Mysterious Biographies and Alarming Obituaries
Here is the biography of Knut Hamsun provided in my 1973 Picador edition of ‘Mysteries’.
Knut Hamsun was born of peasant stock in Northern Norway, in 1859. He started work at an early age, and led a jack-of-all-trades existence. In the 1880s he spent two periods in America. His first successful novel was Hunger (1980). Hamsun rejected the social preoccupations of contemporary fiction, and criticized its lack of understanding of ‘the unconscious life of the mind’. His novel Mysteries was intended as a demonstration of what this new literature should be. The best known of Hamsun’s other novels are Pan (1894) and Victoria (1898). Hamsun died in 1952, and since then a growing body of readers has been drawn to his work by its extraordinary qualities of insight and imagination.
That’s a quite thorough summary of the writer’s early life and work, and a nice summary of what makes it so compelling. But it tells us nothing of Hamsun’s life and work after 1898 – why so coy? Surely his 1917 work ‘Growth of the Soil’ deserves a mention – after all, it won Hamsun the Nobel Prize for literature. On awarding Hamsun the prize, the Nobel committee commented that
he has proved his own compassion for human destiny and human nature. But in the story, he never departs from the most complete artistic serenity. The style, stripped of vain ornaments, renders the reality of things with certainty and clarity, and one rediscovers in it, under a personal and powerful form, all the richness of nuance of the writer’s mother tongue.
Fulsome praise indeed. But Hamsun would later send his Nobel Prize medal to Joseph Goebbels. Hamsun had, by the mid-twentieth century become a heavyweight literary supporter of Adolf Hitler, in words if not in deeds (he was in his eighties at the time). Whether or not he was a traitor to his country or not is a moot point – having attained a meeting with the Fuhrer, Hamsun used it to make a complaint about the German administration in Norway – but he was an unquestionable advocate for Fascist and racialist politics. Here is his obituary for the most evil man in the history of Europe:
I’m not worthy to speak up for Adolf Hitler, and to any sentimental rousing his life and deeds do not invite.
Hitler was a warrior, a warrior for humankind and a preacher of the gospel of justice for all nations. He was a reforming character of the highest order, and his historical fate was that he functioned in a time of exampleless [unequalled] brutality, which in the end felled him.
Thus may the ordinary Western European look at Adolf Hitler. And we, his close followers, bow our heads at his death.
This could not be less equivocal: Hamsun was a fascist and an open admirer of Adolf Hitler. Presumably, the 1973 English publisher thought it better to refrain from mentioning this unpleasant fact and even Hamsun’s tarnished Nobel prize.
Most modern editions of Hamsun’s novels will mention this, and some will deal with it in detail in the preface (like the current Penguin edition of Hunger, for example), so that readers know that they are reading something with a kind of historical health warning; and so they can make their own minds up as to a) whether to read it at all, and b) to what degree the writer’s abhorrent politics undermine the beauty of his work.
The answer to that last question, by the way, might very reasonably be ‘not at all’, not least if the work seems to have little political content. Hamsun has had admirers in writers who have had more reason than most to begrudge the supporters of fascism any success – Arthur Koestler and Isaac Bashevis Singer, both refugees from Nazism, have praised his work. Mysteries was written a long time before the offending part of Hamsun’s career, and his main preoccupations of that time appear to have been aesthetic rather than ideological. And so perhaps we can put the question of Hamsun’s fascism aside and just enjoy the novel. Or perhaps not – but I’ll come back to that later.
At the beginning of Mysteries, a traveller in a yellow suit, Nagel, arrives in a small Norwegian port town. He is seemingly rich and certainly eccentric. He walks around a lot, and gets to know the denizens of the town, and they get to know him. The mysteries that the title refers to are twofold. First, there are the mysteries surrounding Nagel himself – why has he alighted in this insignificant town? What, if anything, is he running from? Most of all – why is he so weird? How does he make such frank confessions without a blush? Why does he go to such lengths to help some of the more maligned townsfolk? How can a modern educated man hold such irrational and superstitious opinions in this day and age? Where do his bizarre dreams and visions come from? Is he sincere of playing with people? Why is he occasionally so generous, and on other occasions offensive, even obscene? What is he going to do next? Is he mad? These questions occupy the minds of the townspeople he beguiles so, and the readers’ minds too… Of course, we have the advantage that we can hear the thoughts of Nagel as well as his bizarre behaviour and outré announcements. But Nagel remains a mysterious character throughout: here is Hamsun showing us the rich life of the unconsciousness in all its unpredictability and contradiction.
Then there are the mysteries of the town. A young man, a poet, has recently committed suicide for the love of a young woman in the woods near the town. The town is buzzing with the news when Nagel arrives. He listens with interest – there appear to be doubts as to whether or not his injuries can possibly have been self-inflicted. On his first night in the town, Nagel gets to know a man called ‘the Midget’, after having saved him from being mercilessly bullied by the townsfolk in the hotel bar, a bullying he tends to encourage, however, by his craven, ingratiating manner. Nagel is also intrigued by a grey-haired young woman he sees walking through the market in the mornings, a quiet woman who lives alone and ekes out a meagre living selling eggs. And then Nagel falls in love – with the very same woman whose beauty and unavailability inspired the suicide of the poet.
Hunger, Hamsun’s first major novel, stayed mostly rooted in the consciousness of the protagonist, obsessive, aesthetic, desperate, a little mad perhaps; and the parts of Mysteries which resemble Hunger, those where we see into the mental state of Nagel are brilliant in the same way that Hunger is brilliant. But Mysteries has more besides – this intriguing plot, for example, and some interesting, fully rounded characters who aren’t merely playing it straight in contrast to Nagel’s eccentricity…
Reveries and Confessions
Mysteries takes several unexpected turns. I’m not talking about the plot here, interesting as it is, but some very strange dream and fantasy sequences that, nevertheless, arise naturally from the narrative. Nagel likes to explain his thoughts to people, and his first encounter with some of the village’s bourgeoisie has him describing his walk in less than everyday terms:
‘For ten hours, I’ve been walking around in an exquisite trance. I feel as if I were in a boat of scented wood with a crescent-shaped, pale-blue silk sail. Isn’t that a beautiful reverie?’
Despite the objections of the town doctor, who says he has been hallucinating, Nagel insists on sharing his reveries and fantasies, capturing the interest, if not the heart of the beautiful young married woman, Dagny. It is with her that, throughout the book, Nagel continues to share his thoughts, dreams and stories – some, apparently from his past, and others made up folk tales. He shares too, his confessions of undying love for Dagny.
Other people in the town try to fix him on more proper subjects for conversation. He is asked, for example, of his opinion of Gladstone, the most admired statesman of the day. He tells his audience about the time he saw Gladstone speaking and explains what his objections to Gladstone in terms that make the town doctor baulk:
‘I have heard him claim, in a budget debate, that seventeen times twenty-three is three hundred and ninety-one, and he came out with a smashing, enormous victory. Again, right was on his side, which made his eyes sparkle with righteousness, put a tremor in his voice, and filled him with elation. But at that point I had to stop, look, query. I didn’t doubt his sincerity, but I still felt that I had to get up. I stood there checking my arithmetic – three hundred and 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 and 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 makes it his business to be in the right. Something in me cried: Speak up against this arrogant righteousness!
This passage made me laugh out loud. Of course it is absurd to hate someone for being right and even more absurd to be defiantly wrong; and yet we feel we recognise this sentiment – we have seen it in others, and we have felt it in our own selves. Hamsun’s reveries, fantasies and rants all have this psychological acuity which seem to make something profound of what is on the face of it trivial or nonsensical. And this makes reading the novel a curiously emotional as well as intellectual experience.
Arguments and Questions
The town doctor is the epitome of all that Nagel finds uninspiring in the modern world: unimaginative, an atheist, a materialist, a rationalist, and, like the Englishman Gladstone, annoyingly right about so much. Like Nietzsche, Nagel dislikes liberal civilisation, because he thinks it no kind of civilisation at all. Asked if he is a Christian, Nagel explains that he isn’t, and yet defends the religious spirit:
‘It’s very simple: what are we gaining – excuse me if I’m repeating myself – what are we gaining by a pragmatism that robs our life of poetry, dreams, mysticism – are all these lies? What is truth? Can you tell me that?’
Hamsun hates most of all the rationalistic world view that robs the world of sacred meaning, of transcendent meaning, of transcendence itself. He would rather be wrong than be right, if it means giving up the poetic, the transcendent.
And this, you think at first, a point of view that a lot of us sympathise with. But a question hangs in the air: to what extent does his idealism and poetic sensibility inform his later political extremism? If you reject Bentham in favour of Nietzsche – does it logically follow that you reject Gladstone in favour of Hitler? In Hamsun’s case, the uncomfortable answer was: yes. But Mysteries is a book of problems not solutions – and one may agree with Hamsun’s diagnosis of the ills of the modern world without coming to the same conclusions about the cure (which surely came as quite a shock to many of his contemporary readers, not least the Nobel prize committee).
Mysteries is intriguing and involving – it also made me laugh more than any other literary book I have read (even more than ‘The Heart of a Dog’ and ‘Gargantua and Pantagruel’). Perhaps the germs of Hamsun’s fascism are apparent even in this early work – he won’t be the first or last great artist to fall in with an abhorrent ideology – and yet it is a genuinely brilliant book, entertaining, inspiring and disturbing in turn…
(All quotes in this article are taken from the 1971 Gerry Bothmer translation)