The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, October 27, 2002

Art in the face of hunger
M. L. Raina

by Knut Hamsun. Translated from Norwegian by Robert Bly. Noonday Press, New York. Pages 240. $14.

HungerIN an earlier piece in these pages I invoked J. M. Coetzee’s remark that a literary classic is ‘what survives’ changes in the history of taste. Hamsun’s is one such novel still widely read more than a hundred years after its first publication in 1890. This latest translation indicates its power to affect the reader beyond its immediate time and place.

Between George Egerton’s 1920 translation and the present one, European novel has gone through remarkable stylistic transformations. It has moved qualitatively from the social realism of the 19th century fiction to the minimalist practice of noveau roman.

Hunger stands at the crossroads of the traditional realistic novel and its present modes. It inherits Dostoevskian sympathy for the Underground Man and points forward to the fragmented narratives of Kafka, Robbe-Grillett, Claude Simon and, more closely, Hermann Hesse. It consolidates the genre of the vagabond novel.


Vagabond heroes were not unknown in European fiction. They can be traced as far back as Don Quixote and are the staple of Balzac and Dostoevsky’s novels. The quest heroes of American literature such as Natty Bampoo and Ishmael are their cousins. But Hamsun’s vagabond is different. In Hunger he is a nameless poet out of kilter with the world outside, struggling to create art in the face of hunger, poverty and deprivation. In a later novel characteristically called Vagabond, the hero is willing to integrate and find his place in the social fabric.

The combination of the artist and the vagabond has been integral to Hamsun’s work. Like the hero of Hunger, Hamsun himself went through restless roving before the novel came out. He tried many trades, but his ambition to write was uppermost in his life. The experiences of the hero mirror his own rebuffs before he was recognised as a writer of substance in a country where Ibsen and Bjornsen had held absolute sway.

Hunger represents a kind of realism that has nothing to do with photographic detail. A psychological study, it presents life in the impressionistic mode of a Gaugin or a Cezanne; hence, the delirious movement of its narrative, shifting focus without a well-delineated plot. It has something of the quality of life as ‘a series of gig-lamps’ claimed by Virginia Woolf. The hero-poet encounters the hostile streets of Christiana (a stand-in for Oslo). He is another face of Ibsen’s ‘master builder’ seeking a new mode of expression for himself. For him the infernal city of romantic literature offers only frustrations.

It is the moral superiority of the protagonist as well as the author’s ironic perspective that hold the book together. The former allows the hero occasionally to compromise in order to survive, as in the episode of pawning his friend’s blanket and attempts to give himself different names. This has to be viewed against another episode in which he shares his meagre earnings with a beggar and bestows favours on a prostitute. It also makes his denunciations of God part of a raging battle within himself.

Hamsun’s hero (unnamed because his anonymity is emblematic of a struggling artist) stands up in defiance of ‘Jehovah, the great Baal’, whom he condemns as the invisible god of life. At one stage he becomes openly abusive: "I tell you, I would rather be a bondsman in hell than a free man in your mansions! I tell you, I am filled with a blissful contempt for your divine paltriness."

Refusing to yield, he creates alternative realities of imagination. He becomes a poetic voice seeking oneness with nature, the wild nature of his Northland. In moments such as these he overcomes, however briefly, the squalor of life in rooming houses and shelters for the homeless. The memory of the ideal non-existent beloved Ylajali fires him up further: "Devils of fire, an abyss, a wilderness, a hurricane, a universe in brazen ignition…"

Hamsun’s protagonist oscillates between the extremes of physical and social humiliation on the one hand, and the exaltedness of the imagination on the other. The result is a complete withdrawal from the world and a bristling feeling of hurt quivering underneath his self-concern. Here, the author’s irony cuts athwart our conventional expectations. Instead of dying a doomed romantic, as should have been expected, he escapes abroad on a ship.

He is not like Kafka’s Hunger Artist making hunger itself his obsessive concern. His writer’s block clears only infrequently. But in those moments he overcomes all. Even though he can’t create a lasting work, he rises above his wretched condition and becomes a protagonist in the Sartrean mould—a prototype for later protagonists.