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 thinkin g 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?”
The inconsistencies in Nagel seem baffling, but Hamsun is attempting to make a strong statement about the fine line of demarcation that exists between that which we call “normal” as opposed to “mad” behavior. Nagel isn’t merely the prototype of the existentialist hero, the archetypal loner. Rather he is a person who wears a mask of sanity in a world that would refuse to accept him for the disturbed, unfathomable individual that he is. He always feels the need to play a part, even when, paradoxically, he admits that the part he’s playing is a lie. At times, it seems he’s merely wanting to get attention, for, as he confesses to Dagny, when she confronts him about his duplicitous behavior:
“What it really amounts to is that I force you to notice me. I arouse your curiosity and make you pay attention to me; I shock you into taking notice. A minute ago, you said you couldn’t figure me out. You said it because you were thinking about me, which thrills and delights me. I do have a lot to gain, whether you believe me or not.”
Like Fyodor Dostoevsky, Hamsun explores the concept that a character is not merely at the whim of the plot of a story, but rather that a character brings about the experiences that constitute a story’s plot. Nagel’s experiences are less the result of fate and more the direct result of his own specific–and generally misdirected–choices. His self-destructive streak appears to guide him to a large extent. Although he doesn’t often seem cognizant of the fact that he’s making poor decisions when he makes them, he does sum himself up rather acutely with the sentence, “I’m a living contradiction, and I don’t understand it myself.”
Dagny echoes his sentiments, though she expands on them slightly:
“I just don’t understand you. Sometimes when you talk I wonder if you are rational. Forgive me, but every time I meet you I feel more disturbed, more confused. No matter what you happen to be talking about, I find that you upset my equilibrium . . . I’ve never in my life met anyone who contradicts my basic beliefs as you do. Tell me, how much of what you say do you actually mean?”
As a reader, this last question is one we find ourselves asking again and again. Yet is there an answer? Is it possible that Nagel is deceiving not just others, but himself, as well?
One of the reasons that Nagel is such a fascinating character is because, in spite of his instability and his inconceivable idiosyncrasies, he is a brilliant and beguiling individual. He engages in analytical discussions about Leo Tolstoy and his philanthropic tendencies and the disparity between what he considers to be the frivolity and tawdriness of Guy de Maupassant as opposed to the incandescence (or, as he puts it, “spark”) of Alfred de Musset. Even though he carries dirty linen and papers in his violin case rather than a violin, he does play the violin, albeit rather poorly. He is part charlatan, part hero. He both captivates and repels us. Why? Well, for one thing, a character rarely goes to so little trouble to hide the lack of genuineness in himself. Aren’t those who are less than what they seem to be generally inclined to mislead those around them? How common is it that we peel off our own masks? Nagel may lack many things, but he does possess a certain amount of bravado that the reader cannot help but find admirable. He tells Dagny:
“No, I won’t even bother to defend myself. Call it fraud if you like. Why not? That’s the word for it. To put it stronger still, it’s the lowest kind of deception. All right, I don’t deny it. I am a phony. But we’re all phony to a greater or lesser extent; since that is a fact, one form of deceit is no worse than another.”
He is also vulnerable, particularly when it comes to Dagny. Although he invents tales about her being a flirt because he knows he’ll never be able to have her for himself, at the same time, he is willing to give up everything for her:
“I’m willing to kill myself right here, on the spot, just to rid you of my presence. All you have to do is say the word . . . Listen to me, in the name of justice! You have such power over me that I am putty in your hands.”
Nagel also attempts to use his wiles to manipulate Martha Gude, a white-haired, middle-aged spinster in whom he takes a peculiar interest. He rarely seems to wait for others to welcome him, but rather appears to invite himself, into their lives. As in the case of Dagny, Nagel’s behavior towards Martha also seems like a type of harassment. He patronizes her, manipulates her, and persuades her into taking money for a broken, two-legged chair she owns. Even though he frightens her, Martha is drawn to him. When he invites her to go to a town bazaar with him,she reluctantly agrees, even offering to “behave very well”. When Dagny sees Nagel at the event, she informs him that she has a “deep distrust” of him and believes him to be “capable of anything”. We, as readers, can’t help but think she’s right.
In Hunger, the protagonist is a victim of society, a mere cog in the wheel of human existence. However, in Mysteries, Nagel is something entirely different. He is both predator and prey, both the oppressed and the oppressor. Hamsun told a friend, when speaking of what inspired his work, “What interests me are my little soul’s endless emotions, the special, strange life of the mind, the mysteries of the nerves in a hungry body.” Perhaps, Nagel isn’t physically hungry, but we do sense a void within him. It may be that his appetite is for attention and approval. Maybe he is famished for the admiration and respect of a world that will never be capable of beginning to understand him. At one point he says, half-defensively, half-objectively:
“But it goes without saying that if you carefully observe a man for a month and make a point of remembering everything he says and does, you can always find something to find fault with . . . This is a small town. I’m rather conspicuous, and everywhere I go, people recognize me and watch my every move. And besides, I am a bit odd.”
Odd? Yes. Psychopathic? Perhaps. Captivating? Absolutely. At the end of the book, the reader is left with th e sense that Hamsun didn’t intend for Mysteries to be logical–that its fickleness, its contradictions, its strangeness, are all part of its charm.
In this reviewer’s Farrar, Straus and Giroux copy of Mysteries, in an afterword dated April 1967, Isaac Bashevis Singer says, “Writers who are truly original do not set out to fabricate new forms of expression, or to invent themes merely for the sake of appearing new. They attain their originality through extraordinary sincerity, by daring to give everything of themselves, their most secret thoughts and idiosyncrasies.”
Something that the reader cannot ever accuse Hamsun of is imitation. Many writers may have followed in his footsteps, but, in spite of the fact that he was inspired by a variety of sources, including August Strindberg and Dostoesvky, he was nonetheless an absolute original. Introspective, individualistic, uncompromising, he was a genius in every sense of the word.
Mysteries, a novel that the American author Henry Miller once said is “closer to me than any other book I have read” was published in 1892, two years after Hunger and two years before Pan. Hamsun garnered the Nobel Prize for Literature for The Growth of the Soil in 1920.
Quotations used in this review are from the 2006 Farrar, Straus and Giroux paperback version of Mysteries,
translated from the Norwegian by Gerry Bothmer.
— by Alexis Wingate