During the National Novel Writing Month (nanowrimo) of November 2008, one of the forum threads asked writers to sum up their novel in one sentence. One wag said his was the story of “a man who walks around for a bit feeling sad”. It occurred to me that this is also a pretty fair description of a large amount of outsider fiction and it certainly would sum up fairly well Knut Hamsun’s 1890 novel ‘Hunger’.

In this story,the unnamed main character is lonely and constantly broke. A typical example of his daily routine is as follows:  “I got up, lay down again, put on my shoes, tramped around awhile in the dark, and lay down again, fought and battled against rage and terror till far into the morning hours, when I finally fell asleep”.. He’s a struggling writer who lives either in cheap rented flats or an abandoned tinsmith’s workshop.

His uncompromising determination to earn his keep from his creativity means that he lives a hand to mouth existence. This becomes literally true when at one point his starvation becomes so desperate he takes a bite out of his own finger! He draws blood,  licks it, looks at what he’s bitten and says to himself: “My God, I was a long way down.”

In allowing himself to “sink to less and less honourable deeds every day” he is a tortured soul who, much like Kafka, punishes himself for perceived weaknesses. It is a form of self loathing rather than self pity. He blames no-one but himself.  At one point he says he feels like an insect and notes “I had succeeded in making me disgusting to myself”. Given the bleakness of his plight, it’s odd that translator Robert Bly should describe it as “joyful book” , citing what he sees as the lively prose and intelligent playfulness of the Norwegian.

Maybe this is how he came to make some dodgy word choices in his version including describing the desolate anti-hero’s life as “a mess of pottage” and his refusal to engage in “hanky-panky foolishness on a sofa”.

The repetitive struggle becomes very tortured (“crying with grief over still being alive”) so, although it’s less than 200 pages long, I found it hard to read rapidly. It’s also hard to agree with Isaac Bashevis Singer’s opinion that “the whole modern school of fiction in the 20th century stems from Knut Hansun”. I admire the perseverance of Hamsun’s hungry ‘soul in torment’ without really being moved to feel pity for his self inflicted pain.