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Julian Meynell's Books

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Hamsun's Hunger

Hunger - Knut Hamsun, George Egerton

I was not sure that I would like this work.  In part because I know that Hamsun, became a fascist later in his life, and that made me think that we would be temperamentally a poor match. Also, I just read Ibsen for the first time and was disappointed, so I quite unfairly was wary of Hamsun.  In fact, it is one of the best books that I have read all year.  The book concerns a struggling writer slowly starving to death in Oslo in 1890.  The character slowly starts to go mad and become nihilistic.

My edition has an afterword by Robert Bly the translator and an introduction by Paul Aster.  I don't think that Auster gets the novel.  He sees it as essentially an existential piece and compares the work to Kafka.  That's in part because he sees the main characters starvation as entirely a free choice, which I think misses the point entirely.  I think that the main thing to be said for the book is that it is an entirely accurate account of the psychology of starving to death admidst plenty.  

The afterword by Bly is more to the point.  He compares the work with Zola, but finds Hamsun more pessimistic, because while Zola thought that the middle class could be reasoned with, Hamsun has no faith whatsoever with it.  That to me is bang on and very insightful.  Bly also sees Hamsun's prose as an anticipation of Hemingway's which to some degree it is.  Bly also compares Hamsun to Dostoevsky, which is the most relevant comparison.  Hamsun's prose has some of the weird perversion of Dostoevsky's.  More important, he treats of the same kind of people and the same kind of issues.  The most obvious comparison is with Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment.  Hamsun is not describing  Raskolnikov.  Hamsun is Raskolnikov.  Or at least Raskolnikov minus the guilt.  A Raskolnikov who ends in total nihilism.

Its a bleak bok, but a very good one.  It mucks about in a very honest and dispassionate way with some very dark things.  Should be better known amongst English speakers.