Tackling Knut Hamsun

The troubling political views of a supreme literary talent
Knut Hamsun

Matthew Shaer on the literary importance of Knut Hamsun's Hunger, and the infamy of the writer's political beliefs:
Hunger, based in part on Hamsun's experiences, traces a man's descent into a madness that is religious in ardor; the man wishes to prostrate himself on the floor of the world. He ponders suicide. He wanders around the streets of Oslo. He starves. He attempts to chew off his own finger and then, a few hundred pages later, he leaves without explanation on a ship bound for foreign shores. There is nothing in the book but madness -- Hamsun skips the periods when his protagonist has food and comfort.

In an 1890 essay, Hamsun wrote that a true portrait of the human spirit could never be conceived linearly or politely. Life was not a story, but a scattershot series of episodic flashes, fast-burning and painful to remember. To thrive, an artist must leave the city for the rough living of the country. He must immerse himself in "the unpredictable chaos of perception, the delicate life of the imagination held under the microscope; the meanderings of these thoughts and feelings in the blue, trackless, traceless journeys of the heart and mind, curious workings of the psyche, the whisperings of the blood, prayers of the bone, the entire unconscious life of the mind."

In his prime, Hamsun always wrote like this -- beautifully, poetically and savagely. Within a decade of the Oslo speech, he had finished two additional novels, the naturalist ode 'Pan' and the disorienting 'Mysteries', which, together with Hunger, count as cornerstones of contemporary literature. "The whole school of fiction in the 20th century stems from Hamsun," Isaac Bashevis Singer once proclaimed, and it is no stretch to say that there would never have been Kafka's 'A Hunger Artist' without Hunger. [Read More]