Writing on the Wall: The Language of Advertising in Knut Hamsun's Sult

By Sandberg, Mark B. | Scandinavian Studies, Fall 1999 | Go to article overview
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Writing on the Wall: The Language of Advertising in Knut Hamsun's Sult


Sandberg, Mark B., Scandinavian Studies


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).

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