Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Tonight I made a fool of myself and shocked everyone by my eccentric behavior - Hamsun steals from Dostoevsky

Everyone who reads Hunger compares it to Dostoevsky.  I did it, too.  The voice of the narrator makes him feel like a cousin of a Dostoevsky character, of Raskolnikov or the Underground Man.  The religious and philosophical base is quite different, with Friedrich Nietzsche replacing the Orthodox church.  Boy does that sound glib.  It’s not so far off, though.

Mysteries does not feel so much like Dostoevsky.  Rather it openly rips off Dostoevsky, repeatedly.  Two examples today and one tomorrow.  I’ll bet there are more I missed.

Chapter 8 is the only one with a title: “White Nights.”  That is also the title of a Dostoevskynovella from 1849.  In Hamsun’s novel, weirdo Nagel wanders around in the woods with beautiful Dagny.  He tells her strange stories and falls in love with her.  She is not entirely unresponsive, but they will have to just be friends.  In the Dostoevsky story, replace “the woods” with “St. Petersburg.”  Both stories, the chapter and the novella, successfully represent an ecstatic state caused by some combination of the possibility of romantic love and the strange northern summer night.

I will interrupt myself to note that this chapter begins with the best paragraph in the entire novel:

It was a beautiful night.  The few people who were still on the streets looked gay and animated.  In the cemetery a man was pushing a wheelbarrow and singing to himself, despite the hour.  Everything was so still that his voice was the only sound to be heard.  The town lay sprawled below the doctor’s house like a strange, monstrous insect, flat on its belly with its tentacles stretched out in all directions.  Here and there it would extend a leg or draw in a feeler, as now down on the fjord, where a small steamer glided along seemingly without a sound, leaving a black furrow behind it.

The insect is part of the best single sentence.  Kinda changes the mood a little.  The word “strange” has appeared several times in this post already.

Just as blatant is Hamsun’s parody of The Idiot.  Nagel is a parody of the Christ-like Prince Myshkin, who desires to do good put somehow destroys whatever he gets near.  A major difference is that Nagel is also a devil figure.  He constantly flips from charity to chaos, friend to bully, without warning.  He is manipulative where Myshkin is guileless – but at times he seems to want to be guileless.

The place to see Nagel as Myshkin most clearly is in Chapter 6, when he crashes a party and tells a bizarre and outrageous story of a dream that climaxes with a brutal beating.  Prince Myshkin’s story ends with an execution, so Hamsun has toned it down a bit.  Oddly, in both cases the inappropriate stories end up impressing a woman who would have been better off ignoring at all.

“Tonight I made a fool of myself and shocked everyone by my eccentric behavior in order to get you into a kinder frame of mind so that you would listen to me when I tried to explain.  I succeeded, you listened to me and you understood.”  (Ch. 6)

Mysteries can also be described as a story about a stalker.  Someone who knew more about the subject could write a good piece about that.

If only I were done with Dostoevsky, but I will save the last example for tomorrow.


  1. Another of those I've-been-meaning-to-get-to-them-for-ever writers (Hamsun, not Dostoyevsky, although I should revisit his work too).

  2. Brilliant comparison! It makes me want to reread Mysteries. I, too, have often compared Hunger to Dostoevsky, but this is even better.

  3. On the nail. My own 'feeling' that the book was very like unto Dostoevsky was just a feeling. Nice to see it backed up by concrete details.

  4. I'll just throw this away here, since Tony was just reviewing Krasznahorkai - anyone working on K.'s Melancholy of Resistance needs to read Mysteries. Much has been looted and rearranged. Amazing.

    The Dostoevsky homage for today will be from Notes from the Underground. I will move into the real of the novel's ideas. Almost certainly a mistake on my part.

  5. Hamsun's Dostoevsky leanings, while kind of annoying to me on a personal level at times, and your post here have had the unpredictably combustible consequence of making me want to revisit Dostoevsky's Demons soon if possible. When I tried reading Demons two or three years ago, I had to stop about 50 pages from the end because it had just become too tiresome. Now I have to read 700 or 800 pages all over again. Thanks, Hamsun, Dostoevsky & now Amateur Reader, thanks a lot.

  6. I've never read Demons myself. Maybe next year. Dostoevsky is, uh, not Nabokov.