“I will exile my thoughts if they think of you again, and I will rip my lips out if they say your name once more. Now if you do exist, I will tell you my final word in life or in death, I tell you goodbye.”
When I was younger, I used to think there were certain books that had some kind of black magic to them, in the sense you felt you were dealing with forbidden information. There were books that seemed cursed. I didn’t know it then but it’s a viewpoint that goes back to Marlowe’s Dr Faustus at least and probably had a great deal to do with growing up under a church that once had an Index Librorum Prohibitorum of banned books. You could learn dangerous things from books and unleash terrible forces in the process it seemed, psychological or moral if not diabolical. You just needed the right kind of books. They were hard to get hold of or demanded a herculean effort to read. A lot of them were banned because of their political or sexual content, which only served to helpfully point you in their direction. If they’d had to be banned, they had to be read. It didn’t even matter if the content was morally questionable or repulsive, in fact it helped. When a friend told me a cousin of his had jumped out a window and broken his legs after reading Mein Kampf, I remember saying ‘Poor bastard’ whilst secretly thinking ‘I really need to read that right now.’
It was harder in those days but it was possible to find copies of Nietzsche, Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom or Nin’s Delta of Venus in old second-hand bookshops, most of which have since disappeared. With the arrival of the internet, it was possible to download The Anarchist’s Cookbook (and blow your face off following its recipes) or view Bataille’s terrifying but endlessly fascinating photographs of human beings, eyes rolling in their heads in opiated ecstasy, being dismembered in the Ling Chi or Death of a Thousand Cuts ritual. There’s a morbid curiosity at work and, like seeing Islamists hacking hostages’ heads off or the aftermath of atrocities in Chechnya or Syria, it’s not conducive to peace of mind. Sometimes writers and readers should gaze into the abyss though, albeit with the knowledge as Nietzsche warned that the abyss might well look into you in return.
One of the books I chanced upon as a teenager has remained vividly in my head ever since; Knut Hamsun’s Hunger (Henning Carlsen’s 1966 film adaptation is included below). I used to think about it walking along the Union Canal in Edinburgh and the Water of Leith, which enters the sea at the port for which the unnamed narrator sets sail at the end of the book (though I have a sneaking suspicion, he never embarked on this journey and the ending is some fever-ridden hallucination or perhaps a wishful lie). I’ve been thinking about the book a great deal walking around Derry and its outskirts with the snow on the surrounding hills or the rain falling on the black river and the crow-infested woods.
There are books that articulate brilliantly what you already know but is jumbled up in your head. There are books that make you nostalgic for times and places you’ve never experienced. There are books as rites of passage. Hunger is something else entirely. Hamsun wrote it in 1890 from his experiences wandering around Kristiania (now Oslo), dissolute and half-mad. Yet a century later, in a world he could scarcely have imagined, it feels like he wrote about experiences and thoughts I’ve had in the years since reading it, almost as if he were writing it from a viewpoint inside my skull. It shows the ludicrous depths of my narcissism but also that some books do contain magic, however illusory it turns out to be.
The BBC have recently produced an excellent radio documentary on Hamsun (thanks to Adelle Stripe for pointing it out) and the controversy surrounding him, given he became a Nazi sympathiser in his later years and was locked up in the madhouse after the war. It’s become one of those tiresome journalist cliches that every article on Hamsun must begin with critics haggling over his troubled legacy, unable to accept that someone who creates a masterpiece might nevertheless be a reprehensible human being. They never think there might be more to learn from those unlike us, or more like us than we’d ever dare admit, than those who simply tell us what we want to hear.