Jacob goes on holiday, I lend him Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides’ light-hearted but well-written romp about a Greek-American hermaphrodite. I go on holiday, Jacob lends me Hunger, Knut Hamsun’s harrowing odyssey of physical starvation, moral degradation and mental disintegration.
Add to these contrasts the fact that Hunger is about slowly starving to death in Norway, and the fact that my holiday involved backpacking in Norway on a budget which, given that a Burger King meal cost 69 NOK (£5.94!/S$17.94!!), was necessarily shoestring, and I’m beginning to think Jacob doesn’t like me much.
But I forgive him. This would have been an impressive book even if written in 1990; when you realize it was written a century before that, before the works of Camus, Kafka and Hesse, the mind does rather boggle. And although I am, of course, dependent on reading all of them in translation, I must also mention that I found Hunger far more engaging than anything I have read by those authors. Don’t be put off by the clichéd idea of the starving artist that forms the basis of the plot – actually reading the book will remind you that things only become clichés when permitted to replace more original expression.
However, for your own wellbeing, I’d recommend only reading this after a full meal, or at least with snacks readily within your reach. Marshmallows. Marshmallows are good.