Knut Hamsun’s 1890 novel Hunger, recently republished by Canongate as part of their Canons series, is one of the greatest novels of the 19th century, arguably the first great novel of the 20th century. It is a foundational text in the development of modernism, a crucial and indispensable link in the chain of influence that runs from Dostoevsky through to Joyce, Kafka, Camus and beyond, and even today, it has lost none of its power to shock and unsettle.
Though set in fin de siècle Kristiana (modern-day Oslo) it is fair to say that the events of the novel really unfold within the fevered mind of its unnamed narrator, an aspiring young writer living in destitution and driven nearly to madness by malnutrition. The narrator is a mercurial figure, alarmingly erratic in his moods and behaviour: one moment prideful and arrogant, the next wracked by despair and self-loathing; capable of acts of generosity and empathy, but also vindictiveness, spite and cruelty; he rails at the perceived injustice of his lowly lot, yet engages in acts of self-sabotage bordering on self destruction. The titular hunger is the only true constant in his desperate life as he lurches from boarding house to park bench, from freelancewriting assignment to pawnshop. Perhaps the most moving and distressing passages are those in which the narrator secures some rare morsel and it almost invariably has an immediately emetic effect on his starved body: ‘The food began to take effect, it gave me great pain and I wasn’t allowed to keep it for very long. I emptied my mouth in every dark corner I passed, struggling to suppress the nausea that was hollowing me out afresh, clenching my fists to
make myself tough, stamping my feet on the pavement and furiously gulping down
again whatever wanted to come up — but in vain!’
As a psychological portrait of suffering it has few, if any, equals in world literature. Hamsun uses a number of literary techniques to recreate his narrator’s labile consciousness on the page, such as the jarring shifts of tense and diction, all faithfully reproduced in Sverre Lyngstad’s translation, which, as Lyngstad explains in an accompanying essay, corrects many of the egregious errors to be found in earlier translations. What really sets the new Canongate dition apart though is the inclusion of illuminating forewords and afterwords by Jo Nesbø and Paul Auster respectively.
But for all the greatness of Hunger, there is a problem with Hamsun, a problem
that any reader even passingly familiar with his biography must wrestle with, a problem that destroyed his reputation in later life and has tainted his literary legacy ever since: Hamsun was a Nazi. While it’s true that many artists were drawn to the various fascist movements that arose across Europe in the 1930s, few can be said to have been as enthusiastic and unequivocal in their support as Hamsun — perhaps only Ezra Pound, another great modernist who shamelessly prostituted his genius to Mussolini and his thugs. Apologists for Hamsun have pointed out that he was already an old man when Hitler came to power, that perhaps his faculties were failing him and that he couldn’t really have known the full horror of what he was endorsing. His nauseatingly sycophantic obituary to Hitler, ‘a warrior for humankind and a preacher of the gospel of justice for all nations’, gives the lie to this generous interpretation. As painful as it is to accept for his admirers, it seems irrefutable that Hamsun was an enthusiastic and unrepentant Nazi. Following his meeting with Josef Goebbels, one of a number he had with high-ranking Nazi officials and ministers including Hitler, the Nazi Propaganda Minister wrote in his diaries that Hamsun’s ‘faith in German victory is unshakable’.
In 1889, the year before Hunger was published, Hamsun wrote, ‘Truth is neither
objectivity nor the balanced view; truth is a selfless subjectivity.’ Hunger is perhaps the supreme expression of this credo, but is it also possible to read into this philosophy the seeds of Hamsun’s own moral downfall? After all, as George Orwell noted over half a century later, the year after Hamsun met Hitler, ‘The really frightening thing about totalitarianism is not that it commits “atrocities” but that it attacks the concept of objective truth.’ But art and politics are, thankfully, two separate spheres and the ethics and priorities of one cannot be applied to the other (as the dreary legacy of socialist realism attests). Equally, we must not judge Hunger by the failings of its author some forty years after it was written, no matter how appalling they were. It would be anachronistic to try to read Hamsun’s fascist politics into the text of Hunger.
As the Scottish writer Duncan McLean wrote in his introduction to Rebel Inc’s 1996 edition of Hunger, the book categorically ‘isn’t a Nazi tract, it’s a gripping novel by a bold and original writer with a unique vision … It has to be read, and judged, on its own merits.’ Indeed, Hamsun’s later Nazism adds another level of unintended but almost unbearable poignancy to one of his narrator’s abortive essays. ‘I am right now at a very important point in my allegory about a fire in a bookstore,’ he writes towards the novel’s end. ‘It seemed to me so important that everything else I had written counted for nothing as compared to this point. I was about to express in a truly profound way, the idea that it wasn’t books that were burning, it was brains, human brains…’ That the author of this terrifying vision would one day find himself on the side of those who really did burn both books and humans is a terrible and tragic irony but one that should not deter you from reading, or rereading, Hamsun’s great masterpiece for yourself.