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by Knut Hamsun

Light on plot, heavy on inner turmoil, the book, which made Nobel Prize winner Knut Hamsunís name, is a modernist tour de force. Here we have the daily struggles of a writer as he weaves his way, starving and world-weary, through the streets of Christiania (now Oslo) at the end of the nineteenth century.

During his desperate wanderings through the city in search of shelter, food and work, the unnamed narrator encounters all manner of people who help and hinder his endeavours: there is the belligerent landlady who allows him to stay in her own room, only to turf him out when he is at his most desperate; the newspaper editor who takes on one of his articles, and patiently allows him to submit others; and, perhaps most memorably, there is Ylajali, a woman who haunts the writerís mind after a strange romantic encounter. Not much more happens than these (and other similar) events, but no matter. The young vagrantís chaotic wavering between joy and despair are as gripping as any thriller I have read.

Paul Auster, and many other writers, have heaped praise on Hamsun, celebrating him as one of the founding fathers of modernist writing. Others cannot see past Hamsunís vociferous support of the Nazi Party, even after the Nazis occupied Norway in 1940. He is a divisive writer, then, but an intriguing one. And if all this politics and collegial adulation sounds too lofty, rest assured there is much for the lay reader to enjoy in HUNGER. The journey inside the mind of a man going physically and mentally to the dogs reflects the universal capacity of the human soul to slip inexorably towards madness and depression. As for the writing itself, it swells with unique evocative detail on the rawness of human experience. At one point, for instance, the narrator describes his hunger thus: ĎThere was a merciless gnawing in my chest, a queer silent labour was going on in there.í

The fact that our narrator is a fictional version of Hamsun himself makes his woes all the more engaging (he begs a butcher for a bone, like a dog; he pawns his clothes; he eats wood-chips from the floor). Indeed, the fate of the struggling artist has perhaps never been more realistically, alarmingly and compellingly evoked. Those with ambitions to write take heed.

Nina de la Mer


I read HUNGER as a young literature student in the 1960s and in the parlance of the day "it blew me away". Your excellent review has inspired me to re-read it. I wonder if it will have the same effect.

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