Knausgård: “Hunger” by Hamsun

The following morning it was raining, and I stayed in the flat all day while Yngve was at work. Perhaps it was meeting his friends that had done it, perhaps it was just term fast approaching, at any rate I suddenly panicked: I was no good and soon I would be sitting alongside the other students, who were probably much more experienced and gifted than me, writing texts, reading them out and being judged.

I took an umbrella from the hat shelf, opened it and trotted down the hill in the rain. There was a bookshop in Danmarksplass, as far as I remembered. Yes, there it was. I opened the door and went in, it was completely empty and sold predominantly office equipment, it seemed, but they had some shelves of books, which I ran my eye along with the dripping umbrella in my hand. I had very little money, so I decided to buy a paperback. Hunger by Hamsun. It cost 39.50, which left me with twelve kroner – I spent it on a nice loaf at the baker’s in the little market square just behind. I plodded back uphill in the pouring rain which, along with the dark heavy clouds, cast a thick shroud over the landscape and changed its whole appearance. The water ran down windows and over car bonnets, trickled out of gutters and down the hills, where it made plough-shaped wavelets. The water gushed past me as I trudged upwards, rain beating down on my umbrella and the bag containing the loaf and the book slapping against my thigh with every step I took.

I let myself into the flat. The inside was dimly lit, in the corners furthest from the windows it was dark, but all the furniture and objects in it quietly made their presence felt. It was impossible to be there without sensing Yngve, his personality seemed to permeate the rooms, and while I was slicing the fresh bread on the worktop and taking out margarine and brown cheese, I wondered what atmosphere my place would exude and whether there was anyone in existence who would care. Yngve had organised a bedsit for me, he knew a girl who was going to Latin America for a year, she lived up on the Sandviken side of Bergen, in Absalon Beyers gate, and I could have it until next summer. I was lucky, most new students lived in one of the halls of residence at first, either Fantoft, where dad had rented a room during his studies when I was small, or Alrek, where Yngve had stayed for his first six months. Living in a student hall had low status, I knew that, the cool option was to live in the centre, preferably near Torgalmenningen, but Sandviken was good too.

I ate, cleared away the food and settled down to read in the sitting room with a cigarette and a cup of coffee. Usually I read quickly, raced through the pages without taking much notice of how it was written, what devices or style of language the writer used, all I was interested in was the plot, which sucked me in. This time I tried to read slowly, take it sentence by sentence, notice what went on in them, and if a passage seemed significant to me, to underline it with the pen I held at the ready.

I discovered something on the very first page. There was a tense shift. First of all Hamsun wrote in the past, then he suddenly switched to the present, and then back again. I underlined it, put the book down and fetched a sheet of paper from the desk in my bedroom. Back on the sofa, I wrote:

Hamsun, Hunger. Notes, 14/8/1988

Starts in general terms, about the town. Perspective from a distance. Then main protagonist wakes up. Switches from past to present. Why? To create more intensity, presumably.

Outside, the rain was tipping down. The roar of the traffic in Fjøsangerveien sounded like an ocean. I carried on reading. It was striking how simple the storyline was. He wakes up in his room, walks noiselessly downstairs as he hasn’t paid his rent for a while and then into the town. Nothing particular happens there, he just walks around and is hungry and thinks about it. I could write about exactly the same topic. Someone waking up in their bedsit and going outside. But he had to have something about him, something special, like being hungry for example. That was what it was all about. But what could it be?

Writing wasn’t black magic. You just had to come up with an idea, as Hamsun had done.

Some of my fears and anxieties subsided after I had formulated that thought.

Karl Ove Knausgård, Some Rain Must Fall: My Struggle Book 5, translated by Don Bartlett, 2016.