If you continue to lose weight, she said, I’ll have to put you in hospital. My mother thought that I was starving myself. She spoke about it as though it was a conscious decision, as though I had decided to stop eating, out of vanity perhaps, when it was simply the case that I could no longer keep food down. I was fourteen years old, and being sick was easy. I didn’t need to force it. I didn’t tip my fingers down my throat and waggle them around. The vomit came when called, like a well-trained dog. She had always over-fed us, my brother and I, because it was the only thing she could do. For a while I had thrown her meals out of the bedroom window, but I couldn’t live with the guilt. What little money we had went on this, on fattening the rats that gathered below. So I did my duty. I ate, and that was important; but I wasn’t hungry. My shins burned when I walked, my mouth cramped when I talked too much, and I frequently lost consciousness, but I never knew hunger. I would, I thought, die happily without ever knowing what it felt like to want anything.
“God had poked His finger down into my nerves and gently, almost without thinking, brought a little confusion among those threads. And God had pulled His finger back, and behold–there were filaments and fine rootlike threads on His finger from the threads of my nerves. And there remained an open hole behind His finger which was the finger of God, and a wound in my brain behind the path of His finger.”
That Knut Hamsun’s first novel was published in 1890 is, with each new reading, increasingly surprising to me. This is not because it seems so ahead of its time – although many have made that argument – but rather because it strikes me as largely out of time. There is very little in it that dates it, that ties it to a specific period. The horse and carriage, the writing with pencil on paper, and one or two other moments or incidents, are the only real indicators. In terms of style, there are elements of Dostoevsky’s supernatural realism, but on a meagre scale. Hamsun’s unnamed protagonist is less intense, less obviously a front for an ideology or ethical-philosophical system; and certainly the author himself was less concerned with intricate plotting. In fact, there is little more to Hunger, in terms of action, than an exceedingly poor man wandering around Kristiana, that ‘strange city which no one leaves until it has set its mark upon him,’ which is now known as Oslo.
The most obvious interpretation of the book’s title is that it refers to the central character’s starvation, to the frequent days he endures without being able to eat. He is, as noted, wretchedly poor, and so cannot afford to. At times he becomes so desperate that he chews on wood shavings, or sucks a stone, or nibbles at a bone that he has procured from a butcher for an imaginary dog. Only occasionally – either through luck, charity, or his own hard work – does he come by a little money and therefore legitimate food. When denied basic sustenance the body will, of course, suffer, eventually wither and ultimately break down. Frequently he feels weak, his legs twitch and become unsteady, his head pounds, and his hair falls out. Even when he does take in food he throws it back up because his stomach is unused to it, it cannot handle it. Yet perhaps the biggest indication of his physical deterioration is how often people run away from him or try and avoid coming into contact with him, such as the woman who presses closer to the wall when he walks past. Indeed, the man’s body is in such a bad way that even he notices it, and cries over it, when it is often the case that the person involved, as I know myself, is ignorant of what is happening to them.
However, this aspect of the book is, although disturbing, not particularly interesting. For me, anyway. Perhaps it is too familiar, too close to my own experience, but I think there’s more to it than that. That someone who doesn’t regularly eat would be physically weakened, would waste away, is predictable, natural, and therefore hardly worth devoting your attention to. I’m reminded of what I wrote about Lolita, which is that if all that book has to say is that pedophilia exists, and this is how grooming works, then it was a waste of time to write it. In any case, what is engaging about Hunger is how Hamsun shows that the mental and the physical influence each other. When the man eats he feels ‘stimulated,’ more stable and lucid, and ‘capable of a greater effort’ where his own writing is concerned. Conversely, when he is without food, his mental state worsens, resulting in wild mood swings. At times he is ‘nervous and susceptible’; he is timid, apologetic, despairing, pathetic, and self-pitying. On other occasions, he becomes inexplicably angry and even sinister, such as when he goes in search of confrontation or starts to follow a young woman with the intention of ‘frightening’ her. One understands in these moments that it isn’t only his appearance that alarms the locals.
What this means is that the less the man has, the more in need he is, the more mad be becomes, and subsequently the more unlikely it is that he will receive help. Because extreme vulnerability is unappealing. That is part of the tragedy of the novel, and of life itself. At his most demoralised and despondent, he turns to God, but not with any conviction or genuine faith, more in order to rail against Him or doubt Him. His luck is so bad, he thinks, that his existence must be at the whim of some higher power, or is at least evidence of the fact that he has been abandoned. Yet if anyone is to blame for his predicament it is he himself. Indeed, the most fascinating aspect of his character, and the novel as a whole, is how much responsibility he has for, how much he contributes to, his own downfall. Take, for example, his insistence on helping the tramp, to the extent that he pawns his waistcoat in order to give him some money. It’s absurd, funny even. To be starving, to have so little, and give away your possessions or money, to people, in fact, who are probably better off than you are. The first time I read the book I couldn’t take it seriously, precisely for this reason. It wasn’t until I read it again that I began to understand.
The title of the novel refers to starvation, of course it does, but it also has a broader meaning or significance. Hamsun’s protagonist is stripped of, or denied, or just plain lacks, almost all of life’s essentials, almost all of the things that sustain us. He hungers, yes, but not only for food. He hungers for love, for sex, for work too, none of which he has access to. The only thing that he has, or that he can at least fool himself into thinking that he has, is his dignity. He helps the beggar because he does not want to be seen as being too destitute to give charity. He has next to nothing, but at least he can do that, at least he can still help others or attempt to. Similarly, when he sees a man carrying a bundle, he wants to take it from him and carry it himself. One might say that he cares too much about what people think of him – he blackens the knees of his trousers so that they will not look too worn, for example – and, yes, that is part of having dignity too, but, in my opinion, he cares more about what he thinks of himself. Isn’t that vital? To be able to tolerate the person you are. Yes. It may be at some point in your life that other people cannot bear to look at you, but I hope that you are always able to look at yourself.