Hamsun helped shape modern literature, but Oslo can’t embrace him like Dublin has Joyce, says Rory Olcayto
Just as Dublin has Ulysses, Oslo has Hunger, Knut Hamsun’s bizarre, frightening and often very funny novel about an aspiring journalist struggling with pressures of adult life.
It begins: ‘It was in those days when I wandered about hungry in Kristiania [Oslo], that strange city which no one leaves before it has set its mark upon him.’ It sets an ambiguous tone for the rest of the novel: a menacing détournement through Norway’s biggest city led by a nameless narrator.
Hunger’s Olso, called Kristiania when it was published in 1890 while Norway was still under Swedish rule, is a playground for a series of strange experiments undertaken by Hamsun’s protagonist. Like this one: ‘I began running so as to punish myself, left street after street behind me, pushed myself on with suppressed shouts, and screamed mutely and furiously at myself whenever I felt like stopping. Meanwhile I had got to way up in Pilestredet Lane. When I stood still at last, on the verge of tears from anger at not being able to run any further, my whole body trembled and I threw myself down on some steps. And to torture myself properly I got up again and forced myself to remain standing, and I laughed at myself and gloated at my own exhaustion. Finally, after several minutes elapsed, I nodded. Giving myself permission to sit down. But even then I chose the most uncomfortable spot on the steps.’
But why? Paul Auster writes in his essay The Art of Hunger, Hamsun’s novel, ‘cannot even claim to have a redeeming social value. Although Hunger puts us in the jaws of misery, it offers no analysis of that misery, contains no call to political action.’
Yet we know Hamsun’s is a self-conscious effortto create a new kind fiction, not a conventional novel with ‘marriages, picnics and parties’, as he confessed in a letter to a friend. For novelist Joanna Kavenna ‘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.’ This uncomfortable fact was amplified by the growth of cities and their great capacity for redundancy as the 20th century loomed on the horizon.
Yet it simultaneously offers a vision of the contemporary city’s capacity to yield new forms of work. One early passage reads: ‘All summer long I had haunted the cemeteries and Palace Park, where I would sit and prepare articles for the newspapers, column after column of all sorts of things - strange whimsies, moods, caprices of my restless brain.’ That sounds like blogging to me. In this respect, Hunger contends with the complex demands industrialised cities heap on the psyche. There are no certainties. Unlike farms and villages, cities don’t automatically offer you a role to play. You have to invest yourself.
Despite Hamsun’s status as a literary giant - his fellow Nobel laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer says ‘the whole modern school of fiction in the 20th century stems from Hamsun’ - there is no square, or statue, or street named after him in Olso because of his unsavoury politics: Hamsun was Hitler-loving fascist.
Nevertheless, more than Steven Holl Architects’ Hamsun Centre at Presteid, a hamlet 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle, Oslo’s townscape itself, the main ‘character’ alongside the narrator, is the essential monument to the striking modernity Hunger signposts. Just don’t expect any Leopold Bloom-style city tours of the sort that Dublin offers Ulysses fans.