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This book took me by surprise. It's stunningly original, especially given that it was published in 1890. I kept having to check that particular date because it felt so contemporary and modern. I'm genuinely curious to know if this book might qualify as the first truly 'modernist' novel. There might be other candidates out there but this is certainly a contender. There is no plot (a marker for many modernist novels), and the book is a first person narration filled with inner dialogue and occasional stream of consciousness writing. Hamsun also has a curious habit of switching tenses (which I don't ever recall seeing before). He starts a sentence in past tense then concludes it in present tense and so on -- and it all works rather beautifully. There's also a rather blunt expression of sexual thoughts and images which most 19th century literature wouldn't touch and which, again, seems very modern. In fact, the two earlier translations both removed them (the translation by Sverre Lyngstad is the one you want).

The basic plot is a young writer struggling to find work, food, and somewhere to sleep in Oslo. On one occasion, he sleeps in the woods, on another he volunteers to spend the night in the local prison as his only option. He's so hungry that he picks up a handful of wood chippings and eats them across the course of the day. And when he finally has some food, his body has become so accustomed to not having any that he vomits. All this is occurring as he is desperately tries to come up with articles which he might sell to the newspaper and his mind is slowly crumbling.

There are times when he speaks to himself, when the internal monologue is vocalised, and there are moments when he seems unable to distinguish between reality and fantasy. As the book goes along, he appears to be falling apart and gradually losing his mind. And there is a woman named Ylajali whom he fixates on and eventually has a rendezvous with which quickly escalates into something sexually aggressive and confused. Again, this is not something I'd expect to see in a 19th century novel. This is a book about poverty and hunger at a time when it wasn't uncommon for most people to experience those things.

This was such a superb read. Magnificent.



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