Thursday, May 23, 2013

the last book I read

Hunger by Knut Hamsun.

So our un-named narrator is an aspiring writer in Oslo (during the 50-year period around the turn of the 20th century when it was called Kristiania). The old writing game is a hard one, though, and he's not making a lot of money out of it. Consequently affording the basics in life is tough - things like accommodation and food. Occasionally a kindly editor of some local newspaper or magazine will take pity on him and slip him ten kroner or so for an article, but outside those happy interludes it's all gnawing hunger and misery.

Now clearly our narrator could do what aspiring film actors have been doing in Hollywood for the last 50+ years and get a job doing something else - waiting tables, pole dancing, whatever - to supplement his meagre income. That would be to compromise his lofty ideals, though, so instead he wanders the streets lost in his increasingly strange thoughts and occasionally having outbursts of loud talking to himself and alarming passers-by. Meanwhile his physical and mental disintegration continues. Eventually he  makes a bid for freedom by enlisting, on a whim, on a merchant ship which will take him far away from Oslo and his troubles.

Our hero here suffers from some of the same problems as the protagonists of The Catcher In The Rye and Demian, the main one being that you want to reach in and give him a good slapping for his adolescent self-absorption and intellectual snobbery. Perhaps we fortysomethings forget, though, how much of an upheaval there is in realising that - unless you're particularly fortunate - you'll be required to give up a huge percentage of your time during your adult life in exchange for enough money to live on, and furthermore that you won't be permitted - unless you're exceptionally fortunate - just to spend that time doing what you most enjoy doing, but will instead have to do what other people tell you to do.

The other parallel that everyone seems to draw is between the narrator here and Raskolnikov from Dostoyevsky's Crime And Punishment, and I can see that, although in fairness it must be said that our narrator here at no point murders anyone with an axe.

The most surprising thing about Hunger is how contemporary it feels given that it was written in 1890. I mean, there aren't any robots or digital watches or mobile telephones, but the focus on the internal mental anguish of the main character feels very modern. I understand that "late 19th century Norwegian fiction" might not be the most appetising fictional genre for everyone, myself included, but this is actually pretty readable, and it's only short (160 pages or so). Hamsun won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1920 (other books by Nobel laureates on this list can be found here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here). His reputation took a bit of a knock after his flirtation with Nazism during the 1940s (when, some say, his physical and mental health had already started to fail), but well, you know, you live to 92 and the law of averages says you're going to spend at least some of that time being a bit of a Nazi. I know I have.

Hunger has also been filmed twice, in 1966 and then again in 2001. The later film seems to have relocated the plot to Hollywood and made the protagonist a frustrated screenwriter instead of a frustrated essayist and novelist. I'm going to go out on a limb and guess that neither film is a barrel of laughs, though.

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