Norwegian author Knut Hamsun’s Hunger (1890) is widely regarded as one of the pioneering works of Modernist fiction. Telling a semi-autobiographical story of a starving writer’s decent into madness, the novel is celebrated for its deft explorations of the mind. Notably, Hamsun’s innovative use of internal monologue and stream-of-consciousness directly influenced major writers such as Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Mann, and Charles Bukowski. According to Isaac Bashevis Singer, “the whole modern school of fiction in the twentieth century stems from Hamsun, just as Russian literature in the nineteenth century ‘came out of Gogol’s greatcoat.’”
Yet for a work of such incredible originality, Hunger is steeped in material that in different hands might fall flatly into cliché or melodrama: A starving artist! Unrequited love! A man who spends his days wandering the streets of Kristiania (Oslo), moaning and weeping, shaking his fist at God. How does Hamsun navigate these scenes in such a way that renders them unforgettable? Why does this book haunt me and so many other readers?
One possible answer is that Hunger explores not only thoughts, but also their origins and expressions—how the psychological is informed by the physical, and how in turn abstract thoughts can be physically felt. This intimate treatment of the corporeal is precisely what allows Hamsun to bring inner consciousness into such sharp relief; throughout the novel, the body serves as a point of access into operations of the mind. Rather than a narrator who “steps off the page,” the reader seemingly steps into the narrator. We feel the pain inside his anger, glimpse the famine within his madness. We come to better understand how the body can change the mind.