Book Review: “Hunger” by Knut Hamsun by Brian McElmurry

This book involves a nameless narrator who literally starves, seeking the means for food and shelter, or any help his pride will allow, the entire story. The format is in four parts where each section ending with the narrator getting some sort of food, or a small amount of money (called kroner and ore) that satisfies his needs for a short amount of time. Set in Christiana, Norway (now called Oslo), the narrator is a writer of unsolicited articles that he hopes to finish and sell to feed and shelter himself. No background is given of the narrator, but from the intelligence of his pathology and his reference to pawning all of his books and possessions, it suggest a childhood of a class that would receive an education.

The character is not overly sympathetic, or idealistic to a cause, as the setting of this is the 1890’s when the hardships of the poor were not matters of society’s wrongs, or the government to fix. Written in the first person, the style of physical description would be minimalistic, but the style of writing for his thoughts is excessive. Reading this, you can see Dostoyevsky and 19th century literature because the starving and simple towns people, but the prose is one of 20th century stream-of-consciousness. The narrator follows his tormented brain from the beginning to the ending of each thought, which are often polar opposites. His hunger drives him crazy, as his moods go from feelings of grandiose pomp to utter despair; he’ll go from near physical and mental exhaustion to a feeling elation and freedom (Which brought thoughts of the Buddha and ascetics). The best a modern reader could relate to his mental condition would be one of a drug induced kind. Yet he is a likeable character whose chief weakness is pride, and he lies for the fun of it, occasionally, partly out of pride and partly out of jest. After spending the night in jail because he had lost his key to the loft above a barn he is staying, he tells the police that he is wealthy and doesn’t need the meal ticket that is given out to the prisoners in the morning, even though he is starving. He pawns his jacket and gives half of the money to a street urchin. When he calls on a friend, who can’t let him in because his friend is entertaining a lady, he can’t even bring himself to ask for a bite to eat, or anything to spare. He claims at a point in the book that he is not a man of pride, to only a few pages later show this isn’t true. As a man, he is controlled by his whims, which his starving brings to a manic ferocity. When he is given back change by accident at the market, instead of counting his blessings, he gives his left over money to a poor cake vendor, and then even later tells the grocer about it and yells at him. He talks to himself, yells at himself, yells at God, damns God in a every way conceivable, and literally goes crazy. Reading this, I felt great sympathy for him. Wanting the character to find food and shelter and peace of mind. But often he throws, or gives away, the food or money that would save him out of pride or a sense of honor.

Reading the essays regarding “Hunger” within the book, the authors made a point of the unconscious mind that drives the character, which is a very 20th century idea, yet I saw this book as a man really just trying to survive, in a way that most modern men couldn’t relate. The idea of hunger and people starving does exist today, but in no way it did in the 19th century and before. You see pan handlers on the street, and recognize them as crackheads/tweakers, or if not, a wino. There are food banks, homeless shelters, government programs for people without. But in the 1890’s, if you were starving, you could really only go to a church, like the narrator did, but he didn’t receive anything when he did. He tries to ask some people on the street for help, but receives none.

It makes me think of the crackhead that lives in the basement of my building. He is always asking for “two dollars, so I can get a hot dog.” He’ll hang out at the corner, and ask everyone that comes by for money, sometimes running up aggressively to ask them. I’ve seen drug dealers in the basement while I do laundry, and know for a 100% he is a crackhead, but I wonder if, sometimes, the two-dollars is for a hot dog. A good friend of mine had a bad drug problem, and would spend all his money on heroin and crack. Once he did this, he would often be starving because he spent all his money on drugs.

Reading this book I immediately felt a connection to the author, and when I read this line, “By now I was so utterly denuded of objects that I didn’t even have a comb left, or a book to read when I felt hopeless.” It was like he was speaking directly to me.


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