Wednesday, 4 February 2015

Hunger

'Hunger' by Knut Hamsun was first published back in 1890 and is considered one of the first modernist novels. What they mean by this is a book in which nothing happens, and the entire novel is made up of the internal monologue of the main character as he struggles to make sense of his experiences. I should have read the 'afterword' first as it explains quite a bit about the writer and what he was trying to do in the novel. There are also pages and pages of notes about the translation, since the subtleties of the language is what makes such a book interesting and therefore getting the nuances as close to the original as possible is important. I confess I did not read them. It's not that I dislike books in which nothing happens. I was recently rereading my review of Austerlitz, which is similarly a tale in which nothing much happens, and I was totally engaged by it. 

I came to the conclusion that the book should have been entitled 'Pride' rather than 'Hunger', because it is more about him being proud than being hungry, in fact he is mostly hungry because he is too proud. A nameless young man is scraping a living writing articles, but gradually, inexorably, drifting into destitution, and rather than get a job that he considers beneath him he struggles on, living from hand to mouth, being hungry most of the time, pawning all his possessions until he has only the clothes he stands up in. He gives money away randomly when he has some, or fritters it extravagantly. Much of the time he is too ashamed to ask for help, but then he will randomly approach people on the flimsiest of acquaintance. As he gets more hungry his behaviour becomes erratic and chaotic; he makes up lies to cover for his weird behaviour and sometimes actively rejects offers of assistance. The shame of being poor consumes him and he goes to extraordinary lengths to pretend that he is somehow respectable, everything about the way he is forced to live leaves him crushed by humiliation. Here he gives in and shows up at the police station to get a bed for the night:

" 'Name?' the officer on duty asked.
'Tangen - Andreas Tangen.'
I don't know why I lied. My thoughts fluttered about in disarray and gave me more fanciful notions that I could handle. I hit upon this far-fetched name on the spur of the moment and tossed it out without any ulterior motive. I lied unnecessarily.
'Occupation?'
Now he was forcing me to the wall. Hmmm! I thought first of turning myself into a tinsmith but didn't dare; I had given myself a name not borne by each and every tinsmith, and besides I was wearing glasses. Then it came into my head to be foolhardy - I took a step forward and said, firmly and solemnly, 'Journalist.'
The officer on duty gave a start before writing it down, and I stood before the counter with the lofty air of a homeless cabinet minister." (p.70)

But the night in the cells is so disturbing that he never repeats it:

"My nervous state had got out of hand, and however hard I tried to fight it, it was no use. A prey to the quirkiest fantasies, there I sat shushing myself, humming lullabies, perspiring with the effort to calm myself down. I stared out into the darkness - and never in my born days had I seen such a darkness. There was no doubt that here I found myself before a special kind of darkness, a desperate element with no one had previously been aware of. The most ludicrous ideas filled my mind, and every little thing frightened me. I am greatly absorbed by the tiny hole in the wall by my bed, a nail hole I came across, a mark in the masonry. I feel it, blow into it, and try to guess its depth. That was no innocent hole, not by any means; it was a very intricate and mysterious hole that I had to beware of. Obsessed by the thought of this hole, quite beside myself with curiosity and fear, I finally had to get out of bed and find my half-penknife to measure its depth, so I could assure myself that it didn't go all the way into the next cell." (p.72)

It sometimes feels as if it is as much the social isolation as the hunger that sends him crazy. When you live too long inside your own head things take on a disproportionate significance. Here is the office of the local newspaper editor:

"I looked about me in the small office: busts, lithographs, clippings, and an immense wastebasket that looked as though it could swallow a man whole. I felt sad at the sight of this huge maw, these dragon's jaws which were always open, always ready to receive fresh scrapped writings - fresh blasted hopes." (p.110)

All the time he pretends to people that everything is fine, both friends and random strangers. He gets his foot run over and crushed, but he is too proud and just pretends that he is fine. He feels ashamed when he has nothing to give when he sees other people in need, but seems unable to accept that he is in the same position. He lurches from crisis to crisis, never taking any real decisions but allowing himself to be carried on the tide of random events. He appears to have a quite fatalistic attitude, arguing to himself that there is nothing else he can do but accept his inevitable demise. But at the same time you can see that the shame is not imaginary, people around him are judging him for his poverty, blaming him, no wonder he thinks so poorly of himself. I found myself just so irritated with him, and now realise that I was doing just that, blaming his poverty on his poor decisions, while having read  the book you could see how his hunger and deprivation made him almost literally incapable of making rational decisions. I have never been that poor but it is not such a huge leap of the imagination to understand how poverty becomes a downward spiral; he realises that his appearance is now so scruffy and neglected that he will find it hard to persuade anyone to give him a job, and he has no resources to fall back on, no possessions and then not even a place to live. With stories filling the newspapers today about people forced into destitution by benefit sanctions you are left feeling that rather than being an in depth psychological study of human misery this book instead foreshadows the social divide that is currently affecting our society. Not much food, but lots of food for thought. 

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