Book of a lifetime: Hunger by Knut Hamsun

From The Independent archive: Joanna Kavenna on a life-changing encounter with the dark and poignant ‘Hunger’

Hamsun published his breakthrough work at 30

I have a rough list of favourite books, which changes all the time. The book which had the greatest effect when I first read it is probably Hunger by the Norwegian writer Knut Hamsun. It was published in 1890, when Hamsun was 30. He had been scrambling around for years, trying to write and to get his work published, failing over and over again, working in menial jobs, emigrating to the US for a near-fatal crack at the land of opportunity, returning to Oslo still more indignant about everything and determined to prove everyone wrong.

The never-quite-named protagonist is living and failing dismally in Oslo, “that strange city no one escapes from until it has left its mark on him”. He tries to write, but no one really wants to pay him except the occasional kindly newspaper editor, so he has fallen into destitution and is almost starving. The novel follows him as he wanders around the city. He is in a heightened, almost hysterical state, intensely alert to the suffering of those around him as well as nearly demolished by his own predicament.

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