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Down and out in Kristiana, Norway

June 6, 2013 44 comments

Hunger by Knut Hamsun. 1890 French title: Faim. 146 pages. Made into a play entitled Ylajali by Jon Fosse.

The instant I opened my eyes I began, from sheer force of habit, to think if I had any reason to rejoice over the coming day. I had been somewhat hard-up lately, and one after the other of my belongings had been taken to my “Uncle.” I had grown nervous and irritable. A few times I had kept my bed for the day with vertigo. Now and then, when luck had favoured me, I had managed to get five shillings for a feuilleton from some newspaper or other.

I started to read Hunger before going to the theatre to see its theatre version but I didn’t manage to finish on time. Hunger was written in 1890 by Knut Hamsun and the Norwegian writer Jon Fosse made it into a play, Ylajali. I’ll start with the novella and will then talk about the play.

Hunger is a first person narrative where a young aspiring writer relates his struggling life in Kristiana, Norway. It is based upon Hamsun’s own experience of poverty. The novella is split in four parts, each of them referring to a time of hardship for the narrator.

We follow the young man’s wanderings, his attempts at selling articles to earn money. We see how hunger affects his brain, how people start to see him more and more as a tramp. We witness how he clings to his dignity, how he doesn’t want to acknowledge that he’s poor, famished and desperate. It prevents him from asking for help but it also prevents him from falling into pieces. Reading this novella was almost unbearable and the reader sees this young man’s life spiral into poverty. Hunger holds on him, a bearable touch at the beginning, an iron claw in the end. Hunger grips him and Hamsun describes very well how it impacts the narrator’s body and his mind. It starts with physical pain:

It was three o’clock. Hunger began to plague me in downright earnest. I felt faint, and now and again I had to retch furtively.

Or

Here I was going about starving, so that my entrails wriggle together in me like worms, and it was, as far as I knew, not decreed in the book of fate that anything in the shape of food would turn up later in the day.

But then, as the time of hardship stretches to months, he is malnourished and suffers from the consequences of his lack of food for a long period of time:

The last crisis had dealt rather roughly with me. My hair fell out in masses, and I was much troubled with headaches, particularly in the morning, and my nervous strain died a hard death.

Or later in the book

Hunger lodged once more in my breast, and I had not tasted food since yesterday evening. This, ’tis true, was not a long period; I had often been able to hold out for a couple of days at a time, but latterly I had commenced to flag seriously; I could not go hungry with quarter the ease I used to do. A single day made me feel dazed, and I suffered from constant retching the moment I tasted water. Added to this was the fact that I lay and shivered all night, lay fully dressed as I stood and walked in the daytime, lay blue with the cold, lay and froze every night with fits of icy shivering, and grew stiff during my sleep.

Hamsun describes hunger with painful realism and my heart reached out to this poor man. No one can stay indifferent to passages like this:

The only thing that troubled me a little, in spite of the nausea that the thought of food inspired in me, was hunger. I commenced to be sensible of a shameless appetite again; a ravenous lust of food, which grew steadily worse and worse. It gnawed unmercifully in my breast; carrying on a silent, mysterious work in there. It was as if a score of diminutive gnome-like insects set their heads on one side and gnawed for a little, then laid their heads on the other side and gnawed a little more, then lay quite still for a moment’s space, and then began afresh, boring noiselessly in, and without any haste, and left empty spaces everywhere after them as they went on.

From the start, the narrator tells us that hunger affects his thinking abilities. At the beginning of the book, he’s a little worried:

I had remarked so plainly that, whenever I had been hungry for any length of time, it was just as if my brains ran quite gently out of my head and left me with a vacuum—my head grew light and I no longer felt its weight on my shoulders, and I was conscious that my eyes stared far too widely open when I looked at anything.

As the hunger settles in, he feels that his mental capacities are more and more impaired. His mind gets out of control. He goes from worried to frightened as he feels madness getting to him.

My madness was a delirium of weakness and prostration, but I was not out of my senses. All at once the thought darted through my brain that I was insane. Seized with terror, I spring out of bed again, I stagger to the door, which I try to open, fling myself against it a couple of times to force it, strike my head against the wall, bewail loudly, bite my fingers, cry and curse…

His situation worsens. Sometimes he manages to sell an article and has a little money for a few days. All of his possessions have been pawned. (By the way, in English you say to go to my “Uncle’s”, in French you go to your “Aunt’s”). He doesn’t have any money to clean himself and his appearance starts advertising his poverty:

Meanwhile my clothes commenced to steam. Hunger put in a fresh appearance, gnawed at my breast, clutched me, and gave small, sharp stabs that caused me pain.

He sinks further into poverty. As his living conditions deteriorate, he stops clinging to his principles, his dignity. Right and wrong don’t have the same importance when you need food and shelter.

Conscience, did you say? No nonsense, if you please. You are too poor to support a conscience. You are hungry; you have come on important business—the first thing needful. But you shall hold your head askew, and set your words to a sing-song.

At the beginning, he would lie to hide his situation, to be seen as a gentleman. He was ashamed to show he had no money, no prospects. The more he has to live through this, the less he cares about his appearance. He can’t afford to be proud anymore and he accepts treatments of him that would have revolted him a few months before. Hunger shows the slow dehumanisation of a young man.

Nevertheless, Hunger is never miserabilist. I was very moved by the resilience of this young man. He keeps writing, assailed by inspiration from time to time. He writes frantically in parks or in his lodgings. Writing transports him somewhere else.

Suddenly a few good sentences fitted for a sketch or story strike me, delicate linguistic hits of which I have never before found the equal.

But, as a freelance writer, his bread depends on his capacity to deliver sensible and interesting articles or stories. But how can he write well when his thinking process is impaired by hunger? It can only spiral out of control as his capacities to earn money are hampered by his living conditions which keep degrading if he doesn’t sell articles…

Despite his miserable conditions of living, he’s still able to see beauty around him. This quote comes from the beginning of the book:

If only one had just a little to eat on such a lightsome day! The sense of the glad morning overwhelmed me; my satisfaction became ill-regulated, and for no definite reason I began to hum joyfully.

He’s still optimistic; he hasn’t been filthy poor for too long. He’s sure it won’t last, the reader isn’t too surprised by his attitude. But when days turn into months of hardship and he says…

The sun burst over the heights, the sky was pale and tender, and in my delight over the lovely morning, after the many dark, gloomy weeks, I forgot all cares, and it seemed to me as if I had fared worse on other occasions. I clapped myself on the chest and sang a little snatch to myself.

…I find him incredible. Despite his terrible situation, he isn’t blind to the beauty of his surroundings. Hope is his dope. It gives him strength and the reader witnesses how he clutches every tiny hope to make money. Once, he wants to sell the buttons of his coat, he’s so sure they’re worth something and it’s enough to keep his mind positive for a while.

The novella pictures his ups and downs, his attempts at getting out of his predicament. It portrays a young starving artist who refuels on his own, driven by hope and inner strength. Any feeble spark of hope makes his day better. He always hopes for the best and overcomes his despair. He does wish to die sometimes but he holds to his positive attitude. That’s probably why it’s so moving.

Of course I thought about Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London. Hunger affected me more. Perhaps it’s because Orwell’s days felt more like a journalistic experiment. I knew he could have turned to his family and put an end to this time of his life. This young man was in it for good and I felt a lot of compassion for him. I also thought about Arturo Bandini in Ask the Dust. This young man and Arturo have something in common: their faith in a better future, their need to write, their ability to stay positive. There’s something about the narrator’s ramblings that made him a kindred spirit of Arturo’s and of Rilke’s Malte Laurids Brigge.

So how do you make a play out of this intimate confession?

Fosse_Ylajali

Jon Fosse chose to set aside the starving-artist part of the novel. The play is set in a public garden in autumn and a man, any man, you, me is there, trying to survive. The young man has no defined occupation, he’s unemployed. When Jon Fosse leaves behind the reference to writing, he makes his play universal. Anyone could be sacked, fail to find a new job and fall down like this young man.

The play was directed by Gabriel Dufay, who also played the role of the young man. The setting was a park in autumn, with a lamppost. A pianist was on stage, playing music from time to time, lifting the atmosphere which could have been heavy, given the topic. It gave back the tone of the book which avoids the pitfall of miserabilism. The actor impersonated the young man and two other actors played the role of the different men he speaks to in the book and Ylajali, the young woman he fantasises about. Gabriel Dufay was more than excellent. He was gripping, full of energy and showing exactly what the narrator was in the book. Hopeful, nice, extravagant. He showed the claws of hunger grasping the young man’s brain. He showed the slow degradation of the social status of this man. The first night in the park with policemen hovering, the shoes with holes, the cold that seeps into the bones. The hunger which weakens the man’s body, makes him dizzy and nauseous.

The book overwhelmed me, the play punched me in the stomach. We were out of words when we went out of the theatre. I thought “I’ll never look at homeless people the same way” but I know it’s not true. Feelings like this are fleeting. I’d need to act upon it if I really wanted to keep that silent promise I made to myself. Otherwise the emotion subsides; life goes on and the feeling is just stocked somewhere in my memory.

Needless to say I warmly encourage you to read Hunger if you haven’t read it yet.

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