A Well-Earned Nobel Prize

May 8, 2007

Knut Hamsen won the Nobel Prize in 1920, and his first novel, Hunger, by itself would justify the award. Hamsun writes from experience, and that clearly makes the novel extraordinarily compelling in a way that few writers have been able to accomplish throughout my reading life.

According to the overflap of this edition, Hamsun, struggling for 10 years as a writer, went to a publisher in 1888 with this sentence and an unfinished novel-

“All this happened while I was walking about starving in Christiania- a strange city no one escapes from until it has left its mark on him.”

It was first published in magazine form, and two years later the novel was published.

Hunger is about a young struggling writer, living on the erratic and insubstantial income he receives from the occassional publication of articles in the local newspaper. The hero rarely complains, but describes his own decline in all its detail. His ever present hunger, his ongoing starvation, is almost like another character in the novel that moves along what becomes a psychological page-turner. Hamsun wastes no time and sets the mood in the first pages- “As soon as I was wide awake, I took to thinking, as I always did, if I had anything to be cheerful about today.”

Most of us have at some time described ourselves as “hungry.” It is difficult to imagine the horror of real hunger-

“Nothing to do, I was dying with open eyes, helpless,staring up at the ceiling. Finally, I put a forefinger in my mouth and started sucking on it. Something started to flicker in my brain, an idea that had gotten free there, a lunatic notion. Suppose I took a bite? Without a moments hesitation I shut my eyes and clamped down hard with my teeth.

I leaped up. Finally I was awake. A little blood trickled from the finger, and I licked it off. There wasn’t much pain, the wound didn’t amount to anything, but I was suddenly myself again. I shook my head, walked to the window, and found a rag for my finger. While I stood puttering about with that, my eyes suddenly filled, I cried softly to myself. The poor bitten thin finger looked so pitiful. My God, I was a long way down.”

Those are many low moments. But then there are successes. An article is published and a substantial meal is purchased, a room is had for the day, and a candle- to write into the evening. The determination to survive as a writer is always there. There is pride, honorability, friendship, joy, and a brief flirting with love. And always, the hunger returns.

I have no doubt that Hunger is and will remain firmly entrenched on my top 10 list.

On a side note, I finished this as I was sitting on my deck- it is finally getting warm enough in Michigan to spend time outside. I love reading outside. I usually keep my camera around just in case something interesting wanders into the yard. As I was reading Hunger, it occurred to me that for the most part, it is humans- those with the greatest capacity for intelligence, that struggle the most with starvation. How odd. I watched throughout the evening and caught a number of lifeforms foraging in the yard. I realize that on occassion, usually due to the intervention of man, that other animals can starve too. But isn’t it odd that there are so many humans that have to? Foraging in the yard.


14 Responses to “A Well-Earned Nobel Prize”

  1. litlove Says:

    I have been meaning to read a Hamsun novel for years. Now, having read your post, I’m very keen to get on with it!

  2. Ted Says:

    This novel looks great, especially in that picture you put up. I will be on the lookout — if only I can get such a handsome edition…

  3. Brad Says:

    litlove – I don’t think you will regret it. I’ve started looking for copies of his other works.

    Ted – It was hard to find a hardcover. I watched eBay for a few months and finally got lucky.

  4. JCR Says:

    I LOVE THIS BOOK! You do a great review of it! There’s another title by him “Mysteries.” I have book on my bookshelf read to be re-read. Thanks for bringing this magnificent title out to the public light!

  5. Thanks for this review. This is one of those books that keeps coming up over and over again–clearly, I have to put it on my list!

  6. Stefanie Says:

    I know about the book but didn’t know what it was about. Your review makes me want to read it. And has made me hungry. Love the foraging photos and the book photo šŸ™‚

  7. Brad Says:

    JCR- I’ve not heard of Mysteries. I will have to look for it.

    gentle reader- It will long be one of my favorites. In the introduction, Singer compared the protagonist to Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment.

    Stefanie- Thanks. It is fun to take the photos. I remember reading a photography book that encouraged always having a camera nearby because one never knows when the perfect photo opportunity will occur. I don’t, but often have wished that I did.

  8. Wonderful review – it gnaws on the conscience and gives us all lots to think about. I also love the photograph! Bybee over at Naked Without Books recently recommended Hunger as a book to be read in conjunction with MFK Fisher’s How to Cook A Wolf. . The description of hunger reminds me of Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast ; he talks of his struggles as a writer and the constant’belly-empty, hollow-hungry’ feeling that heightens one’s perceptions and inner focus.

  9. Hi again! Hope it’s okay, but I’m tagging you with the “8 things about me” meme. You can find the details on my blog.

    So if you’re up for it, “tag, you’re it!”

  10. Bybee Says:

    I read this book once many years ago — the translation was excellent — and it’s stayed in my head ever since. Sadly, it was a library book. If I see Hunger again, I’m definitely going to buy it. Like many others here, I liked the cover of the book and your photo.

  11. Brad Says:

    gentle reader – I’m up for it, but I think I’m take a day to think about what to post.

    Bybee – I hope you are able to find a copy. Mine is from the 8th printing, so there must be plenty of copies out there. If I stumble on another copy or two, I’ll let you and Ted know.

  12. Thomas Says:

    I must say I started off liking this book but in the end had a hard time getting through it. It must have been my mood.

    Your photo is great–and the cover of the edition you have is wonderful as well.

  13. sarah h Says:

    I first read this book as an impressionable 17 year old (15 years ago!).

    It has stayed with me since and is definately in my Top 10.

    My book is also hardbacked and is from the 2nd impression. It has a black & white picture taken through a window of a gaunt man clutching a ragged parcel it’s as if he’s looking in at you.

    Hunger is a beautiful book and normally I met with blank stares when I mention it, so it’s great to hear of other people who have both read it and have affection for it.

    I found it no harder to read than Crime & Punishment (another favourite of mine). There are bleak parts, but there are also uplifting parts, like the bit where he manages to get a story published and stay in a room for a night.

    I think you can buy paperback versions online, but a trawl through any good second-hand book shop to find an old hardback would be worth it.

    To anyone who hasn’t read Hunger, it really is worth trying to buy/borrow a copy, you really wouldn’t regret it!

    Brad thanks for bringing this book to a wider audience, hopefully one day it will get the recognition it (and Knut Hamsun) deserves.

  14. jeane Says:

    I just finished reading ALIVE yesterday, so that passage you quoted about the bitten finger struck me quite acutely. I think I’m going to have to read Hunger now, too, to get the full experience in my head. Thanks for the great review.

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