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Hunger. By KNUT HAMSUN. Trans. by SVERRE LYNGSTAD. Edinburgh: Rebel. 1996. 193 pp. 6.99 [pounds sterling].

Knut Hamsun's great urban novel has finally found a worthy English form. Sverre Lyngstad presents a new translation, free of the gross mistakes and approximations that marred the two earlier attempts at rendering Hamsun's style in this novel. George Egerton's 1899 translation (alias of Mary C. Dunne) was bowdlerized, and Robert Bly's American edition of 1967 displays, as Lyngstad remarks, 'a pseudo-creative attitude toward the craft of translation'.

It is perhaps not surprising that Hamsun never found a warm reception among the English. He came to hate them, and their imperialism, utilitarianism, and industrialism in particular, with all his heart. The luke-warm reception of the translation of his early works in Britain changed only temporarily after he was awarded the Nobel Prize for The Growth of the Soil in 1920. Many of the English literati must have felt that their attitude was confirmed when in 1940 Hamsun fatally sided with the German aggressors against his native Norway. Robert Ferguson's excellent English biography of Hamsun, Enigma: The Life of Knut Hamsun (London: Hutchinson, 1987), provides a significant exception to the critical disregard with which this author has been treated in Britain. Hamsun's influence on German, Russian, and American literature in particular can hardly be overestimated. Thomas Mann, Hermann Hesse, Franz Kaf ka, Robert Musil, Maxim Gorky, Boris Pasternak, Ernest Hemingway, Henry Miller, and Andre Gide are only some of those who expressed their admiration for this author's works. Isaac Bashevis Singer has famously claimed that 'the whole modern school of fiction in the twentieth century stems from Hamsun'. Hamsun's well-known literary admirers in England were restricted to such as John Galsworthy, H. G. Wells, and Rebecca West. She held that Hamsun had 'the completest omniscience about human nature'.

Hamsun was always an outsider, and during the 1890s, when his perhaps greatest novels were written (Hunger (1890), Mysteries (1892), Pan (1896), and Victoria (1898)) he seems more of a radical than a reactionary. His unique literary voice, pioneering in its intense exploration of the human psyche, came into its own already in his first novel, Hunger. This great examination of urban alienation ranks with Kaf ka's The Castle and The Trial, Rilke's Notebook of Malte Laurids Brigge, and Dostoevsky's Notes from the Underground. The nameless hero roaming the streets of Kristiania (present-day Oslo) represents something peculiarly modern. His impulsive acts of generosity and violence, his extreme indecisiveness, and his fragmented self reflect a hypersensitive subjectivity stranded in an age void of moral certainties. Its radical invention is still astonishing, and for Hamsun it was not a novel at all: 'What fascinates me', he wrote to Georg Brandes, 'is the endless motion of my own mind.'

One of the most important things Lyngstad's translation does is to preserve Hamsun's sudden shifts into the present tense in the middle of narration. This highly individual device was used with an almost unfailing intuition and intensifies Hamsun's narration to great effect. The changes from past to present tense and back can at times even occur within a sentence. Hunger's great opening is marred in earlier translations by the use of the more usual past tense all through. Lyngstad's acidic introduction to the problems of translating Hamsun documents a series of other mistakes for which the earlier translators were responsible. Duncan McLean's personal foreword is not without value, but it is regrettable when one considers the ignorance about this author in Britain that the book does not provide a more general introduction to Hamsun's life and work.

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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Rem, Tore
Publication:The Modern Language Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1999
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