My Writing

Thursday, August 5, 2010

"Hunger" by Knut Hamsun

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."


  1. i recommend 'mysteries' and 'pan' by him

    i think i like 'mysteries' and 'pan' 200-400% more than 'hunger'

    i liked 'victoria' maybe 60-80% more than 'hunger'

    i think knut hamsun is chris killen's favorite author

    if you google their names you can find chris killen saying things about each knut hamsun book i think

    good job

  2. cool, thanks tao. yeah, i was planning to read those other early novels as well. sounds good.

  3. Hi, Stephen. Sorry for commenting on an old post or whatever. I have the Sverre Lyngstad translation of this and, while I haven't actually read the Robert Bly translation myself, there is a 30 page appendix at the back of the edition I have comparing the two translations. It exists mainly to point out the faults in the Robert Bly translation.

    "It is hard to tell whether the inaccuracies and errors are due to insufficient knowledge of the source language, or to a slapdash, pseudo-creative attitude towards the craft of translation. Whatever the reasons, the sheer number of wrong or merely half- or quarter-right renderings of words and phrases is overwhelmingly high, easily running to four digits. That is to say, there are on average five such mistaken renderings per page. Some are what I would consider real howlers, stemming from a radical misreading of a word, phrases or clause."

  4. damn, seems like i read a shitty version. oh well, still enjoyed it. thanks, giles.