Heir to Dostoevsky’s character studies and inspiration to countless modernist ruminations on fracture and fragmentation, Knut Hamsun’s profoundly psychological portrait of disintegration, 1890’s Hunger, may be rightly regarded as a literary forebear to the hollow man. Characterized by a distinct undercurrent of cynicism and decidedly bleak comedy, the novel stands somewhere between Kafka’s sinister realism, surreal European poetics and early naturalist writing. Its unnamed protagonist’s dark narrative volleys — often volatile, sometimes perceptive —anticipate twentieth-century literature’s preoccupation with the psychology of urban man as Hamsun dissects the very nature of this relationship.
The book is structured as an internal monologue, marked by a sort of manic impressionism, following a penniless young writer overtaken by hunger in late 1880s Christiania (Oslo). Surviving on the occasional sale of an article to a newspaper or magazine, his pride will neither allow him to accept charity nor give an outward appearance of poverty. Though physical hunger provides a grim thematic touchstone for Hamsun, the novel itself traces the mental deterioration of a man consumed by unclear obsession.
In one memorable scene, he visits a provision store to ask for a candle on credit, but the shop-boy mistakenly hands him someone else’s change. After spending some of the money on food and beer, he decides to give the rest away to an old woman. Returning to the store, he tells the nonplussed clerk what has transpired — when asked what he did with the money, he replies, “‘I gave it away to a poor old woman — every farthing of it.’ He must understand that that was the sort of person I was; I didn’t forget the poor so….”
Black humour aside, there is a pathological quality about the narrator that points toward a complex internal struggle: he is at once arrogant and abashed, stubborn and relenting, ingenious and a fool. He follows a woman down the street and imagines himself in love with her, but flees after an abortive tryst. Even when his hunger is sated, he remains unsatisfied.
The novel’s opening paragraph, a single sentence serving as something of a makeshift epigraph, immediately establishes the novel’s psychological parameters: “It was during the time I wandered about and starved in Christiania: Christiania, this singular city, from which no man departs without carrying away the traces of his sojourn there.” As the narrative continues, and the protagonist shuffles from pawnshop to café, park, jail and beyond, the city’s psychic pressures begin to assert themselves more forcefully; indeed, the rhythms of the city inform the narrator’s actions and disposition — perhaps more powerfully than hunger itself.
“It was nine o’clock. The roll of vehicles and hum of voices filled the air, a mighty morning-choir mingled with the footsteps of the pedestrians, and the crack of the hack-drivers’ whips. The clamorous traffic everywhere exhilarated me at once, and I began to feel more and more contented… A sweet, unwonted mood, a feeling of lightsome happy-go-luckiness took possession of me.”
The movement from richly descriptive prose to expressive exultation reflects the intense collision between urbanity and the individual. Significantly, the city dominates this relationship: the narrator can only react to his environment — Christiania rules, and shapes, his nature and needs. Over the course of the novel, as the cumulative effects of the city begin to weigh, his tone and attitude darken. In the end, what little resolution there is to Hunger may be located in the protagonist leaving Christiania.
Hamsun invests his preoccupation with psychology and modern urbanity in the narrator’s pursuit of sustenance — however, the text is more concerned with the pursuit rather than nourishment. Hunger may stalk the protagonist, but he is haunted by his own inability to find fulfillment. Paralyzed by a directionless obsessive energy seeking release — which he attempts to channel into food, women and self-righteousness — the “traces of his sojourn” are self-inflicted psychological wounds. Crucially, the novel concludes with an exhausted and feverish young man bidding Christiania farewell, as if emerging from a waking nightmare.