s.penkevich's Reviews > Mysteries

Mysteries by Knut Hamsun
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Mar 18, 12

bookshelves: nobel-prize-winners, existential, favorites, hamsun
Recommended for: You should probably add this to your 'to-read' list
Read from December 25, 2011 to January 08, 2012

Hamsun’s aptly named second novel, Mysteries, is a dazzling, dark look into human nature and man’s psyche. It is no surprise that Henry Miller claimed that Mysteries was ’closer to me than any book I have read,’ this novel is so probing and insightful that you feel it begin to pick your own mind as the pages churn by. Written in 1892, just 2 years following Hunger, this novel once again demonstrates Hamsun’s signature frantic yet serene prose while showcasing Hamsun as a Modernist far ahead of his time and a master of the ‘psychological novel’. Plunging into the existential mysteries of the human heart and soul, Hamsun pens some of his most memorable characters while keeping the reader forever pondering the truth behind the abundant mysteries.

As always when it comes to speaking of Hamsun, it should be noted that it is a crying shame how his work has been passed over and that his name is relatively unheard nowadays due to his sympathetic association to the Nazi party during WWII. I went into more detail of this in my review for Growth of the Soil, but this association cost him his fame and caused to widespread burning of his books in Norway and the relative popular neglect for his works in the United States following the war. If you can put his late life politics aside, you will find an incredible author whose name holds up to his comparisons to Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

Mysteries places the human psyche under Hamsun’s microscope. Much like his first novel, the great Hunger, this novel follows the concise rise and fall of emotions in the protagonist, creating a well rounded depiction of a man in the grips of mania and excitement. We follow the loquacious ravings, often liquor-fueled, of our hero, Johan Nilsen Nagel, from a calm steady conversation to the height of frenzy, and are shown glimpses through a cloudy window of the mind to his introspective obsessions. This is fully believable and creates for an intense, unpredictable character.

There is a wonderfully ironic moment when Martha Gude takes leave of Nagel to go see a preforming magician since the real magician of this novel is Nagel himself who preforms an elaborate smoke and mirrors trick of personality throughout the novel. The true nature of Nagel, is never fully revealed, instead, the reader must discern what they can as small pieces of the whole are glimpsed, then hidden again behind contradictory evidence. This eccentric stranger, dressed in a loud yellow suit who keeps the town on edge and full of gossip with his erratic behavior, is a ’walking contradiction’ , as Dagny is quick to point out and Nagel is eager to uphold. The reader learns of his lifesavers medal, for example, which he speaks aloud that he earned rescuing a drowning man while on passage to Hamburg, however later on, he adamantly claims to Dagny that is was purchased from a pawn store. He tells the town he is an agronomist, yet it is hinted that this is merely a ruse. Even his name may be false. The biggest insights can only be hinted through a cryptic conversation between him and a former lover whom speak in ’elliptical allusions to the past and used words and phrases that had meaning only for them’.

The nature of this novel is akin to the mysterious nature of the protagonist. Choosing to write from a third person perspective, Hamsun is able to remove the reader from any situation that could give too much away. Unlike Hunger where the reader was a fly on the wall of the narrators internal monologues, the secrets of Nagel are kept from us. Hamsun does occasionally have Nagel speak aloud in long tirades of his inner thoughts, but this is used sparingly and creates a bit of unevenness in the writing, although it is ultimately not distracting. This third person perspective is highly efficient to the delivery of this story, as the reader often learns of Nagel’s whereabouts from his mouth as he professes them to the townsfolk. However, the reader quickly learns to take everything with a grain of salt and we are often left wondering if he speaks the truth, or perhaps even a half-truth.

Hamsun makes remarkable use of Nagel’s long, mercurial rants, often crafting them as small allegories of the surrounding events and people. Nagel speaks in a breathtaking prose laden with symbols and metaphors that always tell much more just beneath the surface of his sparkling words. His tales are often elaborate and outlandish, earning him quite a reputation around town. He also uses Nagel as his mouthpiece for literary and political criticisms, bashing many of the Norwegian politicians of the day, criticizing the capital city and the artists who inhabit it (although, speaking of contradictions, he spoke lovingly of this city, Kristiana, in the opening lines of Hunger), and spitting a brutal assault on both Leo Tolstoy and the highly regarded Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibesn. To digress a mere moment, Hamsun was an outspoken critic of Ibsen, who was quite popular at the time. In the year succeeding the popular release of Hunger, Hamsun invited Ibsen to attend a lecture of his and offered him the front and center seat in a room full of other writers of great notoriety. He then went on to lambaste Ibsen’s work to his face saying his plays were ’indefensibly coarse and artificial psychology’. There is an article featuring this story and a good overview of Hamsun’s biography here.

The real brilliance of this novel is how Nagel serves as a barometer of human nature and in juxtaposition with him, the true nature of the various members of the town can be seen with crystal clear accuracy. While Nagel may be erratic and potentially manic, his boldness reveals an unapologetic image of himself, which brings out the truth in others. The closed mindedness, the destructiveness, the arrogance, and all the other hidden demons float to the surface around Nagel. This can also show a character in a positive light, or just as a harmless windbag who cannot help but vomit their opinions into any available ear. Nagel asserts that there are no selfless acts and that every man has a secret vice, including those who may seem like the most saintly, good-natured folk among us. Each one of us carries a bit of demon somewhere inside. While one may give a small chunk of change to a beggar on the street may seem as ‘selfless’ as it gets, Nagel would argue that does this not cause the giver to feel an inner peace at helping another, which is itself a selfish reward. This existential probe begs the reader to examine his or her own life, and examine their own opinion on Nagel as it may reveal a great deal about them.

This story has no true linear plot, but sets Hamsun’s colorful cast in one town and allows them to simply interact. Due to this storytelling device, many critics have labeled Hamsun as one of the first early Modernists, and many authors followed in his footsteps. Ernest Hemingway claimed that ’Hamsun taught me to write’ (thanks wiki), and after reading the often drunk and frenzied lead characters of his early works one can understand why Charles Bukowski was such a fervent fan and claimed he used Hamsun as a ’writing crutch’. His unique style, voice, and his monumental simplistic prose have caused him to quickly become one of my favorites. This novel is not as direct and concise as Hunger, yet it can be felt that Hamsun was reaching his talents out to greater heights and experimenting with perspective and layering of time (there are many amazing instances where Hamsun will seamlessly follow from various past incidents and present goings-on all within one flowing paragraph without the reader becoming lost), so the rough patches that are slightly noticeable within this book are understandable. He makes up for it ten-fold.

Vladimir Nabokov once wrote that one should not ’read books for the infantile purpose of identifying oneself with the characters… but for the sake of their form, their visions, their art’ ( Lectures on Literature). I have always tried to keep this in mind while devouring a novel, and I have very much appreciated this novel for its aesthetic purposes (I hope), but I fell for that infantile impulse to identify with Nagel. He has become one of my favorite characters found in literature, right up there with the Underground Man and Steinbeck's Samuel Hamilton. While this novel isn’t quite as close to perfection as Hunger, which few novels are, Mysteries is my favorite of Hamsun’s novels, although I would recommend the former if you are looking for an introduction to his work. This novel has an ending out of left field and will keep your mind spinning for days to come as you try to piece together the mysteries Nagel left behind. Who is this eccentric stranger? Does he really know more than he lets on, and how does he know these secrets that lurk inside? Is he crazy, or simply genius? Hamsun leaves that for you to decide.
4.75/5
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Reading Progress

12/29/2011 page 51
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Comments (showing 1-34 of 34) (34 new)

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message 1: by Stephen (new)

Stephen Outstanding review. I've never read Hamsun, but it looks like I need to check out his work.


s.penkevich Thank you very much, he reminds me a lot of Dostoyevsky but in much shorter novels. Hunger was the best book I read in 2011 and probably an ideal starting point.


message 3: by Stephen (new)

Stephen s.penkevich wrote: "Thank you very much, he reminds me a lot of Dostoyevsky but in much shorter novels. Hunger was the best book I read in 2011 and probably an ideal starting point."

I just bought it on my kindle. Thanks for the recommendation. I love Dostoyevsky so this looks like a nice match.


s.penkevich Excellent, I hope you enjoy it. I'll be anxious to read your review!


message 5: by Megan (new)

Megan Wow that was an awesome review hermano. We really need to do a book swap soon cause this book sounds really interesting too.


s.penkevich Yes we do. I still need to read your copy of House of Leaves and get that back to you. So many books...


message 7: by Megan (new)

Megan Yeah I feel like you will really like that book. You should read it soon.


s.penkevich I think I will!


message 9: by Steve (new)

Steve This one looks like work, but your excellent review pretty much assures us that it's worth the effort.

As an aside, I liked Samuel Hamilton a lot, too. His conversations with Lee -- another great character -- were classic. Samuel's blarnified speaking style was part of the appeal.


s.penkevich Steve wrote: As an aside, I liked Samuel Hamilton a lot, too.
I think my biggest appeal of Steinbeck is how lovingly he writes his characters. With Samuel, you could tell he really cared for the character (as he was based on his real life Grandfather) and this love flowed through into me. He just seemed like somebody you would want to crack a beer and talk life with. Thank you very much for the compliments as well!


message 11: by PGR (new)

PGR Nair Excellent review!!! Useful for academic purposes too . This novel is indeed his best. "The real brilliance of this novel is how Nagel serves as a barometer of human nature ". This is very true


s.penkevich PGR wrote: "Excellent review!!! Useful for academic purposes too . This novel is indeed his best. "The real brilliance of this novel is how Nagel serves as a barometer of human nature ". This is very true"

Thank you very, very much! Glad you enjoyed this one as well, it really spoke to me.


message 13: by Mike (new)

Mike S., this is an excellent review. It is fine work, good writing and thorough analysis. Using the references of Hamsun's influence on other authors with whom readers may well be more familiar is a good draw for readers to Hamsun. Of course, I particularly liked the way in which you worked Samuel Hamilton into the review. A very good stroke. I agree with PGR that it is good for academic purposes, but it is not so academic that it breezes over the heads of the less academic. This is the mark of a good teacher, I think. Excellent, excellent, excellent.


s.penkevich Mike wrote: "S., this is an excellent review. It is fine work, good writing and thorough analysis. Using the references of Hamsun's influence on other authors with whom readers may well be more familiar is a ..."

Thank you Mr. Stevens. That means a lot to me, especially since I consider you my goodreads teacher haha. And I wish I could work Sam Hamilton into more reviews, just to spread my love of Steinbeck. By the way, picked up a copy of Knight's Gambit yesterday, Vintage finally reissued it.


message 15: by Mike (new)

Mike s.penkevich wrote: "Mike wrote: "S., this is an excellent review. It is fine work, good writing and thorough analysis. Using the references of Hamsun's influence on other authors with whom readers may well be more f..."

Dear S., have I told you that through the years I have considered others much younger than me to be my honorary children? Although I initially abandoned the idea of teaching, something I have often regretted, I have returned to the idea of teaching and it has been the driving force behind my active participation in goodreads. It is the presence of such bright minds as yours that has rekindled that desire in me to take the steps to finally accomplish what I initially set out to do. I sincerely hope you won't consider it maudlin to tell you I consider you one of my honorary children, "Son."

Yes, it is a good thing that Vintage has re-released Knight's Gambit. And, although I know how difficult it can be to stretch the budget for the purchase of books, I'd urge you to check into the Library of America editions of the works of Faulkner. Each volume contains the "corrected" editions, masterfully reproduced by Faulkner's biographer Joseph Blotner and Noel Polk.

I don't know if you caught my post regarding http://www.abebooks.com/ as a source for purchasing books at a very reasonable price. Check it out. You might be amazed at the prices for which you could obtain THE best COMPLETE FAULKNER in a set you will cherish for a lifetime.

Sincerely,

"Lawyer Stevens,
who has the biggest grin of his day so far.


s.penkevich Mike wrote: "s.penkevich wrote: "Mike wrote: "S., this is an excellent review. It is fine work, good writing and thorough analysis. Using the references of Hamsun's influence on other authors with whom reader..."

Thanks 'dad' Stevens ha. It would be an honor. It is the presence of people such as yourself with your glowing knowledge and engrossing reviews and stories that make goodreads such an excellent source, and just a fun addiction (I spend much of my time at work reading GR on my ipod).

I need to get some of the LoA editions, I've always wanted one. They have such nice bindings and pages. And thanks for the website, i've been needing another reliable place other than amazon (I heard a story on NPR about how amazon is a major reason why bookstores are going out of business, such as Borders who sewed their own demise after parting ways with their amazon partnership, so I'm trying to not use them as often). www.alibris.com is hit or miss, but a HUGE hit when it comes to school textbooks. An awesome Complete Faulkner would be very nice, I've been trying to replace some of my old softcovers with nice old hardcovers (aside from the ones with too many good notes I'd taken or poems I'd written in the margins).


Richard Reviles Censorship Always in All Ways Hamsun makes remarkable use of Nagel’s long, mercurial rants, often crafting them as small allegories of the surrounding events and people. Nagel speaks in a breathtaking prose laden with symbols and metaphors that always tell much more just beneath the surface of his sparkling words.

What I like most about that sentence is that it makes one think that you're attributing to Nagel a separate, non-Hamsun existence. That's a sign of wonderful writing and brilliant characterization. Terrific review, Sven.


s.penkevich Richard wrote: "Hamsun makes remarkable use of Nagel’s long, mercurial rants, often crafting them as small allegories of the surrounding events and people. Nagel speaks in a breathtaking prose laden with symbols a..."

Thank you very much! It may have something to do with Nagel's charm, and how I allowed myself to identify with Nagel, which made him feel much more than just a creation of the mind and a living breathing, person.


message 19: by Kris (new) - added it

Kris I'm gearing up for a Hamsun-fest.


s.penkevich That is the best kind of fest! This is my favorite of the 4 novels I've read.


message 21: by Kris (new) - added it

Kris You have inspired me! Should I start with Hunger and then move to Mysteries? (I love it that that sentence could be read in two ways...)


s.penkevich Ha, quite true. Hunger will definitely leave you hungry for more, and since it was his breakout novel that is probably the ideal place to start. It is a quick read too.


message 23: by Kris (new) - added it

Kris s.penkevich wrote: "Ha, quite true. Hunger will definitely leave you hungry for more, and since it was his breakout novel that is probably the ideal place to start. It is a quick read too."

Sounds good - will do. :)


message 24: by Rakhi (new) - added it

Rakhi Dalal Great review! I have never heard of Hamsun, but your comparison of Him to Dostoevsky certainly makes me eager to go ahead and read this. Like Kris, I feel inspired too!


message 25: by Sean (new)

Sean I guess this author and our ex-California Governor/ favorite human cyborg have something in common. Both are Hitler fan-boys.


s.penkevich Rakhi wrote: "Great review! I have never heard of Hamsun, but your comparison of Him to Dostoevsky certainly makes me eager to go ahead and read this. Like Kris, I feel inspired too!"

I think you would really enjoy him, I was actually meaning to check your 'read' list to see if you had and recommend him to you if you had not. I'd say start with Hunger


message 27: by s.penkevich (last edited Oct 11, 2012 10:26AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

s.penkevich Sean wrote: "I guess this author and our ex-California Governor/ favorite human cyborg have something in common. Both are Hitler fan-boys."

Haha, quite true. They would have a great deal to discuss. Now I can't stop picturing Hamsun saying 'I want to pump you up...with books!' as he flexes his literary muscle ha.

An interesting story about Hamsun/Hitler. Hamsun went to Hitler to protest german policies (ie shooting Norwegian prisoners), and Hitler got so mad that Hamsun kept talking down to him that he dismissed him and took 3 days to calm down. Apparently it is guessed it was that Hamsun was hard of hearing that he kept interrupting Hitler, but either way, Dietrich wrote in his memoirs that he had never seen anyone ever speak to Hitler so condescendingly ha. The film version of that scene goes as such: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oSAUms...

Too bad he was such a terrible guy though, because his books were incredible.


message 28: by Sean (new)

Sean s.penkevich wrote: "Sean wrote: "I guess this author and our ex-California Governor/ favorite human cyborg have something in common. Both are Hitler fan-boys."

Haha, quite true. They would have a great deal to discus..."


Ha. I would like to read this guy. Where do I start?


message 29: by Rakhi (new) - added it

Rakhi Dalal s.penkevich wrote: "Rakhi wrote: "Great review! I have never heard of Hamsun, but your comparison of Him to Dostoevsky certainly makes me eager to go ahead and read this. Like Kris, I feel inspired too!"

I think you ..."


Thanks for the recommendation!


s.penkevich Sean wrote: "s.penkevich wrote: "Sean wrote: "I guess this author and our ex-California Governor/ favorite human cyborg have something in common. Both are Hitler fan-boys."

Haha, quite true. They would have a ..."


Hunger is probably the ideal starting point. It is very reminiscent of Dostoevsky and almost feels like it could be the further adventures of D's Underground Man. However, it is relatively plotless, and I've seen people dislike that. This one is my favorite of his though. Growth of the Soil could serve as a starting point as well, since it was what ultimately won him the Nobel, however that has a very different feel to it than his early works (still good though)!


Angus Scanning this makes me want to go home from the office right now and look for my copy. This is on my to-read list and I'd like to move it to to-read-immediately. I'd return to your review when I'm done so that I could mentally compare and contrast my thoughts on it.


s.penkevich Angus wrote: "Scanning this makes me want to go home from the office right now and look for my copy. This is on my to-read list and I'd like to move it to to-read-immediately. I'd return to your review when I'm ..."

After seeing how much you loved Hunger, I really hope you get to this one. After reading a handful of his books, I think this one was the best (although Hunger still is the one I hope to someday teach). I can't wait to discuss it with you.


message 33: by Lynne (new) - added it

Lynne King I was delighted to come across your super review Steve and this book must definitely be purchased.


s.penkevich Lynne wrote: "I was delighted to come across your super review Steve and this book must definitely be purchased."

Thank you! I hope you enjoy Hamsun. This is a quirky book for sure, and though it isn't a tight as Hunger or Pan (the latter I've come to like more and more as time goes on), it really stuck with me. Nagel is such a superb character. Thank again!


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