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I just finished reading Hunger by Knut Hamsun. The first thing that caught my attention was the overall tone of the book. Being indoctrinated into literature that takes as its subject matter the starving artist creating it through Bukowski, it is obvious just how much this book influenced Buk.

The novel follows a nameless starving writer. The translation I have plays with the tenses of verbs, which give the novel the feeling of being inside the writers mind as he tells his story from present to past tenses, and this translation also shows how the narrator starts to lose his mind the longer he goes without food. The narrator’s tone changes with his hunger, and there is a level of absurdity reached as the narrator, although dirt poor and starving, feels he still needs to defend his dignity and honor; for instance, after a mix up at a store, the narrator receives change for a bill he never gave the shop keeper and keeps it. After a couple of beers that a friend buys him, the narrator feels:

…the coins still…heavy in [his] pocket and gave [him] no peace of mind (125).

He then goes into a store and hands the money over to a lady and leaves without saying a word. He tells the reader:

How wonderful to be an honest person again! My empty pockets no longer felt heavy, it was a pleasure to be broke once more…. My honest nature had revolted from the base deed, oh yes. Thank God. I had raised myself in my own estimation! I defy you to do as much! I said looking out over the crowded marketplace, just you try!

And he is right, if I were starving to the point of madness, I would have taken the money and gone to buy myself some food and a place to stay for a couple of nights. And the reader feels sorry for the narrator, and you really want to believe that at least the narrator has his [foolish] pride. 

The only problem is: at the end of the novel when he is starving again after a scene in which he is kicked out of his lodgings for not paying (and he gets mad at the landlady for kicking him out– and then he feels bad for getting mad at the landlady when he realizes that she should kick him out because he hasn’t paid his rent), he finds the lady he had given the money to and bullies her into giving him some cakes. 

There is a certain comedy in the seriousness the narrator takes himself. He is completely self-righteous, but he is also a crazy man, and the novel does a nice job of showing the narrator slip more and more into madness as his writing (the writing the narrator is doing within the novel– not Hamsun’s writing) makes less and less sense. 

It is these ramblings that the narrator has when he is starving,  the way he belittles the crowd, and how no one understands the genius of the artist that are the moments that one can see how Bukowski was influenced by Hamsun.

The narrator’s situation is summed up when he is in a room with a girl he fancies, and she tells him:

The last time you had a sore finger, now you have a sore foot. You certainly have lots of troubles” (145).

He responds, “I was run over a bit the other day” (Ibid.). And he has been run over a little bit, which would make him likable if he weren’t so self-righteous about his situation. In the end, I enjoyed the book for its prose more than I did for the character. 

The above scene with the girl brings up something else I would like to explore. The girl is one the narrator harassed in an earlier scene, and now the girl has asked him to walk her home. The narrator is embarrassed by the way he looks but decides to escort the girl home regardless. He is very self-consciously aware of the way he is dressed and the way he must look, and this reminds me of the Lacan I have been reading through Zizek. 

[I must make a note here that I just started reading Lacan and Zizek, so this is a way for me to work these ideas out in my head– so if anyone knows more, and I’m sure there are plenty of people who know more– please let me know if I got something wrong]

Zizek describes Lacan’s idea of desire by explaining:

The original question of desire is not directly “What do I want?” but “What do others want from me? What am I for those others? (49.)

Therefore in this scene, we see how the narrator is worried about what the girl wants from him as well as worried about the big Other looking at them. He says:

I couldn’t understand this person who was able to take pleasure in letting herself be escorted up the whole length of Karl Johan Street by a half-naked tramp. What in God’s name was she thinking of? And why was I putting on an act like this, smiling at nothing like an idiot? (119).

Here the narrator is caught in what the “other”/ this woman wants from him. He is also caught in the gaze of the big other judging him for what he is wearing. He is worried about the big Other looking at him, and about what the big Other might think of this woman who is walking with him. 

This also speaks to the violence of love. When someone “loves” me, what is it they love? Is it me (but there is no inherent, static me to grasp and say “that is it– that is the thing, right here, that I love.” Is it a quality in me that the other loves? Is it my intelligence or humor (all the ladies say they love a guy with a sense of humor). This is what is going on here in this scene. The narrator is worried about his clothes (will she not love me if I have ratty clothes?). He worries about what it is he is saying/ his conversation (will she not love me if I do not entertain her?). etc…

These are just some thoughts on the novel…

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