Saturday, November 1, 2014

There are even places where people believe they can attain salvation through cowbells! - mysteries in Mysteries

No, I don’t know what that means.  It’s in Chapter 13 of Knut Hamsun’s Mysteries.

At Vapour Trails, Séamus has written about the mysteries of Mysteries.  The religious mysteries, mostly Christian, perhaps something else.  The next novel, Pan, is the pagan one.  I was surprised, this time though, how much religious language there was in Hunger, and there is far more in Mysteries.  The deliberate link of the two main women in the novel, Dagny and Martha, with Mary (Magdalena) and Martha  –  Séamus has completely convinced me about that.  And about how the Midget works as an alternative Christ figure to the crazy protagonist Nagel.

Séamus puts the novel in the tradition of the crisis of faith that was engaging so many writers at the end of the 19th century and would scoop up countless more.  Religious belief, shaken by all of the social and scientific changes of the time, wither had to be rebuilt (Dostoevsky’s solution) or replaced with a less satisfying alternative – science or philosophy or art.  Less satisfying for many people, at least, including Knut Hamsun who pushed his characters to extremes of behavior and irrationality to challenge, however futilely, the rational forces that were destroying something essential around them.

Hamsun was hardly alone here.  Another of my favorite lines:

“You mentioned Ibsen,” Nagel continued, in the same state of agitation, though no one had mentioned the name. (Ch. 13)

This is the one place where I truly identified with Nagel.

My experience has been that people who search for meaning usually find it somewhere.  Pykk has read far more Hamsun books than I have, so he is able to move the story along into his later writing.  Where others see religion, Pykk writes, “I, thinking about Hamsun some more, I see houses,” as Hamsun eventually replaces his homeless, restless wanderers, present in all three of these early novels but also in Hamsun’s books of the next twenty years, with a belief in place and soil that will cause trouble for him when the Nazis pick up the idea along many other much worse ideas that an elderly Hamsun could not see, flattered and blinded as he was by the German interest in this one particular idea of his.

Mysteries was the only one of these three novels in which I could glimpse Hamsun’s future political problems.  The third person narrator and the stronger role of characters living a community, contrasted to this wild outsider, made the proto-fascist aspect of Nagel’s irrationalism easier to see, especially in the Nietzsche an twaddle about “great men” in his last long stream of consciousness rant in Chapter 17.  not that the novel itself is fascist – if anything, the opposite – but I can see how a writer on this path could, with some historical bad luck, make a terrible wrong turn.  And similarly, I can see how László Krasznahorkai could make such fruitful use of Mysteries in his 1989 novel The Melancholy of Resistance, which is explicitly about the fascist impulse in our attraction to the irrational.

The Vapour Trails and Pykk posts are both typically insightful – thanks!  Séamus gives a nod to Nagel’s story-telling, which would make for a good post of its own.  Just for example, the long story in Chapter 10 where the narrator pees his pants because he doesn’t want his date to know he needs to visit a bathroom, or the genuinely frightening ghost story in Chapter 11.  Someone else should write that one.


  1. Yes, the story telling deserves some close attention, but I was worn out when I got to it and thought if I started to chase it down I would never finish what was already becoming a chaotic post of Nagel like proportions. I wonder is there an alternative Scheherazade who is killed by the mob in order to shut her up?

  2. When I read Mysteries I didn't want it to end. I was lucky: the preface to a certain edition of Dreamers informed me that that novella was a sequel of sorts to Mysteries. So if you want to stay inside that world for a little while longer there's your chance.

  3. It's clear enough to me (from Pykk, or from obooki, for example) that whatever trouble might be a-brewin', continuing on with Hamsun would be rewarding.

    Séamus, maybe Ricardo will write that post. To those who have not read Mysteries, the Arabian Nights reference is in the text, not something we're pulling out of nowhere.

    I forgot to mention - your digression on Gladstone and Parnell was great - very helpful.

  4. The later books wander around more than the early ones -- he gets into the habit of moving between multiple characters or multiple locations, which means that you lose that single-character mono-focus -- but he's still recalcitrant and stubborn. It was good to be prompted back into him.

    There's a defence of his pro-Nazi articles in the autobiography he published after the war. "We were led to believe that Norway would have a high-prominent position in the great Germanic global community which was now coming into being and which we all believed in -- more or less, but everybody believed in it. I believed in it, that's why I wrote as I did." Nobody disabused him, he says, so he kept going until "in the eyes and hearts of everyone I was betraying the Norway that I wanted to raise up [...] I didn't feel that way, nor do I feel that way today" (tr. Sverre Lyngstad). One hundred years in the future we'll all be thinking about something else anyway, he says: he'll take a long view.

  5. Hamsun seems to fill his books with great, hilarious, outlandish lines. I always had him for a bore, and that's why I didn't pick him up earlier.

  6. I didn't get my copy in time to join in, but I'll be reading it later.

  7. That defense is so sad. Hamsun got so much wrong.

    Miguel, he can be a bore. But that scene'll end soon enough, and something crazy will replace it.

    Guy - if anything keeps for later, it's books!

  8. You say "cowbells," and I can think only of Mississippi State football. I guess my mind is not on literature today. Go Bulldogs! (Forgive the intrusion . . . but, hey, you mentioned "cowbells"! You opened the door.)

  9. I have no idea why Hamsun mentioned cowbells so often. Miss State football is probably not the reason, but who knows, why not?