Hunger, republished this year to mark the 125th anniversary of its original appearance, is one of those rare and compelling books which feel like they were written decades out of time.
With its sparse writing, modest plot and starving and dishonest narrator, Hunger feels like it should have been written three decades later by a Kafka or a Camus, responding to the horrors of the trenches, the possibilities of a revolution or the threat of its defeat.
Even to speak of Hunger’s plot is to give the impression of substance when, for the majority of the book, the story meanders between seemingly unrelated incidents.
The narrator comes to a city, he starves. He offers articles to a newspaper, he worries about his rent. He sells an article but even this successful commission leads only to further moments of hunger. He is evicted from his room.
The narrator neither learns nor changes and the reader never has a sense of a mission for him to complete or fail. He flirts with a girl, unsuccessfully. At the end of the story and, without purpose, he leaves the city.
Two scenes give a flavour of the book. Near the beginning, the narrator encounters an old beggar. Drunk with hunger and despising the old man’s frailty, the narrator decides to pawn his waistcoat and give the money to the beggar. The recipient is stupefied by the gift and silent. The narrator shouts and swears at his ingratitude.
Returning to the pawnbroker, the narrator seeks the return of the pencil-stub which he has left in one of the waistcoat pockets. The broker lets him take the pencil. Filled with energy, the narrator tells him that it was used previously to write a three-volume philosophical treatise. The pawnbroker humours his blatant lie.
Many generations of readers have sought to impose a logic on Hunger by calling it an existential novel or portraying the narrator as a zero in search of meaning or the opposite: a person seeking to discard meaning by starving himself to death.
The process of giving the novel meaning is encumbered by the events of Hamsun’s life.
The older the Norwegian writer got, the more right-wing he became. Wooed by Hitler, he wooed the nazis back and although his eventual meeting with the fuehrer in 1943 disappointed the latter, Hamsun never disowned fascism.
A letter to Hamsun by his publisher in 1946 strikes a chord with many disappointed readers: “There are few people I have admired as much as you, few I have loved so. None has disappointed me more.”
The conventional response to Hamsun’s politics is to say that he adopted them later in life and that the novel should not be blamed for the author’s subsequent follies.
This is too simple. Hunger does have a philosophy and is coherent in its own terms. If not fascistic, it is certainly misanthropic.
Reading Hunger in 2016, it’s not hard not to feel that the “personality” of the book is hostile and yet the novel is a thing of beauty — a frosty winter’s landscape to watch and admire but not to live in.
Originally published in the Morning Star