Hunger (1890) is a novel about a freelance writer wandering the streets of Kristiania, attempting, with minimal success, not to starve to death. It is a short novel, but so intense and unremitting in its focus that it feels long.
Many have compared Hunger to Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground. This is because of the dark and pathetic content of the narrator’s by-turns sneering and self-recriminating inner monologue, and because Hamsun is known to have been directly influenced by Dostoevsky. But I think the other set of books to which Hunger clearly belongs is more illuminating. It’s a dramatization not so much of existential loneliness in a modern city as of the potential for degradation inherent in a passion to write. I was reminded less of Notes from Underground than of Jack London’s Martin Eden and The New Grub Street by George Gissing. I have no knowledge of any influence Gissing, London, or Hamsun may have had upon each other in any configuration, but the central conflict in their novels is identical: the passion for literature vs. economic reality.
As in London’s and Gissing’s books, the wretch at the heart of Hunger is only suffering because he has made a dangerous commitment to art. Like the eponymous hero of Martin Eden and Edwin Reardon in The New Grub Street, the nameless narrator of Hunger could walk away at any time. He could do something else. But instead he suffers incredible torments, physical, social, psychological, moral, watching his body and mind and self-respect deteriorate as he is driven to wild behavior and the edge of insanity by his inability to keep a roof over his head or food in his mouth.
In Hunger, however, less is made of the content of the dangerous commitment to art than of its consequences. We don’t really learn why the narrator writes such unsaleable material, we just see him coping with his inability to sell. We only know by implication that he does have some curious and personal standard that is getting in the way of economic success: we know by reading into the comments of the editors who reject his work — they tell him he needs to simplify, popularize — and by recognizing the implausibility of his subject matter — the epistemology of Kant or “the crimes of the future” or a medieval nun who defiles an altar… These are not the subjects of a successful journalist. In Gissing’s The New Grub Street, Reardon, whose life crumbles around him, is juxtaposed to a sellout who makes plenty of money writing pablum and schlock; but in Hunger we only see the committed artist, and his alter-ego is a ghost we must imagine. Hamsun also offers no explanation for the origin of his narrator’s desire to write. London’s Martin Eden shows us how a person can become this sort of all-risking fool-for-art, and how the traumas that follow can wither the idealism that motivates the effort. All that context is left out of Hunger, and this narrowness of focus, this use of negative space (you might say), is what creates the novel’s peculiar intensity. The novel does not explore why its narrator is in this predicament, it merely exhausts the predicament itself.
(I think narrative intensity — as opposed to suspense or drama — is obtainable in two ways: first, by restricting a story’s content to a certain dramatic problem, and ruthlessly excluding extraneous details, while equally ruthlessly including any detail relevant to the problem, as in Hunger or certain stories of Kafka or just about anything by Brian Evenson. Second, by insistently repeating a motif — usually a dominating voice, as in Muriel Spark, or a suffusing atmosphere, as in Georges Simenon. In Hunger, the geography of Kristiania and its ubiquitous constabulary contribute a bit of the second kind of intensity.)
But if Hunger is the least contextually fulsome of these three novels about the economics of literature, I think it is also the best of them at depicting the experience of writing for a living, or rather the drama of the difficulties of writing well when your paycheck also depends on what you write. I am not a starving writer, but I am often under deadline and possessed by a continuous sense that I need to get on with my many literary projects. So I found passages like the following all too real. The narrator is trying to find a place both quiet enough and comfortable enough to finish an article he is writing, so that he can try to sell it to an editor, and then maybe buy some food:
When I came back down I locked the gate from the outside and stationed myself under the light from the lamp. It was quiet all around; I could hear only the heavy, clanking footfalls of a policeman in the side street and, far away, in the direction of St. Hanshaugen, a dog barking. There was nothing to disturb me, I pulled my coat collar up around my ears and started thinking with all my might. It would be a wonderful help to me if I were lucky enough to come up with the conclusion to this little monograph. I was at a rather difficult point right now, to be followed by a quite imperceptible transition to something new, and then a muted, gliding finale, a long-drawn-out rumble which would finally end in a climax as bold, as shocking, as a shot or the sound of a cracking rock. Period. But the words wouldn’t come. I read through the entire piece from the beginning, read each sentence aloud, but I just couldn’t collect my thoughts for this crashing climax. On top of everything, as I stood there trying to work it out, the policeman came up and planted himself in the middle of the street a little way off, spoiling my entire mood. What business was it of his if at this moment I was working on an excellent climax to an article for the “Commander”! Good God, how absolutely impossible it was for me to keep my head above water, no matter how hard I tried! I stood there for about an hour. The policeman went away. It was getting too cold to be standing still.
Crestfallen and discouraged by another wasted effort, I finally opened the gate and went up to my room. It was very cold up there, and I could barely see my window in the thick darkness. I groped my way over to the bed, pulled off my shoes and set about warming my feet between my hands. Then I lay down— just as I was, fully clothed, as I had been doing now for a long time.
The following morning I sat up in bed as soon as it was light and set to work on my article once more. I sat there like that until noon, by which time I had managed to write ten or twenty lines. And I still hadn’t reached the finale.
The “hunger” of the novel’s title is the hunger to write and to live by writing, as much as it is physical hunger. To voluntarily risk physical hunger, one must harbor in the maw of one’s spirit an even greater hunger for a certain kind of creation, a certain way of life. Hamsun’s own hunger was eventually rewarded. He became a very successful novelist and even won a Nobel Prize for Literature. (He also became a convinced Nazi, eulogized Hitler, and was imprisoned for treason.)