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Lost & Found: Don Waters on Knut Hamsun

Knut Hamsun was both Nobel laureate and Nazi collaborator; the protagonist of his novel, Hunger, is both suffering artist par excellence and repellent misanthrope.  Don Waters takes on these incongruities, and the distance between the real and romanticized writing life, in this Lost & Found from our vault.

In my early twenties, I was introduced to the Norwegian writer Knut Hamsun by way of Paul Auster.  Auster had just published Hand to Mouth, a memoir about struggling to scratch out a meager existence in his twenties while trying to write.  I was in a similar situation, and I devoured his book.  Not long after, at my local bookstore, I came across Hamsun’s Hunger, published in 1890.  I’d never heard of the man or the novel.  But I was drawn to the book because Auster had written the introduction, saying, “Something new is happening here, some new thought about the nature of art is being proposed in Hunger.”

Back in my apartment, I read the opening paragraph: “All of this happened while I was walking around starving in Christiania—that strange city no one escapes from until it has left its mark on him…”  I finished the book that night, astounded by its ferocity, language, and now-ness.  The book could have been published the day before.  Here was a hundred-year-old novel that felt contemporary and true.  Of course, my own “hand-to-mouth” way of life colored my initial interpretation of the book:  I believed that it was a testament to the struggling artist in a world unkind to artists.

Here is what happens:  An unnamed narrator living in Christiania—now Oslo—spends large parts of his days sitting in church cemeteries, walking the streets, and searching for ways to survive.  Our narrator is so poor that “[he] didn’t even have a comb left, or a book to read when [he] felt hopeless.”  His possessions are so few that he only has “a few dozens sheets of paper,” a pencil, and his mind, which erodes due to starvation.  Unable to secure a job, he tries to write articles for the Morning Times, hoping to earn enough money to survive a while longer.  Exceedingly hungry, he places wood shavings in his mouth to ward off pangs; once, he tries biting off his finger.

One would think all of this would elicit sympathy, but sympathizing with Hamsun’s narrator is difficult.  He makes proclamations that he’s better than the society in which he lives.  His desire to appear respectable is so great that he stubbornly refuses money that will feed him.  He refers to his fellow citizens as “creatures.”  He is ashamed by his poverty, and he is spellbound by it.

The narrator never apologizes for his ranting or lying; in fact, he draws pleasure from avoiding the truth.  He is shown as he is: his hair falling out, debating whether to pawn the buttons on his coat, talking to himself in bursts of near-madness.  Just when we believe he might die or lose his mind from hunger, an article gets accepted at the paper, a grocer accidentally gives him money, and suddenly a week goes by “in joy and gladness.”  He continues to write (“I had three or four essays in the works”), but soon enough he runs out of money again, his suffering continues as before, and in the end he boards a ship in the harbor and leaves Christiania behind.

Published when Hamsun was thirty-one, Hunger vaulted the author to minor fame.  Other major works followed, including the novels Mysteries, Pan, and Growth of the Soil.  Isaac Bashevis Singer wrote that “the whole modern school of fiction in the twentieth century stems from Hamsun.”  With his short, taut sentences, most critics like to point out his most obvious descendent: Hemingway.  For his body of work, Hamsun was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1920.

But Knut Hamsun’s life wasn’t so cut-and-dried.  Robert Ferguson named his biography of the writer Enigma for a good reason; Hamsun, during his life, was a controversial figure.  Self-taught, from a poor Norwegian family, he emerged from the countryside with a chip on his shoulder the size of Norway itself.  Ferguson notes that, not long after Hunger’s publication, the author went on tour to lecture on “the new literature” and to “explicitly condemn the old.”  There was room for every type of book, Hamsun argued, including and especially his own, which was a new kind of novel.  During these lectures, Hamsun didn’t pull punches.  He not only attacked his contemporaries, he also attacked Norway’s beloved playwright Henrik Ibsen—to his face—calling Ibsen’s characters wooden and outdated.  Some loved Hamsun, others didn’t, but no one could deny his talent, especially after he followed Hunger with Pan and, twenty-three years later, Growth of the Soil.  When they were translated, his books were read and cherished by Thomas Mann, Henry Miller, Hermann Hesse; at his peak, early in the twentieth century, Hamsun enjoyed international literary admiration.

But then there is the ugly business of Hamsun’s twilight years, when he collaborated with the Nazis during the Second World War, defending the German occupation of his country and, in his eighties, meeting with Hitler.  Hamsun’s politics leave a bitter taste in my mouth.  What does one make of a literary giant who associated with a political movement that left a black stain on our human soul?  Do we banish his books, ignore him?  His reputation was certainly scarred.  Ferguson suggests that we still haven’t come to terms with how to separate his association with fascists from his literary masterpieces.  As a consequence, Hamsun hasn’t enjoyed the kind of audience that his work deserves.

When I first read Hunger, I knew nothing of Hamsun’s politics.  I was too busy thinking that Hunger was solely about balancing the necessity of money against the desire to make art.  Poverty had defined my early twenties, and I projected my needs onto the book; in fact, I needed it to reinforce the mythology of the artist as poor and therefore pure.  But my early conclusions about Hunger were narrow.  It was only through my own writing process that I began to understand the book more deeply.  I realized that I was trying to give my characters real human thoughts, thoughts full of sensitivity, anger, and contradiction—like Hamsun had done.  Now, some ten years later, I have a finer—and wider—appreciation of the book’s meaning and importance.

At the time of Hunger’s publication, the Industrial Revolution was pulling more and more people (such as our ne’er-do-well narrator) into cities.  Modernizing conditions created an environment where the individual, and his thoughts, could stand alone.  Knut Hamsun, himself a solo wanderer, placed great value on the self; certainly the poverty he experienced during his twenties, by himself, also informed his work.  Ultimately, when he sat down to write Hunger, he broke from literary conventions by privileging the psychology of self over plot, and in so doing, he presented us with an intimate exploration of a character’s mind, giving us one of our first psychological novels.  Hunger is the condition, but Hamsun’s question is how a mind copes with it.  For an answer, we see the strange and enlightening abstractions that hunger can produce, and it is like observing the broken gears of a watch turn.  We see the narrator’s mind produce sparks—and those sparks are stunning.

Nineteenth-century novels like Hunger helped pave the way for fiction writers to explore the landscape of the mind.  Picture a bookshelf absent of the intensely psychological thrillers of Patricia Highsmith, or the neurotic musings of Philip Roth’s characters, or the beautifully interior worlds of Amy Hempel.  Yet, despite its influence on contemporary fiction, it’s fairly safe to say that Hunger would never be published today.  The novel is too fevered, too internal, and too far outside our current literary conversations.  So once more it offers another lesson, teaching us that we may soon find ourselves looking to our forbears, to the past, to uncover, as Auster said, something new.

Don Waters‘ story collection, Desert Gothic, won the Iowa Short Fiction Award. He’s been the recipient of fellowships from the Christopher Isherwood Foundation, the Lannan Foundation, and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

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