To hell with the true interconnectedness of all things, it doesn't concern you anymore; you let out a roar at it and let things take their course.That's from page 239 of the Penguin edition of Knut Hamsun's Mysteries (trans. Sverre Lyngstad). I am sorely tempted to call it a statement of the novel's theme.
I'm going to steal Pykk's idea and list other bloggers who've written about Mysteries:
Séamus at Vapour Trails
Jean at Howling Frog Books
Tom at Wuthering Expectations
Richard at Caravana de recuerdos
Pykk at Pykk
Those posts are all more worth reading than what immediately follows here, so off you go.
Mysteries (1892) is the tale of Johan Nagel, a stranger who steps off a boat into a small Norwegian town. The first paragraph of Mysteries declares Nagel to be "a singular character who shook the town by his eccentric behavior and then vanished as suddenly as he had come." This intriguing sentence is not exactly accurate; Nagel manages to bemuse and abuse a handful of the town's citizens, and then he throws himself into the bay to drown. Between his arrival and departure, Nagel gives away money, insults the important people of the town, lies and contradicts himself, confesses his lies, tells more lies, accuses strangers of crimes, drinks a very great deal and buys a great many drinks for others, lectures about literature and in general follows whatever whim catches him moment by moment.
Why? Nagel carries a vial of cyanide in his vest pocket, because he's certain that he'll end up resolving the existential problems by killing himself. The existential problems can be solved in no other way, there being, in Nagel's view, no guiding principles to life, no point to any of it and one act is just as good as another. Except, of course, that he doesn't really feel this way at all. He has come to this little town to do something, to carry out some grand meaningful act, though we never learn what that is, if indeed Nagel has anything specific in mind, which he probably doesn't.
Nagel seems like a madman. He acts like a madman, but he isn't a madman, unless you agree that any man who has become unpinned from all social fabrics is mad. Nagel is free to act however he likes, because all is vanities and when he looks around him, he is convinced that the world is mad. Not that he claims himself to be the Last Sane Man Standing or anything. No, it's all unclear because it's all unclear. Nagel is a sort of prophet of irrationality, and he attempts to celebrate irrationality but that fails to make him the least bit happy, once he sobers up. He attempts to find meaning in the doing of good works, in falling in love, in the glories of nature, but this happiness is transitory because it's both meaningless and desperate. There is no context within Nagel's metaphysics to allow happiness. His desperation increases as time goes on and his attempts to be Dionysian playboy, charitable saint, or judgmental literary critic all go awry and he's left with nothing but dissatisfaction, spiritual emptiness and that vial of cyanide.
Some of Nagel's doings resemble episodes from the Gospels, some of them seem to parody scenes from Cervantes, Shakespeare, or Dostoyevsky (though I might have that line of influence backwards; I'm a lazy scholar in that wise, I admit). At one point Nagel grabs a violin and plays an impromptu medley that affects everyone who hears it, but Nagel refuses to touch the instrument again. "It's all a fraud," he declares. Everything about Nagel is false, even when he's trying to be sincere, because there is nobody inside that yellow suit he wears; Nagel is a nullity trying to be a somebody while retaining his nullity. He's doomed to fail. There's a lot more to this book, but this is what I've chosen to write about.
I read Mysteries because Tom of Wuthering Expectations invited any and all to read it along with him. This post is my very-late-as-usual contribution to the readalong.