Hunger [1890/1996] – ★★★★★
Knut Hamsun is a Nobel Prize Winner for Literature whose existentialist literary work Hunger predates Franz Kafka’s The Trial  and Albert Camus’ The Stranger . Translated from the Norwegian by Sverre Lyngstad, Hunger explores the daily life of one lonely and desperate man on the brink of starvation in a large city. Our unnamed narrator is a freelance writer who has one “ambition” in his life: not to die from hunger. He is hard-working and not demanding, with food and shelter being his main wishes. Hamsun explores mental and physical traumas of the character in a masterful work that inspired some of the greatest philosophical fiction authors of the twentieth century, emphasising in his work that the fight to survive in a big city may take a shape of complete absurdity.
In Hunger, we follow one unnamed narrator who goes about his daily business in Kristiania (Oslo), Norway. He walks the city, drafting articles in parks, hoping for them to be published so that he would have money to buy food and pay his rent, which is always overdue. His life is lived hourly, if not minutely, since he always has to worry whether he would eat at all during the day. The unnamed narrator also meets people on his rounds around the town, who sometimes help him, but many do not. Deeply philosophical, the book by Hamsun is very thought-provoking since we follow every thought and feeling of the increasingly desperate narrator as his mood changes from being hopeful to being hopeless numerous times throughout the day. We also get to view the city of Kristiania and its society through his eyes, and the picture that emerges is relatively bleak, even though our narrator is often upbeat and optimistic.
Hunger is almost another character in the novel and it is referenced many times. This is more than understandable since hunger is never far from our narrator’s immediate thoughts and it is his main worry. “If only one had a bite to eat on such a clear day!” [Hamsun/ Lyngstad, 1890/1996: 6], cries our narrator in despair. Some may find the narrative slightly repetitive, but that is exactly the point of the book – the narrator is trapped in a vicious circle of want, and physical and mental discomfort, and, there should be this feeling that no repetition of that will be enough to drive the message home.
It is easy now to compare Hamsun’s Hunger to the works of Kafka or Camus, but, at least narratively, that comparison is not altogether kind. Unlike Camus’ The Stranger, there is no evident sin or evil committed on the part of the main character in Hunger. Also, unlike Kafka’s The Trial, the perspective in Hunger is that of a narrator, his thoughts and feelings, his unique mental process. Hunger is best compared to the work of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, which came before Hunger, such as Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground  and The Idiot  (see also my list of “10 “Must-Read” Existentialist Novels with Memorable Lines”). Like the main character in Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot, the unnamed narrator in Hunger sometimes displays very childish and naïve behaviour, especially when confronted with the blows and meanness of a cynical, busy city, where everyone wants to make money and charity is far from one’s mind. Also, like in Dostoyevsky’s work, the narrator in Hunger often appeals to God and feels his presence/absence.
Like Meursault in The Stranger, the narrator in Hunger at times refuses to pretend or be someone who he is not, even for the purpose to save his own skin. Hamsun’s narrator has his own innate principles and beliefs, his own identity and a moral compass, and he does not want to do anything that would comprise his inner self or his life principles. The narrator says at some point: “the consciousness of being honest went to my head, filling me with the glorious sensation that I was a man of character, a white beacon in the midst of a turbid human sea with floating wreckage everywhere” [Hamsun/ Lyngstad, 1890/1996: 47]. That may be his biggest “failing” since the society is the one that cares about appearances and “small lies” that often do lead to greater benefits. Our narrator is sometimes impulsive and random in his behaviour and will tell “small lies” to confuse someone or to get someone’s attention, but his “fault” and pitiful financial circumstances also start when he is so painfully honest with people that matter. That honesty also results in his romantic and financial undoing.
Like in later novels of Franz Kafka, the society, as portrayed in Hunger, does not desire to help the main character to succeed. If the narrator in Hunger does have his little triumphs, this is down to luck alone. “Luck often followed such a strangely winding path” [Hamsun/ Lyngstad, 1890/1996: 47], says the narrator. Like in the works of Kafka, the society and the whole universe are silent and unrelenting. Societal structures and barriers are there to cripple the human spirit, as well as all the moral principles and individual beliefs regarding justice, leading to absurd situations. Hamsun’s narrator is willing to work, to succeed; he is not lazy. He is clutching at straws to keep himself fed and have a roof over his head, while grappling with the meaning of his own existence (“what if I myself were to be dissolved into darkness, made one with it?” [Hamsun/ Lyngstad, 1890/1996: 72]). However, his attempts often result in absurd and comic situations which would have been funny if they were not also so very sad. The narrator becomes obsessed with trivialities and exhausted by his own attempts to put things right. As the plot progresses, our narrator gets more and more desperate, and comes close to betraying his own inner principles and beliefs to have a piece of bread in his mouth. It is as though the author would like to demonstrate the limits to which a human being may be pushed before he would agree to say goodbye to his pride, moral principles, his very essence and inner belief to physically survive. The result is that one either dies “spiritually” or physically – you cannot choose both, the book implies.
Knut Hamsun’s Hunger is one of the most important existentialist books to come out in the nineteenth century, which paved the way for other equally important literary achievements of the twentieth century. The plot in Hunger is simple, but powerful, detailing one man’s struggle to make way in life in spite of all the absurdities and hardships, while retaining his beliefs, individuality, and remaining faithful to his principles.