THE OLD boarding house at Number 11 Tomtegaten no longer stands. Neither does the street. Most of the immediate area was demolished decades ago, leaving no trace of scenes Norwegian writer, and Nobel Prize winner, Knut Hamsun, describes in his semi-autobiographical novel Hunger.
Opened in 1882, eight years before the book was published, only the original, yellow façade of Oslo’s main railway terminal is left to give a vague idea of the location. As far as can be gained from records, Tomtegaten ran along the station’s north side. From them we can deduce Hamsun lived not only by, but on the other side of the tracks.
One chilly, autumn morning a huddle of junkies stand on the station’s forecourt, waiting for the man. They eye me in forlorn resignation as I negotiate the tramlines between us. Formerly known as Østbanestasjon (East Station) and renamed Sentralstasjon (Central Station) in 1987, the labyrinth of uninspiring modern offices and shopping mall, the old façade fails to disguise, obliterate all evidence of any residential property ever having been there. It is almost as though Norway wanted to erase all memory of one of her most famous novelists. Yet beneath all that steel, concrete and glass existed the rundown house Hamsun boarded at for a time. It stands out so vividly in my mind’s eye that I vainly begin to search for some sign of it in the maze of escalators and passages which so ably obscure any possible remnants of its existence.
Somewhere round here was the very spot the landlord of Number 11 beckoned Hamsun’s unnamed protagonist across to a bedroom door, motioning for him to shush, before inviting him to peer through its keyhole. Two figures can be discerned on the bed. The landlord’s wife’s open thighs show stark white against a dark quilt; she is heavily pregnant. The new tenant, a seaman, is lying between them.
Her husband tries to stifle his laughter at the thought of his ageing father-in- law sitting on the settee on the other side of the bedroom. Unable to turn his head because of paralysis, the old man was forced to witness the event.
Shocking even now, it is hard to imagine the dramatic effect the scene must have had on conservative Oslo at the turn of the 19th century. Nobody had written like that before. It is very likely this was a real episode in Hamsun’s poverty-stricken, early life.
At the end of the Second World War the declining writer was tried as a Nazi sympathiser. For that reason, not so many Norwegians admit to reading his books these days. Yet Hunger was to change the course of 20th century literature. Some see it as having invented it. With what was later to be described as stream of consciouness, Hamsun was to influence Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Mann, Hermann Hesse, Maxim Gorky, Stefan Zweig, and Henry Miller to name but a few. Nevertheless, there isn’t so much as a plaque to celebrate the location’s literary importance.
My Uncle Remi started working for Hamsun’s publisher, Gyldendals, as an office boy shortly before the German occupation of Norway in 1940, and stayed with the firm for the rest of his life. He gave my father a collection of the writer’s books translated into English. I read most of them as a teenager. They enthralled me. But the collection didn’t include the seminal novel Hunger, which was to astound me later.
From Central Station it is possible to tread the route Hamsun’s protagonist took as he stalked Ylayli, the fictional name he gives the young woman with whom he becomes obsessed. Starving to the point of hallucination, he follows her as she promenades up and down Karl Johans Gate with another woman. Oslo’s main thoroughfare, runs from the railway station up to the royal palace at its other end. The first half of the street has been pedestrianised. Above the jewellers, boutiques and restaurants, the buildings have altered little in more than 100 years.
Just past Lille Grensen, where painter, Edvard Munch, shared a studio in the late 1890s, Karl Johans widens into an elegant, tree-lined boulevard, the centre of which is a park with open-air cafés. The people of Oslo sit here on summer evenings drinking beer and gossiping, as they watch the world go by. Passing Grand Café, had a hungry Hamsun looked through the large windows, he might have caught sight of playwright, Henrik Ibsen, quaffing and dining. Emerging from poverty, the novelist was later to join its artistic clientele.
Ibsen’s plays are still performed at the nasjonalteater (National Theatre) towards the further end of the boulevard’s park. Hamsun’s second wife, Marie Andersen, a promising young actress, took up a post as a student there in 1907. As a member of the Nasjonal Samling, the Norwegian Nazi Party, she is often credited as being responsible for persuading Hamsun to lend his support for Hitler.
Across the road from the theatre is another of Henrik Ibsen’s old haunts, Teatercafeen. Its Art Nouveau interior remains more or less as it was in his day – a small orchestra still plays from the gallery each evening. The menu is largely Norwegian. My favourite dish is reindeer steaks.
Ylayli walks on with her friend, dogged by Hunger’s main character. Just before the university they turn right and walk up Universitet gate and past the National Gallery. Far fewer people know of Edvard Munch than know of his painting, The Scream, one version of which hangs inside. After the Mona Lisa, it is the most famous painting in the world. No other picture so captures the alienation of contemporary life, yet it was painted in 1893, three years after Hunger was published.
Aware they are being pursued, Ylayli and her companion hurry along Universitet gate and on to St Olafs Plass. The old house having been demolished, Number 2 is now a soulless modern block. In the building that formerly stood here lived Ida Charlotte Clementine Wedel-Jarlsberg. She was the inspiration for Ylayli, and it is that surname Hamsun’s hero uses when he spends a night in the city gaol. An idea of how Number 2 must have looked can be gained from the last old edifice remaining in the square.
Wandering aimlessly in the streets behind the museum, I stumble across All Saviours’ graveyard where Ylayli’s stalker sat on a bench, going slowly mad from want of food. Hamsun’s own experiences of hunger were not uncommon in the 19th century. Like hordes of other Europeans, thousands of Norwegians sailed for America to escape the grinding poverty. In search of a new life, Hamsun was to make the journey twice before achieving international fame.
Both Edvard Munch and Henrik Ibsen are buried in All Saviours’ along with many of Norway’s best writers, poets, musicians and artists. But Hamsun is not. Though he haunted it in life, in death he was deprived of the opportunity.
To the north of the graveyard are a few old, wooden houses. They give another insight into how Kristiania, as Oslo was called until 1925 – when it reverted back to its oldest name – used to be. Up until the 1990s they were virtually abandoned and began falling into disrepair. Now the few restored houses not residential have been converted into studios and offices. They have become fashionable. That certainly was not the case when Edvard Munch grew up in the area. His father was a doctor with a meagre practice. His mother died of tuberculosis when he was five. His sister, Sophie, followed nine years later. These two events are said to have created the artist’s hypochondria and obsession with sickness and death.
But to see Munch and Hamsun purely as angst-ridden souls is to misunderstand the Scandinavian psyche. Hamsun can be outrageously funny; Munch was a hedonist who spent his evenings downing bottles of wine in the company of whores, only to spend his days deep in alcoholic remorse.
The Munch Museum lies to north of the old town. To reach it take the T banen (underground train) to Tøyen station. Surrounded by a few trees, the museum lies a short stroll away. The full breadth of Munch’s work hit me like a blast from a furnace on my last visit. The sheer scale of some of the paintings is overwhelming. Several are as tall as houses. Their colours mirror the light of Norway itself, sharp and clear primaries. I came away my head a buzz of stark, Nordic imagery.
And back to Knut Hamsun. In final homage to Hunger I went to the wharves in front of Rådhus, the City Hall. It is here the novel’s protagonist takes a ship bound for England to escape debt.
As the sun sets I gaze up to the blue-green horseshoe that forms the city. Surrounding hills dotted with buildings gradually descend to the edges of Oslofjord. Suddenly something makes sense. In a magical moment, the setting sun transforms a myriad glass panes into glinting sheets of gold, and I see what Hamsun must have seen. It’s in the last few lines of Hunger. Though very familiar with Oslo, I never quite understood the real meaning of the words. It can only have been something the writer experienced himself while swabbing the deck of a departing ship. Hunger’s protagonist glances up to bid farewell to Kristiania and Norway. Hamsun wrote: “the windows of the houses shine brightly back at him”. In that beautiful northern light they really do. And how they do.
Copyright © Bryan Hemming 2013
This is an updated and edited version of an article published by The Independent on Saturday, 29th May 1999 under the title: Frustration on the trail of this Hamsun man
For another cultural walk through Oslo: The Scream – A walk through Edvard Munch’s Oslo