Authentically great pieces of fiction ought to be read more than once, and I have read these works multiple times. I’m never one to demean plot, but the ultimate importance is not whodunit, but why characters act as they do, and how authors create art that changes lives and literature. The protagonists of these three works are artists. Hamsun’s narrator is consumed with finishing his so suitably titled book Crimes of the Future. Kafka’s artist (what we might today call an “extreme performance artist”) is a circus performer who entertains his public by going weeks on end without eating. Sartre’s dyspeptic former adventurer is immersed in writing a political biography that he can never complete. The pessimism that pervades each author’s work is tinged with an oft-missed humor, that of the philosophical court jester questioning the meaning of life in a kingdom without purpose or god, while waging war against sickness unto death. Strikingly, given the events that come before, the stories all have almost optimistic endings.
Nobel Prize–winning author Isaac Bashevis Singer wrote of Hamsun, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1920, that “[t]he whole modern school of fiction in the twentieth century stems from Hamsun.” This may sound hyperbolic, but it’s not unreasonable. Hamsun consciously rebelled against both the style and substance of the prevailing attitudes of late literary 19th-century European and Jamesian American novel. He rejected what he considered the sentimentality of Ibsen, the most famous Scandinavian writer of the time. (In fact, they had a few uncomfortable run-ins.) In his 20s, Hamsun spent time in the United States absorbing the short, punchy American vernacular, which influenced his crisp sentences delivered with deadpan bite. The dark humor of the reader’s journey is signaled in the opening pages when Hamsun’s protagonist was “starving in Christiania” (now Oslo). Hamsun’s nameless narrator tells us “[a]s soon as I was wide awake, I took to thinking, as I always did, if I had anything to be cheerful about today.” The novel’s basic “plot” is simple: each day presents new challenges for finding food, shelter, time to write, and something to be cheerful about, all rendered in portrayals that flip between harrowing and silly. Through first-person narration, Hamsun explores the unconscious, sexual desire, coldness, generosity, and the absurdity of human behavior. Religion is another target. His ambitious protagonist decides to compose a one-act play, The Sign of the Cross, set in the Middle Ages. The play’s lead is “a fiery prostitute who had sinned right in the temple, not out of weakness or out of lust but from sheer hatred of God.” Eventually he tears up the pages of the play, but because he still believes in humanity, he soon manages to get a little “sweet food.” This sudden filling of his empty belly with too many cakes brings on a “stomach ache” that unleashes chaotic, violent desires. In a deftly handled denouement, Hamsun’s cantankerous hero’s interior debate allows him to slither out of self-annihilation. In a conversation that feels like a cross between Groucho Marx and Travis Bickle, our former good-for-nothing convinces a sea captain to give him a job on a freighter. As he and we bid goodbye to Christiania “for now,” we know the moment between satiation and sickness, sanity and madness will not last.
“I simply couldn’t take food, I wasn’t made that way; that was one of my characteristics, a peculiar thing with me.” This could easily have originated in “A Hunger Artist,” but it comes from Hunger. Max Brod, keeper of Kafka’s legacy, noted in the appendix of The Diaries “that Kafka particularly loved and admired” Hamsun. Kafka’s hunger artist is a descendent of Hamsun’s idiosyncratic searcher. Kafka praised Hamsun’s prose style “as natural as the knots in wood.” Although their styles differ, one could say the same of Kafka’s prose. There are no wasted words. The sentences float effortlessly across the page betraying no sense of the intensity and energy spent to perfect the writing. What is accurately portrayed in the best translations is the simplicity of language belying a complexity of thought. Each sentence tightens the noose of the interior logic of Kafka’s otherwise starkly irrational world.
As with so many of Kafka’s works, the story is told in third person with no hint of the absurd or surreal. In “A Hunger Artist,” he creates a setting where no discernible comment is uttered about the oddity of crowds paying good money to gape at the usual circus animals alongside a man with “his ribs sticking out so prominently,” a “hollowed out” body starving himself while sitting in a “small barred cage.” This description, like much else in Kafka’s oeuvre, is why many see his work as presaging the Holocaust. As well, with so much of Kafka, this 4,000-word story has multiple possible interpretations: biblical, with the artist living a “nomadic” life and fasting for no more than “forty days”; a parable about the alienation of the artist from society; Kabbalistic metempsychosis that is implicit in The Metamorphosis and “Investigations of a Dog”; personal because Kafka wrote in The Diaries he needed “a room and a vegetarian diet, almost nothing more,” and felt trapped by his job. Gorging on food would give Kafka nausea of the flesh and of the spirit. When asked why he chose not to eat, the hunger artist replies, “because I couldn’t find the food I liked. If I had found it, believe me, I should have made no fuss and stuffed myself like you or anyone else.” With those last words, he quietly dies, his commitment ever firm to his fasting, his art.
“I’ll really try it, if the nausea I feel for myself doesn’t prevent me.”
“Things are very bad: I have it, the filth, the nausea.”
“Only my hunger bothered me, and I felt it despite my nausea.”
One would not be faulted for incorrectly guessing who authored which quote. The first is Kafka from his Diaries, the next is Sartre, and the last is Hamsun. There are many sentences I could’ve chosen that would fit seamlessly in the other’s work. In What is Literature? (1948), Sartre cited and explored scores of writers from the past one hundred years. He paid tribute to Kafka:
There was in Kafka, at the very least, a new way of presenting destinies which were tricked and undermined at their foundation, which were lived minutely, ingeniously, and modestly, of rendering the irreducible truth of appearances and of making felt beyond them another truth which will always be denied us. One does not imitate Kafka.
Yet Sartre learned from Kafka, as Kafka learned from Hamsun. In my research (as well as that of others), I never found any acknowledgment of Sartre’s debt to Hamsun. Why this omission when Hamsun’s early novels would fit into the uppermost level of Sartre’s literary pantheon? There is but one answer — because of the aged Hamsun’s Nazi sympathies. Hamsun, a longtime admirer of German culture, gave, yes gave his Nobel Prize to Joseph Goebbels. After the war, the 85-year-old Hamsun, who had suffered two brain hemorrhages, was tried and forced to undergo psychiatric evaluation which declared he had “permanently impaired mental facilities.” Today he remains a controversial figure in Norway, and to many he remains an embarrassment. At roughly the same time Hamsun was being tried, Sartre was penning his scathing postwar analysis Anti-Semite and Jew. Unlike the Jewish Singer, who wrote the laudatory introduction to the 1987 American edition of Hunger, Sartre, rather than confronting the problem of Hamsun’s hideous behavior in life versus the genius of the text, chose to ignore it. It is impossible to believe Sartre had not closely studied Hamsun’s early works because Hamsun’s protagonist is perhaps the most apt precursor to Sartre’s Antoine Roquentin — although both owe a nod to Joseph von Eichendorf’s wanderer in the 1826 novella Memoirs of a Good for Nothing.
Sartre’s Roquentin struggles with his feelings of good for nothingness at best, his inner ugliness at worst, in a world from which he is emotionally detached. He lives alone in a French port city, is friendless, isolated from his family and Anny, his former lover. Told in the form of a diary using stream-of-consciousness techniques that allow Sartre to freely expound upon philosophy, politics, and sex, as Roquentin details his rather desultory daily life, which consists of hanging around cafes, occasionally meeting with the autodidact who is reading every book in the library going from A to Z, and engaging in an emotionally empty sexual relationship with a cafe owner. Early on, Roquentin tell us of feeling the “sweet sickness” which builds until he realizes “[t]he Nausea is not inside me: I feel it out there in the wall, in the suspenders, everywhere around me. It makes itself one with the café, I am the one who is within it.” He fails at rekindling his relationship with Anny. He tosses aside his history book. To escape the nausea, the repugnance for himself, to accept himself, he must write “another type of book,” one that is “beautiful and hard as steel and make people ashamed of their existence.” That, it seems, was not only Roquentin’s desire, but also Sartre’s.
It’s imperative that the artists of today and the future learn from, build upon, and react against what has come before. After Auschwitz and Hiroshima, fully awakened, yet still unable to escape the nightmare of history, we have exited the time of existential hunger and nausea. We live in an era characterized by gluttony and insomnia, epitomized by a bully whose insatiable appetite demands more of everything, while excreting bilious texts in the middle of sleepless nights. The challenge for today’s writer is to create beautiful new voices revealing the truth of our treacherous times as brilliantly as did Hamsun, Kafka, and Sartre.
Bruce Bauman is the author of the novels Broken Sleep and And The Word Was.