In the late 19th century, a struggling writer wanders the streets of the city of Christiania, hungry and destitute, while clinging to dreams of greatness.
I have seen many comparisons of Hunger to Crime and Punishment and I can see the similarities but where Dostoevsky’s book moved me immensely when I read it for the first time, Hunger left me as cold as a stone, and where I could feel Raskolnikov’s agony as if it were a living entity, I was mostly annoyed at Hamsun’s protagonist. He is deeply concerned with upholding the image he has of himself and with holding onto his dignity by all means which causes him to turn down offers of money or food numerous times, even when he is in quite a desperate state already. This made me think not so much about dignity, but about false pride or maybe even self-sabotage. At one point, someone implies that he is doing this to himself, and the ending further reinforces this notion that most of what happened could have been rather easily avoided.
A lot of it is apparently biographical because Hamsun himself went through a long period of poverty before becoming an acclaimed writer and it shows that he knows what he is talking about when describing the way hunger can tear a person down and make them unstable. As a reader one is never quite sure whether a scene is a hallucination or reality, and these parts are really the strength of the story but the rest is just not great. There is really no plot and no relevant side character, it is highly repetitive, and the protagonist I found to be unlikable. I am also not a fan of the idea that great art has to come from great suffering which is quite heavily implied here, in addition to the insinuation that the masses cannot understand the plight of the artist trying to create something and that it is beneath him or that he is unable to write something for the common people as he is at one time asked by the editor of a newspaper.
It is troubling for me to write such a critical review of a widely acclaimed and highly influential book, and I probably have to admit that knowing about Hamsun’s staunch support of Hitler and Nazi Germany during WWII affects my view of his works. It kept me from reading his books for a long time, but lately I saw Hunger mentioned quite often as one of the great works of European literature and I thought I should give it a try. It was not a mistake per se but maybe I shouldn’t have bothered, because I wonder whether I was simply too biased to enjoy it despite feeling that all my criticism is valid. This also means that I struggled immensely with rating the book; I finally decided on the one star, because in the end, I just didn’t like it for various reasons, pertinent or not.
CBR11 Bingo: Birthday
Knut Hamsun was born on August 4th