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Hunger ()

Nobel Prize Winners (1920)

Knut Hamsun's semi autobiographical account of  his early years as an aspiring writer is the sine qua non of starving artist literature.  It combines something of the manic intensity of Dostoevskey's portrayal of Raskalnikov, with the first person narrative and near hallucinatory vision of Charles Bukowski--the visions brought on by starvation rather than alcohol in this case--and is told in the spare, punchy prose that the author learned while working in America.  The message of the book seems to be that the experience of poverty and hunger are a necessary fuel to stoke the author's artistic fires.

It remains for the reader to determine whether Hamsun has been blessed with a universal revelation, or merely a personal insight.  The idea of suffering for art and of inspiration coming from hallucination have certainly been influential--we think of Faulkner, Hemingway, Henry Miller, William S. Burroughs, Mailer, etc., as writers who sought the profound in a bottle, a needle or a bimbo.  However, other than Bukowski and a little bit of Hunter Thompson, it is hard to think of many authors whose dissipation has helped produce much that's worth reading.  Significantly, the good stuff that even they produced details their adventures while under the influence, not any revelations about the broader world that resulted from said mind altering.  But the danger here is that such authors tend to risk self-indulgence--remarkably few writers can make their own debauchery into interesting prose--and often sacrifice coherence.

As for the specific value of hunger and suffering as muses, they obviously have none.  Virtually all of the world's great literature has been the product of its fattest most self-satisfied cultures.  If there truly were some association between a gnawing in the belly and significant writing, we'd be awash in the novels of Appalachia, North Korea, Bangladesh, Ethiopia, etc..

Hamsun's novel then, while it was obviously influential and remains an interesting document of one man's experiences without food, is ultimately too individualistic to offer us much insight on the human condition generally.  The brevity, intensity and readability of the book recommend it; but it has fairly little to say.  His Nobel Prize is sufficiently embarrassing in light of his subsequent adoration of Adolf Hitler and advocacy of the Third Reich, but it also seems an inappropriate honor for an author whose work lacks a universal message.


Grade: (C)


Knut Hamsun Links:

    -POEM: ‘Knut Hamsun in Old Age’: An original poem from 1980 (Derek Mahon, TLS)
    -ESSAY: Hamsun's Nordland: Norway's Arctic north cast a spell upon the youthful Knut Hamsun, the novelist who would win the Nobel Prize for his portrayal of this majestic landscape and its people. (Eric P. Olsen, February 2003, World & I)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: Growth of the Soil by Knut Hamsun: a simple reminder of what matters: Old favourites: Lucy Sweeney Byrne on her most loved texts (Lucy Sweeney Byrne, 9/05/20, Irish Times)

Book-related and General Links:
    -Encyclopaedia Britannica :Hamsun, Knut (Guide to the Nobel Prizes)
    -Encyclopaedia Britannica:  Your search: "Knut Hamsun"
    -Knut Hamsun: The Nobel Prize in Literature 1920 (The Nobel Foundation)
    -Knut Pedersen Hamsun Winner of the 1920 Nobel Prize in Literature (Nobel Internet Archive)
    -Knut Hamsun (1859-1952)(kijjasto)
    -Knut Hamsun (Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs)
    -Nordland: A Knut Hamsun Resource Page
    -LINKS: Knut Hamsun Link Page
    -ESSAY: Of Knut and Edvard (The Economist, JANUARY 17TH 1998)
    -ESSAY: A half Hamsun!  (Inger Bentzrud, Culture editor at the newspaper Dagbladet)
    -ESSAY: Knut Hamsun and Nazism (ATLE KITTANG)
    -ESSAY: Knut Hamsun - Debated Once Again (Erland Hansen, Rigo)
    -ESSAY: Nobelist- Nazi-enigma (J. Peder Zane, News and Observer)
    -ESSAY: The Magus of the North (Isaiah Berlin, NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW : of Dreamers by Knut Hamsun (translated by Tom Geddes) (J. Peder Zane, Hot Wired)
    -REVIEW: D.J. Enright: Blood and Blossoms, NY Review of Books
         The Cultural Life of Modern America by Knut Hamsun
        Mysteries by Knut Hamsun and translated by Gerry Bothmer
        Pan by Knut Hamsun and translated by James W. McFarlane
        Victoria by Knut Hamsun and translated by Oliver Stallybrass
        Hunger by Knut Hamsun and translated by Robert Bly
    -REVIEW: of Knut Hamsun: Selected Letters, Vol. II 1898-1952 and Hunger by Knut Hamsun  Addicted to Unpredictability (James Wood, London Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of ENIGMA. The Life of Knut Hamsun By Robert Ferguson (John Gross, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of ENIGMA The Life of Knut Hamsun By Robert Ferguson (Tom Clark, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Hunger & Knut Hamsun: Selected Letters, Vol. II 1898-1952 by Knut Hamsun, translated by Sverre Lyngstad   Addicted to Unpredictability (James Wood, London Review of Books)

    -ESSAY:  Isaiah Berlin: Joseph de Maistre and the Origins of Fascism (NY Review of Books)
    -ESSAY: Slavenka Drakulic: Nazis Among Us (NY Review of Books)
    -ESSAY: The Politics and Aesthetics of Art  (Berdichevsky, Norman, Contemporary Review, March 1999)