Print this post Print this post

Knut Hamsun’s Hunger

1,058 words

Oh, what strange freaks one’s thoughts are guilty of when one is starving.

— Knut Hamsun, Hunger

Back in my misspent youth, I took a seminar on creative writing. One of the instructors gave the class a piece of advice which I never heeded. She said that if you want to be good enough at writing to make a living at it, don’t be good at anything else. While I avoided the privations and loneliness such a life would necessarily entail, the unnamed first-person narrator of Knut Hamsun’s classic novel Hunger apparently did not.

Published in 1890, Hunger tells the semi-autobiographical story of Hamsun’s days as a penniless and starving writer. And starving is meant quite literally here. The novel chronicles a young man’s wandering through a Norwegian town called Christiania where he scrounges for survival while pleading with his muse for inspiration for his next newspaper essay. There is little plot to speak of, and the protagonist unwittingly isolates himself from family and civilization as his gargantuan emotions and ideas violently clash with his bourgeois pretensions and post-Christian outlook. The story lacks the typical beginning, middle, and end. Instead, it seems to start somewhere in the middle of the middle and ends somewhere in the beginning of the end. We have to figure out the rest. Perhaps this is why Hunger is considered “modernist.” In it, one can easily find antecedents to James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Franz Kafka’s The Trial, and Albert Camus’s The Stranger. On the other hand, Hunger is about as modernist as Dostoevsky’s 1864 novel Notes From Underground, which also subsumes plot within an unnerving depiction of a man’s troubled mind.

Yet there is a plot to Hunger — at least one designed to make the reader want to know what’s going to happen next. The suspense revolves around two questions. Will the protagonist eat? And, will he write? Survival is in the balance here, and those of us who have had at least to hustle for our survival will appreciate the protagonist’s near-constant physical suffering and mental anguish. It is a testimony to Hamsun’s skill as a novelist to make us care about such a threadbare character. Hamsun doesn’t even give us more than a vague idea of what his protagonist is writing or trying to write — for example, a treatise on Kant or an allegory about a fire in a bookshop. Yet because the protagonist puts such effort into presenting his ideas, we believe him when he considers them profound. Somehow, we care.

You can buy Spencer Quinn’s novel White Like You here.

Thoughts came 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.

I am very hard to please when it comes to novels, yet Hamsun never caused me to lose interest. How he does it, I can’t say. Mystery is crucial in all art, and usually in the narrative arts, this mystery involves character, plot, or dialogue. Why was Ahab so fixated with the White Whale in Moby Dick? Why did Stavrogin do what he did at the end of The Possessed? What did the Misfit mean in the last line of A Good Man is Hard to Find? I don’t know. Essays answering these questions would be fun to write (and hopefully read) but in the end, we would all just be spitballing.

The mystery behind Hunger entails the inner life of genius. How does a person survive when burdened with phantasmagoric embodiments of ideas as well as emotions as real as brick and mortar? What are his thought processes? Will he ultimately be able to contribute meaningfully to society? Or will his suffering cause him to slide into madness?

How did I look in reality? It was the very deuce that one must let oneself turn into a living deformity for sheer hunger’s sake. Once more I was seized by fury, a last flaring up, a final spasm. “Preserve me, what a face. Eh?” Here I was, with a head that couldn’t be matched in the whole country, with a pair of fists that, by the Lord, could grind a navvy into finest dust, and yet I went and hungered myself into a deformity, right in the town of Christiania. Was there any rhyme or reason in that? I had sat in saddle, toiled day and night like a carrier’s horse.

I had read my eyes out of their sockets, had starved the brains out of my head, and what the devil had I gained by it? Even a street hussy prayed God to deliver her from the sight of me. Well, now, there should be a stop to it. Do you understand that? Stop it shall, or the devil take a worse hold of me.

This conflict should matter to all of us because geniuses like Hamsun’s protagonist can see what the rest of us cannot see. They lack the instinct for comfort and self-interest, and therefore have fewer biases separating them from reality. At times, they live almost like animals because what they see and what they feel are a real as money and as sharp as love. And having neither, they are forced to scrounge to survive. They can’t help it, just as the rest of us cannot help despising them or feeling sorry for them as they babble to themselves walking down the street. Most of the time, such poor souls really are insane, but Knut Hamsun reminds us that oftentimes, they are not. And we may well ignore them at our peril.

No, no. Kant got it all wrong about philosophical cognition, you see. And those books you see burning in that bookshop? Those aren’t books. Those are human brains.

If you want to support our work, please send us a donation by going to our Entropy page and selecting “send paid chat.” Entropy allows you to donate any amount from $3 and up. All comments will be read and discussed in the next episode of Counter-Currents Radio, which airs every Friday.

Don’t forget to sign up for the twice-monthly email Counter-Currents Newsletter for exclusive content, offers, and news.

 

4 Comments

  1. Archer
    Posted July 31, 2020 at 6:26 am | Permalink

    Interesting. I too find it difficult to find fiction that holds my interest, but I do like flannery O’Connor as well. I would like the author to list some other works of fiction that have held his interest. Does Tolkien appeal to him? I am sort of like Leslie Fiedler in that I have grown to like genre fiction, particularly old school sci-fi fantasy, better than real literature. After a certain point, the woke worldview, the only one allowed by editors and publishers, is simply inconducive to literature and truth.

    One of my favorite things about sci fi fantasy is the little Easter eggs hidden along the way.

  2. Archer
    Posted July 31, 2020 at 6:34 am | Permalink

    What would he think of Saul bellow’s books, particularly humbolt’s Gift?

  3. Veslemøy
    Posted August 1, 2020 at 5:31 am | Permalink

    Hunger is as much a portrait of a young man as a portrait of Oslo. And one can (thus) recognize the same despair in all of Munch’s paintings. Both alienated by modernity.

  4. Lord Shang
    Posted August 1, 2020 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

    Good review, though I wish it had been longer. Coincidentally, the Wall Street Journal also has a review of Hunger in today’s paper. Are we on the verge of a Hamsun revival?

    Maybe Growth of the Soil, a true classic esp for Dissident Rightists, should be reviewed next.

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared.
 
Comments are moderated. If you don't see your comment, please be patient. If approved, it will appear here soon. Do not post your comment a second time.
 
Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

*
*

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

  • Our Titles

    White Identity Politics

    The World in Flames

    The White Nationalist Manifesto

    From Plato to Postmodernism

    The Gizmo

    Return of the Son of Trevor Lynch's CENSORED Guide to the Movies

    Toward a New Nationalism

    The Smut Book

    The Alternative Right

    My Nationalist Pony

    Dark Right: Batman Viewed From the Right

    The Philatelist

    Novel Folklore

    Confessions of an Anti-Feminist

    East and West

    Though We Be Dead, Yet Our Day Will Come

    White Like You

    The Homo and the Negro, Second Edition

    Numinous Machines

    Venus and Her Thugs

    Cynosura

    North American New Right, vol. 2

    You Asked For It

    More Artists of the Right

    Extremists: Studies in Metapolitics

    Rising

    The Importance of James Bond

    In Defense of Prejudice

    Confessions of a Reluctant Hater (2nd ed.)

    The Hypocrisies of Heaven

    Waking Up from the American Dream

    Green Nazis in Space!

    Truth, Justice, and a Nice White Country

    Heidegger in Chicago

    The End of an Era

    Sexual Utopia in Power

    What is a Rune? & Other Essays

    Son of Trevor Lynch's White Nationalist Guide to the Movies

    The Lightning & the Sun

    The Eldritch Evola

    Western Civilization Bites Back

    New Right vs. Old Right

    Lost Violent Souls

    Journey Late at Night: Poems and Translations

    The Non-Hindu Indians & Indian Unity

    Baader Meinhof ceramic pistol, Charles Kraaft 2013

    Jonathan Bowden as Dirty Harry

    The Lost Philosopher, Second Expanded Edition

    Trevor Lynch's A White Nationalist Guide to the Movies

    And Time Rolls On

    The Homo & the Negro

    Artists of the Right

    North American New Right, Vol. 1

    Some Thoughts on Hitler

    Tikkun Olam and Other Poems

    Under the Nihil

    Summoning the Gods

    Hold Back This Day

    The Columbine Pilgrim

    Confessions of a Reluctant Hater

    Taking Our Own Side

    Toward the White Republic

    Distributed Titles

    Reuben

    The Node

    The New Austerities

    Morning Crafts

    The Passing of a Profit & Other Forgotten Stories

    Gold in the Furnace

    Defiance