On “Mysteries,” Part 1

15 October 2018 Comments Off on On “Mysteries,” Part 1


This is the first installment in a four-part series on Knut Hamsun’s novel “Mysteries.”
Having read Hamsun’s “Mysteries,” I am trapped in a delicious state of complete cluelessness as to what has happened to me. The novel is fabulously mad and esoteric, with a balanced, measured way of walking through the narrative that makes all its shadowed surrealities seem as sensible as anything else.
“Mysteries” describes the many lives of a young stranger who has come to a small fishing town in northern Norway. This stranger, Johan Nagel, mixes with the townspeople to relate stories of his eccentric past, along with making forceful and spontaneous assertions regarding the desires, personalities and inner conflicts of his companions. He falls in obsessive love with Dagny Kielland, who is already engaged to someone else, and in an indecipherable state of heart proposes to an older spinster, who eventually refuses him. Getting increasingly confused, struck only by patches of mental clarity in which he becomes convinced as to his darkened fate, Nagel tries to kill himself to no avail in two mystic sequences, before he finally succeeds in drowning. The last scene in the book shows the spinster Martha Gude and Dagny walking over black ice together, holding onto each other, continuing a light and disjointed conversation that for a moment touches upon Nagel as if with the slightest of remorse.
Nagel is the pivot of the story, the principal mystery: we know less about him than any other character, and not for lack of discussion – he bares himself compulsively, repeatedly, in various ways to everyone he speaks with, relays anecdotes and insecurities and admissions of deception, and it is precisely this continuous disinformation that bewilders the reader. We never know what he’s planning, what he’s thinking, why he says what he says; we are absolutely confounded as to whether Nagel is genuine in his feelings – even though he explains everything in exhaustive detail – because he contradicts himself within a paragraph, a sentence, throughout the entire novel. Yet the long sequences of his inner speaking carry distinct and secretive gems of the collective human experience, with the casual, graceful tact of one who has always known, and who will never combat what he knows except with the great, impertinent instinct of the child; Nagel’s recurrent rebellion is death. “Over there, for instance, sticking out of my waistcoat pocket is the neck of a vial. It contains ‘medicine’ – prussic acid…But why do I carry it around, and why did I get it in the first place? Hypocrisy again, nothing but a sham; the decadence, phoniness, self-adulation, and snobbery of our times! To hell with all of it!” The vial of acid is as critical a symbol in the book as Nagel’s lifesaver’s medal, which to Dagny he claims to have stolen, telling her that he agonizes over his own lowly deception, while to himself he admits in this same passage, “I earned it honestly, as they say. One plays around with all kinds of things like saving people’s lives.” Later, his companion Grøgaard replaces the vial of acid with water, thwarting Nagel’s suicide attempt; Nagel is furious with him afterward, for the same thing he has done to someone else: he saves a person from drowning to get his medal, and it is by drowning that he eventually manages to die. He meets his end not as he has brought on that of another – of a dog he kills to get to Dagny – but as he has saved a complete stranger. In this way Nagel makes out another fundamental truth: the long trill of life is inviolate. In ironic counterpoint, his ambiguous good deed is compensated for by his unambiguous bad one. But his longevity hints at a more basic, more mysterious fact: as long as Nagel is abstract – as long as he is “a stranger, alien to this world, a stubborn manifestation of God” – he cannot be killed. Death is to him a relief, an implacable comfort: “He would finally get out of it all – end it! Would he ever be capable of carrying it off? Yes, by God, he wouldn’t falter! He felt euphoric at the idea of having this escape hatch in reserve….” It is to him a comfort on a par with complete spiritual knowledge and with life: “A tremor of ecstasy ran through him. He felt himself carried away and engulfed by the magic rays of the sun. The stillness filled him with an intoxicating sense of well-being…the only sound was a soft murmur from above, the hum of the universal machinery – God turning his treadmill.” It is this sort of living that Nagel thrums with, that he cries for, this same irrepressible form of love.