The key place where Hamsun updates Dostoevsky is in Chapter 7, where the oddball outsider Nagel is at a party arguing about Gladstone. The British Prime Minister, that Gladstone. I am not entirely sure why this is the context. Hamsun loathed England and everything about it, and though this would get him in big trouble forty years later, I do not understand it here. But it is Dostoevsky I am after, Hamsun’s improvement on Dostoevsky:
“He is a tenacious fighter for good causes, daily assumes personal responsibility for justice, truth, and God. How could he possibly fail? Two and two is four, truth has conquered, glory be to God! Now Gladstone can go beyond two and two. I have heard him claim, in a budget debate, that seventeen times twenty-three is three hundred ninety-one, and he came off with a smashing, enormous victory… I stood there checking his arithmetic – three hundred ninety-one – and it was correct, yet I turned it over and over in my mind, saying to myself: Wait a minute. Seventeen times twenty-three is three hundred ninety-seven! I knew very well that it was ninety-one, but against all logic I decided on ninety-seven, just to oppose this man, this man who made it his business to be in the right.” (Ch. 7, ellipses mine)
As Dostoevsky’s Underground Man said, “I agree that two times two makes four is a splendid thing, but if we’re going to lavish praise, then two times two makes five is sometimes also a very charming little thing.” And given that, imagine the insouciant piquancy of 17 x 23 = 397.
Dostoevsky was at this point arguing directly with Nikolay Chernyshevsky, making Mysteries a direct descendant of Chernyshevsky, which is amusing.
Nagel has “a burning need to preserve my conviction of what is right” even when he is “unquestionably” wrong. How can Hamsun’s characters be of such interest if they are merely insane? They are fictionally embodied protests against the Enlightenment. The idea that is so shocking and destructive is that the wrong answer, wrong decision, even wrong moral act is in some psychological way necessary. Hamsun is after Dostoevsky one of the great early depicters of the kind of irrationalism that is going to preoccupy so many later writers.
The distance created by the third person allows Mysteries to offer a counter-argument, an implicit defense of rationalism tempered by compassion and community. Nagel is saved from self-destruction at one point, for example, by what I take to be the kind action of the weakest citizen of the town. My guess is that, given the ambiguities of the novel, Hamsun is recognizing the power and importance of the irrational without endorsing it. But who knows.
Nagel himself has an oddly quantitative bent. Another favorite bit from Mysteries:
“Have I told you about my cowbells? Well, I see you don’t know anything about me. I’m an agronomist, of course, but I have other interests as well. Thus far I’ve collected two hundred and sixty-seven cowbells. I began ten years ago and now, I’m happy to say, I have a very fine collection.” (Ch. 15)
Although, to pick a single line, this earlier mention of the cowbells, used as a kind of pickup line – he later proposes to the woman he is addressing – can’t be beat:
“But to get back to the point – when I get on the subject of my cowbells, I get carried away.” (Ch. 9)
We can all get behind that kind of irrationalism. What else am I doing here?