Of Knut Hamsun’s Hunger (1890), Robert Bly writes in the introduction to this 1976 version:
How few books there are today in which a genius is the main character! Fewer and fewer, as serious novelists more and more tend to put people of lower intelligence than themselves into books, so that the readers will feel at home. (15)
This made me laugh out loud. Until I realised that Hamsun surely felt he was a genius, and maybe that is what propelled his admiration for Hitler, his support for Nazi occupation, his enthusiastic meeting with Goebbels. We saw no plaques for Hamson.
He wrote Hunger in 1890. So I will just write about that. Because it is an extraordinary book. Most descriptions of it seem to start with the list of other authors who loved his work, including Isaac Baschevis Singer, so it must be all right.
I’m not sure, though.
I didn’t really feel myself that genius was the point at all. Hunger was the point. Pride too, mental illness, and the way that starvation twists your vision and carves into your understanding. It is also a very different kind of Oslo (or Christiana or Kristiana as it was known then) than that of Ibsen, or even Munch.
All of this happened while I was walking around starving in Christiana — that strange city no one escapes from until it has left its mark on him … (24)
Oslo is no longer a city that leaves such a mark, I don’t think.
Thoughts of God began to occupy me again. It seemed to me utterly reprehensible of Him to block my way every time I tried for a job and to ruin my chances when it was only daily bread that I was asking for. I had noticed very clearly that every time I went hungry a little too long it was as though my brains simply ran quietly out of my head and left me empty. My head became light and floating, I could no longer feel its weight on my shoulders, and I had the sense that my eyes were remaining far too open when I looked at anything. (37)
This catalogue of a writer’s possessions cut me:
…thinking all the time of my marvellous story…I decided to get it over with right now and move. I took out my bundle, a red handkerchief which contained two clean collars and some crumpled newspaper which I had carried my bread home in, rolled it all together with my blanket, and added my store of white writing paper. (49)
And little could ring as true as this description of an editor’s office — an editor with power of acceptance or rejection. How much more powerful when it is the ability to grant a few pieces of bread and a place to sleep, or hunger and Oslo’s great outdoors.
I looked around me in the tiny office: busts, lithographs, clippings, and an enormous wastepaper-basket that looked as if it could swallow a man, bones and all. I felt sad, looking at this monstrous maw, this dragon — mouth always open, ready to receive more rejected articles, newly crushed hopes. (105)
A country preacher could not have looked more full of milk and honey than this formidable writer, whose words had always left long bloody marks wherever they fell. (106)
Felt sorrow at this:
I simply couldn’t starve any more the way I used to. A single day without food now could make me feel dazed, and I made incessant retching efforts as soon as I drank any water. (107)
He retched often and everywhere, turning aside as he walked as though it were nothing, a terrible aspect of this daily horror. None of today’s streets are somewhere you could slink along retching quietly. Yet we saw beggars stretched out face down in the rain under plastic sheeting, holding out cups for alms. One man kneeling. It seemed that this is how begging is done here, most abjectly.
Then there are the kids…I know kids like this, though very few in the UK. Breaks the fucking heart.
They looked up at my window with their little pale-blue faces and endlessly sad eyes. Meanwhile, the two diminutive enemies continued to hurl words at each other. Words like huge, cold-blooded reptiles poured out of their childish lips, frightful nicknames, whore language, sailors’ curses… (160)
Their mother sleeping with a sailor while the husband watched, the poverty of their existence still able to accommodate a starving writer after his rent fell due.
It is 2 St Olavs Plass where Ylajali lives — the woman the narrator falls for, torments and comes to fascinate. The scene is fairly heartrending where she suddenly realises he is not a mysterious drunkard with a swagger, but simply delirious from starvation — the scene she realises she might still love him but can’t handle all of that.
2 St Olavs Plass is now a Michelin rated restaurant named Happolati, another of Hamsun’s made up names taken from the book:
The irony of naming a michelin restaurant after a ranting in a book about starvation… hard to stomach. Especially since he became a Nazi. We still went to see the place where his suffering protagonist hovered, it was suitably grim, though with a sculptural watery sort of feature now.
He also wanders throughout these places in part 1 (the names pulled from Hunger and from a book about Hunger):
Our Saviour’s Place, Graensen street, Palace Park, Pascha’s Bookstore, Pilestraedet Lane, Cisler’s Music Store, University Street, St. Olavs Plass, Karl Johan Street, the Students’ Promenade, Stortorvet Square, Aker Street Ullevaal Road St. Hanshaugen, Kirke Street, Haegdenhaugen district, Majorstuen, Bogstad Woods, Jaernbanetorvet Square, the Steam Kitchen, Gronlandsleret Street, Møller Street, Christ’s Cemetery, Oplandske Café, Torv Street, the Arcades.
We wandered them too, though I imagine the feel of them is much changed, though pictures of these old central areas seem very similar.
A final picture of Oslo city streets, and a happy reminder about genius.
[Hamsun, Knut (1976) Hunger. London: Picador.]