Alexis Wingate — The Mystery of Mysteries
To dissect Knut Hamsun’s Mysteries as one would an ordinary novel is impossible. This is a book in which nothing is quite as it seems to be, and the more closely the reader examines it or tries to make sense of it, the more inexplicable it becomes. At the core of the story is Johan Nagel, easily one of the most enigmatic characters in literary history. His arrival in a small Norwegian town in 1891, with no visible aim or purpose, is the first piece in a puzzle that doesn’t ever quite fit together. Moreover, we are left wondering, at the end, if it was actually meant to.
Hamsun’s initial description of Nagel paints a portrait of a rather ordinary individual:
“He was below average in height; his face was dark-complexioned, with deep brown eyes which had a strange expression, and a soft, rather feminine mouth. On one finger he wore a plain ring of lead or iron. His shoulders were very broad; he was between twenty-eight and thirty, but definitely not older, although his hair was beginning to turn gray at the temples.”
Nagel’s belongings consisted of two small trunks, a suitcase, a satchel, two coats–one of which was fur, a violin case, and a small bag with his initials in pearls. Although the residents in the town did not welcome him in a particularly cordial manner, he is impervious to their general lack of enthusiasm. He evades personal questions although he does inform the hotel keeper at the Central Hotel that he’s an agronomist returning from travels abroad and that he plans to stay for at least the next two or three months. Nevertheless, he leaves both the townspeople and us readers with many questions about where he has come from, what has happened in his past, and why he has come to this particular coastal town. Though his evasiveness is frustrating, it is also engaging. That which perplexes us can also be seductive, and Nagel leaves us with more questions than answers from the very beginning.
Yet in spite of a sinuous web of mysteries that surrounds Nagel, Hamsun manages to effectively
draw our attention to other supporting characters who inhabit the town as well. Among these characters is the minister’s daughter, the beguiling, yet naive, Dagny Kielland, whose engagement to a naval officer, Lieutenant Hansen, is being announced with decorative flags throughout the town when Nagel first appears on the scene.
Another figure who plays a key role in the book is an odd, misunderstood fellow, Grogaard, to whom everyone refers as The Midget. Nagel first encounters him in the cafe at his hotel and immediately takes an interest in the crippled man’s plight. In spite of the polite manner in which the Midget treats everyone around him, he is considered an object of derision. Even his appearance evokes scorn:
“The Midget was extremely ugly. He had serene blue eyes but grotesquely protruding front teeth, and his gait was contorted due to an injury. His hair was quite gray; his beard was darker than his hair but so scraggly that his skin showed through.”
The very night that Nagel meets this strange creature, he invites him up to his room where the two of them spend several hours of the evening conversing. This is one of the first opportunities we have to see Nagel’s manipulative character at work. He offers The Midget money to assume the paternity of a child and presents him with other sly propositions. When The Midget refuses to accept any of his offers, Nagel gives him ten crowns because he doesn’t agree to his suggestions. As they talk, Nagel manages to extract information from The Midget, particularly details pertaining to the newly engaged Dagny Kielland. Nagel has already caught sight of a young woman whom he suspects is Dagny, and, as The Midget and he chat, it becomes clear to him that his assumptions were correct.
“Dagny is only twenty-three and she is everybody’s darling. She’s pretty, too . . . and very beautiful. Everyone is extremely fond of her . . . and there isn’t another red parasol in town, as far as I know. She wears her hair in a long, blond braid. If you’ve seen her, you couldn’t forget. She is different from everyone else around here.”
Nagel, ever conniving, manages to get The Midget to tell him that the man who took his life, Pastor Jens Karlsen, had him deliver a letter to Dagny shortly before his death. In keeping with his crafty nature, Nagel uses this information against Dagny later on. One of the most noteworthy aspects of Nagel’s character is his ability to persuade others to behave in ways that are contradictory to their basic temperament in order to gratify his own interests. He also tries to plant doubts in people’s minds regarding the characters of those they know, hinting at their hidden vices and corrupt habits. When Nagel asks The Midget about a young woman, Mina Meek, who has recently been buried in the local cemetery, and finds out she was considered to be chaste, he writes suggestive verses on the marble slab on her grave in an attempt to put her virtue in question. It’s never clear what his motive is in doing this; however, he never expresses any remorse.
Once Nagel determines that he has a sincere romantic interest in Dagny, his behavior becomes manic. He seeks her out anywhere he can find her, harassing and stalking her whenever an occasion presents itself. Their first true encounter takes place in the woods. Nagel corners Dagny unexpectedly, taking her by complete surprise. He offers to carry her red parasol, but, rather than charming her, he only ends up frightening her into running away in a panic. Running after her, he calls after her: “Forgive me, I couldn’t help it, I was carried away by your beautiful face!” His excitement at being near her simply overwhelmed him. He declares, when recounting the meeting:
“I wasn’t going to molest her–I had no such bad intentions. I’m sure she’s in love with her lieutenant; I would never have dreamed of forcing myself on her.”
When Nagel is again in Dagny’s presence, it is during a Midsummer Night’s gathering at Dr. and Mrs. Stenersens’ home. He is very skillful at contriving tales about himself and his life, many of which he claims are true. To the reader, these fanciful stories bear so little semblance to reality that it is impossible to be even remotely convinced of their veracity. Yet he is a captivating weaver of yarns, and even Dagney is somewhat spellbound by his tales. When Nagel walks home with Dagny at the end of the night, he admits to her that he only made the stories up in hopes of impressing her:
“Every word I spoke was meant for you. Do you realize that? I know I offended you terribly, and I had to make amends. It’s true that I have been in a strange mood all day, but I have made myself appear a good deal worse than I really am, and I’ve been playing a devious game most of the time. You see, I had to make you think I was unpredictable, that I am in the habit of doing outrageous things, so that you would understand and forgive me more easily.”
This is one of our first glimpses at the contradictory and irrational thought patterns that govern Nagel’s conduct towards Dagny. While most people who are infatuated or in love want to show the best side of themselves to the object of their desire, Nagel seems determined to make as negative an impression on Dagny as he possibly can. After asking her if he frightens her, he proceeds to tell her that he was thinking constantly about her even before he met her. Then, he refutes a story he told her earlier about himself and Reinert, the magistrate’s deputy. Even as he dismisses his previous account as being a lie, he exclaims, “. . . I know what will happen. I’ll drive you a thousand miles away from me.”
It’s as if Nagel has an intrinsic need to sabotage his own efforts where Dagny is concerned, and what is really puzzling is that she doesn’t simply ignore him. Instead, she makes scathing assessments of his behavior:
“You’re the most shameless person I’ve ever met! Imagine, going around saying all those ghastly things about yourself with a straight face–it’s so self-destructive! What can you possibly hope to achieve by it? I’ve never heard anything so insane! How could you be sure I would ever find out what really happened? Tell me–no, don’t–it would only be another lie! . . .When you make such careful calculations and fabricate your story to suit your ends, and then undo everything by confessing your deviousness–or deceit, as you call it–what am I to think! . . .Why do you plan your moves so carefully and then fail to realize that you are exposing yourself– your own lies?”