Hamsun

This is the third book I’ve read by Knut Hamsun, and boy, was it the oddest. The first, Hunger, was an absolute revelation for me. Upon completing it, I felt rather dumbfounded that it could have taken me 38 years to discover such a compelling author. He really is one of the greats.

[Hamsun] won the Nobel Prize in 1920… and he had a deep and lasting grip on his public, that of an enchanter. Singer admitted to being “hypnotized” by him; Hesse called him his favorite writer; Hemingway recommended his novels to Scott Fitzgerald; Gide compared him to Dostoyevsky, but believed that Hamsun was “perhaps even more subtle.” The list of those who loved his sly, anarchic voice is long. [Read more in the New Yorker]

Perhaps I hadn’t heard of him because his career was something of a sordid Scandinavian secret. Despite his Nobel Prize and popularity, he died practically penniless. The Norwegian government fined him an enormous sum for treason because of his Nazi sympathies. Hamsun admired Adolf Hitler – even meeting him once – and upon the Fuhrer’s death, wrote a eulogy extolling his virtues as “a warrior, a warrior for mankind, and a prophet of the gospel of justice for all nations.”

He was clearly a man of extremes. He had encountered extreme poverty (which influenced much of Hunger) not to mention extreme isolation, and extreme exploitation in the shape of back-breaking, relentless physical labour. There is a remarkable anecdote about him that goes like this. During his long stay in the United States, he was working as an auctioneer in Minneapolis, and after a particularly hard day’s labour, he started to spit blood. He was diagnosed with tuberculosis, which the local doctor said would kill him in three months, but Hamsun would have none of this, and booked himself onto a train to New York, insisting on sitting on top of the locomotive so that he could gulp down mouthfuls of fresh air. His self-prescribed cure worked and he lived many more decades.

I have to admit that Mysteries was not, for me, the same kind of transformational read as Hunger. It’s a very confusing read, perhaps deliberately so. A man named Johan Nilsen Nagel shows up in a small Norwegian coastal town and immediately starts to bewilder and perplex all that meet him. He has several strange, unconsummated entanglements with women. He plays the role of protector to a character known only by the name The Midget. Most of all, he talks—he talks a hell of a lot: in long, strange, seemingly manipulative and deceitful monologues or in long arguments with other characters.

To me, he seemed to be a pathological liar. But unlike other characters one reads or hears about, who are also pathological liars (the Mayor of Toronto?!) Nagel appears to be very honest with himself, or at least, deeply conscious of his own emotional plight. Similar to Hunger, in Mysteries, Hamsun shines a light of enormous intensity on the changing moods and thoughts of his protagonist.

Again, though, I’ll admit: I didn’t quite “get it.” I wasn’t ever quite sure who this man, at the centre of so much commotion, really was. It’s very disorienting to spend over 300 pages in the company of a protagonist who makes as little sense as this.

I decided to embark on this new blogging exercise, “Favourite Fiction Excerpts,” with the aim of extracting from books some pearls of prose that I really liked. This preamble has been so long perhaps because, in fact, I didn’t really find a lot in Mysteries that I could focus on and comprehend—I’ve wanted instead to simply make a very general case for reading Hamsun, despite all the obvious misgivings. There is one rather beautiful moment in Mysteries, though, which opens Chapter 17, that really appealed to me. Hamsun is very, very good at nature, and this brief paragraph is so wonderful because he so simply and effectively brings a halt to all the preceding nastiness and angst, for just an instant, so that we can take a look out of the window (the window of Nagel’s hotel room) and see the outside world:

The next day the same downpour, the same dark, heavy atmosphere. There seemed to be no end to the water that flooded the gutters and streamed down the windowpanes. Hour after hour it poured, and by noon the sky was overcast and still. The small garden behind the hotel was awash with bent and broken trees and floating leaves—covered with mud and water.

That’s it: that’s one of the rare interludes Hamsun grants the reader. Soon after this, the anti-hero Nagel gets out of his room and goes out into the night to stir up more discord and discontent. Several chapters later there is an extraordinary monologue delivered to The Midget by Nagel — most probably all of it an outright lie — about a cat, and a fish hook, and a vial of poison and… no, I won’t get into that because it would reveal too much of the plot.

One thing is for sure: I’ll be reading this book again one day. It was so unlike Hunger in so many respects that I perhaps brought rather unfair expectations to it. It’s a rare author that changes so decisively between one book and the next (Victoria, which I’ve also read, is something else entirely) but clearly I, feeble reader that I am, must work a little harder to keep up with Hamsun’s mercurial temperament!

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