Friday, December 24, 2010

Hunger by Knut Hamsun

This is a short novel written by a contemporary of Edvard Munch, whom we all know and love for his painting The Scream. Hamsun, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1920, has created a Kafkaesque narrator who struggles through a very rough patch in the city, before setting out on the voyage that will make or break him as a functioning adult. Sorry about using the term "Kafkaesque,' by the way.

If you read Hunger as a narrative, a traditional novel, you will be disappointed. Better to stick with Dostoyevski's Crime and Punishment. Hamsun's narrator, his K, his analog-I, seems to drift on through from one thing after another by the power of his own inner compulsions. But what are they? Ahh! Once you ask that question, you will be on the way to seeing the deeper level of Hunger, as a tale of a boy trying to become a man and take a place in the symbolic order.

I hated Biblical allegory because I never saw it on my own. Once somebody pointed out the hidden, deep and secret meaning, then I could say, 'Aha! I get it!' But never a minuite before. In literature, sadly it is the same, but, thanks to Freud, Jung, Erich Neumann, and the demigodic Lacan, I enjoy what I find so much more. And Hamsun digs deep, oh so deep.

The novel is about 200 pages in the Penguin Classics edition, divided into four sections. In the first, we are dragged along through three days of the narrator's life. And what a life! Signs and talismans abound. But I don't want to spoil your digging, so I will only hit the high points. Our poor young man has already pawned all that he brought with him from home. What remains are the clothes on his back, his pencil and paper, and a borrowed blanket which will eventually become part of a great moral struggle. But let's look at the pencil. It is the extention of his hand, and thus of his brain, where all the knowledge cramm'd in by classics-loving schoolmasters is kept. And it is the way he proposes to earn his place in society. Write!-- yes, but what? He wants, it seems, to write serious literature, but the only things he can sell for now are newspaper articles, articles to the public taste (ugh!) and not learned gobbledeguk, as his father..oops....I mean his editor reminds him later. But today he must move one more step down the ladder of life and pawn his vest. Trouble is, he forgets to remove the pencil from the pocket! His talisman of manhood is lost! And he must do all he can to get it back.

Having no vest meant that it is no longer possible for him to even pose as a respectable person, much less keep warm at night. In part two, the narrator takes refuge in jail for a night, where he takes on the identity of an important person who has not been able to make it home. He does pull it off, but then cannot take part in the breakfast provided for the homeless, lest he blow his cover. Andreas Tangen, journalist--is his assumed identity, but it is a sham. When he does get to the place of empowerment, the editor's office, what he had written is rejected out of hand. To the editor it is a non-incident, for he has a place in the symbolic order, but for the narrator, the pittance he would have been paid is a matter of life and death.

In part three, he meets a girl around whom he has thrown a web of fantasy as his 'Princess Ylajali.' Turns out, she has taken a fancy to him as well, though God only knows why. He can's smell very good, and sleeping in one's clothes does nothing for the appearance. In the real time of the novel, I cannot explain it, other that a strange whim, but in the world of symbols she is the (gasp) mother figure in his Oedipal drama. On the winding way to her sitting-room he is symbolicaly castrated twice, by biting his finger and when a bakery wagon crushes his foot. If that were not enough, Hamsun hits us with a third symbolic castration when, just before he reaches his prize (no, not THAT!), Ylajali discovers that his hair is falling out. (Think Sampson, but dont run off to read Milton's Sampson Agonistes.)

I wont spoil the fourth part, other than to say Primal Scene? Yeh, it's in there. From the 1700s on, I have found that education went well ahead, even though based in the classics, but jobs for all these newly educated were few and far between. Hölderlin could be a pastor, if there were a parish for him, or he could be a tutor to some rich brats, treated no better than a house servant. Not that there's anything wrong with being a house servant, but the education received put the mind on lofty, unobtainable things. The Brontë family, including brother Branwell struggled with this as well. The girls could be governnesses or work in a Madeline-y school in Brussles. Branwell tried to work for the railroad. Baudelaire has a better start, but his voyage was a disaster; he gave up half way and returned home. We can only hope for better things from the voyage of Hamsun's narrator in Hunger.

And, yes, I give this book seven thumbs up^^

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