Wednesday, June 26, 2013


Hunger, Knut Hamsun
Read: 15 May to 19 May 2013
4 / 5 stars

Like apparently so many others, it was my love of Bukowski that led me to Knut Hamsun, particularly this short but harrowing piece. In Buk's poem "you might as well kiss your ass goodbye," my literary hero asks one of his own, "Sir.... that first novel, did you really eat your own / flesh as a young writer? were you that / hungry?," leaving me to ask how can one NOT give in to curiosity when presented with bait that's so temptingly flavored with desperation and meat of the scribe? Besides, reading the very book that left such an irreversible impact on Buk the same way that his poetry has affected me was the kind of atemporal unity of shared reading experiences that makes me love discovering my favorite writers' favorite writers even more.

If I hadn't realized a long time ago that the romance surrounding the life of a starving artist is more of a well-manufactured lie than an honest portrayal of an uncertain existence that's fraught with so many basic concerns that any hope of creative output is thwarted by the much more biologically imperative pursuits of food and shelter, Hunger would have been a rude awakening.

Ostensibly, this is about a homeless, jobless and increasingly hairless writer's slow descent into madness through hunger: hunger for food, for shelter, for adequate company, for letting his talent flow from his brain through his pencil to the page. He is completely at the mercy of the notion that creative greatness can't be rushed and he suffers poignantly (and sometimes with a dark humor) for it. He goes days without eating, he pawns his possessions nearly to nakedness, he chews on wood chips (and, yes, his own fingers) for sustenance, he sleeps outside as another brutally cold Scandinavian winter bears down on his little patch of Norway. It is the ultimate ballad of what can be sacrificed in order to live through just one more unforgiving day, how the hope of publication propels the despondent writer in his peregrinations.

As the story trundles on and Hamsun avails himself (or attempts to, being limited not by his own fading conscience but rather the standards of those to whom he tries selling his possessions) of everything down to the buttons of his coat, it becomes increasingly clear that those who are blessed with talents they are meant to share with the world can stand to lose everything of material worth so long as they keep those precious mental facilities about them, as evidenced by Hamsun's mounting fear of permanent madness: Losing his mind for good means that he has lost the one true asset that is the essence of his being and, at a survival level, makes him economically viable again so he can afford to focus on the outpouring of words that he is so clearly meant to leave behind as inspiration to generations of his literary successors.

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