Canongate 2016; £9.99
Knut Hamsun (1859 – 1952) is certainly not among the most popular names in the literary field. Born in poverty in the Norwegian municipality of Lom, his early years were predominantly filled up with joyless and often painful memories. In time, and by force of circumstance, he eventually finds refuge in the world of literature, which he was never to abandon until his death. His name was established with Hunger (1890), shortly after followed by Mysteries (1892) and Pan (1894), which were all warmly accepted and highly admired well beyond the margins of Europe. Canonical figures such as Kafka and Lawrence were influenced by Hamsun’s new style and a great deal of their works even imitates it. His influence stretched as far as America, where Hemingway praised him and recommended him to Scott Fitzgerald. Hamsun took the Noble Prize in 1920 with his superb Growth of the Soil (1920), however, it was Hunger that earned him world-wide recognition.
The novel unfolds on the streets of Kristiania (now Oslo) in the late 1800s. The main character is a starving poor young writer, whose name is never really ascertained but, funnily, is always being adjusted according to the various situations he comes to find himself in. His mercurial personality turns the character’s accidental encounters with others into deeply ironic, often even farcical scenes, clearly revealing the witty and mendacious imagination of the central figure; like in the chance meeting with the stable boy which turns into a skit when, contrary to his desire to ask the boy for money, he is the one being ask for five kroner.
“I threw myself on my bed and laughed. What a lucky dog I was to have him steal a march on me! My honour was saved. Five kroner – good grief, man! You could just as well have asked me for five shares in the Steam Kitchen or for an estate out in Aker township”
Under the surface of the story, Hunger becomes one of the first novels (many claim it is even the first), to fully develop the stresam of consciousness narrative mode. The main figure is a self-explanatory, ‘self-unravelling’ character, and in this seemingly plotless narrative his mind is all the reader follows. ‘What interests me is the infinite susceptibility of my soul, what little I have of it, the strange and peculiar life of the mind, the mysteries of the nerves in a starving body,’ Hamsun says; and this is exactly what he serves us – a fictional hero, whose pathos and absurdity springs entirely from within his own self. He constantly offers money to people, even though he has none; contrary to all reason, he almost even parts with his clothes for the sake of his nobleness. The character’s nemesis is thus caused not really by hunger, but by his own psyche.
The Noveau Roman reveals the fictional hero on his own terms; roaming the urban landscape in an agonizing hunger, chewing on wood chips, brown orange peels or bare bones, twisting every scene through his own prism, to his own liking, until finally comprising all experience according to his own rank:
“The intelligent poor individual was a much finer observer than the intelligent rich one. The poor individual looks around him at every step, listens suspiciously to every word he hears from the people he meets; thus, every step he takes presents a problem, a task, for his thoughts and feeling. He is alert and sensitive, he is experienced, his soul has been burned . . . “
This year’s edition of Hunger, again skilfully wrapped by Canongate, contains the cleanest and most sophisticated outlook of the highly rated authentic novel by Hamsun. Sverre Lyngstad’s English translation from 1996 is here, still unchallenged as the finest ever done on the book. And for those serious readers, who hanker to grasp the quintessence of this Norwegian story, in all its stylistic complexity and lexical semantics, but the foreign language makes it rather difficult, Canongate and Lyngstad have put much effort in providing a microscopic analysis of the faultless translation. Jo Nesbø introduces us the novel in just two pages, nevertheless, his shrewd style immediately makes one genuflect to Hamsun even before one had read the first page of his novel.