HERE IS AN OPENING SCENE: the unnamed main character of Sult [Hunger] awakens in his rented room. He hears the bells outside ringing six o'clock and people beginning to walk up and down the stairs. The walls of his room, papered with old issues of the newspaper Morgenbladet, provide him with his first reading material as he comes to consciousness. He notices in order, over by the door, "en bekjendtgjorelse fra fyrdirektoren" [an announcement from the lighthouse director] and then "et fett, bugnende avertissement fra baker Fabian Olsen om nybakt brod" [a fat, bulging advertisement from Baker Fabian Olsen for newly baked bread] and finally, as it grows lighter and lighter in the room, he sees "de magre, grinende bokstaver om `Liksvop hos jomfru Andersen, tilhoire i porten'" (7) [the lean, grimacing letters of "Burial shrouds at Miss Andersen's, through the gate to the right"]. He continues reading these advertisements--for two whole hours, we are left to conclude from the fact that the bells soon ring eight o'clock.
The scene, of course, comes at the first shift to present-tense narration after the narrator's famous retrospective opening statement, "Der var i den tid jeg gik omkring og sultet i Kristiania, denne forundeflige by som ingen forlater for han har fat maerker av den...."(7) [It was back when I went around starving in Christiania, that strange city that no one leaves before being branded by it...]. The first page of the novel moves between the world of literature and the world of advertisements, between marker [brands, marks] and varemarker [brand names]. In this attic room, wallpapered with words and images from old newspapers, the novel's protagonist comes into being and enters into language. As Atle Kittang has put it, "Sult-heltens medvit konstituerer seg med andre ord som eit medvit om sprak, i denne overgangen fra ikkje-vaere til vaere" (38) [The consciousness of Hunger's protagonist constitutes itself in other words as a consciousness of language, in this transition from non-being to being]. I would revise Kittang's important insight slightly: this is not simply entry into language in the abstract--since that is never the case--but into a specific language system, with historical dimensions and social horizons: here, the discourse of advertising.
This will turn out to be a crucial shift of emphasis, since if one leaves language in the abstract, as Kittang does, one will be more inclined to draw conclusions of a broadly literary or psychoanalytic nature. In Kittang's reading, Sult is thus ultimately about the possibilities of the novel as a genre, about modernist literary consciousness, and about narcissism. The perspective I am proposing here is that the language system surrounding the narrator in this opening scene is also a quite particular one, a kind of language. The subject that enters this particular language system is in important ways not the same as every other subject that enters into language, precisely because he is called into being by a late-nineteenth century advertisement. Although his "hunger" has important literary and linguistic dimensions, the opening scene of Sult begins not with a literary reader, but a newspaper reader, and the model of writing, reading, and consumption developed throughout the novel should take that into account. This famously subjective novel, this novel about the inner world, the whisper of the blood, and small psychic tremors begins with a prominently placed description of a newspaper, where the private world of the reader intersects with the public world of news, economy, and advertising.
Theoretical approaches to Hamsun's novel have tended to emphasize the former; that is, its subjectivity as a form of private literary expression. When linked to the concerns of European literary modernism, its possible relationship to a cultural-historical setting does indeed drop out fairly quickly. It becomes a"timeless" novel, allowing Hamsun biographer Robert Ferguson, for instance, to characterize Sult enthusiastically as "eerily and thrillingly undated" (112). Interestingly, it sometimes becomes "spaceless" as well as "timeless" in standard literary histories. Literary scholars eager to overcome Hamsun's exclusion from the literary modernist mainstream are perhaps most willing to sacrifice the Norwegian cultural setting as too "small" for such a great novel and quickly promote Christiania to the ranks of interchangeable European metropolises. It is the idea of the city that is at stake, they might claim, not the Norwegian capital itself.
Scholars may just be following Hamsun's lead in this regard; after all, when Sult came out, he himself wrote to Scandinavian critics like Georg Brandes of his disdain for social novels: "Jeg har gjort et Forsog paa at skrive--ikke en Roman, men en Bog, uden Giftermaal, Landture og Bal hos Grossereren, en Bog om en omtaalig Menneskesjaels fine Svingninger, det saere, ejendommelige Sindsliv, Nervernes Mysterier in en udsultet Krop" (Knut Hamsuns Brev 161-2) [I have made an attempt to write not a novel, but a book--without marriages, trips to the countryside, and dances at the merchant's house--a book about a sensitive human soul's delicate oscillations, the peculiar, strange life of the mind, the mysteries of the nerves in a starved body]. And while working on the first fragment of Sult, he also wrote this to Brandes's brother Edvard:
Den Bog, jeg arbejder paa, er desperat lidet norsk, og jeg er ikke ligegyldig for dens Skjebne. Jeg havde ikke villet skrive for Nordmand--der er ikke et Stednavn i den hele Bog--jeg har villet skrive for Mennesker hvorsomhelst de fandtes. (Brev 81, original emphasis) (The book I am working on is desperately un-Norwegian, and I am not disinterested in its fate. I didn't want to write for Norwegians--there is not a place name in the whole book--I have wanted to write for human beings wherever they might be found.)
Even a casual reader of Sult might smile about this last claim--as is often remarked, the finished novel is on the contrary full of place names and urban geographic detail. Now one might simply claim, as does Einar Eggen in his well-known article from 1966, that the book's geography is a bit of a sham, that it does not lead anywhere and is only in the novel to be discredited (71-2). Peter Kirkegaard makes a similar point:
Med stor nojagtighed registrerer han gadenavne og steder, og man kan more sig med at finde hans `yndlingsruter' pa et Kristianiakort, men blot for derved at konstatere, at denne precision er uden betydning. Forf. vandrer de samme veje igen og igen, men stedsfostelsen er arbitrer, ikke tilknyttet ham pa andet end negativ absurdistisk made; han gar i kreds, i en labyrint. (154) (With great precision he makes note of street names and places, and one can have fun finding his "favorite routes" on a map of Christiania, but only in order to prove that this precision is meaningless. The author wanders the same paths over and over again, but the spatial location is arbitrary, not linked to him except in a negative, absurdist way; he walks in circles, in a labyrinth.)
Even if absurd in effect, the geographic specificity of the novel seems to be part of a strategy, a system of reference to time and place that seems all the more deliberate since Hamsun apparently played up the geographic specificity as the project progressed. Suit does have a relationship to its historical setting. What kind of relationship is what needs sorting out.
I emphasize this because my own interest in the novel is decidedly cultural historical. This is not to say that the literary-theoretical and the socio-historical aspects of Hamsun's work are necessarily at odds. Part of the intention here is in fact to demonstrate their intimate connection by examining Hamsun's novel together with historical developments in the practice of advertising. The argument will be that the discourse of advertising and the discourse of Hamsun's novel are part of the same cultural production of space at the end of the nineteenth century. The relevant term of the relationship is the intersection between modernity--the social conditions of the turn of the twentieth century--and modernism--the literary and artistic movement of the same period.
THIS SPACE FOR HIRE
The treatment of advertising space here will draw on two urban geographies: that of the capital city, Christiania, since Hamsun's novel is set there, but also that of Chicago, where Hamsun had perhaps his most modern, urban experience the year before he began writing the novel. In part, the aim is to outline the historical horizon of advertising to show its potential meanings in these two late nineteenth-century cities, especially as they meet in the personal experience of Knut Hamsun. Closely tied to that, however, is a particular theoretical interest in advertising space, especially the changing relationship between language and place as played out in cityscapes of the 1880s and `90s. This theoretical interest, in other words, is also historical since it explores a moment of transition in a representational system and cultural since it depends on comparative trajectories in two different cultural spheres.
The best way to begin this discussion is perhaps in terms of circulation. Crudely put, the claim is that the processes of modernity and urbanization involved an ungrounding of space.(1) Not in any absolute sense--the world was not simply "rooted" before nor wholly "mobile" after--but as an effect of acceleration, which encouraged those experiencing rapid social change to view the traditional world left behind as stable and unchanging. Shifts in everyday experience required new conceptualizations of space, especially in relation to the objects of labor and consumption that are so …