Wednesday, November 12, 2014

His eccentric behavior: Knut Hamsun's "Mysteries"

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.

16 comments:

  1. Isn't it odd how "readalongs" do not always work out as planned. I have occasionally "volunteered" to participate in the fun-and-games but then felt pressured and regretful -- it was almost as if I were once again an undergraduate cramming for a class deadline. But -- putting my own quirks aside -- I ask you this: do you regret reading the book? would you recommend it to others? are you chomping at the bit for more "readalongs"? and what is the key "ingredient" in your decision to participate in those peculiar events? Hey, I'm not trying to be provocative. I'm just curious.

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  2. I rarely regret reading books, but I admit that often agreeing to a readalong makes me feel hemmed in somewhat, because my reading is fairly haphazard in general, and I can't say what directs it, if anything does. But my decision to participate in these things is made the same way as my decision to read any book. I ask myself if it's something I want to read right now, and if the answer is yes, I read it.

    I recommend everyone read everything, in whatever order is handy for them.

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  3. I was once an omnivorous reader, but -- as someone pointed out recently -- I am now an intensive reader with a limited menu. I cannot account for the transformation. Perhaps it is old age. I know the lights will go out somewhat sooner than I had anticipated, and that is making me a bit more selective. But, even as I write that, I know that I need to rethink that mindset. It is too dark and self-limiting.

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  4. This readalong worked much better than planned. And the planning, the logistics, I mean, went something like this: I said I might read this novel; Caravana de Recuerdos said he'd like to read it, too; I said let's shoot for the end of October. That was easy enough.

    The result has been lots of good writing and insights. The violin scene, for example - I don't think anyone else has even mentioned it. I was sorely tempted. This genuine eruption of creativity and good will, and he throws it away. Where did it come from? Another mystery. Putting Nagel's behavior in terms of happiness works well.

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    1. I had no idea I'd write about Mysteries. I didn't have an angle, you know? I'm not really one to fondle the details when I talk about books.

      The "stranger comes to town and acts mysteriously" is a widely-used trope. I'm reading Hoffmann's Tomcat Murr and one half of the narrative begins with a character coming to town and immediately the question of his sanity is raised. Also, this character (Kreisler) is now living under an assumed name, much like Nagel. Influence or coincidence? No idea. And Murr is a very different book from Mysteries anyway.

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  5. My comment last night was erased by Blogger when I tried to preview it, Scott, but I'll try again.

    I really like your idea of Nagel as "a sort of prophet of irrationality," and one of the things that makes that mantle fit him so well within the context of Mysteries is that it does fail to make him "the least bit happy" as you add later on. From the character's or the reader's POV, where is one to go from there? Where can one go from there? Hamsun doesn't help matters much by providing any/many viable alternatives either.

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    1. Nagel seems to feel that the only place to go is annihilation, as life is impossible in his particular circumstance. I'm not sure what Hamsun is saying with that, though. Is Hamsun saying that we have to declare some sort of arbitrary meaning--no matter what it is--in order to make sense of things and get on with life? No idea. Maybe Hamsun had the same problem Nagel had. Pykk suggests, maybe, that Hamsun's concerns moved from the artifice of urban life to a focus on nature.

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    2. I'm not sure that Hamsun is trying to offer up any kind of particular solution or advice in Mysteries any more than Melville wanted the reader to cure or solve Bartleby. If there's any message about life that runs through the Hamsuns I've read then it's something like this: our conscious awareness of our presence in human society makes us anxious.

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    3. Had Hamsun pointed to any specific remedy to that anxiety, we'd all just laugh at him the way he laughs at Tolstoy.

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    4. He tries out two of them. One, go to the woods and live with a mouse or a dog. Two, be a person with a purpose and fulfil that purpose without deviating. The trouble with the first one is that you can't stay undisturbed in the woods forever (Pan and the Wanderer books), and the problem with two, is that it's only possible in the countryside, where you can live steadily without city distractions (Growth of the Soil).

      The third way, in Mothwise, is to live in a small village and make sure that the book you're in has a happy ending.

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    5. Relative to what he would write later, Hunger is relaxed and calm, a book of common sense, with a jolly ending.

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    6. Jollier than Mysteries and a lot jollier than the end of Look Back on Happiness / The Last Joy, and its chapter of martyrous rant against "the modern spirit of Norway." So this what happens when he decides to stop being coy about the souces of his nameless agitation; he lets you know that it's all the fault of a nation that tolerates effeminate men, educated women, and foreigners who do things to goats in sheds. Right, then.

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    7. About halfway through Mysteries, I was promising myself I'd never read another Hamsun novel. The second half of the book convinced me otherwise, and Pykk's comments about other Hamsun novels are giving me a strong push to read something else sooner rather than later. And people say blogs are nothing but shallow narcissism, and book blogs offer nothing but superficial reviews.

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    8. People say "Never read the comments"! Those folks been reading the wrong internet.

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  6. I think your description of Nagel, that 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." is a very convincing rendition of the novel's core. Like Richard I think the "prophet of irrationality" tag is on the nail. Thanks for joining in and adding so much to the readalong. Although I can find a readalong putting pressure on my chaotic (might I say Nagelian?) reading and posting, I am almost always glad I took part because the varieties of opinions and insights adds up to a far more interesting view on the book than my own.

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    1. Henrik Pontoppidan's novel Lucky Per, I realized last night, is a direct descendant of Mysteries. Nagel really is one of the first modern existential antiheroes.

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