Wednesday, 1 July 2009


by Knut Hamsun

This was one of those books I remember seeing on other student bookshelves along with titles from similarly Scrabble winning names like Kurt Vonnegut, Thomas Pynchon and Luke Reinhart. Perhaps because of that I always assumed that it was a novel written in that period of cult fiction, the late 1960's and 70's, so was more than surprised to discover that it was in fact written at the end of the nineteenth century (1890), placing it very much at the birth of modern fiction. The edition above from Canongate, published from 2006, doesn't help, making it look like a very modern and probably Scandanavian murder-thriller. Which it isn't. Paul Auster's introduction entitled The Art of Hunger draws attention to several things: the lack of plot, action and character (bar our narrator) which mark it out amongst other novels of the time, the absence of pity for the starving artist who need not starve but chooses to, and the bravery involved in abandoning God and other systems of belief and looking death ('an abrupt and absurd end of life') in the face - to walk unburdened into the 20th century.

It was in those days when I wandered about hungry in Kristiania, that strange city which no one leaves before it has set its mark upon him. . . .

In the city that we now call Oslo our narrator struggles. He struggles for food, for lodging, for recognition of his talents. He is caught in a contradiction: he needs to write to eat but must eat to be able to write. Filled with disgust for himself and those around him and also with his predicament, he combines monstrous arrogance with moments of charity he can ill afford. Just when he is at his most desperate something will come along to save him once more and yet just when he looks set to capitalise on some scheme he throws it all away. What we know from that tense used in that opening sentence is that he will survive, but it doesn't make the journey any less harrowing.

As a former resident of the London Borough of Haringey I would have to admit to a certain degree of recognition in those moments when the shabby figure of our narrator shuffles down the street jabbering away to himself or laughing maniacally. The general health of a city can usually be gauged by a quick head count of those talking to themselves and Hamsun clearly aims to show the modern, urban Kristiana as little more than an outer circle of hell. The surprise is that he also manages to include so much humour in a novel of such a dark nature. Sometimes this humour comes from the ridiculousness of the narrator. In one memorable episode, as he spends the night in a police cell (after having pretended to be a well-to-do journalist simply out too late, rather than the homeless vagrant that he is) suffering from the effects of his starvation he has a moment of revelation.

Suddenly I snap my fingers severe times and laugh. What the hell was this! Ha! I imagined I had found a new word. I sit up in bed and say, It doesn't exist in the language, I have invented it - Kuboaa. It does have letters like a word - Christ man, you have invented a word....Kuboaa...of great grammatical importance.

He then attempts to define the word but struggles to do little more than define what it doesn't mean(God, cattle show, padlock, sunrise. . .), these fitful thoughts extending for a few blackly humorous pages. Sometimes the humour comes from the unveiling of his hypocrisy when, after several ostentatious acts of charity and beneficence, he begins to come closer to desperation, losing the carefree and moral outlook he fights so hard to maintain.

Were I to find on the street, this minute, a schoolgirl's modest savings, a poor widow's last penny, I would snatch it up and stick it in my pocket, steal it in cold blood and sleep like a log all night afterwards.

Sometimes the humour comes from the absurd, the irrational, the kind of humour that makes you wince at the same time.

Nothing helped; I was fading helplessly away with open eyes, staring straight at the ceiling. Finally I stuck my forefinger in my mouth and took to sucking on it. Something began stirring in my brain, some thought in there scrabbling to get out, a stark-raving mad idea: what if I gave a bite? And without a moment's hesitation I squeezed my eyes shut and clenched my teeth together.

It is amazing to think how many authors have been influenced by this book, and gratifying that many of them are exactly the ones I had originally thought were his contemporaries. It is a book way ahead of its time, and in Sverre Lyngstad's 'definitive' translation (actually in this case the word may well be apposite given the glaring inaccuracies in the previous two translations which he takes great pleasure in pointing out - and even categorising - in his translator's note) reads not only as a very modern novel, but as a book which still has plenty to say about the modern world.


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