Knut Hamsun's 'Hunger' (1890) is arguably the greatest novel to come out of Norway. It is often considered an entirely bleak work, but this is too simplistic a reading: through the despair shines a kind of dogmatic determination to keep going which lends it a curiously uplifting effect.
The book is a strange one. In his essay 'The Art Of Hunger' (which was what brought me to the book) Paul Auster - arguably Hamsun's successor in many ways - summarises it thus:
A young man comes to the city. He has no name, no home, no work: he comes to the city to write. He writes. Or, more exactly, he does not write. He starves to the point of death.
The book is practically plotless. Everything that happens seems to be more or less random. In the context of the nineteenth century, when most novels were stuffed with strictly ordered narrative, it was extraordinary for this reason. Characterisation, too, is extremely limited: even the narrator seems almost anonymous.
What, then, is the point? Fair question. After all, one might argue that books are made up of plot and characterisation: without them, what is left? Well, this is a book about Art and the artist. Our hero is an artist who is trying to prove something to himself: he is undergoing a kind of experiment by pushing himself to the brink of death. His experience is an entirely arbitrary one - at any moment he could choose to try and find his way out of his starvation, but perversely, he refuses. Why? Because he wants to experience all: above all, because he wants to look death in the face. And because the hunger is all-consuming (no pun intended) it becomes one with his art. Ultimately, as Auster points out, our hero systematically rejects every value of the society he lives in by this one symbolic gesture of self-starvation, rejects morality and survival and even God - but he carries on. He refuses to be cowed. The artist stares the universe down and bloody-mindedly carries on with life. As Auster puts it:
There is nothing to keep him going - and yet he keeps on going. He walks straight into the twentieth century.
This is a book of consolation for a race which has just begun to suspect that it might be alone. It is glorious in its determination simply to exist.
PS In the UK, the Canongate edition is much the best translation.