A prey to the quirkiest fantasies, there I sat shushing myself, humming lullabies, perspiring with the effort to calm myself down. I stared out into the darkness – and never in [all] my born days had I seen such darkness. There was no doubt that here I found myself before a special kind of darkness, a desperate element which no one had previously been aware of. The most ludicrous ideas filled my mind, and every little thing frightened me. I am greatly absorbed by the tiny hole in the wall by my bed, a nail hole I come across, a mark in the masonry. I feel it, blow into it, and try to guess its depth. That was no innocent hole, not by any means; it was a very intricate and mysterious hole that I had to beware of.
The last novel I read for my project on reading modernist literature was Conrad’s Nostromo (1908); with a mighty leap even further away from the main body of modernist texts I have proceeded to 1890 and Hunger, an intense two-hundred-odd pages inside the mind of a starving writer roaming the streets of Kristiana, Norway. The less brattish spiritual brother of Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov, Hunger’s narrator suffers increasing degradation, weakness, violent mood swings, hysterical outbursts against God and bystanders, yet – ever the writer – he observes himself dispassionately, with a sense of his own ludicrousness, and it’s this distance between the narrator and his experience, this touch of the ridiculous, which makes the record of his misery bearable to the reader. This one, anyway. The narrator is trapped in a vicious circle – he has not earned enough money from writing, so he is hungry; too hungry to write and earn any money, he grows hungrier.
The novel is narrated in the first person, mainly historic but lapsing at moments of high excitement into the present. At times we follow the narrator’s thought processes very closely but I don’t think this is ‘stream of consciousness’. The narrator's thoughts are punctured by (brief) descriptions of what he is doing and every now and again he will skip over a patch of time, perhaps saying that the whole afternoon passed in this way, for instance; we are not always ‘in the moment’. Rather it is a very powerful way of experiencing a character and one which, perhaps aided by the translation in modern English, still feels bold and experimental. Because the reader has only one, rather unhinged, viewpoint, reality feels more fluid than in most novels. The city itself often seems like an imagined city, a projection of the narrator’s confused and circuitous thoughts, the other characters like hallucinations with no independent reality.
Why is this man struggling on the brink of death? He is obviously educated and, as Paul Auster points out in the introduction to my edition, he could have spruced himself up and got a proper, paying job long before he sank to the point of trying to eat sawdust or pawn someone else’s manky old blanket – his suffering is somehow self-willed. Even at his lowest, his pride prevents him asking a wealthy friend for money, and on two occasions he receives money which he regards as immoral and immediately gives away. Purity is very important to him, as is degradation. In part this drive to suffer is surely connected with his identification of himself as writer: if he cannot survive by his writing then he has no purpose in life, he is nothing. Initially he sees himself as the victim of larger forces: God (not the narrator) is the author of all his misfortunes.
As I sat there on the bench pondering all this, I felt increasingly bitter toward God for his continual oppressions. If he meant to draw me closer to himself and make me better by torturing me and casting adversity my way, he was simply mistaken, that I could vouch for. And nearly crying with defiance, I looked up toward heaven and told him so once and for all, inwardly.
Fragments of my childhood teachings came back to me, the cadences of the Bible rang in my ears, and I spoke softly to myself, cocking my head sarcastically. Wherefore did I take thought what I should eat, what I should drink, and wherewithal I should clothe this wretched bag of worms called my earthly body? Had not my heavenly Father provided for me as he had for the sparrows of the air, and had he not shown me the grace at pointing at his humble servant? God had stuck his finger down into the network of my nerves and gently, quite casually, brought a little confusion among the threads. And God had withdrawn his finger and behold! – there were fibres and delicate filaments on his finger from the threads of my nerves. And there was a gaping hole after his finger, which was God’s finger, and wounds in my brain from the track of his finger. But where God had touched me with the finger of his hand he let me be and touched me no more, and allowed no evil to befall me. He let me go in peace, and he let me go with that gaping hole. And no evil shall befall me from God, who is the Lord through all eternity...
The shreds of biblical text creep into the narrator’s syntax and, as he mutters to himself, seem to lull him into a state of calm (the next thing he does is try to write) despite the horrific damage he imagines God’s finger doing. I don’t think he ever quite rejects God, as Auster argues he does, if only because the state of inspiration he experiences when writing does seem akin to a power outside himself. If anything, he remains fixated with him. At the end of the book he is writing a play entitled ‘The Sign of the Cross’, featuring a whore up to no good on the altar steps, and he also bursts into a despairing blasphemy claiming that potatoes are cabbages ‘in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost’. (This is perhaps comforting to we readers since we are the only witnesses to the narrator’s ramblings both mental and physical; we are placed in the position therefore of God.)
The horror of the narrator’s decline is leavened by his crazed lies, which are often very funny. He stops a woman in the street repeatedly to warn her she is losing her book (she has no book). Needing the pencil in the pocket of his pawned waistcoat, he boasts to the owner of the pawn shop that he used that very pencil to write his treatise on Philosophical Consciousness (in three volumes) and thus it has a sentimental attachment for him. In a marvellous episode he pretends to an old man that his landlord is Mr Hippolati, inventor of the electric hymn book, and the old man says he thinks he knows the Hippolati family, yes yes, it’s all true, at which point the narrator flies into a rage and accuses the old man of refusing to believe him. Most of the lies start to hide his embarrassment at his poverty, but they all become an exercise in power, the power of the imagination, the only power he has left.
Auster writes that the narrator ‘wants to fail’; perhaps he wants to escape his identity as a (failed) writer and torturing himself to the very brink of his physical and creative existence is the only way he can do it.
(Knut Hamsun looking saucy in 1890, the year he wrote Hunger; from here)