Op-Ed: A famous novel disintegrates on a final read. It’s a fitting end
One of the best books I read this year was also one of the worst.
As I walked in a small town in the south of France, the early afternoon sun was high and warm and the sky cloudless. Suddenly, I came upon a worn paperback copy of Knut Hamsun’s early novel, “Hunger,” perfectly placed on a green bench in a plaza. Too perfectly, I thought, as if someone had left it there just for me. I looked around. I was the only person there.
After sitting on the bench and ignoring the first introduction by the translator Robert Bly, and then a second one by Isaac Bashevis Singer — one must always jump over introductions or forewords of any kind — I immediately began to read the novel, originally published in Norway in 1890, about an unnamed narrator and struggling writer who is wasting away from hunger.
But as soon as I finished reading both sides of the first page, that page fell off the spine and I was left holding it in my hand, a bit confused. Was it me? Did I pull on it too harshly? I decided to keep reading. But when I finished both sides of the second page, that page also fell off. Strange, I thought or maybe even whispered in the middle of an empty plaza, and I continued reading with two pieces of paper in my hand. Then the same thing happened with the third page, and the fourth, and the fifth, and so on. Every time I finished a page, that page would fall off the spine.
Half-smiling, I said to myself that it seemed as if the book wanted to be read one last time, by one last reader, before completely disintegrating — an act that somehow mirrored the narrator’s journey.
I had never before read anything by Hamsun, for no particular reason, but I found his tone captivating, his prose sparse and direct. Before I realized it, I was more than halfway through the story. I kept reading and the book just kept falling apart in my hands.
It was getting late. I was losing daylight. I’d grown tired and uncomfortable. The bench felt hard on my back. But I was convinced that the book wouldn’t survive if I tried to take it with me, that I had to finish it right then and there — light or no light, pain or no pain.
It occurred to me, as I kept reading, that my hands had begun to imperceptibly help tear off each page after I’d finished it. Or maybe not. Maybe it just felt that way after so many pages.
As I neared the end, loose pieces of paper lay on the bench beside me, in an unkept pile. Some had fallen to the ground. Others had been windswept, fluttering pigeon-like around the small plaza. It no longer mattered. Each page had served its purpose. Each page had told its part of the story and was now but an old scrap of paper filled with little black marks.
After reading the book in amazement, in one long sitting, the book as such no longer existed, and I walked out of the paper-ridden plaza and into the cool night.
Weeks or perhaps months passed before I learned that Hamsun, after visiting the United States, called Black Americans “a people without a history, without traditions, without a brain, a slave people without pride and honor, a mob from ancient times who let themselves be whipped for 75 cents and lied to for 25.”
I also discovered that he sent the medal for his Nobel Prize in literature to Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, as a tribute; and that he then had a famous meeting with Adolf Hitler, whom he admired and praised, later even eulogizing him, saying “Hitler was a warrior, a warrior for humankind and a preacher of the gospel of justice for all nations. … And we, his close followers, bow our heads at his death.”
And I asked myself if knowing these things beforehand would have changed my reading of the book. I asked myself if I would’ve read it at all, or if I would’ve left it sitting there on the bench, perfectly placed, as someone else had done before me. I asked myself if all those scattered pages fluttering around a small plaza in the south of France were not only no longer a book, but also no longer anything sublime, no longer anything transcendent, no longer anything. I asked myself what remains, then, once a book and its writer have ceased to exist — once both have inevitably become dust and soil and loose scraps of paper. I asked myself this: What should we do, in the end, with beautiful words penned by a hideous hand?
Eduardo Halfon has written 14 books of fiction in Spanish and is originally from Guatemala. He lives in southern France.
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