Talking books

Hunger
by Knut Hamsun
translated from Norwegian by Sverre Lyngstad

A few months back I went along to a new book group at a local pub. I only found out about it a few days beforehand and didn’t even know which book they were discussing, so that was an odd start to the evening but it was a great night. I met some new people, found out more about my adopted city and talked a lot about books. The chosen book turned out to be Hunger, which was already on my TBR, and the discussion about it inspired me to dig it out and give it a try.

The unnamed narrator of Hunger (except for when he gives himself pseudonyms) is a young, struggling writer, battling with his pride and the difficulties of getting paid to write, with the result that he is often starving or even homeless. The lack of food and warmth plays with his mind and the story delves into a dark psychology that to me seemed far more advanced than its publication date of 1890.

The writing is brilliant, and draws you on even when the narrator is incomprehensible or the storyline particularly dark, both of which happen often. There are dozens or more moments that stand out as somehow key – sleeping out in the forest one night (which struck him as a romantic idea and a potential source of food but turned out to be cold, wet and a long walk from the city); trying to sell the buttons from his overcoat to a pawnbroker; turning down a food coupon because he has told the police he is a rich man who lost his key, though it seems that surely they see through that lie and the writer hasn’t eaten in so long…

I completely agree with the member of the book group who said that she often wanted to scream at the narrator, he’s so frustrating. Although his pride does wear down eventually, for a lot of the book it gets in the way of him getting money or food. I did sympathise to a certain point. He seems to find it funny to tell lies to random strangers, including policeman, which is sometimes entertaining but other times costs him dearly.

I also think that the narrator probably has serious psychological issues that may have preceded the starvation. He has extreme highs and lows, achieving euphoria in his hunger or his writing but also stark depression. It’s a pretty extreme experience being described and it affected me deeply that the high moments were such small, simple things like a sunny day or decent night’s sleep. Interestingly, I don’t think eating was ever described as particularly pleasurable. In fact, he often vomits because the rare food he gets he eats too quickly, or it’s too rich.

One thing we discussed at the book group was the question of translation. This book is old enough that it has been translated into English multiple times. There were three or four versions round the table. This could mean that members of our group had very different experiences from each other. I wonder if all those who liked it most read the same version?

Thanks Hombre Mediocre for the book choice and for starting the group. I look forward to our January meeting.

First published in Norway in 1890.
This translation first published by Canongate Books in 1996.

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