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Manny Rayner's book reviews

I love reviewing books - have been doing it at Goodreads, but considering moving here.

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Sult - Knut Hamsun Started reading the original Norwegian edition today. I'm fluent in Swedish but don't really know Norwegian, though I have read maybe half a dozen Norwegian books. Comparing with English, it's rather like reading something in broad Scots dialect that's been written down phonetically. Iain Banks fans will be able to relate.

So far, it's pretty good, but I'm only 15 pages into it.


I come down the main staircase of the hotel. At reception, Zenit, the lovely Indian-Swedish girl, is on duty again. I pause and talk with her. My train isn't until the afternoon. Will it be alright if I sit in the restaurant until it's time to leave? She says it's fine. I feel grateful, she is always very kind. She says that she and her boyfriend are looking for a skiing trip. Maybe they will go to Grenoble. I say I have been there, but only in the summer. It's a nice town. I don't understand why I am telling her this. She wants to know what the skiing is like. She says she won't keep me, I was on my way to get breakfast. She's clearly giving me the brush-off. It hasn't happened before.

At breakfast, the waitress asks what I want. I only take the continental buffet. I think at first that all the bread has gone, but then I find some under a cloth. The toaster hardly even warms it up. As usual, the dial is turned to minimum. I don't dare change the setting, so I run the bread twice; it's still underdone. I sit down and eat it, together with a small bowl of muesli. The view from the window is beautiful, and I watch the tide flowing out in the bay. An elderly couple is walking along the beach, together with their dog. The dog is wearing a red coat. It scampers round them in the wet sand. I go back to my room and pack up my things, then come back down to reception. Zenit gives me the bill, and I hand her my Visa card. I fold up the bill and put it away. Then I notice that it is the hotel's copy. She doesn't want to embarrass me, so she keeps my copy instead without saying anything. I go back to the restaurant with my bags. I think I will take out my laptop and work until lunchtime.

I have things I should be doing, but I log on to GoodReads instead. I'm spending far too much time there. No one has commented on my review of Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator. It wasn't really very funny. The mail I sent to the woman who recommended the Hamsun book has bounced. She has disconnected her account. I hardly knew her, but I feel disquieted by this. I am too restless to work, so I decide to post a review of Christer Kihlman's Dyre Prins. As soon as I have done so, I wonder whether it was a good idea. Maybe I shouldn't have said that I had been moved by the scene with the prostitute. People may think that I patronise prostitutes too. I tell myself that this is ridiculous, but I keep thinking about it. It seems even worse though to edit the review.

I suddenly notice that it is nearly one o'clock. They are evidently not going to open the restaurant for lunch. I should have understood that. I consider going into Newquay and finding a place to eat, but it's too complicated. During the off season, nearly everything will be closed. I write a few mails and chat with some GoodReads friends. Then I go back to reception for the third time. Zenit is still there. She looks surprised, and asks if I have missed my train. I suddenly feel anxious. Maybe I got the time wrong? But no, it is not due for another three quarters of an hour. I ask if she can call a taxi. She does so. I say goodbye and go out to wait for it.

The taxi driver explains why there are no RyanAir flights at the moment. The Newquay airport authorities refused to give the airline a guarantee that the repairs would be finished within three weeks, so RyanAir withdrew flights until the beginning of March. Now they are threatening to sue, since the airport was clearly at fault. I am grateful to the driver for explaining this, and give him a large tip. He doesn't understand why I have done it, but seems happy.

On the train, I take out Hamsun again. I try to read, but I am unable to concentrate. The difference between Swedish and Norwegian is larger than I had remembered, and I often have to guess words. Sometimes there is a whole sentence that makes no sense. I would like to write a witty GoodReads review, but I can't come up with any ideas. I decide that I will just describe what happened to me today.


Thank God! I've now changed trains, and this new one has food. The cheese, bacon and pickle sandwich I purchased from Café Express was a bit disgusting, but I wolfed it down, together with a mango smoothy. £4.70 well spent.

Hm, Hamsun is, as everyone said, rather good, and it's pleasant to see that my Norwegian is coming back by leaps and bounds. Why was I feeling so negative earlier?


Not really knowing Norwegian, the way I read the book is to imagine it being read aloud, then listen to it as though it were heavily accented Swedish. This is now working very well. In fact, almost too well... the virtually audible first-person account is quite painful, and I can't read more than a few pages without needing to take a pause. But I feel I'm getting the genuine Hamsun experience, at any rate.


I am still wondering why I don't find it at all funny. Jessica T, whose opinion I respect, assures me that she finds black humor here. There are things that I see I could find amusing under slightly different circumstances, but I just don't experience them that way. Everything seems unutterably grim and painful. I was so relieved when the narrator got ten kronor for his newspaper piece!

Either my Norwegian still hasn't come back enough (possible), or I am, for some reason, too close to the subject matter. There was indeed a period of two or three days when I was a student, and had somehow contrived through bad planning to run out of both food and money. It was unpleasant and somewhat Hamsunesque, but it didn't last very long, and happened more than 30 years ago. So I wouldn't have thought I'd still be scarred by this experience. Strange!


Finally got back to this book after an extended vacation reading other stuff... now about two-thirds of the way through. OK, I agree with Jessica: it is quite funny. I think the tone has changed somewhat since the first part. Though my altered perspective may be due to the fact that my eye/ear is now pretty much attuned to the language, which it wasn't at the start. Will have to go back to the beginning when I've finished, and see if I view it differently.


Finished. It's a pretty scary book. He spares himself, and the reader, nothing... try as I would, I couldn't detach myself from him, his humiliation and descent into madness. He is completely at the mercy of the world. Most of the time he's hungry and desperate, and that's pretty much all he's feeling. But when he gets drunk, that takes him over too, and during the episode with "Ylajali" he's equally overcome by her.

I realized that, when I was about 15 and seriously into chess, I had in fact met someone rather a lot like him. He sometimes visited my chess club; he was the son of an English aristocrat, but was only interested in playing chess, and had been disinherited. He was in his late 20s, was painfully thin, and always wore exactly the same clothes, jeans and a check shirt. I thought he was kind of glamorous, because he'd played in international events (he hadn't done at all well). He said he couldn't concentrate properly in a chess club, because it was too noisy, and asked if I'd like to come back to his place. He told me he'd play without watching the board, and would kill me. I was intrigued.

I turned up at the address he'd given me. He had a single room in a nasty part of town. The place was filthy and almost bare, except for an unmade bed, a table, and a chair or two. I vividly remember a half-empty bottle of milk standing in one corner; it was thick with mold, and looked as though it had been there at least a month. We played a game; he gave me the white pieces, as well as not looking at the board. I had read up a variation in the King's Indian Defense, and it became clear that he didn't know the theory at all. I won easily, but felt disappointed. I'd rather have been amazed by his erratic talent.

I googled him just now, and find nothing at all after 1974, about a year or so after I played him. I fear the worst. But Knut Hamsun clearly survived, and went on to win the Nobel Prize. It's hard to see how, given that Hunger is supposed to be mostly based on true events, and it's even harder to see how he became a huge supporter of the Nazis. Life is very strange.