Down and out in Kristiana, Norway

Hunger by Knut Hamsun. 1890 French title: Faim. 146 pages. Made into a play entitled Ylajali by Jon Fosse.

The instant I opened my eyes I began, from sheer force of habit, to think if I had any reason to rejoice over the coming day. I had been somewhat hard-up lately, and one after the other of my belongings had been taken to my “Uncle.” I had grown nervous and irritable. A few times I had kept my bed for the day with vertigo. Now and then, when luck had favoured me, I had managed to get five shillings for a feuilleton from some newspaper or other.

I started to read Hunger before going to the theatre to see its theatre version but I didn’t manage to finish on time. Hunger was written in 1890 by Knut Hamsun and the Norwegian writer Jon Fosse made it into a play, Ylajali. I’ll start with the novella and will then talk about the play.

Hunger is a first person narrative where a young aspiring writer relates his struggling life in Kristiana, Norway. It is based upon Hamsun’s own experience of poverty. The novella is split in four parts, each of them referring to a time of hardship for the narrator.

We follow the young man’s wanderings, his attempts at selling articles to earn money. We see how hunger affects his brain, how people start to see him more and more as a tramp. We witness how he clings to his dignity, how he doesn’t want to acknowledge that he’s poor, famished and desperate. It prevents him from asking for help but it also prevents him from falling into pieces. Reading this novella was almost unbearable and the reader sees this young man’s life spiral into poverty. Hunger holds on him, a bearable touch at the beginning, an iron claw in the end. Hunger grips him and Hamsun describes very well how it impacts the narrator’s body and his mind. It starts with physical pain:

It was three o’clock. Hunger began to plague me in downright earnest. I felt faint, and now and again I had to retch furtively.

Or

Here I was going about starving, so that my entrails wriggle together in me like worms, and it was, as far as I knew, not decreed in the book of fate that anything in the shape of food would turn up later in the day.

But then, as the time of hardship stretches to months, he is malnourished and suffers from the consequences of his lack of food for a long period of time:

The last crisis had dealt rather roughly with me. My hair fell out in masses, and I was much troubled with headaches, particularly in the morning, and my nervous strain died a hard death.

Or later in the book

Hunger lodged once more in my breast, and I had not tasted food since yesterday evening. This, ’tis true, was not a long period; I had often been able to hold out for a couple of days at a time, but latterly I had commenced to flag seriously; I could not go hungry with quarter the ease I used to do. A single day made me feel dazed, and I suffered from constant retching the moment I tasted water. Added to this was the fact that I lay and shivered all night, lay fully dressed as I stood and walked in the daytime, lay blue with the cold, lay and froze every night with fits of icy shivering, and grew stiff during my sleep.

Hamsun describes hunger with painful realism and my heart reached out to this poor man. No one can stay indifferent to passages like this:

The only thing that troubled me a little, in spite of the nausea that the thought of food inspired in me, was hunger. I commenced to be sensible of a shameless appetite again; a ravenous lust of food, which grew steadily worse and worse. It gnawed unmercifully in my breast; carrying on a silent, mysterious work in there. It was as if a score of diminutive gnome-like insects set their heads on one side and gnawed for a little, then laid their heads on the other side and gnawed a little more, then lay quite still for a moment’s space, and then began afresh, boring noiselessly in, and without any haste, and left empty spaces everywhere after them as they went on.

From the start, the narrator tells us that hunger affects his thinking abilities. At the beginning of the book, he’s a little worried:

I had remarked so plainly that, whenever I had been hungry for any length of time, it was just as if my brains ran quite gently out of my head and left me with a vacuum—my head grew light and I no longer felt its weight on my shoulders, and I was conscious that my eyes stared far too widely open when I looked at anything.

As the hunger settles in, he feels that his mental capacities are more and more impaired. His mind gets out of control. He goes from worried to frightened as he feels madness getting to him.

My madness was a delirium of weakness and prostration, but I was not out of my senses. All at once the thought darted through my brain that I was insane. Seized with terror, I spring out of bed again, I stagger to the door, which I try to open, fling myself against it a couple of times to force it, strike my head against the wall, bewail loudly, bite my fingers, cry and curse…

His situation worsens. Sometimes he manages to sell an article and has a little money for a few days. All of his possessions have been pawned. (By the way, in English you say to go to my “Uncle’s”, in French you go to your “Aunt’s”). He doesn’t have any money to clean himself and his appearance starts advertising his poverty:

Meanwhile my clothes commenced to steam. Hunger put in a fresh appearance, gnawed at my breast, clutched me, and gave small, sharp stabs that caused me pain.

He sinks further into poverty. As his living conditions deteriorate, he stops clinging to his principles, his dignity. Right and wrong don’t have the same importance when you need food and shelter.

Conscience, did you say? No nonsense, if you please. You are too poor to support a conscience. You are hungry; you have come on important business—the first thing needful. But you shall hold your head askew, and set your words to a sing-song.

At the beginning, he would lie to hide his situation, to be seen as a gentleman. He was ashamed to show he had no money, no prospects. The more he has to live through this, the less he cares about his appearance. He can’t afford to be proud anymore and he accepts treatments of him that would have revolted him a few months before. Hunger shows the slow dehumanisation of a young man.

Nevertheless, Hunger is never miserabilist. I was very moved by the resilience of this young man. He keeps writing, assailed by inspiration from time to time. He writes frantically in parks or in his lodgings. Writing transports him somewhere else.

Suddenly a few good sentences fitted for a sketch or story strike me, delicate linguistic hits of which I have never before found the equal.

But, as a freelance writer, his bread depends on his capacity to deliver sensible and interesting articles or stories. But how can he write well when his thinking process is impaired by hunger? It can only spiral out of control as his capacities to earn money are hampered by his living conditions which keep degrading if he doesn’t sell articles…

Despite his miserable conditions of living, he’s still able to see beauty around him. This quote comes from the beginning of the book:

If only one had just a little to eat on such a lightsome day! The sense of the glad morning overwhelmed me; my satisfaction became ill-regulated, and for no definite reason I began to hum joyfully.

He’s still optimistic; he hasn’t been filthy poor for too long. He’s sure it won’t last, the reader isn’t too surprised by his attitude. But when days turn into months of hardship and he says…

The sun burst over the heights, the sky was pale and tender, and in my delight over the lovely morning, after the many dark, gloomy weeks, I forgot all cares, and it seemed to me as if I had fared worse on other occasions. I clapped myself on the chest and sang a little snatch to myself.

…I find him incredible. Despite his terrible situation, he isn’t blind to the beauty of his surroundings. Hope is his dope. It gives him strength and the reader witnesses how he clutches every tiny hope to make money. Once, he wants to sell the buttons of his coat, he’s so sure they’re worth something and it’s enough to keep his mind positive for a while.

The novella pictures his ups and downs, his attempts at getting out of his predicament. It portrays a young starving artist who refuels on his own, driven by hope and inner strength. Any feeble spark of hope makes his day better. He always hopes for the best and overcomes his despair. He does wish to die sometimes but he holds to his positive attitude. That’s probably why it’s so moving.

Of course I thought about Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London. Hunger affected me more. Perhaps it’s because Orwell’s days felt more like a journalistic experiment. I knew he could have turned to his family and put an end to this time of his life. This young man was in it for good and I felt a lot of compassion for him. I also thought about Arturo Bandini in Ask the Dust. This young man and Arturo have something in common: their faith in a better future, their need to write, their ability to stay positive. There’s something about the narrator’s ramblings that made him a kindred spirit of Arturo’s and of Rilke’s Malte Laurids Brigge.

So how do you make a play out of this intimate confession?

Fosse_Ylajali

Jon Fosse chose to set aside the starving-artist part of the novel. The play is set in a public garden in autumn and a man, any man, you, me is there, trying to survive. The young man has no defined occupation, he’s unemployed. When Jon Fosse leaves behind the reference to writing, he makes his play universal. Anyone could be sacked, fail to find a new job and fall down like this young man.

The play was directed by Gabriel Dufay, who also played the role of the young man. The setting was a park in autumn, with a lamppost. A pianist was on stage, playing music from time to time, lifting the atmosphere which could have been heavy, given the topic. It gave back the tone of the book which avoids the pitfall of miserabilism. The actor impersonated the young man and two other actors played the role of the different men he speaks to in the book and Ylajali, the young woman he fantasises about. Gabriel Dufay was more than excellent. He was gripping, full of energy and showing exactly what the narrator was in the book. Hopeful, nice, extravagant. He showed the claws of hunger grasping the young man’s brain. He showed the slow degradation of the social status of this man. The first night in the park with policemen hovering, the shoes with holes, the cold that seeps into the bones. The hunger which weakens the man’s body, makes him dizzy and nauseous.

The book overwhelmed me, the play punched me in the stomach. We were out of words when we went out of the theatre. I thought “I’ll never look at homeless people the same way” but I know it’s not true. Feelings like this are fleeting. I’d need to act upon it if I really wanted to keep that silent promise I made to myself. Otherwise the emotion subsides; life goes on and the feeling is just stocked somewhere in my memory.

Needless to say I warmly encourage you to read Hunger if you haven’t read it yet.

  1. Alex in Leeds
    June 6, 2013 at 11:09 am

    Beautiful review of both the book and the play, I’ve got Hunger as one of the titles in my book jar because a friend once cancelled dinner with me and two other friends because he’d just finished reading it and needed time to absorb it.

    Like

    • June 6, 2013 at 9:15 pm

      Thanks Alex.
      I understand your friend, the book stays with you and what it describes is powerful.

      Like

  2. June 6, 2013 at 12:22 pm

    Sounds very good.

    I think that it is a really good thing to watch a performance and read a work more or less simultaneously. I feel that either reading a play, or watching a play leads me to miss so much. Doing both together fills in so many holes.

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    • June 6, 2013 at 9:17 pm

      I really enjoy seing theatre versions of novels, just like I like watching film versions of books. It’s interesting to see which parts are left behind or how the director understands the novel.
      When I know I’m going to attend such a play, I try to read the book before. Unfortunately, I don’t always have time to read it or finish it on time.

      Like

  3. June 6, 2013 at 4:26 pm

    Beautiful review, Emma. I haven’t read any of Knut Hamsun’s books. This looks like a tough book to read, but I hope I can read it when I am in one of my braver moods. I loved your sentence – ‘Hope is his dope’. I enjoyed reading your thoughts on the play version and how it compared to the book. It is interesting that the director of the play took away the literary context and made the play universal and the play is still powerful. Thanks for this wonderful review.

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  4. June 6, 2013 at 4:51 pm

    It’s definitely on my list. I’ve been aware of it for a while now, and own a copy.

    I note you say it’s a novella. Mine is an ebook, so I’m not sure I knew the length. Is it particularly short then?

    It’s sadly true that those experiences we think will change our attitudes henceforth, rarely do. If we thought they might we’d probably avoid having the experience in the first place.

    Nice quotes. Have you more Hamsun in mind?

    Like

    • June 6, 2013 at 9:27 pm

      My ebook says it’s 146 pages, that qualifies for “novella”, no? (you know we don’t have the word novella in French, I’m never sure what fits in that category)

      I’d recommend this book to you. Without any hesitation.

      I’ll read more of him but I don’t know which one. And definitely in French, instead of English like for Hunger. (Although it makes my life easier to have the quotes directly in English instead of reading the book in French, downloading an English version and looking for the corresponding quotes)

      Like

  5. June 6, 2013 at 4:58 pm

    Just saw the other comments. I saw Doctor Glas at the theatre (in Swedish with subtitles no less) the same day that I finished the book. That was very rewarding, particularly as I’d been to Stockholm in the month previous.

    Oddly, when reading the book I didn’t connect that I’d been to some of the places described in it. Hearing the stage version though, which made no attempt to mock them up, I immediately realised that I’d actually been to many of the book’s locations. Something about the added colour given it by the actor I guess.

    Like

    • June 6, 2013 at 9:32 pm

      I need to read Doctor Glas, just for the setting. I’ll be glad to read a book set in Stockholm.

      Like I said to Brian before, seeing the stage version of a novel is extremely interesting. I’m glad there are more and more plays based upon novels. I’ve seen several of them, and not always “obvious” choices for plays like The Tartar Steppe, Journey to the End of the Night or Farhenheit 451 (fantastic, you would have loved it)

      At the same time, it also means there is less room for contemporary playwrights. Making a novel into a play is also a safe bet.

      Like

  6. June 6, 2013 at 6:26 pm

    Not sure I’d like to read this. Have you read Kakfa’s The Hunger Artist?

    Like

    • June 6, 2013 at 9:34 pm

      I haven’t read this Kafka. Have you?
      You might like it, I read somewhere a comparison to Notes From the Underground. I haven’t read this Dostoevsky, so I can’t tell.

      Like

  7. June 6, 2013 at 7:29 pm

    I’ve read a few of Hamsun’s books and really liked them. Hunger is said to be one of the most autobiographical but it hasn’t tempted me so far but I will read other books by him, that’s for sure.

    Like

    • June 6, 2013 at 9:35 pm

      Which one would you recommend?

      Like

      • June 7, 2013 at 9:50 am

        Both Pan and Victoria are very good (nit sure about the titles, I’ve read them in German). My next one will be Mysteries.

        Like

        • June 9, 2013 at 9:22 pm

          What kind of genre are they? I’ve read summaries and I wasn’t interested but I trust your reading tastes, so I wonder now…

          Like

          • June 10, 2013 at 10:43 am

            They have a “spiritual” dimension but are still down to earth. I remember nature was important. Victoria is a love story.
            They are short. Mysteries is possibly his longest novel.

            Like

            • June 10, 2013 at 8:50 pm

              Thanks, I’ll have a look at them.

              Like

  8. June 6, 2013 at 9:58 pm

    The other early novels with a strong reputation are Pan, Mysteries, and Victoria. The later novel that was a big hit for Hamsun and likely won him the Nobel is The Growth of the Soil. All of these are available in recent English editions – Hamsun has had a bit of a revival in English.

    I have only read Pan and Hunger. Pan is quite different than Hunger – there is an insightful comment.

    The playwright and director’s choice is bold. They abandon large parts of the book, the most important parts, I would say, like the narrator’s impenetrable sense of his own artistic integrity. But then they come up with a powerful concept that is true to a different side of the book. I would love to see it.

    Like

    • June 6, 2013 at 10:26 pm

      Hi,

      I realise I forgot to read the article by James Wood that you recommended. Here it is.
      I’ve read it now, the part about his admiration for Nazism puts me off.
      Same kind of dilemna as with Céline: what do you do with the work of a writer who supported such a regime?

      I’ve looked for Pan and Victoria on a French online bookstore. I’m not tempted. (Why on earth does this site recommend to read Fifty Shades if you enjoyed Victoria by Hamsun??? They both use the word grey somewhere?)

      Back to the play. For me, abandoning the part about the narrator being an aspiring writer was a smart choice. You’re right, it leaves behind an important part of the book as, like Arturo Bandini, he’s convinced he has talent. (Or he wouldn’t persist in this career path.) But it would have been difficult to explore that part of the book in the play, in addition to the rest. Question of time and flow of the story. Cutting off this aspect also brings the story to another level. The spectator isn’t watching another aspiring writer who struggles to prove the world he’s talented and starves meanwhile. He sees another humanbeing who becomes homeless because he doesn’t have a job. And the novel is mostly about that.

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  9. June 7, 2013 at 4:06 am

    I have the same concern, to a degree. I do not think you have to worry with the earlier books. Hamsun was, at the time, a radical left winger, actually. He changed a lot over time.

    There is a brilliantly made movie (called Hamsun) about the errors of his old age. He is played by Max von Sydow.

    We disagree about what the novel is “mostly about,” but we agree that the people involved with the play made the best choices.

    Like

    • June 9, 2013 at 9:21 pm

      Perhaps my reading was too influenced by the play. I’ve read most of the book after seeing its stage version.

      Like

  10. June 10, 2013 at 1:10 am

    I can’t see anyone not liking Victoria, to be honest, unless they have no heart. I’ve read a lot of early Hamsun, up to The Wanderer, and it is all good (my favourite is Mysteries). His later stuff, where he changes to a dull realist style, I’ve never managed to get very far in.

    Like

    • June 10, 2013 at 8:53 pm

      Wow, that’s a great praise. I’ll look for a French version of Victoria.

      Like

    • June 10, 2013 at 9:08 pm

      That’s the blurb you find on French online bookstores:
      Elle est la fille du châtelain ; il est le fils du meunier.
      Ils s’aiment et tout les sépare, leur famille comme leur statut social. Dans une Norvège petite-bourgeoise et piétiste, deux êtres s’aiment et se déchirent sous le joug de leur indomptable orgueil. Traversé de rêveries exaltantes, ce roman d’un amour impossible fut écrit en 1898. Knut Hamsun y dresse un portrait splendide et cruel d’amants romantiques dévorés par le malheur d’aimer.

      I don’t want to read a book that sounds like this. I almost hear sniffling and a commercial for Kleenex. Thankfully, fellow bloggers help getting past blurbs like this. 🙂

      Like

  11. June 11, 2013 at 8:53 pm

    It sounds like every romance ever written, I suppose. Mind you, I read it a long time ago – so I will use that as an excuse if you don’t like it.

    I started reading Chapter the Last (a bizarre title, Det Siste Kapitel in Norwegian), one of his later books (1923), last night: just to check a) if his later books were any good; b) whether there was any indication of Nazi thought in them. It is actually very good. It’s about a sanatorium built up a mountain, and all the silly rich people who go there; and a simple farmer who lives next door. Not obviously fascist so far.

    Like

    • June 11, 2013 at 10:12 pm

      It seems hard to put a hand on a French paperback version of Victoria. Reading the blurb, it sounds a bit corny to me but that’s where the writer’s talent makes the differene. It can turn a cheesy pitch into a masterpiece, so I’ll stay openminded.

      Thanks for the information about Hamsun’s later work, it’s good to know. Why does this story line remind me of something?
      For me, the question is still there: may I read someone who agreed with such awful ideas even if they’re not displayed in his work? But then, if I say the answer is no, where do I stop? Do I put aside Rousseau because abandoning his children was unforgiveable in my book? Do I stop reading all men writers who were abusive husbands? I don’t have an answer but it’s hard to get over the idea of a writer, of a cultured man embracing Nazi theories. It’s so wrong, in all meanings of the word. These theories are based upon concepts that are evil but also intellectually inaccurate.

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  12. June 11, 2013 at 11:02 pm

    My understanding is that Growth of the Soil has some “blood and soil” stuff that the Nazis found attractive, which is quite different than containing Nazi ideas. It sounds like piffle, but better that than evil.

    My other understanding is that Hamsun did not “embrace Nazi theories” – he may not have had any idea what those theories were – but instead embraced the enemy of his hated Britain.

    I guess I think the story is more sad than repellent. But I am of course under the influence of the movie and Max von Sydow!

    Like

  13. June 11, 2013 at 11:58 pm

    I found myself wondering whether there might be connection between Chapter the Last and Mann’s The Magic Mountain (which I’ve never read) – sanatoriums up mountains. Mann, like the anti-Nazi he was, was a great fan of Hamsun, and published his book the following year.

    Hamsun’s work in general seems to have an anti-intellectual strain – The Wanderer is about a man (a professor perhaps, I can’t remember) who “drops out” (he does come across very 60s at times too) and goes to work with the soil, tramping round the countryside. I suspect the book I’m reading will be extolling the simple life as a cure for society’s psychological illnesses. I’ve also been on the look-out for anti-Englishness – there’s an English “princess”, who is a bit of a figure of fun, bordering perhaps on contempt (but that’s his attitude to a lot of these characters).

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    • June 12, 2013 at 8:06 pm

      I haven’t read The Magic Mountain either (it’s on the Daunting List), I think there’s another one in a sanatorium like this. I’ve read a review, probably by Guy. Oh, well…Tant pis.

      Like

  14. Matthew (Bibliofreak.net)
    June 18, 2013 at 4:55 pm

    Emma – I am utterly delighted you’ve read this! It’s one of my favourite books although I’ve never seen the play (nor will I ever, I fear – it’s one of those books I refuse to enjoy in anything but its original form – [such a snob! 😉 ] )

    I’m so excited to read your thoughts, and to see the book talked about as I’m well aware that it’s not as well-known as many other ‘classics’. I’d hate to think it will slip out of the collective consciousness and become just a book that academics read.

    Like

    • June 18, 2013 at 10:04 pm

      The play is well worth seeing or reading.
      I don’t think it will be forgotten or only read by academics. It’s not long, not really dated and not difficult to read. In French it’s available in paperback.

      Like

      • Matthew (Bibliofreak.net)
        June 19, 2013 at 11:26 am

        No, after I said that I began to wonder how it was thought of in Europe. In England, it doesn’t seem to be widely known in my generation, and those who studied it in the past seem surprised that it’s still finding readers (based on my own, very limited experience). Perhaps it holds a stronger place in mainland Europe than it does here.

        Like

        • June 19, 2013 at 11:18 pm

          I think it’s not as well known as other classics and it’s a shame, really. Norwegian literature doesn’t have the same kind of audience than French or British lit.

          Like

          • Matthew (Bibliofreak.net)
            June 20, 2013 at 5:44 pm

            No, I suppose it’s inevitable. We’re very lucky to live in countries with such rich literary histories, which have been preserved and cherished. Hopefully in the digital age, very little will be lost, no matter how many people there are to keep it in the consciousness.

            Like

            • June 20, 2013 at 10:29 pm

              I think it’s more about a lack of open-mindedness to other cultures than having preserved literary histories. We hardly know how strong literary currents can be elsewhere. (I discovered Hungarian lit through blogging and enjoyed all the books I’ve read so far. It’s a literary tradition I want to explore)

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              • Matthew (Bibliofreak.net)
                June 28, 2013 at 2:15 pm

                Quite possibly. Although even having a little idea of how much has been lost that was written in the English language, I always wonder how much has been lost in places that didn’t document as thoroughly. Of course, that doesn’t really apply in the case of ‘Hunger’ but I’d be sorry to see it slip out of ‘Western’ consciousness. Be interested to hear more about Hungarian lit. btw 🙂

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              • June 29, 2013 at 7:59 am

                I’ll second Max, lots of things to be found on the blogosphere. You can also check out this site : Hungarian Literature Online

                Like

  15. June 26, 2013 at 9:47 pm

    I’ve started this today. Thanks for buing it up my TBR pile. Beautifully written.

    Like

    • June 26, 2013 at 9:48 pm

      Bumping it up, that should have been.

      Like

    • June 26, 2013 at 9:50 pm

      I knew you’d like it. Let me know if you see a connection with Arturo Bandini in Ask the Dust

      Like

  16. June 28, 2013 at 3:05 pm

    Biblio, the blogosphere has been much more interested in Hungarian literature than the mainstream press, not sure who started it. I’ve reviewed a few at mine (http://pechorinsjournal.wordpress.com/category/hungarian-literature/), as has Emma and as has Trevor of themookseandthegripes if you know that blog.

    It’s an incredibly rich literary tradition, and so difficult to translate that very few weak works reach the English language given the effort involved.

    Like

    • Matthew (Bibliofreak.net)
      July 1, 2013 at 12:18 pm

      Thanks very much for the links Max – I will definitely check them out. I’m all but ignorant to trends in the blogosphere being somewhat of a hermit, and a pretty vacant one at that, so it definitely helps to have a nudge in the right direction. If you get round to Hunger/Sult, do feel free to stop by my review; I’m really interested to hear others’ thoughts on the book.

      Like

  1. August 23, 2013 at 1:19 pm
  2. December 27, 2013 at 12:07 am

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