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Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Knut Hamsun: The Finger of God


File:Eyjafjallajökull eruption Fimmvörðuháls  crater 20100325.jpg

The thought of God began to occupy me. It seemed to me in the highest degree indefensible of Him to interfere every time I sought for a place, and to upset the whole thing, while all the time I was but imploring enough for a daily meal.

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 far off, I no longer felt its weight on my shoulders, and I had a consciousness that my eyes stared far too widely open when I looked at anything.

I sat there on the seat and pondered over all this, and grew more and more bitter against God for His prolonged inflictions. If He meant to draw me nearer to Him, and make me better by exhausting me and placing obstacle after obstacle in my way, I could assure Him He made a slight mistake. And, almost crying with defiance, I looked up towards Heaven and told Him so mentally, once and for all.

Fragments of the teachings of my childhood ran through my memory. The rhythmical sound of Biblical language sang in my ears, and I talked quite softly to myself, and held my head sneeringly askew. Wherefore should I sorrow for what I eat, for what I drink, or for what I may array this miserable food for worms called my earthy body? Hath not my Heavenly Father provided for me, even as for the sparrow on the housetop, and hath He not in His graciousness pointed towards His lowly servitor? The Lord stuck His finger in the net of my nerves gently—yea, verily, in desultory fashion—and brought slight disorder among the threads. And then the Lord withdrew His finger, and there were fibres and delicate root-like filaments adhering to the finger, and they were the nerve-threads of the filaments. And there was a gaping hole after the finger, which was God’s finger, and a wound in my brain in the track of His finger. But when God had touched me with His finger, He let me be, and touched me no more, and let no evil befall me; but let me depart in peace, and let me depart with the gaping hole. And no evil hath befallen me from the God who is the Lord God of all Eternity.

File:Eyjafjallajökull first crater  20100329.jpg

Knut Hamsun: Hunger (excerpt), 1890 (translated by George Egerton)

Eyjafjallajökull eruption: Fimmvörðuháls crater
: the first crater and the steam cloud from the first lava river in Hrunagil, as seen from Fauskheiði
: photo by David Karnå, 25 March 2010

Eyjafjallajökull eruption: the first fissure that opened on Fimmvörðuháls, as seen from Austurgígar: photo by David Karnå, 29 March 2010


human being said...

a terrifying god is terrified... and will die soon...

Curtis Roberts said...

I had never read any Hamsun and found this both moving and painful, both in its literal details and the associations it prompted. I guess I need to add Hunger to the list of things I need to read. I had certainly been aware of the book, its author and his later history for some time. For some reason, the narrator’s voice reminded me (probably inaccurately) of the interior character of the financier Krogh in Graham Greene’s novel England Made Me, so I Googled “Knut Hamsun, Graham Greene” and came up with an assortment of “Top 100” novel lists and a review of a book called The Intellectuals and The Masses that apparently describes both authors as elitist because of their disdain for tinned food. (The wonders of the internet never cease. How little you can learn and commit to memory – I will never forget that detail -- so quickly.) The two photographs illustrate very powerfully the narrator’s unease and tension and have me on the edge of my seat (from which I’ll have to retreat and pull myself together).

TC said...


This terrifying god has either poked a finger in our brains or in his own or both. Who can say what will happen next.


It takes a good logical fallacy to expose the truth: all writers worth their salt have one thing in common.

(Homer, Dante and Shakespeare also abhorred tinned food, I understand.)

Hunger is indeed a pretty great book.

There's another Hamsun that's really more lyric poem than novel, but still (why do I feel like saying "but still"? what's wrong with lyric poems? why am I apologizing on their behalf?) wonderful all the same: Pan.

I chose this text for this post for various reasons all having to do with the photos. The reference to a gaping rent in the dome makes a pretty obvious link, I suppose.

Geographical proximity however was probably the final determining factor.

AJP Crown said...

I sympathise with their common grudge against tinned food. This isn't tuna fish, it's tinned vegetables (peas), which Graham Greene would have been given at Berkhampstead School and Hamsun probably subsisted on as a youngster in the far North. Hamsun might have eaten King Oskar sardines -- the factory was close by -- we just don't know.

As you imply, there is nothing elitist about it.

TC said...

One should not have been surprised to learn from Time that the more fragile the economy, the more people resort to eating out of tins.

Recession "cocooning" drives up canned goods sales by 11.5%.

(The other product category on the Recessionary rise: condoms.)

It seems Hamsun's impoverished childhood would have to have passed without the consumption of a single King Oskar sardine, as they weren't around yet. (Or at any rate the King had not yet allowed his name and picture to be on the tins.) But later on of course he may well have made up for lost time.

King Oskar not having been introduced to the US until fifteen years after Hamsun's departure from these parts, he can't have encountered this delicacy here.

(His stay in America has interested me because it included a spell as a trolley conductor in Chicago and another as a farmer in the Dakotas, two things also among the life experiences of my maternal grandfather, an Irish immigrant to America a few years after Hamsun.)

The most unpleasant part of the tinned food equation, in my imagination of it, would be the claustrophobic condition of being in the tin, from the POV of the contained entities, particularly if, as with sardines, they were the ghosts of animals that had once experienced a certain relative freedom of movement.

(On Hamsun, by the way, I found interesting
this review of the 2005 two-volume Norwegian biography by Ingar Sletten Kelloen.)

AJP Crown said...

Hamsun is not so well known in America—perhaps the curse of a minor language

But Ibsen's well-enough known and Hamsun won the Nobel prize in the 'twenties, so he must have been known at that time to some people in the United States. I've got no evidence, but I think it's more likely that after the war his work wasn't in kept in many libraries or schools because of his nazi sympathies.

TC said...

Hamsun's novels, especially the poetic and mysterious ones (Hunger, Pan, Mysteries, Victoria) were pretty widely read -- by us, anyway, which is a more narrow than wide group I suppose -- in the 1960s.

But at the same time he was not "received" or "recommended" in "official" circles. You had to be interested and scratch around a bit to find out about him.

(Of course isn't that the way with so much that is of interest, as opposed to that which is approved?)

In any case the people who make the lists in those circles aren't so much concerned with whether the books might be good than with what might be thought of the author in areas that have very little to do with the books.

(This kind of "informally" administered authorization and regulation of taste is obviously limiting in its effects; and it continues, here in the US at least.)