characterized: “No vivid writing, please!”). He is tempted to ask the editor for an advance but doesn’t and punishes himself for the temptation by forcing himself to run for several blocks and making himself stand and then sit in an uncomfortable place, while scolding himself as a mother might.

He goes to visit the Parson with a fabricated story that he is “fighting an awesome battle with the power of darkness” in hopes he will, with his false story, inspire the parson to give a little money for food, but the parson is not home. The irony here is that the narrator is “fighting an awesome battle with the power of darkness,” trying to steer himself away from the shroud to enlightenment by writing. He faces the inevitable—death. He bathes and lays his head on a few sheets of white writing paper, “the cleanest thing he had left,” then gets it into his head to pawn his blanket for a little food—but it is refused.

Repeatedly passing a bakery window-display of a big loaf of bread that costs 10 øre, he asks a couple of people for a handout and gets a flat “No,” berates himself for panhandling, feels shame, visits “Uncle” who has taken everything of value from him, and tries to pawn his eyeglasses—but the frames are only steel, not gold, and are refused. Then he tries to pawn the buttons from his coat, which only makes “Uncle” laugh dismissively.

However, leaving the shop, he meets an acquaintance on his way in to pawn a watch. The acquaintance sees how miserable the narrator is and promises him five crowns—thus, ending Part Two with an act of charity.

Part Three (95-149) begins after a week has passed “in joy and gladness,” with the narrator working on three or four monographs and “every spark of thought is useful.” His last article had been returned, and he had destroyed it, would try another paper in future. However, he is losing his hair, has headaches and is nervous, but keeps writing every day, keeps taking notes, editing and polishing, “struggling ahead sentence by sentence.” He finishes an article and goes to an editor he refers to as the “Commander”—who has been a literary hero to him—and as he is waiting glances at “an immense wastebasket that looked as though it could swallow a man whole...this huge maw...dragon’s jaws...always open...” Facing a metaphorical death of identity if his writing is judged not worthy.

The Commander asks the narrator to dumb down his article on Correggio and offers him a small advance which the narrator says he doesn’t need, even though he is in fact penniless. He thinks, “I couldn’t have received a nicer refusal.” (What some writers have perhaps experienced as “rave rejections.”) He goes home to start afresh, “to produce a great thing.”

He is not “as good at starving as” he used to be—a single day can put him in a near daze. Without a candle to write by and no money to buy one, he wanders the evening streets among lovers and whores, writes under a street lamp, hoping to conclude his monograph with “a climax as bold, as shocking as a shot... Period.” But the words won’t come. He wakes in the morning and writes until noon but only gets ten or twenty lines and still no conclusion. It is snowing. He writes a couple dozen more words and can’t go on:

“I began staring with wide-open eyes at those last words, that unfinished sheet of paper, peering at the strange, trembling letters that stared up at me from the paper, like small unkempt figures...and didn’t have a thought in my head.”

I think that no one I have read describes the writing process better than Hamsun, not even Hemingway. He makes his description of the writing itself and its effect on the writer’s body and blood and nerves come fully to life. Following the scene I quoted above (105-106), he bites his finger to rouse himself, and his thoughts start moving again. (The movie gives the impression that, in delusion, he seems to allow himself to eat his finger, but the book makes it clear that it is part of the writing process, that it was a metaphor for a kind of beneficent self-consumption, to wake his thoughts by piercing his flesh, just as words sometimes flow like blood, exhausting us.)

But now it is dark and he still needs a candle. He goes to a shop with the intention of begging for a candle, but the clerk in confusion gives him the candle plus change for five crowns. The narrator hurries to a restaurant and orders a beefsteak and “tore at the meat like a cannibal.” He sees this as his first fall into dishonesty and can’t keep the food down, goes into an alley and vomits it up.

Meanwhile he sees a woman with a black veil standing by the lamp post on the street outside his room each evening. She is standing there again when he gets home this night, and he talks to her, and it turns out she is Ylajali. They walk together and make a date to meet, and impulsively she kisses him. He still feels guilty about the so-called “theft,” fears a prison cell, discovers that “I had been happier before when I was suffering in all honesty,” and he gives the remainder of the money to a poor cake vendor on the street without a word and feels relieved, honest again.

Mad with hunger, he gets a bone from the butcher—“for his dog”—and goes down an alley to gnaw at the scraps of raw meat on it, vomits and curses God vehemently, but then realizes it is only rhetoric and literature, a speech—even in despair he polishes his prose. He runs into the Commander, who takes pity and gives him an advance of ten crowns, and the narrator rents a room on Tomte Street in Vaterland, a slum. (Tomte in Dano-Norwegian means “lot,” but the first three letters, “tom,” also mean empty; actually, Hamsun lived in this slum in 1881-82. Now the slum has been raked away and a five-star Radisson Hotel has been erected in its place.)

Part Three ends with the heart-breaking meeting between the narrator and Ylajali at her apartment. It is the maid’s night off, the older sister is traveling, and Ylajali has taken her mother to visit friends—making it possible for them to have the apartment for themselves. About ten pages are devoted to this encounter. Ylajali clearly thinks that he is interestingly profligate, while he has serious feelings for her. They begin playfully enough and kiss, and he tells her he loves her. She helps him unbutton her blouse, and her breasts peek out “like two sweet miracles behind her underlinen,” but she notices that his hair is falling out and teases him about living a wild life. He tells her the truth about himself, that he is very poor and starving, tells every detail, but instead of accepting this honesty and truth from him, she is horrified, becomes frightened, calls him “crazy.” He realizes that if he had been dishonest and pretended to be a libertine, she would have continued to be interested in him.

Part Four (153-190) begins when winter has come—raw and wet and snowless, “a dark and foggy everlasting night.” (A realistic description of a Scandinavian winter.) He is penniless and staying at Tomte Street without paying. The landlady even gives him a little food every day, but suddenly she demands the three weeks rent he owes. He had started writing again, an allegory about a fire in a bookstore, but the books that are burning are brains, and just as it is going well, the landlady kicks him out. She allows him to sleep downstairs, however, in the room where the paralyzed grandfather, landlord and landlady and children sleep. He fears being evicted into the winter streets and writes in the freezing hallway, is subject to hostility and mockery from the maid and landlady who, nonetheless, continues to feed him.

He has switched to another work-in-progress, a medieval play called “The Sign of the Cross,” about a “gorgeous whore” who is misshapen and repulsive (perhaps he means that she is gorgeous in her shamelessness?) and who has desecrated and sinned in the temple out of hatred of heaven.

The boarding house main room is described here as a kind of low-grade hell (170-176) with all manner of petty cruelty, fornication, mockery, voyeurism, and voyeurism of voyeurism, going on beneath a picture of a green-haired Christ on the wall. The narrator, kicked out, sneaks back into his room to write and sees across the street a red-bearded man amusing himself by spitting out his window on the head of an unsuspecting child playing innocently in the gutter. This hell of details all build to a climax here of contempt and misperceived motives; he is writing quickly to earn money to take revenge on Ylajali in order to be able to toss in her face the money she has had the audacity to send him out of pity (but impetuously he has already tossed it in the face of his landlady—so, he reasons, it would not be the same ten crowns he tossed in Ylajali’s face), and then realizes he is writing too quickly, not choosing his words carefully, writing for revenge, and he despairs that his play is not credible, tears it up and throws the scraps in the air, casts down his hat and stamps on it, crying out, “I’m lost! Ladies and Gentlemen, I’m lost!” (Oscarsson does this scene magnificently in Swedish. “Jag är förlorat! Mine damer og herrer! Jeg er förlorat!” Which is translated literally from the Dano-Norwegian “Jeg er forlatt” as “I am lost!” but I think that “abandoned” comes closer to the Swedish rhythm of what Oscarsson says. And one cannot help but think of how many are abandoned among the homeless today—are contemporary times any better than what Hamsun was writing about?)

Pained with hunger once again, he goes back to the cake vendor and tries to bully her, by claiming cakes for the (so-called “stolen”) money he had given her, badgers her into giving him some cakes which he wolfs down, though he saves the last for the innocent little boy who was spit upon by the red-bearded man.

Then he goes to the harbor and signs on to a ship. The novel ends:

“Out in the fjord, I straightened up, wet with fever and fatigue, looked in toward the shore and said goodbye for now to the city, to Kristiania, where the windows shone so brightly in every home.”

The implication seems to be that beneath the bright shining windows lies quite another reality—a reality of hunger in the city of hunger. Interestingly the first ship he was eyeing earlier in the book was sailing to “a city in Russia” (which phrase in Scandinavian means a hopelessly distant and incomprehensible place), but the ship he actually takes is sailing for England and points beyond; in an 1899 essay about the century to follow, “Thoughts on the Turn of the Century,” Georg Brandes voices the notion that among other things the next hundred years will witness whether Russia or England becomes the main world power—not yet factored in is the U.S. In fact, Hamsun sailed back to Copenhagen where in just over a year he wrote the novel Hunger which was immediately acclaimed, and thirty years later, in his fifties, in 1920, he won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

So Hamsun has visited this “strange city” of Hunger, the strange city of consciousness in all its exaggerated instability and the strange city of creativity as well and recorded the voyage with a stub of pencil in the park or in a cemetery, by the light of a street lamp, or on the deck of a ship. Less interesting to me is the fact that apparently Hamsun became a pawn of Hitler. I am, however, keenly interested in this masterpiece, his detailed portrayal of consciousness and of the process of creative expression, and his use of ordinary detail in magical illumination—ads for a loaf of bread, for a shroud, for a lighthouse. And I note how these ordinary details are portrayed—“the thin grinning letters” of the ad for shrouds (“main entrance to the right”), “a fat swelling ad for freshly baked bread,” and “a notice from the Director of Lighthouses...” A stub of pencil. The derangement of creativity as a response to ordinary events—a meeting with a woman on the street, with a nearly blind man in the park, with a beggar, whose perceptions of the narrator become a mirror to him, mocking his ambition to achieve greatness by expressing truth. And the creation of a strange city of the consciousness of every sort of hunger—the hunger for food, erotic and romantic hunger, the hunger for a home and justice and social order, and not least the hunger for expression—which no one leaves before it has set its mark upon him.



  1. Auster, Paul. The Art of Hunger: Essays, Prefaces, Interviews. Sun & Moon Press, 1992. 312 pages.
  1. Brandes, Georg. “Thoughts on the Turn of the Century.” Scandinavian Airlines System: Forlaget Geelmuyden, Kiese Publishers, 1988, originally published in Danish in 1899 (translated by Martin A. David), bilingual edition. 164 pages.
  1. Carlsen, Henning. Hunger ( a film based on Knut Hamsun’s novel), 1966, reissued as DVD in 2003 including trailers with a conversation about the work by Paul Auster and Regine Hamsun and an interview with Henning Carlsen about the filming of the book.
  1. “George Egerton” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Web.
  1. Hamsun, Knut. Hunger: A Fragment. Introduction by Jan Kjærstad. Translated by Sverre Lyngstad. Scandinavian Airline System in cooperation with Geelmuyden, Kiese Publishers, Norway, 1999. 127 pages.
  1. Hamsun, Knut. Hunger, translated by Sverre Lyngstad. Edinburgh, Scotland, Cannongate Books Ltd., 2001. 201 pages.
  1. Hunger (Hamsen novel).” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 12 May 2012. Web.
  1. Kirsch, Adam. “Smashed: The pulp poetry of Charles Bukowski.” In The New Yorker, March 14, 2005, pages 132-136.


“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury