Friday, 31 October 2014


Mysteries - Knut Hamsun
Translated by Gerry Bothmer
"In the middle of the summer of 1891 the most extraordinary things began happening in a small Norwegian coastal town. A stranger by the name of Nagel appeared, a singular character who shook the town by his eccentric behaviour and then vanished as suddenly as he had come."

I was inspired to read Mysteries by the fact that both Richard at Caravana de Recuerdos and Tom at Wuthering Expectations would be reading it and it seemed like too good an opportunity to read it alongside two of my favourite bloggers. (Indeed Tom has already started splashing ideas about in this post; and there will possibly be more by the time I finish this post). I already wanted to read more Hamsun after reading Hunger and happened to have this one on my shelves. There are sure to be many angles on this book, which, as the title suggests, is hard to pin down.

As in Hunger, the main character in Mysteries is driven to extremes, but this time it is down to his inability to believe in anything, rather than hunger. Indeed he gives away large sums of money and is even pursued by a former acquaintance who professes love but appears to be seeking money. He swings between extremes: elation and depression; self-aggrandisement and self-abasement, pathological lying and pathological truth telling; love and hatred; deliberation and reflexivity; gregariousness and taciturnity; faith and cynicism, life-saving and attempting suicide....

I find the religious meaning of  the book's title "Mysteries" far more resonant than the Agatha Christie one. My Catholic upbringing has nailed the five joyful and five sorrowful mysteries deep into my psyche. The sorrowful seem more resonant here - The Agony in the Garden; The Scourging at the Pillar; The Crowning with Thorns; The Carrying of the Cross and The Crucifixion. There are other meanings assigned to Mysteries in religion: the sacraments, the miraculous; the knowledge given only to initiates, and these also resonate in this work. I find myself seeing it as a precursor to some of my favourite twentieth century novels: Miss Lonelyhearts; Wiseblood; The Master and Margarita...

From very early on we are led to question everything that Nagel does. How much of his actions are posturing? "He awoke from his thoughts with a violent start, so exaggerated that it didn't seem genuine; it was as if the gesture had been made for effect, even though he was alone in the room."  It is not certain that he wasn't planning to stay in the small Norwegian coastal town, and he says he was inspired to do so by the flags that were flying for Dagny Kielland's engagement. ("Why did you come here in the first place? Was it because of some universal catastrophe - Gladstone's cold, for instance? God help you if you told it the way it really was; that you were really on your way home but were intrigued by this town despite the fact that it looked so small and insignificant - that you almost wept with an inexplicable joy when you saw the flags flying.") He is perturbed on board the ship and, although he has his luggage taken off, he himself misses disembarkation and has to make his way back from the next port at which his ship stops. He has little with him, and what he has is odd. "Then he took some keys, small change, and what looked like a lifesaver's medal on a crumpled ribbon out of his pocket and put them on a table next to the bed. He stuck his wallet under the pillow, and from his vest pocket he pulled out a watch and a small vial labelled "poison"." He also has "two small trunks, a fur coat (although it was the middle of summer), a satchel, and  a violin case" that we later find contains no violin, "a suitcase, a coat and a small bag". He wears an iron ring to which he seems to ascribe magical powers. (Am I going to far in my speculations to see this as a stand in for one of the "holy nails" used in the crucifixion?) He also wears a "loud yellow suit" which seems designed to get him noticed.

At first he avoids giving any information, although he leaves a few telegrams in clear sight suggesting he is selling an estate for a large sum of money. However he finally tells the hotelkeeper that he is "an agronomist - a farmer" just before quizzing him about the recent death, apparently by suicide of a young man who was about to be ordained, and who was in love with Miss Kielland of the flags. You will get a sense of the depth of the black in Hamsun's humour when you read the contents of his suicide note. He performed the act with Miss Kielland's blunt penknife, and left her the message: "'Would that thy knife were as sharp as thy final no.'" Pretty blunt! And it also could be seen as a parody of The Agony in the Garden, as could some other scenes. Suicide is a major theme in the book. Nagel carries a lifesaver's medal which he got for saving a man who jumped off a ship and who didn't want to be saved. He also carries a vial of cyanide, although he says that he would not use it: "But why do I carry it around, and why did I get it in the first place? Hypocrisy again, nothing but a sham; the decadence, phoniness, self-adulation, and snobbery of our times!" He seems to try to gain Dagny's favour by leading her to fear that he might do away with himself.

After Nagel and Dagny the key character is probably The Midget (who apparently is Miniman in another translation). Suffering from an injury he limps and his body is twisted, but apparently his nickname predates the injury. He delivers coal for his uncle and is treated with derision by many of the townsfolk, particularly the magistrate's deputy. In many ways he is more of a messiah parody than Nagel, who seems to be strictly gnostic, being both deity and devil.  Nagel intervenes in a nasty episode of bullying (The Scourging in the Café?), and, having driven the deputy away, brings The Midget up to his room. Here, in what could be seen as a parody of the temptation in the desert, Nagel offers The Midget money to pretend to "assume the paternity of a child that wasn't yours". The Midget refuses, a refusal that Nagel goes on to praise. Earlier the deputy had been using The Midget's need of a new coat to prompt him to humiliate himself - "Suppose I told you that I have been thinking of getting a new coat for you! Lets have a look at the one you're wearing - it's completely worn out." Here, and elsewhere, The Midget's straitened circumstances were reminiscent of the narrator of Hunger.

Nagel also uses this talk as a chance to find out more about the town, particularly Dagny Kielland. Dagny is kind to The Midget, lending him books from her father's library and reading to him. It is worth noting that The Midget is descended from a priest who was also a signatory of the Norwegian constitution and an author and Miss Kielland's father is the local pastor. Alongside, Karlson, the dead seminarian, there is more than a hint that theology is central to the book. Mind you Nagel thinks that theology's day has passed:
 "But why shouldn't he have committed suicide? All theologians ought to do away with themselves.
"Why because they fulfil no further function in our century. People have begun to think for themselves and their religious convictions are gradually wasting away."

There is a point during a conversation between Nagel and The Midget where Nagel talks about the way that somebody can affect the whole mood of a party without appearing to contribute at all. Significantly he uses the example of the thirteenth person added to a party of twelve, in what seems like a reference to the Last Supper.

Nagel is  not afraid of insulting people's religion, politics nor of  doing the same to the 'great writers', politicians etc. He reminds me of Thomas Bernhard, although I have yet to read Bernhard and am relying on second hand knowledge. Here are some samples -
"Ola Nordistuen has been put on this earth to fertilise the soil.."
"What a tiny speck the earth was, and how insignificant its inhabitants - Norway had two million bumpkins supported by mortgages and bank loans"..."nothing but lice, peasant cheese, and Luther's catechism. And the people were middle-sized burghers living in three-story houses, eating and drinking to survive, filling their leisure with alcohol and politics, earning their living from laundry soap, metal combs, and fish."
"Oh yes. The Grand was the gathering place for everyone of any importance. There sat the world's greatest painters, the world's most promising young men, the world's most well-dressed ladies, the world's most able editors, and the world's greatest writers. There they sat putting on airs for each other's benefit-each one basking in the other's recognition. "I've seen nobodies sitting there elated because other nobodies acknowledged them.""
"Do you know what constitutes a great poet? He is a person without shame, incapable of blushing."
"Ibsen's poetry is hack work. Ibsen's poetry depends on finding the perfect rhyme; most of his plays are wood pulp in drama form."
"Maupassant, with his incredibly crude and soulless jigsaw verse."

One facet of the book that caught me by surprise was the mentions of Gladstone, and more particularly his part in Irish politics. Nagel sneers at the papers reporting that Gladstone had a cold. "I can just picture Gladstone cautiously walking down that road, how he avoids taking a false step, how Providence and he join forces in protecting him. Now he has gotten over his cold and will live until he dies a natural death from too much comfort." "Since he is convinced that justice is on his side, he uses it ruthlessly, expounds on it, brandishes it like a banner in front of his audience to embarrass his opponents." In one of the few mentions of Nagel's previous life a student interrupts his talk with a reference to a previous argument he herd Nagel make. "You attacked Gladstone because of the Irish and Parnell, and you said, among other things, that he was no great intellect" "no more than Beaconsfield's terrible little finger." Gladstone played a part in the destruction of the Irish nationalist MP Charles Stewart Parnell by the moral police for his relationship with a married woman. When I was a young child my father worked in Parnell's house, Avondale, so this feels slightly personal. It's an interesting insight into how Ireland was perceived in Europe at the time. But more to the point it is an example of how the 'people' can destroy someone. Nagel at times seems very sensitised to the impression he makes in 'society' but more often he seems to wish to call down calumny and outrage on himself. He seems to stand for the irrational in the face of the rational, for the need to recognise that our motives can be selfish and self-destructive.

He insists that there are subterranean currents in our psyches and our relationships that cannot be rationalised away -  "The voice is a dangerous instrument. I don't mean the timbre of the voice, Which may be high or low, melodius or grating. I'm not talking about the sound but about the inner world from which it springs - the underlying mysteries."

He sees that the mob as a dangerous tool in politics or morals, a danger to itself and its leaders. "What do I accomplish by stirring up the mob if I must still be crucified? You can collect large crowds and incite them to grasp at power with their nails. You can put a butchers knife in their hands and incite them to stab and slash and you can whip them into winning an election. But to achieve a true victory, a moral victory, progress for their fellow man, is something the mob can't manage." How can progress be managed? Is there a suggestion that Nagel is a force for progress, introducing new ideas and making people question things. Perhaps he does act upon some people, perhaps Dagny, who has been described as a Magdalene figure. Magdalene was seen as Jesus' greatest disciple in many of the Gnostic bibles and perhaps it is so here. She seems to see Nagel as having been the bearer of some knowledge, his possession of which is inexplicable to her. She does not give in to temptation, although she is unafraid of propriety and is prepared to walk with him at night etc. She also forgives many of his indiscretions. She is also attracted to him initially because of a dream he relates about fishing from a silken boat with a silver hook. Fishers of men?

Another important figure in the book is Martha Gude, a poor spinster who sells her eggs in the market and lives in little more than a hovel. Although only in her early forties her hair has turned white. Nagel tries to help her by buying a two legged chair for a large sum, but Martha refuses, thinking it charity. She is a childhood friend of The Midget and calls him Johannes, recognising his dignity. She is also a friend of Dagny. Thinking he has no chance of winning Dagny, Nagel tries to win Martha's hand, while also trying to discover, or stir up, something between Martha and The Midget. He also may be just using her as another way of attracting Dagny's attention.

Indeed it is also interesting to think of his relationship with Dagny and The Arabian Nights, which he mentions to Dagny at one point. Many of his stories, dreams and behaviours seem designed to get attention, to keep people interested in what he might do next. So you can set Scheherazade as another model for Nagel.

The book is a fascinating work, which is sure to reward re-reading. I prefer it to Hunger. It has so many facets as well as all it's arcane references, many of which I have undoubtedly missed. It paints a vivid picture of small town society, from the doctor to the hotel manager, the schoolmaster to the coal delivery man. The parties that Nagel attends show up the propriety which society wields against those who it wishes to destroy or exclude, but also the fascination with the strange and exotic. I am sure this post will confuse those who have read the book, let alone those who have not, but I hope it will prove intriguing enough to attract some more readers to this strange masterpiece.

Explore the Readalong at the following links

Wuthering Expectations:
I’ve never heard of anything so insane! - let's get the Knut Hamsun Mysteries readalong moving
Tonight I made a fool of myself and shocked everyone by my eccentric behavior - Hamsun steals from Dostoevsky
There are even places where people believe they can attain salvation through cowbells! - mysteries in Mysteries

Caravan de Recuerdos:

not a continuous wave but a storm of interruptions

Howling Frog Books:


  1. I loved both books when I read them back in my youth. I recall sitting rapt over Hunger in particular. It's quite troubling that such a great writer was a racist and Nazi sympathiser.

    1. although I suppose one of the things that makes him a great writer is his exploration of the irrational, and his apparently intimate knowledge of it. He wasn't alone either. Ezra Pound, W.B. Yeats, Francis Stuart... the list goes on

    2. Great insight, Seamus. Fascinating about Parnell; I was amazed to discover he was only 45 when he died.

  2. Your review makes this sound very intriguing, Seamus, as it's full of interesting connections. I can see the black humour in some of the passages you've quoted...

    1. Thanks Jacqui, that's what I was aiming to do. It is intriguing, and blackly comic.

  3. I liked the Midget vs the Miniman translation. Even though I understand that both terms are supposed to mean the same thing, the latter makes me think of Mini-me from Austin Powers--a slightly disturbing connection.

  4. Great post, Séamus--I'm really glad we were able to do another group read together before the end of he year! From what you say here, I particularly enjoyed your emphasis on the religious elements in Mysteries and the connections between the agony in the garden and the temptation in the desert, etc. I didn't think of those specific parallels at the time, but of course now they seem so obvious since you've spelled them out for me! I also enjoyed your comment about Nagel's insistence on the idea "that there are subterranean currents in our psyches and our relationships that cannot be rationalised away." For me, this is one of the central frameworks holding the novel together as a more or less coherent work but also one of the reasons it's so often difficult to understand with any certainty. Must get to Hunger next one of these days.

    1. "A coherent incoherence" - could have been the subtitle.

  5. The idea that he's behaving like this "to get attention" is not one that I see explored very often but now that it's there in black and white I think: why not? It's so superbly reductive.

    1. The simplest theories are the best, they say!

    2. There's a character in Hamsun's Mothwise who uses that bewilder-your-audience tactic to go after several women at once, and he has a moment when he gloats -- I don't remember exactly how the translation goes but it's something like this: ha ha, that got her attention! So the character's comprehension of his aim is really that specific. These are child-people (I say to myself, reading Mothwise and recalling Mysteries); this is on a par with boys pulling the girls' hair in class and running away. They've carried that behaviour into an adult setting where you use conversations instead of hair-pulling.

      But it's the compulsiveness of this particular brand of action in them that they can't address; it's the rejection of skill -- like Nagel's violin playing, or this Mothwise character's talent on the guitar -- in favour of the trickster. They're not merely compelled to get attention, they're compelled to get attention like this, or in the way that is the simplest and safest, as it's easier to annoy someone than to make them respect you.

      It's fidelity to childhood, is what it is, it's fidelity to that time when you're clumsy at everything and your idea of communication is "Mum? Mum? Mum?" ad infinitum, or until some parent strangles you.

      (In this reading (which is not much of a response to you, I know) Nagel has to die because the alternative is to grow up.)

    3. I can see this reading. It's also as if Nagel refuses to see rationality as a reasonable or adequate response to the world. From that viewpoint the world of adults is compromised and dishonest, skill just the ossification of the need to communicate truth into the need to gain respect. Nagel refuses to look for respect in any co-ordinated way. In fact, he seems to spurn it. But all the time you feel like he is just a sophomore, loving argument for the argument rather than any pursuit of truth. But of course he refutes the idea that there is any 'truth'. There are just mysteries.

  6. I also saw right off that Nagel is drawing attention to himself, performing for the townsfolk. He's quite different when he's alone. I'm only 1/4 into the novel now, but I'm forming a hypothesis that Nagel is Satan, both the Satan of Paradise Lost (cast out of Heaven and wanting to go back) and the Satan of Job, the tempter, the "most clever of God's servants." His contempt of human activity is based on a hatred of hypocrisy. Maybe. So I don't know.

    Nobody has remarked so far that the passage where Nagel lies on his back looking at the sky is remarkably beautiful, gorgeously written, a rapturous moment of stillness.

    1. I agree that Nagel shares some attributes with Satan, particularly as the tempter. However, I'm not sure that there is a clean correlation, and for me Hamsun gives Nagel aspects of both Christ and Satan.
      The scene where Nagel lies on his back seems to capture the extremely manic nature of Nagel, moving from black cynicism and suicidal thoughts to euphoria in a heartbeat.

    2. The deeper I get into the book, the less correlation I see, yeah. I am not convinced that Hamsun has written a well-knit whole, either. I feel like he's trying to do several conflicting things at once, and that this book might not add up to something coherent. Which is fine. I just read the scene in Nagel's room where he gets drunk and harangues Miniman, talking about the "mysteries" behind every human act, and (maybe) saying that all human action is essentially unexplainable by rational means. Maybe that's what this book is: Nagel is the prophet of the irrational god, so he encompasses Christ and Satan and all points in between, all those points being equal.