Rereading Knut Hamsun

    By J. Peder Zane

    When it comes to books, my only question is: What's next?

    So much lurking greatness, so little time. So many gaps — "The Man Without Qualities," "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire," "Eloise." So much guilt.

    Despite the onward march, old books are like old friends. Those we encounter in youth stand out more than the rest, crystallized by feeling memory. I met Knut Hamsun (1859-1952) in college. After devouring "Hunger," I quickly moved to his other psychological masterpieces, "Mysteries" and "Pan," then "Growth of the Soil," "Victoria," "Rosa," "Under the Autumn Stars" and "Dreamers." Rationally, I knew many other writers were at least the Norwegian's equal. But Hamsun became my spirited answer to: "Who's your favorite writer?" Each new girlfriend received a crisp copy, followed by a measuring discussion.

    I valued him so, made him mine, because he didn't seem to belong to anyone else. "Knut who?" others would say — to my delight — of the man who had won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1920. Elitism, snobbery, call it what you will, but my love of Hamsun told me something about myself at that young age that was forcefully affirming.

    Learning why his reputation had fallen into eclipse — he had supported Germany during World War II — I took pause, wrestling for the first time with the tension between politics and art. I saw that he was no fascist on the page and, quite honestly, he meant too much to me to cast away.

    Through the years, his totemic stature grew in my mind while his books gathered dust on my shelf as I continued to ask: What's next? So it was with some trepidation that I recently came across Sverre Lyngstad's definitive new translation of "Hunger". Did I dare? What if, almost two decades later, the prose seemed flat and irrelevant? For we common readers do not assess books with the cold eye of learned judgment but fuse with them through the idiosyncratic lens of emotional self-definition. Could I relinquish my generous dear friend?

    Ah, what the heck.

    "Hunger" (1890) now seemed a subtly different book to me. It is indeed the story of a nameless young writer failing to eke out a living, a plotless, stream-of-consciousness work about a man "too feeble to steer or guide myself where I wanted to go." For several months he roams the streets of Kristiania (now Oslo), cursing God, berating strangers, fomenting ludicrous run-ins with prostitutes, sailors, blind men and editors. All the while he imagines composing world-shaking newspaper articles — "[I] decided upon a three part monograph about philosophical cognition. Needless to say, I would have an opportunity to deal a deathblow to Kant's sophisms" — that might secure him pocket change for bread. To little avail. "I swallowed my saliva again and again to take the edge off, and it seemed to help."

    Introspective but not analytic, the action in "Hunger" pivots on the whirligig fluctuations of the narrator's mind: suicidal one moment, joyful the next, angry, heartbroken, proud, malicious, pretentious, polite, petty, perplexed, generous, hilarious, warped, inspired seemingly all at once. "I give a hoarse scream of terror and clutch the bed. How wonderful it was to feel safe again as I clapped my hand against that hard bunk bed. This is what it's like to die, I said to myself, and now you're going to die  Then I sit up in bed and ask sternly, 'Who said I was going to die?' "

    In memory, "Hunger" was the story of a heroic man, lonely, frightened, unappreciated, yelling "take notice" at a deaf and dumb world upon which he will, make no mistake, impose himself. That so much of the work was based on Hamsun's experience, that the starving young writer willed himself into a Nobel laureate, transformed "Hunger" in my mind into a semi-autobiographical work of my own fears and desires.

    So it remained.

    Rereading "Hunger" as I hurtle toward middle-age, I was more impressed by the great degree to which the world, whether it be other people or his own swirling consciousness, imposes itself upon the narrator. "However estranged I was from myself in that moment," he tells us, "so completely at the mercy of invisible influences, nothing that was taking place around me escaped my perceptions."

    As the narrator learns, the world is fair and unfair, just and unjust. But it is not easily fled or transformed. It exacts its price as it takes our measure. This, of course, is a much harder lesson. But, for me, the great achievement of "Hunger" is that even as its words stay bound to the page, it keeps speaking to whirligiging me. A friend indeed.


    New List

    David Mitchell

    1. The Duel by Anton Chekhov (1891).
    2.1984by George Orwell (1948).
    3.Heart of Darknessby Joseph Conrad (1899).
    4.Sense and Sensibilityby Jane Austen (1811).
    5.The Master and Margaritaby Mikhail Bulgakov (1966).
    6.As I Lay Dyingby William Faulkner (1930).
    7.Tom Jonesby Henry Fielding (1749).
    8.Labyrinthsby Jorge Luis Borges (1964).
    9.W, or The Memory of Childhoodby Georges Perec (1975).
    10.The Makioka Sistersby Junichiro Tanizaki (1943–48).
    Wild Card:Lolly Willowesby Sylvia Townsend Warner (1926).


    Classic List

    Top Ten African-American Works

    1. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison (1952). 
    2. Beloved by Toni Morrison (1987). 
    3. Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison (1977). 
    4. Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston (1937). 
    5. Native Son by Richard Wright (1945). 
    6. A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry (1959). 
    7. Another Country by James Baldwin (1962). 
    8. Cane by Jean Toomer (1923). 
    9. Lucy by Jamaica Kincaid (1990). 
    10. Manchild in the Promised Land by Claude Brown (1965). 


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