23 March 2019

Hamsun's provocateur

Mysteries by Knut Hamsun, translated from the Norwegian by Gerry Bothmer (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006)

Oftentimes, the arrival of a foreign and eccentric idea tended to disrupt the happenings in small rural towns. This was what happened in 1891 when Johan Nilsen Nagel arrived unannounced, bringing with him provocations, eccentricities, strong political opinions, and inconsistencies. Sometimes these foreign ideas or persons were easily dismissed or shrugged off. Sometimes they left behind moments, beliefs, and philosophies so radical, so savage, and so barbaric as to shake the foundations of a town's civilities, its hard-earned political correctness, its innocence. A germ of an idea was all it takes to colonize the imaginary.

Knut Hamsun's Nagel was a high-strung protagonist, the harbinger of anxiety, deliverer of unpopular views. He was a talker. A storehouse of stories. His fantastic monologues were long and digressive and full of (invented?) stories and dream sequences. Such disquieting dream sequences and inverted fairy tales. The images in his dreams retold supplied some of the novel's mysteries.

Nagel smiled. "I don't mind talking. I'm just in the mood tonight; God knows what's come over me. Well, the dream I mentioned wasn't important. As I was saying, I saw a swamp, without trees, but with a myriad of roots sprawled in all directions like a mass of writhing serpents. Then I saw a madman walking among all those twisted roots. I can still see him; he was pale and had a dark beard, but it was so scraggly that his skins showed through. His eyes were full of suffering and he looked around distractedly. ... I looked at the crazed man, who was still spitting blood and still praying to God for me. Suddenly I realized that I had seen him before and that I knew him—a middle-aged man with gray hard and a scraggly beard: it was The Midget.

The Midget who appeared in this recounted dream was of course another prominent character, a perfect foil—or doppelgänger?—to Nagel's calculated and manipulative behavior. (Sverre Lyngstad, in his new translation of the novel, called the character "Miniman", which doesn't sound natural.) Nagel's complexity derived from his devious manipulation of people's feelings, from his calculated 'honesty', and from his being a pathological liar whenever it suits his own agenda. Compared to the voice of Lieutenant Glahn in Pan, his was a more pragmatic though no less passionate and emotive and elemental speech.

He was silent for a moment, and then he said, without wavering: "But, on the contrary, it's part of my scheme. I'll try to make you understand what I mean. I'm risking nothing if I reveal myself to you, as I just did—at least, not very much. I can't be sure that the person I open up to will believe me. At the moment you don't believe me, but even so, in the end I will gain doubly, enormously; i will reap rich rewards and my soul will soar to the mountain tops. Even if you did believe me, I would come out on top. You shake your head in disbelief? I assure you, I've operated this way quite a number of times, and it always works. Even if you believed what I just confessed to you, you would still be taken aback by my candor. You would say to yourself: 'He deceived me, but he confessed afterwards, though there was no reason for him to do so. His audacity mystifies me; his self-abasement confounds me!' 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."

If indeed he was to be believed, the facade of civilization would easily waver in the face of shock doctrines, post-truths, and fake news. Whatever kind of creature Nagel was—self-assured, self-deceived, delusional, scheming jerk-slash-neurotic—he could be a perfect judge of character. By being opaque, he had the tendency to provide glimpses into the dark side of humanity, a vivisector of human vices and evil ways. His deviousness was also a gift. If he is to be believed, he was a master of code-switching, a master of reading people.

But what was I saying? Oh, yes: I wanted to know to what extent you consider me capable of judging human beings? I think I can detect undertones in the voice of the person I'm speaking with—I have a very sensitive ear. When I'm talking to someone, I don't have to look at him to follow his thinking. I can sense immediately if he is lying or trying to put something over on me. The voice is a dangerous instrument. I don't mean the timbre of the voice, which may be high or low, melodious or grating. I'm not talking about the sound but about the inner world from which it springs—the underlying mysteries. Oh, to hell with what lies behind the voice! What the devil do I care?

Sometimes serious, sometimes taunting, Nagel delivered his monologues in characteristic disruptive manner, with a tendency to voice out the unvoiced—the crude and taboo aspects of humanity—with an often honest and unflinching heart on his sleeve. His conversations with The Midget, while drunk or pretending to be drunk, were the most revealing in terms of his admission of his ability to read people.

"Tell me, excuse me for interrupting you, but perhaps you are also sensitive enough to sense the undertones, the vibrations, in Miss Kielland's voice? Now I'm talking nonsense, and I'm sure you're aware of it, aren't you? But I would be glad if I felt I had an ally in you—that you were also able to size up people. Then we could shake hands, have a sort of pact, and never betray each other. Do you understand what I mean? In other words, I would never use what I know about you, although I read you like a book. ..."

Nagel's assessment of The Midget's character was presumably also based on the "undertones" and "vibrations" he sensed from The Midget's voice, as if the voice was the very emanation of the "inner world" and "underlying mysteries" of a human being. Like the characters of Bertram Tupra and Jaime Deza in Tu rostro mañana by Javier Marías, Nagel was a good judge of character. He was also potentially more. He could just be plain and simple mad. Hamsun was all this time playing a game of wits. There were a lot of indications that this novel was a comedy. That Nagel's presumed uncanny ability to peel out the veneer of civilization and the mask of civility and provincialism was a mere stance of resistance. I laughed many times reading this novel.

God, how Tolstoy labors to eliminate humanity's happy vices and make the world full of love of God and mankind! It just fills me with shame. Maybe it sounds impertinent to say that an agronomist [Nagel introduced himself as agronomist] is ashamed of a count, but that happens to be the case. It would be different if Tolstoy were a young man struggling against temptation or if he had a battle to fight and tried to win it by preaching virtue and clean living. But his sources have run dry; he has no more humanity left to struggle with. You may say: But this has nothing to do with his philosophy. But it has everything to do with it! Oh, just wait until old age has made you self-satisfied and callous! Then you go to the young man and say: 'Renounce all these superficial trappings.'

Though he admired Anna Karenina and War and Peace, Nagel's portrait of the old, evangelical Tolstoy was a hoot. A doctor, speaking heatedly against Nagel in this debate, defended the aged Tolstoy while also practically prefiguring the debate on Hamsun's standing in world literature vis-à-vis his sympathies for Nazism in his old age.

"My dear man," said the doctor contemptuously with an impatient shrug of the shoulders, obviously wishing to put an end to the conversation, "do you think that a man could achieve universal acclaim, like Tolstoy, without being a man of great spiritual nobility? You're amusing to listen to, but you talk utter nonsense. As a matter of fact, your ranting makes me sick!"

Substitute Tolstoy for Hamsun in the question above and we have the Hamsun affair, the paradox of an old artist's politics undermining his legacy. In fact, the noise of politics and political wrangling in the background of Mysteries was an amusing dose of realism.

Nagel was chaos in the flesh. Though a funny one too. His self-referential verbal torrents sometimes navigated a dark and comic stream of consciousness. "I'm being perfectly candid; in many ways I probably don't live up to what is considered standard behavior." The very definition of a deviant.

In a Shakespearian moment by the end of the book, Nagel had one fascinating tale to share to The Midget from his storehouse of stories.

"Now you see, you're the one who was thoroughly fooled. I happened to take a walk during the night along the docks and came across a cat writhing in the most horrible agony. I stopped and looked at it; there was something stuck in its throat. It had swallowed a fishhook and choked on it; despite frantic contortions, it could get it neither up nor down and the blood was streaming out of its mouth. I grabbed it to try to pull the fishhook out. But the cat, writhing in pain, rolled over on its back and savagely clawed at the air and ripped my cheek—you can see the gash. Now the cat is on the point of suffocating, the blood gushing from its throat. What could be done about it? While you sit there trying the decide, the church clock strikes two. It's too late to get help; it's two o'clock in the morning. Then you suddenly remember the magic vial [supposedly containing poison] in your vest pocket. You want to put an end to the poor beast's misery, and you empty the vial down its throat. Having swallowed the terrible liquid, it crouches low and looks desperately around. Its eyes filled with terror, the animal breaks away, springs up, wrenches itself loose, takes a couple of high leaps, and again begins its violent contortions along the dock. How could that be? Why, there was nothing but water in the vial! It couldn't put the poor creature out of its misery but only prolong its agony; it still had the hook in its throat and was bleeding and gasping for breath. Sooner or later it will bleed to death, or crawl into a corner and die in mute terror."

The Midget replaced the poison in the vial with water to prevent Nagel from dying in case he decides to drink it. Nagel did drink the vial without knowing it was no longer poison. The story of the cat was entirely invented, but it underscored the anguish of a man bent on suicide. Nagel was the cat with the fishhook inside his throat. The contortions of the cat was Nagel's contortions of despair upon discovering that he was not to die after all because The Midget betrayed him. The invented suffering of the cat was the most indirect and the most powerful acknowledgement of a character in existential pain.

Mysteries was bookended by two apparent suicides. The first was the suicide of man who allegedly became disillusioned with love from Dagny Kielland, the woman who will also catch Nagel's eye and bring him to the brink of suicide. The second was Nagel's foiled attempt at one when he drank the vial. (Nagel's final disappearance may not be definitive enough to be counted as suicide.) In the middle of the book, Nagel also recounted another haunting suicide within an extended dream sequence. While blood and violence was not directly presented in the book, the idea of self-inflicted death gave the flavor of fatalistic attitude towards human existence. A light (or shade) was thrown on the dark aspects of life.

For his part, The Midget, whose real name was Johannes Grøgaard, was often presented as the antithesis of Johan Nagel. But they did share a name. Perhaps it takes one to really know another. The complexity of this novel lay in part in its subtle undertones, its underlying principles.


  1. I've been wanting to read more Hamsun for a while, and yet this post on the messiness and/or complexity of Mysteries helps remind me why I might have stopped with that one. In other news, I will have to stay alert for any signs of subterranean comedy in Hunger should I read that Hamsun next!

    1. For complex, messy personalities of vivid characters & unorthodox mischief, Hamsun’s early novels definitely tick the box. In here, messy, sometimes troubling, but in an always entertaining fashion.