I came across Knut Hamsun’s Hunger by chance. I’d been reading detective fiction. Detective fiction is good for me. It’s not too charged with emotion, romance, or inner turmoil. Well, anyway, that’s how I choose to look at it. Pages have been written on the subtleties of the hard-boiled school, but I’m in it for fun. I had finished Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely. I felt anxiety over what I would read next, because my choice of reading material is crucial to my mental well-being. I have to be properly distracted from myself, which is a constant struggle.
I went to the library and sought out something by Dashell Hammet. Next to a collection of his stories I noticed Knut Hamsun’s Hunger, a book I’d heard about a while ago. I checked it out.
There are many ways I might react to a story. A depressing tale can make me feel that there are bigger emotions than the petty ones I cling to. That’s a nice feeling, really. I don’t find it happens anymore. More than just empathizing with the emotions in a story, I relate to them. I give my own emotional life a lot of credit now, and a depressing film or book that resonates tends to reinforce despair and fatalistic thinking.
Hunger‘s tale of a starving, unemployed writer going mad might seem like an inappropriate choice in reading material for me; when I started it, I was unemployed and just beginning to write articles again. The job search was increasingly discouraging, and I felt on the verge of losing it. Whether inappropriate or not, the timing was perfect, because Hamsun’s narrator spoke to my nervous, depressive condition.
Hamsun’s novel is fascinating for the way it charts the wanderings, whims, frustrations, and struggles of an unstable yet intelligent mind. The novel was published in 1890, but its delicate rendering of mental states anticipates modernist writers like Virginia Woolf and James Joyce. Hunger has very few story elements: the narrator (we never get his name), we glean, is an intellectual living in what is now Olso in Norway. He is broke and starving. To make money, he sells articles. Nonetheless, most of the time he is without much hope. He has moments of optimism, extreme nervousness, anger, frustration, depression, and insanity. He has proud moments and low moments. The “story” of the novel is the narrator’s experience with these sentiments and, basically, his struggle to keep going. But except for the very end of the novel when he leaves Olso to work on a boat, the narrator doesn’t actually go anywhere, at least figuratively; what he does do is experience these range of sentiments, which change moment to moment, all the while trying to figure out how to survive. The same basic scenario is repeated over and over again throughout the novel: the narrator is starving; his condition worsens; somehow or other he manages to get just enough money or food to survive; briefly things are okay; his condition worsens…and so on. He lives in a kind of self-perpetuated stasis.
The depressive mind struggles with itself, rationalizes with itself, adopts stances, latches on to anything that might give it some encouragement. It’s an endless loop of internal dialogue that both tires us out but also keeps us going. Moments of optimism sometime appear; a certain thought seems to bring a glimmer of hope, for some reason or another. A certain way of viewing the situation makes things seem a little brighter. Then something else is triggered, despair seems to be coming on, the struggle begins again.
Hunger speaks to his constant, exhausting dialogue that goes on at one time or another, I’m sure, in all of our heads.
“As soon as I was wide awake, I took to thinking, as I always did, if I had anything to be cheerful about today.” That is a very good question for the morning – what will he do with himself? Hunger‘s narrator has a lot of time on his hands and only the necessity of keeping himself alive to give his days a purpose. The novel might be considered a tale of a man figuring out how to pass his time, because aside from his writing, our narrator has nothing to do other than to just try and get by. Except during times when he has money, which make up very little of the novel, the narrator struggles through each day, trying to write, moving from place to place, dozing on park benches, and scheming about ways to find food. Because of all this free time the narrator faces, there is a lot of time for him to think; as such, the novel becomes about his mental life.
The narrator of Hunger has a delicate temperament that changes frequently and rapidly. Sometimes, external stimuli can be inspiring. Early in the novel, for example, the traffic noises uplift his spirits: “The traffic noises on all sides cheered me up immediately, and I began to feel more content and at peace…A rare and delicate mood, a feeling of wonderful light-hardheartedness had taken hold of me.” One common bit of advice given to those who are depressed or anxious is to go out for a walk and concentrate on the visual and aural stimuli in order to be distracted. It is quite an irritating bit of advice, because the charm of a nice day or some picturesque foliage can easily be interrupted by one thing or another. Soon enough, a man limping ahead of the narrator inspires his ire, and his “rare and delicate mood” drops off: “I walked on, looking at this tedious creature, and became more and more full of rage at him; it was clear he was destroying my good spirits bit by bit, little by little dragging the pure and magnificent morning down to his own ugliness.”
Hunger, despite it’s bleak subject, is often a comical novel. The narrator expresses a lot of indignation. I love this word: indignation. It really expresses what we feel after a long bout of despondency. Things seem all out of sorts, unjust. But what is this indignation directed towards? The world? The worst thing is that there’s nothing really to direct it towards – except perhaps our own nature, which only inspires more indignation.
The indignation expressed in Hunger is a source of humor because it comes from an unstable mind with a warped and inconsistent perspective on things; these moments make up some of the novel’s most amusing passages. The narrator describes the same old man who is destroying his good spirits as “a huge humping insect determined to make a place for himself in the world by force and violence and keep the sidewalk all to himself.” Here, the narrator is hyperbolic, but not necessarily off base. Slow people are forever frustrating – especially the kind that work at parking garage ticket booths. They always inspire indignation. At other moments, the narrator expresses indignation that comes from a place of insanity. Near the end of the novel, a potato cart is passing by on the street and our narrator refuses to believe what he sees: “A wholesale grocer’s cart came by, and I saw it was filled with potatoes, but out of fury, from sheer obstinacy, I decided that they were not potatoes at all, they were cabbages, and I swore violent oaths that they were cabbages…” The narrator’s choler ranges from a bit excessive to insane. What is masterful about these expressions of anger and frustration is that they come from an intellectually rich yet chemically imbalanced mind faced with a world that it doesn’t know how to live in.
To rid himself of the old man, the narrator approaches him and discovers that he is a beggar. Without any money to offer, he quickly runs to the pawn shop, sells his waistcoat, and then offers the beggar some of the money from the sale. This example is just one of many instances where the narrator gives away money even though he is starving. The beggar looks at him like there’s something wrong. “What was he standing there staring at? I got the sensation that he was inspecting my trousers particularly, and I became irritated at this impertinence. Did this old man imagine I was really as poor as I looked? Hadn’t I just as good as begun my ten-kroner article? On the whole, I had no fears for the future; I had many irons in the fire.” Of course, he is as poor as he looks, and the irons in the fire don’t amount to much. But our narrator’s estimation of himself is about as inconsistent as his temperament, and while at times he seems delusional, usually he is painfully aware of his own destitution.
Our narrator grows more irritated: “I stamped my foot, swore, and told him to keep it [the money.] Did he think I intended to go to all this trouble for nothing? When you came down to it, I probably owed him the money, I just happened to remember an old debt, he was looking at a punctilious man, one honorable right down to the fingernails. In short, the money was his….Nonsense, nothing to thank me for, it was a pleasure. Goodbye.”
Our narrator operates under a strange mixture of pride and twisted logic. What starts as irritation with the old man ends with his odd tendency (there are countless examples) to give when he really has nothing to give. He rationalizes his actions by imagining that he actually owed the old man something. That is probably not the case. Intelligent and self-conscious, our narrator has to somehow justify to himself his strange actions; otherwise he would be totally insane, incapable of self-knowledge. Often, his actions are justified by his proud nature; or, alternately, his proud nature makes him all the more frustrated with himself when he does something that is not honorable in his estimation.
As for the prose, this passage poses an interesting question. Who is the narrator talking to? Other than to himself, for who is he justifying his actions? The old man? Us? “Nonsense, nothing to thank me for, it was a pleasure. Goodbye” – are these just thoughts, or are they spoken aloud? There are no quotation marks to indicate dialogue. Perhaps they exist in a space between reality and the narrator’s consciousness. Or they are part of the narrator’s recollection of the event; they represent what he had wanted to say, but did not.
Sometimes, the simplest things like taking a walk or sitting on a bench can be a huge trial; there’s just so much going on in our heads keeping us from enjoying anything or even getting some productive thinking done. A thought pops up and cues up a range of associations, and all of the sudden we’re struggling not to let our minds get to us. After a while, it gets out of hand – how can we possibly be thinking of these things, why can’t we just be in the moment or think about something that doesn’t upset us? The problem seems to be solitude; in the absence of other people we can talk to, we only have ourselves and our thoughts. Hunger‘s narrator rarely interacts with people other than to exchange a few words. He only has his own thoughts to occupy his mind:
I could not sit down on a park bench by myself or put my foot down anywhere without being besieged by tiny and pointless events, absurd nonsense, which forced itself into my brain and scattered my powers to the four winds…what was the matter with me? Had the hand of the Lord reached out and pointed at me? Well then, why me? Why not just as well some man in South America?
Hamsun’s narrator frequently expresses his indignation towards God. It has to be directed at something. He can’t get anything done; his thoughts stop him. Hamsun shows that one’s inner life can be filled with turmoil, struggle, and mental activity, even if very little is happening.
In one passage, Hamsun conveys the way distractions work on a mind and the way a train of thought moves. The narrator attempts to write, but fails, and leans backward on a bench in the park:
In this instant, my head was so clear that I could follow the most difficult train of thought without any effort…I noticed the tiny leaping movement my feet made every time my heart beat…At that moment a strange and fantastic mood came over me which I had never felt before—a delicate and wonderful shock rain through all of my nerves as though a stream of light had flowed through them. As I stared at my shoes, I felt as if I had met an old friend, or got back some part of me that had been torn off: a feeling of recognition went through me, tears came to my eyes, and I experienced my shoes as a soft whispering sound coming up towards me. ‘Getting weak!’ I said fiercely to myself and I closed my fists and said ‘Getting weak.’ I was furious with myself for these ridiculous sensations, which had overpowered me even though I was fully conscious of them.
The narrator’s mad thoughts overpower him even while he is aware of their influence over him. He becomes just as angry with himself as he does with God in the earlier passage. Indeed, who do we blame for our internal struggles? They are our thoughts that take control, after all.
To get by, we have to adopt different stances towards our lives and try to see things from new perspectives. That’s what I try to do. It’s a way framing the situation to make it seem more tolerable; it’s also a way of battling the darker side of ourselves, which can push us towards despondency. In other words, we tell ourselves things that make life seem, at least, okay. Hamsun’s narrator, when he’s not despairing, tries his best to convince himself that things are looking up. These moments are also a source of amusement; we know that his reasoning with himself is ludicrous and that his positive outlook is transient. When he leaves the room he holds in the beginning of the novel, for example, he reasons with himself that it is a step forward, even though he has nowhere else to stay: “In short, this room was simply not furnished in a way appropriate for intellectual effort, and I did not intend to keep it any longer. I would not keep it any under circumstances! I had been silent in this hole and stood it here and stayed on here too long already.” The exclamation point really adds a nice touch. The narrator feels proud about leaving the room, as it were a good thing. He feels certain that he’s “saved” and has nowhere to go but up. We should be wary of thinking there’s nowhere to go but up; if things go down the disappointment is all the more severe.
The narrator even justifies not eating: “I told myself that if I did eat food now, my head would get upset again, I would have the same feverish brain and ridiculous ideas to deal with. I simply couldn’t take food, I wasn’t made that way; that was one of my characteristics, a peculiar thing with me.” Eating can be a chore sometimes, it’s true. The logic in the narrator’s thinking is flawed and it works against him. He doesn’t want to eat because it will prevent him from writing, yet he’s writing in order to make some money and eat.
So it becomes increasingly clear that Hunger‘s narrator perpetuates his condition of starvation and misery. He puts himself through these trials. Sometimes he knows it, but that doesn’t make his thinking any less troubled. After sleeping in the forest surrounding Olso, he feels good about himself, despite the fact that it was a terrible experience: “After I was some distance away, I grew more and more glad that I had won this severe test. The awareness that I was honorable rose to my head, filled me with magnificent conviction that I had character. I was a white beacon tower in the middle of a dirty human ocean full of floating wreckage.” With this instance, our narrator both rationalizes the low point he reached (sleeping outdoors) and gets to root of his troubles – his sense of honor. Guilt might be added to that too; when he receives change accidentally from a grocer and takes it without saying anything, the incident haunts him so much that eventually he concludes “I had been without the slightest doubt happier before, while I was walking around suffering in honor.” To alleviate his feeling of guilt, he gives away the money to a cake seller on the street.
But our narrator is inconsistent. Later in the novel, with nowhere to write, he decides to go back to the boarding house where he was kicked out earlier in the day for not paying. He knows going there would be humiliating, but assures us that, “Pride was not one of my faults; if I might make such a large generalization, I would say that I was one of the least arrogant creatures that had ever existed to date.” It is as if he’s trying to convince us and himself that his actions are sensible. Part of the novel’s appeal comes from the fact that they’re not. At the boarding house, he’s kicked out again, but happens to receive an envelope filled with money mysteriously sent to him. His pride, which he claims is not one of his faults, is wounded; he throws the envelope up at his landlady, and indignantly tells us that, “That is what I call the proper way to behave! Say nothing, not even write on the envelope, just quietly crumple it up and throw it right between your enemy’s eyes! There is an example of someone acting with dignity!”
Eventually, when things seem really bleak, our narrator realizes that his sense of honor is making things worse. He makes the valuable insight that “I always had to go around thinking I was too good for everything, shaking my head condescendingly and saying no, thanks. Now you see where that leads me: here I am again tossed right out on the street.” He clearly has a high level of self-awareness, as unstable as he might be. With this sentiment in mind, our narrator decides, out of desperation, to return to the street cake seller to whom he gave away his money earlier. He reasons that, actually, when he gave her the money he was paying for cakes he would later claim: “I explained why I had given her the money, and explained it calmly and precisely: I had a habit of conducting myself in this manner because I believed in humanity. Always, if anyone offers me a contract or an IOU, I shake my head and say, no, thanks. That is the way I am, it’s true, so help me God.” In other words, what started out as an act based on the narrator forgetting his sense of honor and acting on necessity is warped into yet another honorable act. He grows hostile with the lady; his temperament becomes especially unsettled, and makes a scene out on the street, noting that “it seemed to me I had come out far superior in that exchange.” Aside from leaving Olso on a boat, this is the narrator’s last act, and assuredly if he stayed in Olso he would soon regret his behavior towards the cake seller.
The only thing the narrator does which does not perpetuate his starvation is to leave Olso. He makes this decision more or less arbitrarily, as if it could have come at any point in the novel. The viscous cycle stops. We imagine that it could not have gone on much longer.