I liked this book a lot. I read it because I know it is one of Tao Lin's favorite books, or that it was a "seminal read" for him, and also because I knew it was supposed to have paved the way for a lot of the big Modernist writers. Also, I idly paged through it at Half-Price Books when I was back in Milwaukee with my friend Bill, and I liked the prose. I read the Robert Bly translation.
What's striking to me about this book is that the subject matter, the situation of the first-person narrator, is very depressing, and yet the narrator seems joyful in a way, or playful. The book is about a struggling writer walking around Christiania, Norway starving. He seems kind of self-denying or self-destructive, depending on your viewpoint, because he turns down food a few times and gives away money that he receives. As the book goes on, he starts to have outbursts and to act strangely. It becomes increasingly possible that he might starve to death or go crazy. Yet there is always something matter-of-fact about the prose; the narrator, and by extension the author, never adds melodrama or extraneous commentary or moralizing to the actions and thoughts of the narrator. I liked that.
There is also a romantic interlude, if you like, or a part with a woman he meets, and I won't ruin it. I mention it because I like when there's some kind of romantic something to a book, not necessarily romantic in a conventional way, I like it when the narrator feels something for someone else in a book, especially if it feels natural and uncontrived or innocent or cute in a way. Like, for example, in Chilly Scenes of Winter by Ann Beattie, the protagonist longs for this married woman ("the one who got way") the whole book, and that really kept me intrigued and wondering what would happen with them, especially because his thoughts about her were presented in a very realistic way, in my opinion (I also highly recommend Chilly Scenes of Winter---it's very funny and not nearly as depressing as Hunger).
I think I will keep these reviews, if one can call them that, short, for the most part, so here I end: the book puts you inside someone's head during a desperate time, but the narrator and the prose are not desperate, they are appealingly, plainly alive.
"All at once I snapped my fingers a couple of times and laughed. Hellfire and damnation! I suddenly imagined I had discovered a new word! I sat up in bed, and said: It is not in the language, I have discovered it---Kuboaa. It has letters just like a real word, by sweet Jesus, man, you have discovered a word!...Kuboaa...of tremendous linguistic significance.
The word stood out clearly in front of me in the dark."