Review: Mysteries by Knut Hamsun

Mysteries Book Review Mysteries [1892] – ★★★★

Is there any way of knowing? There are so many strange things between heaven and earth, beautiful, inexplicable things, presentiments that can’t be explained, terrors that make your blood freeze” [Knut Hamsun/Gerry Bothmer [1892/1971: 161].

I previously enjoyed Knut Hamsun’s book Hunger [1890], which I reviewed in May, and, following the recommendation from CakeorDeathSite, I am now reviewing Mysteries by this Nobel Prize winner. Translated from the Norwegian by Gerry Bothmer, Mysteries begins with the following lines: “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” [Knut Hamsun/Gerry Bothmer [1892/1971: 3]. Nagel is a total stranger to the little town, but he soon makes an unforgettable impression on its inhabitants, and people are taken aback by his unusual opinions and contradictory nature. But, who is he really? And, what is his agenda in this ordinary little town in Norway? We are taken on a journey into the mind of this eccentric character as he meets a typical-to-every-small-town parade of characters: a local beauty, a town’s misfit/clown and a proud deputy, among others. A journey is probably the word for our experience of this main character because Hamsun was really the author ahead of his time in terms of creating characters that disrupt societal status quo, making this story particularly intriguing, even if uneasy to consider. Nagel is a man of extraordinary visions and eccentric ideas, but what is the real truth here, and what should we really expect? Hamsun is clear that there are no easy answers when it comes to the spontaneity of the human nature or the restlessness of the human spirit.

At the start of the novel, Nagel, a stranger, arrives to a small provincial town in Norway, and first impressions of him are hazy: “he’s an agronomist, and he’s just returned from abroad. He says he’ll be here for several months. Hard to figure him out”, says one character [Hamsun/Bothmer [1892/1971: 12]. Nagel is dressed in yellow and has a habit of talking to himself. He also immediately makes friends with one of “the lowest members” of this community, with a person everyone calls “The Midget” and who is the butt of all jokes in town. The Midget is not the only person that interests Nagel since Nagel also catches a glimpse of the beauty of the town – soon-to-be married Dagny. Nagel also arrives at a peculiar time for this town since, only recently, one youth has allegedly committed suicide in the woods of the town, and, also allegedly, because of Dagny Kielland. As Nagel tries to acquaint himself with this new community, he also becomes the centre of attention there, and local dynamics and relations may as well change because of him.  

The greatest mystery in the novel is the true personality of Nagel, as well as his true intentions. As readers, we do not know where to stand with this character, and this sense of apprehension and unease drives the story forwards. As in Hunger, the main character here seems full of contradictions (“I’m a living contradiction”, says Nagel [1892/1971: 165]), and his thoughts and actions are sometimes very erratic: his secrecy gives way to brutal honesty, and what we can certainly predict with accuracy is Nagel’s unpredictability. Is he a saint or a sinner? A madman or the sanest person in town? When we read the following statements from Nagel we are puzzled – is it a voice of a madman or actually of a person freely dispensing wisdom to people who are yet incapable of understanding him: “When I’m talking to someone, I don’t have to look at him to follow his thinking. I can sense immediately whether…he is lying…The voice is a dangerous instrument. I don’t mean the timbre of the voice…I’m not talking about the sound but about the inner world from which it springs – the underlying mysteries” [Hamsun/Bothmer [1892/1971: 145]; and “what really matters is not what you believe but the faith and conviction with which you believe…” [Hamsun/Bothmer [1892/1971: 195].

The theme of romantic love further complicates matters in the story since, because Nagel has fallen in love, he appears even more irrational to us – romantic love itself may be equated with madness (“Amantes – amentes” (lovers are crazy persons) or so the famous Latin phrase goes). However, the feelings of love experienced by a person in love are considered by that person as being completely justified and, thus, “rational”. At various times, Nagel appears arrogant and self-deprecating, selfish and selfless, angry and kind, experiencing high highs and low lows (probably suffering from a bipolar disorder). His changing mood starts to reflect the changing weather in town, with rain giving way to blue skies. The dense woods around the town also stand for hidden things and elements still to uncover.

Nagel also embodies that type of a main character that will later come from the pens of Franz Kafka, Albert Camus and Ken Kesey, that type of a character whose brutal honesty shocks and who, with his different way of looking at the world, is there to break societal conventions. The question that Hamsun poses in Mysteries, however, is whether this unconventional behaviour will result in the societal liberation and enlightenment, or lead to a societal downfall. Naturally, existentialist and absurdist themes are also present in Mysteries. Nagel is uncomfortable with the society as he sees it, as well as recognises his own insignificance in relation to the world, which makes him particularly lonely: “what a tiny speck the earth was, and how insignificant its inhabitants – Norway had two million bumpkins supported by mortgages and bank loans. What was the point of living, anyway? You fight your way ahead with blood and sweat for a few miserable years, only to turn into dust” [Hamsun/Bothmer [1892/1971: 64]. Like in Hunger, the focus in Mysteries is also on the absurdities of life. Preposterous situations emerge when the character employs roundabout schemes to get to the heart of the matter or win the confidence of people, for example, when he tries to buy a used old chair for an enormous price from a person who would give it to him for free.

Knut Hamsun’s Mysteries, as its main character, makes us uneasy and comfortable, detached and intrigued, dumbfounded and enlightened. The book may not be as cohesive as Hamsun’s Hunger, but it clearly shows us how much we do not know about others, and the extent to which we rely on conventions and assumptions in our everyday judgements of situations and people. The book revolves around one outrageous personality we find difficult to understand, but, possibly, when we do begin to do so, it is already too late in the plot for any second thoughts, and it is here Hamsun makes his final point.

9 thoughts on “Review: Mysteries by Knut Hamsun

  1. I recently read Hunger , I found it powerful in that it compressed into a few months ten years of a genuine and desperate life of physical labor and starvation driving Hamsun inward. Thank you for the wonderful review of His novel Mysteries, I am looking forward to reading it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I hope you enjoy Hamsun (I will be very interested to know your opinion on his books, too). I love existential literature in general so it is a joy for me to review books such as these. After “Hunger” and “Mysteries”, I am now interested to read his book “Pan”. It has more to do with romantic love, so I am curious how the writer tackles this.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I discovered that Sult is available via Project Gutenberg in what looks like the original version. So I have downloaded it to my Kindle. It might be a while before I find the time to read it, normally I am better with audiobooks.

        Good to know you love existential literature as well, I will look out for any recommendations you might give on your blog!

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I now realise I have not reviewed much from the existential literature genre (though I did complete reviews on both Kobo Abe and Alejo Carpentier). I guess the best existential literature remains relatively “old” modern classics and sometimes I do prioritise newest releases on my blog. I should change that 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s