Wednesday, September 9, 2009

knut hamsun and hunger

n+1 offers this tasty morsel on Knut Hamsun to celebrate the Hamsun Festival (a celebration of Hunger?) in Norway.

Hamsun's biography--including the starvation and dramatics of his youth--always leads me to a degree of sympathy in spite of his fascist choices in his later years. (Hamsun "had Jewish friends" but sided with Hitler during Germany's occupation of Norway.) If you read the article, you'll see that most Norwegians still regard him as a traitor (which he was), but forgiveness for this "national treasure" could also be a path to profitable marketing of literary celebrity.

Starvation, isolation, alienation, or extreme hardship of any kind is "street cred" for many writers--even if the writer has chosen this path of hardship. In America, this often means identification with writers from affluent backgrounds--parents who brought plenty of bacon back to suburban homes--because the writer chose a path of greater resistance in his youth. So some of the anomalies of contemporary American "alienation" literature include down-and-out protagonists who nonetheless drive used SUVs, earn teaching stipends in MFA programs, or otherwise appear to avoid work, genuine hardship, or starvation. I'm not certain Knut Hamsun would have any tolerance for this.

My favorite anecdote from Hamsun's biography is how he cured himself of tuberculosis by riding hundred of miles on top of a train headed for New York. (Hunger or no, he was able to scrap together change to attempt survival in the new world.) In the various editions of paperback translations, you can find interesting introductions by Isaac Beshevis Singer, Robert Bly, Paul Auster, and others. You'll have to sift through amazon.com's listing to find these since many modern capitalists--small and large--are selling their own versions of his book in hardcover, tradepaper, and "e" format. I'm pretty sure that this is completely legal since the copyright has expired.

Speaking of hunger, retail sales were up in August, and it appears auto sales--new cars in exchange for clunkers plus your cash or debt obligation--were not the only retail driving this "positive indicator." I'll go out on a limb here and predict that America also bought large portions of food in all its varieties--free range, organic, unhealthy, fortified, with additives, fattening, locally-grown, mass-marketed, and enriched. Are we out of the economic woods? I don't know, but I'm hoping fewer of us will be living there by the winter months.

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