Two Abandoned Books

John Saturnall's Feast

John Saturnall’s Feast by Lawrence Norfolk

Five words from the blurb:  witchcraft, book, ancient, dishes, love

The book started well, with a wonderfully atmospheric scene in which a young boy and his mother are persecuted as witches.

Oily-smelling tallow-smoke laced the warm night air. The banging of pots and pans mixed with the villagers’ shouts. John felt his mother’s hand tighten, pulling him along. He heard the bag knock awkwardly against her legs, the breath rasp in her throat. His own heart pounded. Reaching the edge of the meadow they clawed their way up the first bank.

The pair escape and seek refuge in a forest, but child ends up working in the kitchens of a large manor house. Unfortunately the book became less gripping as it continued. There was lots of interesting information about cooking in a busy 17th century kitchen, but I failed to bond to any of the characters. Although individual scenes were vivid there was no forward momentum and I frequently found it difficult to pick up the book after a break. Many people love this novel, but I found it patchy and I’m afraid that even the snippets of historic cookery weren’t enough to hold my attention. I started skim reading after about 100 pages and abandoned the book shortly after that.



Hunger Translated from the Norwegian by Sverre Lyngstad

Hunger by Knut Hamsun

Knut Hamsun won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1920

Five words from the blurb: mind, writer, starvation, fluctuating, insight

Hunger had been on my wishlist for a very long time. It had been recommended to me on numerous occasions, is cited as a modern masterpiece, and Paul Auster describes it as “one of the most disturbing novels in existence”. On seeing it named on yet another “must-read” list I decided to buy a copy. I was worried that it would be too disturbing, but was disappointed to discover that the book had a light hearted tone and lacked any real darkness.

The book centres on a young writer who is so poor he can no longer afford to buy food. He desperately tries to get articles published in the hope of receiving enough money to buy his next meal. Unfortunately the book contained almost no plot – instead it meandered from one non-event to another. The stream-of-consciousness writing style was almost bearable, but the light-hearted tone annoyed me.

As I lie there in this position, letting my eyes wander down my breast and legs, I notice the twitching motion made by my foot at each beat of my pulse. I sit up halfway and look down at my feet, and at this moment I experience a fantastic, alien state I’d never felt before; a delicate, mysterious thrill spreads through my nerves, as though they were flooded by surges of light. When I looked at my shoes, it was as though I had met a good friend or got back a torn-off part of me: a feeling of recognition trembles through all my sense, tears spring to my eyes, and I perceive my shoes as a softly murmuring tune coming toward me.

I appreciate that it may be an accurate description of a person on the verge of despair, but I’m afraid I couldn’t connect with it. I abandoned it after about 80 pages.


 Have you read either of these books?

Did you enjoy them more than I did?

28 replies on “Two Abandoned Books”

Annabel, Yes. I can see why you enjoyed Feast, but I really need that emotional connection with a character and it all felt a bit cold to me.

I don’t think Hunger is for you, but I actually think you’d enjoy it slightly more than me. Not enough for me to recommend it though 😉

Oh dear, and I’d been looking forward to reading the Lawrence Norfolk. Mind you, I’ve also been putting it off because I suspect it will take an age to read. I enjoyed ‘The Pope’s Rhinoceros’ when I read it in 1996 – a very dense book, richly atmospheric and full of historical detail but one which moved at a snail’s pace and must have taken me a month or so to plod through.

David, I’m afraid I haven’t read any of Norfolk’s other books so can’t compare them, but you might enjoy Feast more than I did. The pace wasn’t too slow. It was atmospheric and full of historical detail, but it lacked emotion and I didn’t care what happened to the characters. It wasn’t a bad book, just not to my taste.

It’s a pity when a book is difficult to pick up again. I think I can understand your issues with Hunger, the writing does sound a little at odds with what you’ve described, though I’ve not read more than that one paragraph. Maybe it’s in part down to the era it was written in?

Charlie, Yes, the writing can be described as of its era and I often struggle with books from that time period – especially stream of conciousness ones. Just not for me I’m afraid.

As you would imagine I have read hunger it is a wonderful account but very of its time it sits alongside a lot of the great writers of his time like Kafka ,Doblin and Leppin ,I do wonder if it is a male book in some ways ,all the best stu

I think you could be right there, Stu. I read it and it seemed like a male book. For me, it’s very much like Jack London’s Martin Eden, also about a writer that gets by on very little money – and includes a love interest. I loved both books. They were favorites of mine when I was much (much!) younger. I have no idea what I’d think of them now, though.

Jackie, you already know I didn’t finish Norfolk’s book, but for different reasons than you. I found it all very confusing and not interesting enough.

Stu/Judith, I don’t know if it is a man’s book. It seemed very similar in style to The Awakening (written by a woman) another stream of consciousness book written about the same time about madness that I didn’t enjoy, but it does seem to be mainly men raving about Hunger. I can see why it is a classic, but it isn’t to my taste.

I’ve wondered about Hunger and wheher to acquire a copy. If it was good writing would be unreadable narrative – if you see what I mean. It would seem that is the case.

Juxtabook, The writing is of a very good quality (if you like that sort of thing 😉 ) It is a classic so if you like stream of conscious then give it a try.

Embarrassed to say I haven’t heard of either of these. The excerpt from Hunger made me think I might not have the patience for introspection that I used to have a few decades ago. Of course, starving to death probably means you can’t do much more than lie there looking at your feet!

Laurie, Don’t be embarrassed – there are millions of books out there that I haven’t heard of! It is interesting to hear that you think you had more patience for introspection a while ago – I was sort of hoping I’d get more patience as I aged!

You abandoned Hunger, Jackie? I’m truly flabbergasted. Definitely one of the classics of the late nineteenth-century, and certainly one of my all-time favourites.

Auster’s absolutely correct in calling the book disturbing. Death hangs like a cloud over this guy the entire time, and the only thing keeping him away from it is the width of his pencil. His life hangs in the balance, how could such a situation not be disturbing?

As for the light-heartedness, well I’d rather call it manic despair. The guy’s going out of his mind after all. Desperation is closing in on him from all sides and he responds as a mad lunatic. Hamsun nails it perfectly, and has painted the character and the situation he finds himself in with pinpoint accuracy. TRULY a remarkable novel, an absolute masterpiece.

Still, I can see why it’s not for everyone. I still love you Jackie 🙂

Rob, I love your passion! Yes, it is a classic, but there are a lot of classics I haven’t enjoyed. 🙁 I can see why it is considered a masterpiece, but the style of the writing just doesn’t work for me. I’m glad you found beauty where I didn’t.

I read Hunger for my book club a couple of years back. It took a bit of getting used to but I did really enjoy it. Or maybe “enjoy it” is the wrong phrase. I really appreciated it. As Rob says, it’s disturbing, but a masterpiece. I think you probably have to be in the right place for it mentally, though.

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