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The restrained prose of Knut Hamsun's Hunger

As I've mentioned here many times before, my favorite novel of all time is Knut Hamsun's Hunger, which I'm currently re-reading once again, this time as part of my Summer of Classics. The book has any number of great passages, but the following one is probably my favorite. The unnamed protagonist has just returned to the pawnshop where he (jobless, soon to be homeless and not having eaten for days) has just pawned his waistcoat, not realizing he left his stub of a pencil in the pocket. The young man fancies himself as a great writer, and not having that pencil is, in his fevered mind, the only thing preventing him from writing a great philosophical (and likely unpublishable, and certainly unreadable) opus.

"It would never have occurred to me," I said, "to go to such trouble for just any pencil; this case is something special: there is a reason. This stump of a pencil may look insignificant, but this pencil is responsible for getting me where I am in the world, it has given me so to speak my position in life..."

I stopped there. The man came all the way over to the counter.

"Is that so?" he said, looking curiously at me.

Hamsun shows remarkable restraint with this brief scene. Lesser writers, or writers bent on milking a potentially comic situation for all it's worth, could easily have gone on for ten pages showing the absurdity of the protagonist's situation. The man is starving to death, is ragged and filthy, and yet reveres this lowly pencil for "getting me where I am in the world" and giving "my position in life." The pawnbroker undoubtedly recognizes this disconnect (note the subtle phrase "looking curiously at me") and yet respectfully addresses the protagonist, proceeding to claim that of course he recognizes the title of the philosophical work which the protagonist has just name-dropped despite the fact that he hasn't yet written it, and likely never will. Another writer might have gone on and on with this premise, but Hamsun instead sets up the scene, delivers it swiftly and moves on.

Crisp and restrained prose such as this is one of the things that makes Hunger my favorite novel. The book is 232 pages of the protagonist's aimless wanderings around Oslo, with most of it lacking any sort of forward-moving plot and much of it being internal monologue, and yet it's a very brisk read. Hamsun's earliest novels were all this spare - Pan goes by even quicker - which makes his later, denser and more ponderous volumes (including Growth of the Soil, for which he won the Nobel Prize in 1920) rather disappointing in contrast.

July 23, 2007 in Books | Permalink

Comments

The protagonist in Hunger is really unnamed? I already had read a few pages of the novel and it made no mention of the real name of the protagonist. If it did the protagonist is just lying or it's indirectly, like his encounter with Ylajali which goes something like this: "I told my name to her and she told hers..." I hope I can't get a reply.

Posted by: Charisse at Aug 30, 2008 12:57:50 AM

Charisse, I've read the book at least ten times and I can definitely say he remains completely unnamed. Yes, he does make that reference to telling the girl his name, but he never actually says what that name is. Elsewhere in the book he claims the name of "Andreas Tangen" in pretending to be a prominent journalist who lost his house keys and seeks shelter in the city jail for the night, instead of enduring the shame of admitting to be the penniless vagrant he really is.

Posted by: Pete at Aug 30, 2008 7:32:12 AM

Yeah, I've read the "Andreas Tangen" part, the protagonist is really good in inventing names and making people feel that the name really do exist. Thank you sir for the answer, it is much appreciated. :)

Posted by: Charisse at Sep 5, 2008 3:57:45 AM