I came to Knut Hamsun by way of George Egerton. Two writers few modern readers have heard of outside of academia and Norway. George Egerton (Mary Chavelita Dunne Bright) wrote two volumes of wonderful short stories, Keynotes and Discords, in the late 1890’s and became one of the prominent figures in the feminist literary movement known as the “New Women.” She had a romantic attachment with Norwegian writer Knut Hamsun, whom she listed as a strong influence on her own writing. In fact, she translated his first novel, Hunger, into English. Mr. Hamsun went on to win the Nobel Prize for literature in 1920, while Ms. Egerton faded into obscurity until modern critics such as Elaine Showalter rediscovered her work. I found her through Ms. Showalter’s book A Literature of Their Own.
Hunger is based on the ten years Mr. Hamsun spent in Christiania, now modern Oslo, trying to become a writer, earning very little money for the few articles and stories he could sell, and going without food much of the time. The novel’s subject is hunger and its effects on the psychological and physical state of those who endure it.
As such, it’s an excellent work. Because Mr. Hamsun believed that the subject of literature should be the intricacies of the human mind, Hunger focuses on the experience and thoughts of its un-named narrator almost to the exclusion of other characters. There are other people in the book–the editor at the magazine, a landlady, an old friend who tries to offer help, a woman he meets on the streets a few times–but these characters are of little interest to Hamsun and to the reader. What interests Hamsun is the narrator’s state of mind, the delusions his hunger causes, and his own desire to keep up appearances as he insists on surviving only by writing instead of taking on a profession which he feels his beneath a man of his sensibilities.
Hunger is interesting reading, and this insistence on writing as the sole source of income eventually worked for Hamsun himself. Eventually. But midway through the book, one starts wishing the narrator would simply get a job. I suppose it may be of those moments when a modern perspective intrudes on the experience of reading classic literature, but I suspect many of Mr. Hamsun’s contemporaries had the same reaction. Even Franz Kafka took a job with an insurance agency, for heaven’s sake. No one ever accused him of selling out.
This trail I’ve been following–Elaine Showalter to George Egerton to Knut Hamsun–leads to Franz Kafka who some critics say was influenced by Mr. Hamsun’s novel Hunger when he wrote his short story “The Hunger Artist.” This possible influence strikes me as likely.
In later life, Mr. Hamsun was a strong advocate for National Socialism. He praised Adolf Hitler and even sent his Nobel Prize medal to Jospeh Goebbels. While Mr. Hamsun would survive World War II by several years, Mr. Kafka’s sisters, who had outlived him, died in Auschwitz.
I first ran this review on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B. back in 2011. It was only while reading up on Knut Hamsun that I found out he was basically an unrepentant Nazi his whole life. That someone could hold such despicable beliefs and still create a piece of art, in spite of the flaws I find in it I would classify Hunger as artwork, must give us pause. “Must give us pause” comes from Shakespeare, Hamlet’s soliloquy to be exact. It’s a very useful phrase that never should have fallen out of use. Something that makes us stop and think, consider, puzzle over. Something that keeps us from moving on to the destination we want to reach. I don’t think there’s a word in English that carries this meaning in the same what the phrase “must give us pause” does. Morally, Knut Hamsun deserves the relative obscurity he has fallen into. Artistically, I’m not so sure. Good books should always be rescued from the fire, shouldn’t they?