first published book by Jean Rhys appeared when she was in her thirties,
her collection entitled The Left Bank (1927). It contains a grim little
sketch (stark self-portrait rather than short story) called Hunger.
1890, the year of Jean's birth, an unknown Norwegian writer had published
his first book. Knut Hamsun was then in his thirties too and his
extraordinary novel was called Hunger.
earlier book describes the sufferings and stubborn endurance of a starving
would be writer as he wanders around the bleak, townscape of Kristiania
(Oslo). This unnamed but blazingly honest narrator encounters mental and
physical coldness everywhere. In search naturally of himself - via any
friendly face or halfway responsive editor -yet increasingly desperate to
earn a literary or actual crust, he meets with ridicule, distrust,
contempt or incomprehension. The result is an anguished if aggressive
tragicomedy, a lonely plea for survival in a cold zone of the spirit. Here
the getting of a living, one's daily bread, and the meaning of a life are
all called into question, with an individual's persistence and self-belief
coming under attack from the inhumane and mostly beastly bourgeoisie.
the bitter wit precludes self-pity. The protagonist's tone of rueful
intimacy sounds a new note. It's a voice of unusual candour which ensures
that we trust the teller through the tale. In this original, very personal
voice, surviving time and translators alike, Hamsun manages a miraculous
transformation, whereby extreme or depressing experiences become something
of a joyous assertion against the worst odds. Down but not out, bloodied
by the bloody awfulness of life, but unbowed, individual authors find
themselves hungering always for the spirit that gives life, the word that
goes beyond flesh and sustains both life and letters.
a pioneering and properly inspiriting book still. Over the years, that
resilient hungry narrator singlemindedly, singlehandedly fighting off
urban angst and avarice, wholly in search of existential meaning or a more
meaningful existence, has had a multiplicity of influences: similarities
and parallels may be traced from Hamsun through to Joyce, Celine, Miller
and many of the heroes and villains of Modernism.
has certain qualities, however, which particularly remind me of Jean's
Paris-based works. There's the blend of bleak realism and imaginative
fancy (or fanciful imagination), and within the narrative the artful
contrast and interplay of these polarities. The framework (since the
'plot' as such is minimal) is both lucidly detached yet very taut; it
seems so freewheeling, so loose, yet it's highly controlled. The tone of
voice is intimately personal, but remains understated, while not actually
giving the impression of reticence in its selection of detail. And whether
modulating from a whisper to a scream, that voice insinuates, takes you
into its confidence and weaves its spell so that you listen, riveted.
Included in the work - the same applies to Jean's books - are dreams,
hallucinations, omens, fetishes of varying kinds, premonitions. These
pointers towards the unconscious; literary-psychological signposts;
fantasies, obsessions - whatever they are, are seamlessly, unerringly
deployed. And yet the mysterious buttonholing process of the narration has
been glassily objective all the way, as the reader comes to realise in the
(In a 1934 letter to an American friend, the novelist Evelyn Scott),
discusses various related problems: drink, the difficulties of paying the
rent and, of course, writing. Last week I spent most of my time in bed.
She doesn't explain why - February cold, booze, poverty, depression,
convenience or pleasure? - but continues: Read Hunger by Knut
Hamsun that gave me a great kick. Translated 1899 and might have been
written yesterday. Jean has read the first, and at that time the only
available, English translation. (By 'George Egerton' - pen name of early
feminist author Mary Chavelita Dunne). it goes to show that a great author
remains great, or retains some of the greatness, even in a mangled and
is also true, alas, of the edition I knew, the 1967 version of Hunger
(the next into English) by the American poet Robert Bly. Nonetheless, as a
young man early on in his writing life, I found the book unputdownable: a
courageous, concise, emotional experience, Inspiring and inspired. There
was a sardonic immediacy, a timeless quality about It, and that strange,
distanced sense of intimacy I was to discover in Jean's own books. The
leap of seventy years had resulted in a new book, even more moving and
modern. Now, thirty years further on - Jean long dead and myself no longer
a young man reading a young man's book. I've acquired the third English
version of this masterpiece, and by it again am amused and moved.
Lyngstad's new translation (Canongate, 1996), appropriately Scandinavian,
catches the tense-changes, the pace and the staccato rhythms his
precursors missed. There's no bogus romanticism here: it's true as ever,
and as affecting. I wish Jean could have read this more accurate and
hard-edged vision of all artistic apprenticeships. I wish I could have
talked about it with her: I should have guessed she loved the book as I
did. At any rate, this latest and best of versions of the unsinkable
'hunger artist' made me return to Jean's own Hunger.
doesn't matter. I am not hungry either: that's a good thing as there is
not the slightest prospect of my having anything to eat ..."
"Starvation - or rather semi-starvation - coffee in the morning,
bread at midday, is exactly like everything else. It has its
compensations, but they do not come at once... To begin with it is a
frankly awful business." "No money: nothing to eat Nothing I...
But that's farcical. There must be something one can do. Full of practical
common sense you rush about; you search for the elusive 'something'. At
night you have long dreams about food." "On the second day you
have a bad headache. You feel pugnacious. You argue all day with an
invisible and sceptical listener."
hallucinations, excuses, detachment, weakness, anger, sarcasm,
desperation. How she resembles Hamsun here, foodless for five days, and
how touching her humour at her own expense:
She writes too, of "nerves strung tight. Like violin strings. Anything: lovely words, or the sound of a concertina from the street: even a badly played piano can make one cry. Not with hunger or sadness. No! But with the extraordinary beauty of life." Jean, like the mystics, like Hamsun in his greatest book, knew what was truly valuable, what was not.
does one fulfill oneself or fully express what one believes? How except
through art, the great consoler, can one make sense of life or share
insights into its meaning?
but has he starved'?" Gissing used to ask, whenever any writer's name
would be mentioned. Gissing himself quite literally had, of course, and he
knew how to cut through romantic affectation: there were no short cuts,
ever, nor 'overnight successes' and other such unlikely stories. There is
naturally a sort of morality of apprenticeship involved here. (Jazz
musicians will ask "Has he paid his dues?" which boils down to
the same.) Gissing perceived all this too, in New Grub Street, a
novel Jean and I once agreed should be required reading for every tyro
writer. In 1893 Gissing wrote to his brother: "The struggle of life
gets harder as one goes on, instead of being lightened. It would be a
strange sensation to look forward with easy confidence for a year or
two." Gissing in his short life more or less burnt himself out -
overworked, underpaid. But in his lifetime he was valued by his peers, as
Jean was, and he too will surely continue to gain not mere readers but
for 'easy confidence', I doubt whether genuine writers experience much of
that. But they may well read, and be read so, as though that's a magical
quality they always did possess. At any rate, the unsettling creative
hunger (being thirsty for experience, greedy for knowledge...) never
leaves an artist. Jean, however old and tired she became, never lost it.
Everyone knows that drinking too much inevitably involves eating too
little. Under the circumstances, and until the very end, it was Jean's
stamina rather than her gait that staggered. I never saw her too much the
worse for wear. Anyhow, whenever visiting, I'd generally make sure of
bringing along something for us to eat on that occasion. Sometimes we'd
eat there with her, or we'd take her out to lunch or tea, or the affable
Mr Greenslade would drive her to a prearranged pub or hotel at a halfway
point between Axminster and Cheriton. But in truth, the food was of little
importance: somehow or other, we were surviving; the company was what
for the famished Jean familiar to Stella Bowen and Ford Madox Ford, hungry
for literary success and a meaningful life in the Paris of the 1920s,
here's how she closed those early pages of her own Hunger: "I have
never gone without food for longer than five days, so I cannot amuse you
any longer". That's telling 'em! And telling it like it is, too... I
want to cheer her - raise a glass to her brave ghost.