The Only Story


The unnamed protagonist wanders the streets of Christiana (present day Oslo), psychotic with starvation. He is constantly aware of money, but only insofar as a meal ticket. He is a writer of philosophical articles, which when healthy he churns out in all-night manias, and then submits them to magazines for a pittance. But that is only when he has eaten and is strong enough to work. Many days he is too weak to get out of bed.


He is capable of absolute benevolence, literally selling the coat off his back to help an old beggar. He is also tremendously impatient with strangers, flying, mid-conversation into delusional rage. He meets a girl, they part, he takes a job on a ship and leaves Christiana forever.


That’s the whole novel.


Who needs a story? Knut Hamsun distilled the human condition to its utmost simplicity. Our hero desires only two things: his dignity as he defines it and just enough food to survive. Early on, he applies for a job (at a grocery store, no less), but failing to follow up, the position is given to someone else. He only returns to the store weeks later, in desperation and on the verge of death. He could never work a job, betraying his pristine spirit for the sake of physical comfort. To carry a surplus would be unspeakable, anticipating a future that no one has a right to expect. Any plans for tomorrow risk the hubris of entitlement and a numbing of one’s constitution.


Hamsun drew on personal experience for the material that comprises Hunger. What could be more personal than starvation? He later reeled against the great novels of the nineteenth century for their failure to focus on true condition of living—the need, not to overcome social obstacles or to beat the odds, but simply to survive. That is the condition of every living thing and it is easy to forget that mankind is no different. Hamsun might argue that Bleak House and Middlemarch are not about characters but about the worship of the human race. You will find no social commentary in Hunger, no changing world, no intricate letters from one character to another where the line between exposition and scene is blurred. Another thing you won’t find is the voice of God, hovering over the novel’s world, playfully pulling His character’s strings. All you get is the story of one man and his daily attempts to prolong death, told by himself in a world unchanging but for the tiny containers of sustenance that seem always to slam shut.


As a writer, you can never be too concise. The same is true of a human being. Respecting Hamsun, I won’t go on a tangent of social criticism, but I will indulge in a final statement. The world we live in appears always to be changing. New technologies, new wars, new disasters, laws, attitudes. These are nothing more than our creations. There is still the Earth and long after we’re gone, it will still be here. It’s at least worth considering this when we work so hard to hide ourselves from its constant reminders of its own power.


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