Hunger by Knut Hamsun (Shane's book 27, 2009)

This 1890 novel, Hamsun's first, is widely considered to be a major influence on 20th Century literature. Hamsun wanted to write fiction that explored the psychology of characters and here he takes us inside the head of a starving writer in Kristiania, now known as Oslo.

[amtap book:isbn=1841958190]

The writer, who remains unnamed, cannot afford food and eventually becomes homeless. We follow his train of thought, his rantings and his bizarre ideas as he teeters on the edge of madness. He's an egotist whose reach, it seems, exceeds his grasp when it comes to writing but he's not dislikable.

In his introduction to this edition, Paul Auster argues that it is impossible to empathise with the narrator but I found the opposite. While he can be frustrating at times and the pranks he plays on various strangers are bizarre, I found myself sympathising with his predicament.

The writer swings between pride and desperation, sometimes refusing help and at other times begging people for assistance. He always seems to misjudge the situation, begging those who won't help him and refusing those who want to help. Throughout, Hamsun makes him utterly convincing.

Hunger has been translated three times and this translation, by Sverre Lyngstad, is excellent. At the end of the book is an essay by Lyngstad in which he compares the previous translations with his own. He's merciless in his dissection of the mistakes of his predecessors, which makes the essay quite amusing but it's also a good illustration of the challenges a translator faces.

Hamsun was a fervent supporter of the Nazis in his old age, somewhat clouding his Nobel Prize-winning career. Regardless of what became of its author, this book is a must-read.