What do we do about Knut Hamsun? Should we honor him as a Nobel Prize winner in
literature? Was he, as some claim, the first great modernist in fiction? Or was he just recycling
Dostoevsky for a Nordic audience? Should he be honored as a national hero, or ought we to
despise him as one of Hitler’s apologists, a fanatic who was arrested for treason after World
War II, only to get let off the hook when a psychiatrist found him too “diminished” to stand trial?
In his native Norway, they still can’t resolve these issues. In 2001,
city planners in Oslo decided to name a street in Hamsun’s honor,
but backed down in the face of protests. Yet, in 2009, a museum
and statue were erected in his honor.
The strongest case in favor of Hamsun comes from the assessment
of other Nobel laureates. “The whole modern school of fiction in the
twentieth century stems from Hamsun,” proclaimed Isaac Bashevis
Singer (Nobel Prize winner in 1978). Hermann Hesse (Nobel winner
in 1946) lauded Hamsun as his favorite writer. “Never has the Nobel
Prize been awarded to one worthier of it,” insisted Thomas Mann
(Nobel Prize winner in 1929) on the occasion of Hamsun’s 70th
birthday. André Gide (Nobel laureate in 1947) claimed that Hamsun
was superior to Dostoevsky.
Yet the love and hate vie with each other to this day. Jeffrey Frank
recalls trying to purchase copies of Hamsun’s works during a visit
to Copenhagen. “Several times when I asked about Hamsun’s works,” he notes, “the man
behind the counter (it was always a man) would shake his head and declare, ‘He was a traitor!’”
When King Harald V of Norway quoted Hamsun in a speech, controversy ensued. Yet the
celebrations for Hamsun’s 150th birthday were financed by the government and presided over
by the monarch’s wife, Queen Sonja.
Many would suggest that the contrast between Knut Hamsun’s life and his work presents a
paradox, an unsolvable problem for posterity. They would point to the disturbing fact that
Hamsun received the acclaim of these other Nobel Prize winners, but gave his own Nobel medal
as a gift to Joseph Goebbels, the most infamous propagandist of the 20th century. How do we
reconcile the irreconcileable?
But we shouldn't be too surprised. The case of the great artist who does something despicable
is hardly an uncommon situation. What about Roman Polanski or Woody Allen or Bill Cosby?
And what do we do about Ezra Pound? Or Nobel winner Sartre’s excusing the mass murders of
Stalin and Mao? Or Nobel winner George Bernard Shaw’s support of the Soviet show trials that
allowed Stalin to murder all of his political opponents? The answer to these questions isn’t
really a hard one: great art can come from not-so-great people. Sometimes the same visionary
force that enables artists to defy artistic conventions and rise to the top also spurs them to defy
moral conventions and sink to the bottom. As a result, evaluating a creative work can rarely be
reduced to assessing the virtues or vices of its creator.
So let’s turn away from the case of Knut Hamsun, and consider his most famous novel, Hunger,
which shook up the Nordic literary establishment upon its initial publication in 1890 and still has
the power to shock and disturb us so many years later. This is a riveting book, filled with an
intense psychological realism that few nineteenth century authors could match, and none
surpass. Yet it is also a painful book to read, an existential horror tale, that presents the
suffering of its narrator in such vivid detail, that we can feel it gnawing at our own soul. Go
ahead and laugh at Edvard Brandes, the Danish critic, who jumped up in the midst of reading
Hunger and “ran like crazy to the post office” to mail Hamsun ten kroner—he was certain, from
reading the book, that its author must be starving. But when you are reading this novel, you
won’t doubt that its writer is speaking with the deepest conviction of his personal sufferings.
Even before I knew the details of Hamsun’s early life, I was certain that he must have
undergone long periods of malnutrition and need. The details in this book are simply too
infused with verisimilitude. How else would our author know that you can momentarily stop the
physical pains of starvation by “coughing hard or by walking extremely bent over”? And where
did he learn how chewing on wood scraps impacts incessant cravings for food? By the same
token, Hamsun’s descriptions of the changing mental states that result from days without
eating, or his accounts of the pronounced nausea and vomiting that result from eating too
much after a long period of fasting, and in dozens of other details, he seems to have passed
beyond novelistic invention and into the realm of first-person confession.
Was this book autobiographical? From what we know about Hamsun’s early years, we can
conclude that he lived through too much of this deprivation. In one surviving letter, he writes:
"I didn't eat for four days on end, I sat here chewing dead matchsticks." Other circumstances
in Hunger can be traced back to real-life incidents—including the author’s experiences
with pawnshops, jail time and homelessness.
Twenty pages into the novel, you will already be shuddering. And you will look at the pages
still ahead, and wonder: Can he really keep this up for the full duration of the novel. And the
answer is, mostly, yes. Our starving narrator, will receive an occasional handout during the
course of this book, and secure a meal here and there, but only after long intervals of
desperate need. In an especially gruesome scene our unnamed protagonist bites into his
own index finger. Some later critics have seen in this interlude the anticipation of
Kafkaesque absurdity, a sign that Hamsun has anticipated 20th century writing with a
crazy moment outside the scope of traditional realism. But I didn’t react that way at all to
this plot development—I simply saw our hero as reaching the limits of sanity in his struggles
On the other hand, I can’t agree with those who try to view Hunger in the context of other
nineteenth century novels of sociopolitical criticsm. Knut Hamsun is no Charles Dickens,
trying to agitate for the poor. Indeed, you will find no political content in this entire book.
And, unlike Dickens, Hamsun doesn’t even provide a convincing villain. There are many
causes to his narrator’s sufferings, but the biggest contributors are some of this character's
own best qualities: his honesty, his recurring bouts of optimism, his unwillingness to beg, his
desire to give to others. He is flawed too. He suffers from pride. He has delusions of
grandeur. He enjoys deceiving others with lies and pretenses. In the context of his life,
these are forgivable lapses, but they also contribute to his diminishing prospects. This is
what makes Hunger so hard to stomach: our growing sense that we have no external villain
to demonize, no legislative agenda that will fix everything. This is an existential novel, and
the narrator is often creating the terms of his own suffering. For this reason, Hunger is
more akin to Sartre’s Nausea, or Clarice Lispector’s The Passion According to G.H. or
even Kierkegaard’s The Concept of Dread or Fear and Trembling—those defining works
of existential horror—than to the great works of social realism of his day.
So consider Hunger a psychological case study, the work of a profound observer of the
human condition. My favorite quote from Hamsun is a quip to a correspondent about the
supposed peculiarities found in Dostoevsky. Hamsun dismisses the idea that these
occurrences are oddities, and insists that he experiences “far, far stranger things just going
for a walk……alas!” This was no idle boast. Hamsun had an infallible sense of the tragic
elements of everyday life. And this is why his work has held up so well—despite what his
own actions might have done to sour posterity on his writings. If had been a political writer
lobbying for the poor, his books would have little interest for us nowadays, especially in the
context of the social welfare economies of his native Norway, where North Sea oil revenues
have made starvation a thing of the past. But because he saw deeper, to crises that haven’t
been alleviated by legislation—in many instance, they are immune to programmatic fixes—
his stories have not lost any of their bitter impact. Alas!
Ted Gioia writes on music, literature and popular culture. His latest book is
Love Songs: The Hidden History, published by Oxford University Press.
Publication date: February 29, 2016
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