Knut Hamsun's 'Hunger': The birth of the modern psychological novel

 (Drawing by Jana Michel)

(Drawing by Jana Michel)

In 1888, twenty-nine-year-old Knut Hamsun (born as Knud Pedersen) sat on board of the transatlantic ocean liner ‘Thingvalla', traveling back to his homeland Norway from the United States, where he had worked as a laborer, a trolley conductor, and a pastor's assistant.

When, after about a week of traveling, the ship stopped at the harbor of Kristiania (the city now known as Oslo), Hamsun decided to stay on board. The ship stayed in the Kristiania harbor for a full day but Hamsun felt he could not face the city where he had once lived in poverty, trying to become a successful writer. Hamsun walked around on the deck of the ship and the sight of the city of Kristiania brought back many painful memories of a time when he had wandered around that very same city, almost dying of hunger.

He remembered the houses and the attic rooms where he had stayed, suffering from the cold. He remembered the people who had lent him money. He remembered the girl he had fallen in love with, the times he stood outside her house waiting to catch a glimpse of her. He remembered how lonely and desperate he had felt in Kristiania. He remembered the cold and the hunger. He found a bench to sit on, took a pencil and some paper out of his pockets, and started writing: ‘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…' He kept writing on the deck of the ‘Thingvalla' until it became too dark to see.

When the ship reached its final destination of Copenhagen, Hamsun disembarked and found a cheap attic room to rent. There he wrote more and more. The memories of Kristiania kept coming to him and he wrote like he had never done before. He felt he was creating something of great importance and artistic value. At night when he was sleeping, he would wake up with more memories and wrote them down to work on them the next day. He wrote like a man obsessed, barely giving himself time to eat.

When he felt he could not write anymore Hamsun started roaming about Copenhagen with his manuscript wrapped in a newspaper. He finally decided to find Edvard Brandes, literary editor of the ‘Politiken' newspaper and brother of the famous literary critic Georg Brandes. When Hamsun visited Edvard Brandes at his office to offer him his manuscript, Brandes was shocked by Hamsun's appearance. Hamsun was dressed like a beggar and looked extremely malnourished. Brandes later said that the sight of Hamsun's face had almost made him cry. He had never seen anyone with such a desperate and hungry looking face. Hamsun's hands were trembling when he handed Brandes his manuscript and Brandes only accepted it because he felt so sorry for him. Brandes promised Hamsun he would read his story and Hamsun left him his name and address.

When Edvard Brandes went home that night, he could not forget the look of that poor, malnourished man who had visited him in his office and had offered him his manuscript with trembling hands. After his evening dinner, Brandes started reading the manuscript. He could not believe it. He was immediately impressed with Hamsun's talent and passion. Brandes was captivated by Hamsun's tragic story and when he was about halfway through he started feeling embarrassed. He felt ashamed he had not treated Hamsun better and he realized Hamsun was probably out there somewhere in Copenhagen, suffering, and starving of hunger. Brandes quickly put on his coat and went to the nearest post office where he transferred some money to Hamsun. Then he went home and finished reading the story. He had never read anything like it.

Edvard Brandes was so impressed with Hamsun's manuscript, he contacted the editor of ‘Ny Jord' magazine and made sure they published it. Hamsun's story in ‘Ny Jord' magazine was read by many and it shocked the literary circles in Denmark and Norway. Hamsun later finished the story and it became the novel ‘Hunger' ('Sult'), published in 1890.

 

KnutHamsunSultHunger.jpg

 

A book about nothing, and everything.

‘Hunger' tells the story of a young aspiring writer wandering about the city of Kristiania, worrying about how he will pay his rent, where he will find his next meal, and how he will sell his articles to the local paper. Sometimes he's able to sell an article and buy some food, but never enough to really escape poverty. His hunger almost drives him to insanity. He talks to himself and he frightens the people around him. He applies for various jobs but gets rejected every time. He falls in love with a girl but the romance only ends in humiliation. He hopelessly tries to appear as a respected member of society, but his malnourished appearance and disintegrating clothes make it impossible for him to hide the terrible state he's in. He curses himself and wonders why God has chosen him to suffer. In the end, he escapes the city by becoming a deckhand on a ship headed for Spain.

Based on the plot, or lack thereof, one could easily think this is a book about nothing, but this is of course not true at all. ‘Hunger’ is actually a multi-layered novel which can be interpreted in many different ways.

The extraordinary individual versus society.

The main theme of the novel, which is actually a common theme in all of Hamsun’s novels, is the conflict of the extraordinary individual versus society. The novel’s unnamed protagonist struggles throughout the story to find his place in society. He does this by trying to establish himself as a writer and by applying for various jobs. Society, however, seems to reject him. He can’t get a job as a fireman because he wears glasses and he can’t get a job as an accountant because he gets the date on his application letter wrong. He has a bit more success as a writer as he actually sells some articles, but the main stories he wants to write never get completed.

There is also an internal battle going on. It seems of the utmost importance to the protagonist to not lose his dignity in any way. Even when he has no money at all, he pawns his jacket so he can give some money to a beggar. When he spends the night in jail, he refuses to eat the breakfast provided for the homeless despite his terrible hunger. He refuses to give up his dignity with an unbelievable stubbornness. When, finally, the girl he’s in love with tries to help him by sending him some money, the only way he feels he can keep his dignity is to leave the city.

‘Hunger’ can also be seen as a story about artistic integrity and the importance of being a self-sufficient artist. What better way to describe the struggles of being an artist than to have a writer eating his own pencil? Another interesting aspect of the novel is the protagonist's obsession with creating his own language and reality. He becomes a kind of trickster telling lies and inventing different personas to hide his real self. At one point in the novel, he invents a new word: ‘Kuboaa’. He’s very proud of inventing this new word and he feels it is of great importance, but he fails to find the meaning of the word and his failure results in a feeling of hopelessness. He’s able to define what the word doesn’t mean, but he fails to define what it does mean. This can be seen as the struggle of a writer trying to find his artistic value and individuality. He also refuses to use the actual name of the girl he falls in love with, choosing to call her Ylajali, a name he came up with himself, instead.

Another way to interpret this novel is to see it as a love story. The mysterious girl he calls Ylajali appears in all four chapters of the novel and in a way the entire novel seems to revolve around her. When she tries to help the protagonist by sending him money, the story comes to an abrupt end. Accepting money from the girl he loves is the final straw for the antihero. The only way to keep his dignity is to leave everything behind.

The fact that the protagonist leaves the city of Kristiania at the end of the story is of great importance as well. In Hamsun’s later novels, he would reject city life and embrace the mystical bond between man and nature. Hamsun’s aversion to modernity and his desire for a simpler life connected with nature would become a big theme in his famous novel ‘Growth of the Soil’, which won him the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1920.

‘The whisper of the blood and the pleading of the bone marrow.'

It is hard to describe just how revolutionary the novel ‘Hunger' was when it was first published. It was published in 1890 but when you read it you probably wouldn’t find it hard to believe if someone was to tell you it was published in 1990.

One needs only to look at the impressive list of authors who were influenced by Hamsun to realize how enormous Hamsun's impact on literature was. Franz Kafka, Thomas Mann, Stefan Zweig, Herman Hesse, Ernest Hemingway, Henry Miller, John Fante, Charles Bukowski, Paul Auster and many more great writers, all claimed to be influenced by Knut Hamsun. John Fante kept his copy of 'Hunger' under lock and key as if it was a sacred manuscript. His daughter and son knew they were not allowed to even touch this book and whenever Fante needed inspiration he knew he only needed to read a bit of 'Hunger' again to find all the inspiration he needed. Isaac Bashevis Singer once wrote: “The whole modern school of fiction in the twentieth century stems from Hamsun.” Ernest Hemingway claimed he had learned everything he knew about writing from reading Hamsun.

In ‘Hunger', Hamsun explores the darkest depths of the human mind in a time when even Freud was only just developing his theories, using literary techniques like stream of consciousness and interior monologues long before James Joyce.

Hamsun's opinion was that modern literature should focus on the unconscious and should unveil the irrationality and absurdity of the human psyche. Hamsun wrote that if modern literature were to go down this path, "we would experience a little of the secret movements which are made unnoticed in the remote places of the soul, the capricious disorder of perception, the delicate life of fantasy held under the magnifying glass, the wanderings of these thoughts and feelings out of the blue; motionless, trackless journeys with the brain and the heart, strange activities of the nerves, the whispering of the blood, the pleading of the bone marrow, the entire unconscious intellectual life.  And then there would be fewer books with the cheap, external psychology which never unravels a mental state, never dips down into mental examination."

With ‘Hunger’, Hamsun practically invented the psychological novel and started a new era of modern literature. It is without a doubt one of the most important novels ever written.

Wesley Stuer
august 27, 2018