Thursday, 20 October 2011

Autumn's done come

'Autumn had arrived, that lovely cool time of year when everything changes colour and dies.' It would be an opening line to rival Camus' 'Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don't know.' But Knut Hamsun is so good he can save it for the second page of his groundbreaking debut novel, Hunger.

The ramblings of a starving Norwegian writer, Hunger was written in 1890. Canongate's latest print - part of the Scottish publisher's series, The Canons (pictured) - features an introduction by dreary Norwegian crime writer Jo Nesbø, with an afterword (from 1970) by Paul Auster.

According to Auster, who wrote of his own early struggles as a writer in a book called Hand to Mouth (like this translation, from 1996), Hamsun manages to accommodate the mess (pace Beckett) of the twentieth century in Hunger. 'But it is in Kafka's story, A Hunger Artist, that the aesthetics of hunger receives its most meticulous elaboration... In Kafka's story, the hunger artist dies, but only because he forsakes his art, abandoning the restrictions that had been imposed on him by his manager. The hunger artist goes too far.'

Having written elsewhere in this blog about London on the page, Hunger's opening line marks this as a book about a city, too: 'It was in those days when I wandered about hungry in Kristiania, that strange city which no one leaves before it has set its mark upon him...' It is a point underlined by the novel's translator, Sverre Lyngstad, who takes issue with an earlier translation: 'Hunger is an urban novel, whose action takes place within a distinctive setting of streets, squares and residential areas familiar to Kristiania (now Oslo) residents.'

And, of course, it is about the changing season: 'At this moment my mind was lucid: I was going to die. It was autumn now and everything had gone to sleep. I had tried every way out, made the most of every resource I knew of. I indulged myself sentimentally with this thought, and every time I still cherished hopes of a possible rescue I whispered dismissively, "You fool. you've started to die already!"'

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