"The fields were fruitful, and starving men moved on the roads. The granaries were full and the children of the poor grew up rachitic, and the pustules of pellagra swelled on their side. The great companies did not know that the line between hunger and anger is a thin line."

-John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath

The nagging nanny of life. Hunger beats on your door reminding you to go on living. Huger will tell you not only that you need to eat but what you need to eat. (There is some evidence, none fully conclusive, that cravings are often good indicators of mineral deficiencies.) In most cases if you listen to your body you will stay healthy, though if you eat so much that you never really feel hunger it can be hard to know what your body is saying.

And, of course, people don’t just hunger for food.

Knut Hamsun's 'Hunger' (1890) is arguably the greatest novel to come out of Norway. It is often considered an entirely bleak work, but this is too simplistic a reading: through the despair shines a kind of dogmatic determination to keep going which lends it a curiously uplifting effect.

The book is a strange one. In his essay 'The Art Of Hunger' (which was what brought me to the book) Paul Auster - arguably Hamsun's successor in many ways - summarises it thus:

A young man comes to the city. He has no name, no home, no work: he comes to the city to write. He writes. Or, more exactly, he does not write. He starves to the point of death.

The book is practically plotless. Everything that happens seems to be more or less random. In the context of the nineteenth century, when most novels were stuffed with strictly ordered narrative, it was extraordinary for this reason. Characterisation, too, is extremely limited: even the narrator seems almost anonymous.

What, then, is the point? Fair question. After all, one might argue that books are made up of plot and characterisation: without them, what is left? Well, this is a book about Art and the artist. Our hero is an artist who is trying to prove something to himself: he is undergoing a kind of experiment by pushing himself to the brink of death. His experience is an entirely arbitrary one - at any moment he could choose to try and find his way out of his starvation, but perversely, he refuses. Why? Because he wants to experience all: above all, because he wants to look death in the face. And because the hunger is all-consuming (no pun intended) it becomes one with his art. Ultimately, as Auster points out, our hero systematically rejects every value of the society he lives in by this one symbolic gesture of self-starvation, rejects morality and survival and even God - but he carries on. He refuses to be cowed. The artist stares the universe down and bloody-mindedly carries on with life. As Auster puts it:

There is nothing to keep him going - and yet he keeps on going. He walks straight into the twentieth century.

This is a book of consolation for a race which has just begun to suspect that it might be alone. It is glorious in its determination simply to exist.

PS In the UK, the Canongate edition is much the best translation.

I write the words of my heart
I don't know what they will be
I stand open
I let them come

I write the words of my heart
I send them out into the world
I wish they would come back
I wish they would touch another heart
Who would answer
Sometimes they do
But mostly not
Mostly I send my words out
Silence is the return
I wish they would come back

I raise my children with love
Someday they will go out into the world
We have forgotten community
We have forgotten to tell them to return

I raise my children with love
I will not forget to tell them
I want you to come back
You need to leave to grow
To be yourself
You are not grown
Until you can come back with love
I raise my children with love
I hunger already for their return
Before they have left

Hun"ger (?), n. [AS. hungor; akin to OFries. hunger, D. honger, OS. & OHG. hungar, G. hunger, Icel. hungr, Sw. & Dan. hunger, Goth. hhrus hunger, huggrjan to hunger.]

1.

An uneasy sensation occasioned normally by the want of food; a craving or desire for food.

⇒ The sensation of hunger is usually referred to the stomach, but is probably dependent on excitation of the sensory nerves, both of the stomach and intestines, and perhaps also on indirect impressions from other organs, more or less exhausted from lack of nutriment.

2.

Any strong eager desire.

O sacred hunger of ambitious minds! Spenser.

For hunger of my gold I die. Dryden.

 

© Webster 1913.


Hun"ger, v. i. [imp. & p. p. Hungered (?); p. pr. & vb. n. Hungering.] [OE. hungren, AS. hyngrian. See Hunger, n.]

1.

To feel the craving or uneasiness occasioned by want of food; to be oppressed by hunger.

2.

To have an eager desire; to long.

Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteouness. Matt. v. 6.

 

© Webster 1913.


Hun"ger, v. t.

To make hungry; to famish.

 

© Webster 1913.

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