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Hunger (novel)

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Wikipedia article




'Hunger' is a novel by the Norwegian author Knut Hamsun and was published in 1890. Parts of it had been published anonymously in the Danish magazine Ny Jord in 1888. The novel has been hailed as the literary opening of the 20th century"The whole modern school of fiction in the twentieth century stems from Hamsun. They were all Hamsun's disciples: Thomas Mann and Arthur Schnitzler (...) and even such American writers as Fitzgerald and Hemingway." 'Isaac Bashevis Singer' in 'Knut Hamsun, Artist of Skepticism', preface to the Robert Bly translation. and an outstanding example of modern, psychology-driven literature. 'Hunger' portrays the irrationality of the human mind in an intriguing and sometimes humorous manner.

Written after Hamsun's return from an ill-fated tour of America, 'Hunger' is loosely based on the author's own impoverished life before his breakthrough in 1890. Set in late 19th century Kristiania, the novel recounts the adventures of a starving young man whose sense of reality is giving way to a delusionary existence on the darker side of a modern metropolis. While he vainly tries to maintain an outer shell of respectability, his mental and physical decay are recounted in detail. His ordeal, enhanced by his inability or unwillingness to pursue a professional career, which he deems unfit for someone of his abilities, is pictured in a series of encounters which Hamsun himself described as 'a series of analyses.' In many ways, the protagonist of the novel displays traits reminiscent of Raskolnikov, whose creator, Fyodor Dostoevsky, was one of Hamsun's main influences. The influence of naturalist authors such as Emile Zola is apparent in the novel, as is his rejection of the realist tradition.

'Hunger' encompasses two of Hamsun's literary and ideological leitmotifs:

* His insistence that the intricacies of the human mind ought to be the main object of modern literature. Hamsun's own literary program, to describe 'the whisper of the blood and the pleading of the bone marrow', is thoroughly manifest in 'Hunger'.

*His depreciation of modern, urban civilization. In the famous opening lines of the novel, he ambivalently describes Kristiania as 'this wondrous city that no one leaves before it has made its marks upon him.'

Plot summary



The novel's first-person protagonist, an unnamed vagrant with intellectual leanings, probably in his late twenties, wanders the streets of Norway's capital in pursuit of nourishment. Over four episodes he meets a number of more or less mysterious persons, the most notable being Ylajali, a young woman with whom he engages in a mild degree of physical intimacy. He exhibits a self-created code of chivalry, giving money and clothes to needy children and vagrants, not eating food given to him, and turning himself in for stealing. Essentially self-destructive, he thus falls into traps of his own making, and with a lack of food, warmth and basic comfort, his body turns slowly to ruin. Overwhelmed by hunger, he scrounges for meals, at one point nearly eating his own (rather precious) pencil. His social, physical and mental state are in constant decline. However, he has no antagonistic feelings towards 'society' as such, rather he blames his fate on 'God' or a divine world order. He vows not to succumb to this order and remains 'a foreigner in life', haunted by 'nervousness, by irrational details'. He experiences a major artistic and financial triumph when he sells a text to a newspaper, but despite this he finds writing increasingly difficult. At a point in the story, he asks to spend a night in a prison cell, posing as a well-to-do journalist who has lost the keys to his apartment; in the morning he can't bring himself to reveal his poverty, even to partake in the free breakfast they provide the homeless. Finally as the book comes to close, when his existence is at an absolute ebb, he signs on to the crew of a ship leaving the city.

Translations into English



'Hunger' has been translated into English three times: in 1899 by Mary Chavelita Dunne (under the alias George Egerton), by Robert Bly in 1967, and in 1996 by Sverre Lyngstad, whose translation is considered definitive. In the latter's Foreword, he shows that in the George Egerton translation the text has been bowdlerized in relation with the narrator's wandering sexual thoughts and actions, and the Robert Bly translation misses the mixing of the present and past tenses of the original, suggestive of a febrile mind, which are replaced by a uniform past tense. This latter also makes confusions in relation to Oslo's geographystreets and places.

Screen versions



Two films have been made based upon the novel 'Hunger'.

* 'Hunger' (2001), directed by Maria Giese

* 'Hunger' (1966), directed by Henning Carlsen

References



:*Humpal, Martin. 'The Roots of Modernist Narrative: Knut Hamsun's Novels Hunger, Mysteries and Pan' International Specialized Book Services. 1999 ISBN 82-560-1178-5

:*Braaty, Trygve. 'Livets Cirkel' ('The Circle of Life: Contributions toward an analysis of Knut Hamsun's work'). J.W. Cappelenes Forlag 1929, ISBN 82-02-04315-8, 1979 edition.


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