Knut Hamsun, Mysteries, 1892. I will be writing about this novel, which I have not yet read, in conjunction with Caravana de recuerdos, at the end of October. Please, join us, anyone. The novel is supposed to be good.
I have read Hunger (1890) and Pan (1894). I recently reread Hunger and hope to get through Pan again before long. The disadvantage of picking Mysteries as the joint book is that it at around 340 pages by far the longest, which is still not very long. But Hamsun is intense, exhilarating but also exhausting. Hunger is just over 200 pages, Pan just under. Even a short book can feel like too much, especially when it is as concentrated as Hunger.
All of this happened while I was walking around starving in Christiana – that strange city no one escapes from until it has left its mark on him… (first sentence, ellipses Hamsun’s)
And this is what the narrator does. He is a freelance writer who has trouble writing, and thus has trouble eating. Perhaps the causality should be reversed. Shall we watch him write?
I had taken my pencil and paper out again and was sitting mechanically writing 1848 in all the corners. If only one good thought would rush in, then words would come! That had happened before, I had had times when I could write out a long piece with no effort at all, and it would turn out to be first-rate besides.
I wrote 1848 twenty times, wrote it crossways and intersecting and every possible way, waiting for a usable idea to come. (I, 32)
This is not the way to make a living writing for newspapers, especially given the narrator’s ambitions:
My courage had now returned; it was not enough any longer to write an essay on something so elementary and simple-minded as “Crimes of the Future,” which any ass could arrive at, let alone read in history books. I felt ready for a more difficult enterprise, I was in the mood to conquer obstacles and I determined on a consideration in three parts of Philosophical Consciousness. (I, 12)
This will involve a thorough refutation of Kant, or at least a reworking of “the problem of Space and Time” (13). Norwegian newspapers must have been loads of fun circa 1880.
In each of the novel’s four parts, he has reached a material crisis – no food, no money, just some hope for money that will allow him to stagger forward. The money obviously does appear at least three times, or else the novel would come to an abrupt end. Come to think of it, unless the narrator is a ghost, that first sentence suggests that he keeps body and soul together, however tenuously.
This tension between the demands of the material world and this intellectual’s radical desire to be free of it. He wants to exist in a state of perfect integrity, but his attempts to do so inevitably lead to violations of integrity, the most basic of which is the pain of hunger. Few things so inescapably pull us back into the physical world as hunger. I suppose I should be thankful that the workings of the excretory system were still taboo. I am sure a later novelist has written that book, Hunger re-written for the bowels.
The translation is Robert Bly’s. I have done nothing yet to make the novel sound as good or interesting as it really is.