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Buddy Reads > Knut Hamsun's Hunger Buddy Read

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message 1: by Missy J (last edited Jun 01, 2017 03:15AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Missy J (missyj333) Hello everybody,

For June 2017, we will buddy read Knut Hamsun's Hunger. Very happy that several people expressed interest for this book discussion.

I will post more after June 6 when I have more time. In the meantime, below are two interesting articles about the novel and the author.
I have a rough list of favourite books, which changes all the time. The book which had the greatest effect when I first read it is probably Hunger by the Norwegian writer Knut Hamsun.

It was published in 1890, when Hamsun was 30. He had been scrambling around for years, trying to write and to get his work published, failing over and over again, working in menial jobs, emigrating to the US for a near-fatal crack at the land of opportunity, returning to Oslo still more indignant about everything and determined to prove everyone wrong.

The never-quite-named protagonist is living and failing dismally in Oslo, "that strange city no one escapes from until it has left its mark on him". He tries to write, but no one really wants to pay him except the occasional kindly newspaper editor, so he has fallen into destitution and is almost starving. The novel follows him as he wanders around the city. He is in a heightened, almost hysterical state, intensely alert to the suffering of those around him as well as nearly demolished by his own predicament.

It's not just about being a failed writer. It's also about the process of entering adult life, that somewhat devastating moment when you realise that you have to work to live, unless you're obscenely rich; that you are obliged to exchange almost all your time for money. And how you might lose your ideals in the face of this unwieldy realisation. It's also about the social mask, how you are – in adulthood but even before – constantly being encouraged to conceal your real responses to things.....
Book of a Lifetime: Hunger by Knut Hamsun
Isaac Bashevis Singer famously called Norwegian writer Knut Hamsun the father of modern literature. I'd take this further and say that he's the father of postmodern literature as well. With 1890's Hunger, Hamsun unleashed the first in a series of novels that anticipated everything from the terrifying absurdities of Kafka to the desiccated ennui of the existentialists and even Charles Bukowski's autobiographical explorations.

Despite this, Hamsun is a writer who today is shunned by much of the literary establishment, not because his writing has lost any of its lustre, I'd argue, but because of his far-right political views, which came to a head during the second world war with his open support of Hitler and Norway's post-invasion Nazi puppet government.

I will not defend Hamsun's politics. He betrayed both his country and more importantly humanity in general and deserves every bit of the scorn that's been heaped upon him. Hamsun's writing, however, is another matter. Whether we like the man or not, it seems to me both foolish and pointless to continue ignoring the significance of Hamsun's work - if for no other reason than it's an important part of our literary evolution and denying this can do nothing but cloud our understanding of our ourselves as readers and writers........
The Nazi novelist you should read

Hope we will have a fruitful buddy read!

message 2: by Carol (last edited May 31, 2017 07:42PM) (new) - added it

Carol (carolfromnc) Thanks for setting this up, and for the introductory materials. I look forward to joining, probably around the 10th.

message 3: by Nix (new) - rated it 4 stars

Nix | 112 comments Looks like we're ready to go. Thanks, Missy J!

I'll probably start sometime next week. I'm curious to see, among other things, how his writing might reflect his views. has a free copy of Hunger available for download in different formats:

message 4: by Pink (new) - rated it 1 star

Pink | 6556 comments Oh thanks for this, I forgot to get a copy, so I'll download the project gutenberg edition to read on my phone. I'll probably start in a week or so.

Darren (dazburns) | 1845 comments I bought a more recent translation copy:
Hunger by Knut Hamsun which I have penciled in for September
I still haven't finished my May reading and am choc-a for June already, buuuuut... ;o)

message 6: by Pink (new) - rated it 1 star

Pink | 6556 comments I'm sure you can slot it in somewhere, I mean you could always cut out eating and sleeping to squeeze some extra books in ;)

(I'm still finishing May books as well)

message 7: by Biblio (last edited Jun 03, 2017 05:16PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Biblio Curious (bibliocurious) | 39 comments I've already read it, so I won't re-read it just yet. I'm so excited to hear what others think of it ^.^ Don't mind me snooping here. I won't give any spoilers either.

An antique map of the town could be helpful resource since a number of places are referenced. The current name of the town is Oslo, in Hunger, it's called Christiania or Kristiania (1624–1924)

Oh, I found this on Wikipedia:
In many ways, the protagonist of the novel displays traits reminiscent of Raskolnikov, whose creator, Fyodor Dostoevsky, was one of Hamsun's main influences.[3] The influence of naturalist authors such as Émile Zola is apparent in the novel, as is his rejection of the realist tradition.

This article is riddled with spoilers. It gives some insight into the various places from Hunger. Still no actual map. *puff*

message 8: by Nix (new) - rated it 4 stars

Nix | 112 comments I've started it now. Not sure where this will be going, I'm still in Part 1. But so far it's interesting how unstable the protagonist seems: how quickly he jumps from hopelessness to hope and back, from benevolence to rage, from shame to pride etc., and how much in his own bubble he lives. He seems convinced that the world is against him and that almost no one else is suffering from any fears, worries or hardship. It's easy to sympathize, but at the same time his behaviour seems very erratic.

What I've read so far has definitely made me curious about the rest. It's a short book, but I've noticed it's not something I can read on the go. I'll need some peace and quiet at home for this one.

message 9: by Pink (new) - rated it 1 star

Pink | 6556 comments I'll be starting tomorrow.

Missy J (missyj333) I just finished reading Part 1. I agree with Nix, the nameless narrator moves very suddenly between very strong emotions of hope and utter despair, between praising and blaming God. Some serious mood swings here.

I don't quite understand why he wants to make an impression on certain people around him, which always end up being detrimental to himself. For instance, at the beginning of the story, this old man asked him for some change to buy milk and the narrator just up and left to pawn his own vest for some change, so that he could be generous to the old man. Later on, he realizes that his pen was inside the vest...

Very exasperating, but the writing is good and definitely holds my attention. Interested to hear what others make out of the narrator.

Biblio Curious (bibliocurious) | 39 comments I found him to be raw and maybe realistic in his irrationality? Someone who is in that 'dire' frame of mind would be selfish because their self preservation is kicked into high gear. But then, the need for social acceptance would also swing into a top priority.

I'm sure this narrator feels really low and degraded because of poverty but then wants to get the acceptance of others to help him 'crawl out of this despair.'

There must be some tension going on in his mind between love and loathing of the social world. It's both responsible for his dire situation and also the source of his redemption out of this situation.

message 12: by Pink (last edited Jun 13, 2017 01:03PM) (new) - rated it 1 star

Pink | 6556 comments I'm part way through part 1 and I'm not sure what I think so far. The narrator seems very strange in his actions, following the woman to scare her, pawning his clothes to buy milk for a stranger. He seems to consider himself an important and worthy author, though this feels like self delusion. I'm unsure if he's acting in denial of his poverty, as a method of self protection, or if he truly believes that his fate cannot be so bad, as he considers himself better than this.

message 13: by Pink (new) - rated it 1 star

Pink | 6556 comments I've finished part 2. The narrator continues to infuriate me, not taking help when it would be sensible to, but lying about his name and state of destitution in the guardhouse and therefore missing out on a breakfast. Then he practically breaks down, begging to any acquaintances he can find, asking a shop assistant to steal a penny from the till, then trying to pawn his buttons. It looks like he's finally found help in someone he knows, but I expect it will be short lived. Even this friend realises what a fool and liar our narrator is.

message 14: by Nix (new) - rated it 4 stars

Nix | 112 comments Finished Part 2. Part 1 still had some absurd passages that were more light-hearted. The Happolati exchange with the old man was fun, for example. Part 2 gets more serious, especially with the mental effects of starvation and living rough. And a lot sadder, too. The protagonist is aware he's acting strange, but can't stop. Now his inflated pride and sense of entitlement seem to be half coping mechanism, and not entirely character flaws, although they still lead him to self-destructive actions (the breakfast ticket!). He remains a frustrating character. Although I appreciate that Hamsun didn't make him some innocent Dickensian orphan with a golden heart.

Whether our narrator is supposed to be a particularly skilled writer or not, it does make me think of all the great artists who struggled to make ends meet their whole lives. And then, decades or centuries later, their works are considered priceless achievements of mankind.

Part 2 is just plain depressing.

On a more positive note, I really like the use of light and darkness so far. And hey, maybe things will look up in the second half...

message 15: by Nix (new) - rated it 4 stars

Nix | 112 comments Pink wrote: "I've finished part 2. The narrator continues to infuriate me, not taking help when it would be sensible to, but lying about his name and state of destitution in the guardhouse and therefore missing..."

Yes, I agree. His despair is easy to relate to, but at the same time I want to shake some sense into him. Although to be fair, we haven't seen him in affluent circumstances yet. He might act differently with a regular roof over his head and a steady supply of food.

I like the few small glimpses of an outside perspective we get through the reactions of the people he meets. Most of them are either afraid of or confused by him.

message 16: by Pink (new) - rated it 1 star

Pink | 6556 comments I like the outside perspectives too. Though I'm not sure why our narrator always felt the need to try to scare people. He's not exactly likeable in these moments and now they're scared of him anyway, for how he looks.

message 17: by Missy J (last edited Jun 29, 2017 11:47AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Missy J (missyj333) I've had to pause this book for a couple of weeks, while my family and I were in the midst of moving. Has anybody continued with the second half? Or is the narrator too infuriating? :)

I just finished Part 3, and the narrator continues to be self-destructive and his state of starvation has reached horrifying levels where anything he eats, he vomits out not long after. He gets involved with the woman he calls Ylayali. I don't quite understand why she would associate with him in the first place, especially after the way he stalked her in Part 1.

Hope to finish this tomorrow.

message 18: by Pink (new) - rated it 1 star

Pink | 6556 comments Same here really. I haven't been inspired to pick this up for the past couple of weeks. I'm almost at the end of part 3 and feel the same about Ylayali, I can't understand why she'd become involved with our narrator, he's hardly a catch for anyone and was horrible to her. I hate him more than ever at the moment.

message 19: by Nix (new) - rated it 4 stars

Nix | 112 comments I finished it last week, but I needed some time to think about it.

The ending changed my perspective drastically. (view spoiler)

Despite being so frustrated with the narrator through most of the book, (view spoiler). Strangely enough, that combined with the ending elevates Hunger to a much more universal level for me. (view spoiler)

Viewing it as a whole, Hunger is closer to myth, fable or Greek drama than the somewhat fictionalised autobiographical report it appears to be on the surface. In the end, this story about a homeless/starving Norwegian writer is the mere basis of a book that is much more about the timeless human struggle to survive; and the isolation, suffering and violence inherent in that struggle.

The differences between the narrator and the other characters/the reader have practically vanished by the end and the particular circumstances of his existence become meaningless, because he is not this one man anymore, he is everyone.

Of course, we all like to believe that we could never be like that, and as a reader I felt pretty secure in my own (imagined) superiorty, and then the ending and its aftermath came like an unexpected look in the mirror. The epilogue might as well have been: 'HAHA! You lose.' I love when a book manages to do that.

What is everyone else thinking? I'm half convinced I might be the only one who did such a 180 degree turn.

I suspect I'm missing important clues in the geography of the setting, simply because I'm not familiar with the city. But I think it would be great fun to visit Oslo and follow along with his wanderings.

I have trouble reconciling this work with what I know of Hamsun's views, because to me it's a profoundly philanthropic book, albeit without any sentimentality. But it's certainly possible that I'm misunderstanding the whole thing.

message 20: by Pink (new) - rated it 1 star

Pink | 6556 comments I have the last chapter to go. I have very mixed feelings about it at the moment. Like I said, I hate the narrator, but I like the writing and I'm intrigued to see what happens in the end. It reminds me very much of Kafka, where I also I find myself appreciating the story and the ideas, more than I actually enjoy the reading experience.

message 21: by Pink (new) - rated it 1 star

Pink | 6556 comments I finished today. Oh my, I did not like the last chapter at all. I found it confused and didn't like the abrupt ending, it hardly felt connnected to the previous three chapters at all. I'll probably rate it 2 stars, as although I didn't enjoy it, I did like the writing and didn't hate it. I would like to read something else by Hamsun, but not for a while.

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