Garrison Keillor populates his fictional town of Lake Wobegon with shy, friendly descendants of Norwegian immigrants. In contrast, Norway's most famous writer, Knut Hamsun, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1920, filled his novel Hunger with the bitter thoughts and aimless meandering of a young Norwegian writer literally starving to death as he tries to sell philosophical essays on such subjects as "Crimes of the Future" to the editor of a newspaper in the capital city of Christiana, now called Oslo. The depictions of Norwegians created by these two authors clash mightily. Keillor views them as kind, self-effacing, and a bit foolish, while Hamsun's protagonist, who is never named, seems to be descended from one of Dostoyevsky's crazed characters — Raskolnikov, perhaps, the ax murder of Crime and Punishment, or the bitter, deranged narrator of Notes from Underground. And yet, Hamsun's protagonist, just as confused and resentful as J.D. Salinger's Holden Caulfield (an obvious literary descendent) pawns his waistcoat to give money to a beggar and refuses to impose on friends who would gladly lend him a couple of kroner to buy some bread. He is, underneath his apparent madness, just as nice as any denizen of Lake Wobegon.
Hunger resembles Seinfeld in the sense that it appears to be about nothing. The plot consists of utterly mundane events. The hungry writer, seized by a brilliant idea, can't find a pencil to write it down. He spends the night in a homeless shelter but is too proud to request a voucher for a free breakfast in the morning. He hassles a pretty young woman in a misguided attempt at flirting. Yet, the decline of this young man, modeled on Hamsun's own youthful poverty before he achieved success in 1890 with Hunger, takes on a degree of suspense as the reader wonders if he will eat something (besides the wood he gnaws from his pencil) before he dies of starvation. Like many 20th century novelists after him, Hamsun preferred the twists and turns of the human mind to the twists and turns of external events, composing Hunger as a stream-of-consciousness monologue in which events reach the reader only through the eyes of the starving protagonist, whose perceptions may be skewed by malnutrition.
If the protagonist of Hunger were to visit Lake Wobegon, he might be offered a piece of Norwegian apple cake, or "eplekake" — a friendly but subdued dessert decorated with nothing more flamboyant than apple slices and powdered sugar.
If you're not up for baking, you now can buy lefse online. Once available only from those rare few who still know how to make it, this traditional flatbread — a Norwegian tortilla — accommodates just about anything you want to put on it, from simple butter and brown sugar to sandwich fixings of all kinds.
Tom Valeo, special to the Times
Read & Feed is a monthly column in Taste that matches popular book club selections with food to serve at meetings. If you have suggestions or would like to share what your book club is cooking up, send an email to [email protected] Put BOOK FOOD in the subject line.