Let me say at the start: I can't remember the last time I was so moved by a novel, so awakened by its ingenuity as I was with Knut Hamsun's Hunger. There's no way around it: what Hamsun's accomplished here is the birth of something entirely new, something, as Paul Auster notes in his introduction, that resembles - in both its outlook and structure - what we've come to call Modernism.
Published in 1890, Hunger is defined above all by the simplicity of its prose. There's no doubt: Hamsun wrote with a master's touch, and the result is a novel that assumes its own rhythm. This, despite the complexity of its content, and the emotional anguish of its narrator. I felt at times as if I were reading a novel written forty years after Hamsun set pen to paper: all artifice is ripped away; what's left is the mind and the artist's attempts to render it.
The result of that process is a tortured vision of genius, and the quest of one man - Hamsun's narrator - to satisfy both his literary ambitions as well his moral standards. There's a purity of vision here that lurks just below the surface: in Hamsun's narrator we see the mind at work; we see the birth of one thought and then the next. And finally, we experience all of this under the crystalline skies of Oslo, just three years before Hamsun's compatriot, Edvard Munch, developed that famous "Scream."
Unlike other novels in which characters exist in isolation, only to experience a sort of social integration at the end, Hamsun's narrator functions as a pariah, as an intellectual divorced from his surroundings. There never appears the potential for the nameless narrator to become part of Oslo: his thoughts, instead, run parallel to it. They constitute, if anything, a world of their own: in their insanity, they assume a logic.
I cannot recommend Hunger enough: here's a novel that was ahead of its time both in terms of its content as well as its style. What Hamsun's built here is the literary scaffolding used to chart the modern mind. I was blown away by what I'd read.
Postscript: more on Hamsun's biography and involvement in the Second World War can be found here. I felt this was important to include.