Great Story: "A Hunger Artist" by Franz Kafka

Every now and then I'll post a link to a short story I love -- in this case "Ein Hungerkünstler," in translation -- to try and spark a discussion about it. (I'll include links to all the "Great Story" blog posts on my homepage, in the hope of keeping the comments going for a while...)

Franz Kafka was the twentieth-century writer who spoke most directly to the human heart; this was one of the last stories he wrote; you are invited to (1) click on the link above to read or reread the story, and then (2) post comments if so moved. I'll post comments too.

Here's something I only just learned: in the twenty-five years or so since I first fell in love with "A Hunger Artist," I've assumed that the phenomenon of hunger artists was something Kafka made up, but according to this article, apparently not: fasting really used to be a spectator sport? What an amazing idea for a story! Oops, guess I'm eighty-five years too late...

Now read the story...

6 thoughts on “Great Story: "A Hunger Artist" by Franz Kafka”

  1. The other Olga

    This story certainly brings up memories. I read it for the first time during my first year in the US, in the only literature class I took in my undergraduate program. Looking back at the syllabus now, I think: what a great course! Kafka opens the list that also includes Woolf, Camus, Wright, Rushdie, Allende, Borges, Marquez, Lawrence, August Wilson, Selvon, Lovelace, Yeats, Joyce, Heany, Soyinka, Auden, O’Connor. The one novel we read was Michael Ondaatje’s “In the Skin of the Lion.”
    I can honestly say that, at the time, the class was completely lost on me. I was completely outside the discourse. With every new text I thought, this is not literature. Instead of realizing how limited the post-Soviet canon of texts was and becoming schooled in postcolonial attitude towards literature, the class served to reinforce my belief that there had been no literature in the 20th century after Pasternak and Thomas Mann. Kafka was the only text that fit into my pretty picture of the world and made sense. It’s the only text I remember reading, the rest of the names on the syllabus are a complete surprise.
    The revolution in my thinking occurred several years afterward. And who knows, maybe the class did help, in some very small way.
    Rereading The Hunger Artist now — James, thanks for posting — I am particularly fascinated by the way the narrative slips from the hetero to the homodiegetic voice, from the art to the artist. I can’t help thinking of Rilke’s Panther and Borges’s jaguar. And how my first reading of this story was inevitably as an analogy or a parable, but now I find this reading uninteresting. The narrative technique resists simplification; there’s no moral to be found here, no bits of wisdom about the nature of art, nothing on the psychology of the police society. The objectifying tendency is being subordinated to the subjectifying — everything is in transformation; no fixed point of view, no possibility for interpretation.

  2. Okay, sorry – I have to be “that girl” here: Remember the sex and the city episode where Carrie makes a date with the Russian (that’s what she calls him not me) to go see the hunger artist at midnight because, according to Carrie, she was probably out at McDonald’s eating a burger “like everyone else.” See? Proof positive that the writers for Sex and the City are literary folk inspired by the likes of Kafka.

  3. At your prompting, I found this Jane Nicholas piece at which references the Sex and the City episode in question, and has some other interesting links.

    I remember now that fasting is still something performance artists do, and I just read in an Amazon review of Sharman Apt Russell’s Hunger: An Unnatural History that the Guinness Book of Records abolished their category for the longest fast as recently as 1971.

  4. The other Olga

    fasting is interesting, because it’s a part of almost any religion, and also one of the more successful prisoner protest tactics. fasting freaks people out. why?

    at the opposite extreme, there’s La Grand Bouffe, a Marcello Mastroianni movie, where a group of friends commit suicide by feasting on gourmet food. (prostitutes are also involved).

  5. All artists are hunger artists, making use of discipline to achieve our visions.

    I remember, the first time I read “A Hunger Artist,” being completely taken aback by the panther, which seemed like an obvious premonition of the Third Reich. As it probably is — but it’s also any kind of celebrity. The public will always prefer whatever is powerful and vicacious.

    As to the hunger artist’s last words… I think they seemed profounder to me twenty years ago than they do now. Is he in denial? Just stubborn? Or is it canny of us to convince ourselves we don’t want the things we’re committed to not having?

  6. There is an essay in one of the Norton Anthologies, which of course means that it came from somewhere else, but I don't know where or who wrote it. It discusses the commonness of anorexia in modern America and concludes that the anorexics are not starving themselves out of starvation. They are showing society its corrupt values and saying, basically, "What I want you cannot give me and I would rather take in nothing than that which I don't want." Starvation to the point of death in order to improve society, which is basically what Kafka's Artist is doing, starving himself to supply art, which, as an artist, he believes improves society.

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