Manny's Reviews > Mysterier

Mysterier by Knut Hamsun
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Nov 13, 09

bookshelves: swedish-and-norwegian, too-sexy-for-maiden-aunts, translation-is-impossible
Read in November, 2009

I refused to read Hamsun for a long time, on the grounds that he was a Nazi sympathizer. But I started getting interested in modern Norwegian literature a couple of years ago, and in the end I had to give in. You just can't avoid him; he's referred to everywhere. And if I find him hard to deal with, I'm comforted by the fact that it's much worse for the Norwegians.

Let me expand on that a bit. I'm English by birth, and I've also lived a fair amount of my life in Sweden and the US. None of those countries have ever been occupied by a foreign power (people from the American South may disagree). We don't know what it's like, and it's difficult to understand from the outside. When you read books from countries like France and Norway, which have recently suffered the experience of being occupied, you start to get some idea. The best comparison I can find is that it's like being raped. It's a shameful and degrading thing that you don't want to talk about unless you have to.

Now, suppose that you're a woman who's been abducted by a psychopath who keeps you for years in his cellar, and comes down every now and then to rape and torture you. And then suppose that your big brother, whom you've always loved and admired, gets friendly with the rapist. He visits every now and then. You're lying there bruised and bleeding in the cellar, and you can hear your brother and the rapist laughing together and playing cards in the kitchen above you. It was rather like that with Hamsun and the Norwegians. He was their greatest living author. Everyone had read him; Norwegians are an exceptionally literate people. During World War II, while Norway was occupied, Hamsun expressed his deep admiration for the Nazis. He gave his Nobel medal to Goebbels, and he met Hitler. When Hitler killed himself, Hamsun wrote him a flattering obituary. You can understand the scene in Christensen's Halvbroren, where the grandmother, a sympathetic character, burns all Hamsun's works in her stove. But the same book constantly mentions Hamsun's novels, and the author makes it clear how deep his artistic debt is. Jan Kjærstad, in Forføreren, has similar problems. The section on Hamsun is very interesting.

After the war, the Norwegian government simply didn't know what to do. Their solution was to determine that Hamsun was legally insane. He was also fined a large amount of money. Well, they may have been right. To the extent that the word "insane" means anything, I agree. But it was an unusual form of insanity. Hamsun had an unparalleled ability to project his feelings so that other people could experience them too; when I read Mysterier, it was almost as though I had gone through Doctor Parnassus's magic mirror, and found myself inside his crazed mind. Or, to use another analogy, remember the sequence from Mary Poppins where Bert and the kids jump into the picture; but instead of the anodyne country scene that Bert has drawn on the sidewalk, imagine that they have leaped into one of Van Gogh's last paintings. It's an unpleasant and frightening book, but a remarkably powerful one.

The language is extraordinary. Here are two passages I particularly liked, with my translations.
Det minder mig litt om en nat på Middelhavet, på kysten av Tunis. Det var vel hundrede passagerer ombord, et sangkor som kom fra Sardinien et sted. Jeg hørte ikke til selskapet og kunde ikke synge, jeg sat bare på dækket og hørte på mens koret sang nedenunder i salonen. Det varte næsten hele natten; jeg skal aldrig glemme hvor det lydde godt i den lumre nat. Jeg trek i smug alle dører til salongen i; tættet sangen inde, så å si, og så var det som lyden kom fra havsbunden, ja som om skibet skulde gå ind i evigheten med brusende musik. Tenk Dem noget i retning av et hav fuldt av sang, et underjordisk kor.

Frøken Andresen som satt Nagel nærmest sa uvilkårlig:

Ja Gud hvor det måtte være deilig!


It reminds me a little of a night I once experienced on the Mediterranean, off the coast of Tunis. There were a hundred or so passengers on board, a choir who came from somewhere in Sardinia. I wasn't in their party and I couldn't sing myself, I just sat there on the deck and listened while the choir sang underneath me in the saloon. They sang nearly all night; I will never forget how wonderful it sounded in the warm darkness. I sneaked down and closed all the doors; concentrated the essence of the song, as it were, and it was as though the sound came from the bottom of the sea, as though the ship was sailing into eternity on the music. Imagine something like a sea full of singing, an underwater choir.

Frøken Andresen, who was sitting closest to Nagel, said involuntarily:

"Oh my God, it must have been so beautiful"
And later, in the scene which I think explains the title:
Stemmen er en farlig apparat. Forstå mig ret: jeg mener ikke netop stemmens materielle lyd, den kan være høi eller lav, klangfuld eller rå, jeg mener ikke det stemmestofelige, tonetillværelsen, nei jeg holder mig til mysteriet bak den, den verden som den utgår från ... Til helvete forresten med denne verden bak! Altid ska det være en verden bak! Hvad fan raker det mig?

The voice is a dangerous instrument. Understand me correctly: I don't mean simply the material quality of the sound, whether it's high or low, melodious or harsh. I don't mean the acoustic or prosodic properties. I'm talking about the mystery behind it, the world it comes from... Oh, never mind, fuck the world behind it! There's always supposed to be a world behind things! What's it got to do with me?
I'm not sure what this means, to be honest, but I feel it's saying something important. Maybe someone can explain it to me. Mostly, I feel relieved to have escaped intact from the Imaginarium.
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Reading Progress

05/31/2009 page 5
2.11% "Just started this on the plane from Philadelphia to SFO..."
06/09/2009 page 15
6.33% ""Minutten" doesn't want a beer."
06/14/2009 page 51
21.52% "Nagel describes his vision of the boat with half-moon sails. No one knows what to say."
10/25/2009 page 73
30.8% "Nagel annoys the doctor by damning Gladstone with faint praise."
10/27/2009 page 101
42.62% "Doing good by stealth can be exhausting! Especially in provincial Norwegian towns, it seems. And Nagel has some original chat-up lines..." 8 comments
11/03/2009 page 135
56.96% "Nagel enlists Kamma's aid in his machinations to buy the chair. What a strange book!"
11/05/2009 page 146
61.6% "Nagel sounds off about Tolstoy and other authors."
11/06/2009 page 158
66.67% "Nagel shows his injured hand to Dagny."
11/06/2009 page 170
71.73% "Martha takes the money out of her bodice; it's still warm. Nagel nearly does something foolish."
11/09/2009 page 186
78.48% "We finally discover if Nagel actually can play the violin."
11/12/2009 page 221
93.25% "The little bottle of cyanide makes another appearance."
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Comments (showing 1-30 of 30) (30 new)

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message 1: by Cathy (new)

Cathy Douglas Ooo, this makes me want to read this book over again. I studied Scandinavian literature in college, and this was my favorite of the modern novels we read. I remember it as being fascinating and lyrical.


Alan excellent review Manny, and sums up how I feel about Hamsun, great writer, bit of a nutter, but worse. You feel weird enjoying such a man's prose.


message 3: by M (last edited Nov 13, 2009 02:39AM) (new) - added it

M Sounds fascinating! Brilliant review Manny, makes me want to read it.
Here's a link's dedicated to Knut Hamsun ( in Norwegian, Danish, English, German, French)
http://www.hamsun.dk/uk/index.html


Manny Thanks, everyone!

Books like these do rather expose the weaknesses of the GR star rating system. I sat there wondering whether I could honestly say that I'd liked it. A lot of it was literally painful to read. But, at the same time, it would be dishonest to deny what a great novel it is. Anyway, you're warned :)


message 5: by M (last edited Nov 13, 2009 08:43AM) (new) - added it

M Inevitably, a rating system like any rating system has its own limits because it's always subjective.The combined edition "star rating system/reviews" of Goodreads gave interesting indicators with excellent reviews.
But It's also relevant to investigate ourself why we read an author, a book, a literary's gender and how we have chosen it (friends recommendations, reviews, newspapers, critics or else)
And finally, all these elements are combined with a personal, individual and cultural's equation.






Jason Hamsun's wife was the real Nazi. I think Hamsun himself at the time was rather old and out of touch and so pro-Norwegian that he bought into the idea of a new Aryan world where Norway could occupy a prominent place.

But all that late political fallout has almost nothing to do with his novels, which were written earlier.

It's strange and disturbing that some of the best writers and thinkers of the century were sympathizers or worse: Celine, Pound, Hamsun, Eliot, Heidegger, Blanchot, et al. But the world of letters would be much more paltry if we exclude them today.


Manny Kjærstad, who seems to have researched it properly, has a vivid description of the meeting between Hitler and Hamsun in Forføreren. One detail that I liked: Hitler's private secretary said Hamsun was the only visitor who ever dared disagree with the Führer. He was a strange man.




message 8: by Whitaker (new)

Whitaker I'm intrigued by the idea that the book is about someone bringing out the dark depraved side of a community and Hamsun's later sentiments. How does he deal with the moral issues in the novel?


Jason In the film "Hamsun" (played by von Sydow) there's a terrific scene of that meeting. Hitler only wants to discuss art and literature and Hamsun keeps trying to force a conversation about Norwegian politics. At an impasse, the men drift into an frustrated silence.



notgettingenough After the war, the Norwegian government simply didn't know what to do. Their solution was to determine that Hamsun was legally insane.

Fascinating. That was exactly the fact of Ezra Pound too. What a comment on our society.


message 11: by Manny (last edited Nov 13, 2009 11:06PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Manny Well, I was thinking about this. The obvious alternative was to try him for treason, but it seems like people decided that this would not have been in Norway's best interests. From the Wikipedia article:
A week after Hitler's death, Hamsun wrote a eulogy for Hitler, saying “He was a warrior, a warrior for mankind, and a prophet of the gospel of justice for all nations.” Following the end of the war, angry crowds burned his books in public in major Norwegian cities. After the war Hamsun was confined for several months in a psychiatric hospital. A psychiatrist concluded he had "permanently impaired mental abilities", and on that basis the charges of treason were dropped. Instead, a civil liability case was raised against him, and in 1948 he was fined 325,000 kroner for his alleged membership in Nasjonal Samling but was cleared of any direct Nazi affiliation. Whether he was a member of Nasjonal Samling or not and whether his mental abilities were impaired is a much debated issue even today.
Going back to first principles, it seems plausible to me to call someone insane if they have strongly held irrational beliefs that make them dangerous to themselves or others. At least, that seems to me to be consistent with the way the word is normally used.

Though, on that definition, you could perhaps say that the 9/11 hijackers were insane, or that many Scientologists are, and people would in general be reluctant to do that. So yes, as the article says, "much debated".


message 12: by notgettingenough (last edited Nov 14, 2009 03:41PM) (new)

notgettingenough Manny wrote: "Going back to first principles, it seems plausible to me to call someone insane if they have strongly held irrational beliefs that make them dangerous to themselves or others. At least, that seems to me to be consistent with the way the word is normally used...."


Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. Shakes her head. Glad she didn't have a cup of tea to knock over while reading this.

Welcome to Soviet Russia, Manny. Welcome to the reprogramming camps of Mao's China or any other place in the world where dissidents are punished for how they think. Although I rather think in some of these places there is less hypocrisy. The dissident is not necessarily subject to the dishonest indignity of being declared insane. He is merely acknowledged to be an enemy of the State.

Here in the West we all just do it in some way we think sits better with our scruples. If we call the person insane we are putting the blame for what happens to them next on their shoulders rather than on ours. 'It had to be done. We didn't have a choice.'

Nor do 'strongly held irrational beliefs that make them dangerous to themselves or others' have to pertain to politics. They may also be social. It has only been over the course of part of my lifetime that women in the West have not routinely been declared insane and incarcerated for their strongly held dangerous views to do with their moot rights as human beings. And that's only in nice Western democracies. I dare say there would be many countries in which it is still a commonplace that women are declared insane for their dangerous social views.

I don't see how you can have it both ways, Manny...given that I expect you are going to say you disapprove of the Soviet and Maoist way, not to mention the idea of incarcerating women at the drop of a hat. Do tell!


message 13: by Whitaker (new)

Whitaker Hmmm, read your reviews on Hunger and Victoria. His books seem all very depressing. Are there any that aren't and that you would recommend?


message 14: by Stephen (new)

Stephen Very powerful review. Very powerful, Manny.


Manny Not, I am well aware that states have widely abused the notion of "insanity" to repress their subjects, and that many influential thinkers have felt as a consequence that they had to deny the validity of the concept itself. For example, see Madness and Civilization. But the key word there is "abuse". To take what to me seems a clear-cut example, a schizophrenic who hears voices telling him to kill people should be locked up. There were some tragedies in Britain during the 90s, when overly liberal policies released people into the community who were not ready to handle freedom.

At the other end of the spectrum, you have the examples you quote from Soviet Russia, etc, where people were classified as insane because they didn't believe in the right brand of Marxism. I would argue that the difference is that there's a clear argument in the first case that the schizophrenic is dangerous, and a very weak one in the case of the dissident.

Consider too what the political climate was like in previously occupied countries during the period immediately after the end of WW II. Many collaborators were put on trial and executed, or thrown into prison. Many more were subjected to summary extra-judicial killings. This is described well in de Beauvoir's Les Mandarins, which stresses the breakdown in normal concepts of morality.

Hamsun was about 85, and a trial would not have served any purpose. If the State had done nothing, he might well have been assassinated by a patriot who was sufficiently angry with him. I don't think they picked a bad solution, though, as we can see from the fact that we're having this discussion, it's still controversial.

Whitaker, those are the only books by Hamsun that I've read. Victoria is definitely the least depressing of the three.

Thanks everyone for the kind remarks!





message 16: by notgettingenough (last edited Nov 15, 2009 06:04PM) (new)

notgettingenough Manny wrote: "To take what to me seems a clear-cut example, a schizophrenic who hears voices telling him to kill people should be locked up. There were some tragedies in Britain during the 90s, when overly liberal policies released people into the community who were not ready to handle freedom.

At the other end of the spectrum, you have the examples you quote from Soviet Russia, etc, where people were classified as insane because they didn't believe in the right brand of Marxism. I would argue that the difference is that there's a clear argument in the first case that the schizophrenic is dangerous, and a very weak one in the case of the dissident."


Manny, I'm not sure what you are saying here. We are talking specifically of people being judged insane on the basis of their political views, are we not? I'm not suggesting that nobody should be in institutional care due to their mental state.

In fact in Australia too that policy was implemented in the 1990s of letting people back into the community who needed the safety of institutionalisation. It was only in disguise a liberal policy, however. The point was to save money whilst crying that it was socially caring. In at least some cases it was conservative governments implementing the policy across Australia. In practice it was anything but caring. It was horrific.

A while ago I saw a moving interview with the politician in NSW who had been Minister for Health at the time the policy was adopted there. He lost not one but two sons to the policy. Two young men who needed institutional care and did not receive it. They both killed themselves. He bitterly regretted his part in their deaths. And yet nothing has been done about these polices as far as I can tell.

But what a dangerous idea to implement, that one might be found insane on the basis of having dissident political/social views, which seems to have been the case for both Hamsun and Pound and countless others, I dare say.

Hamsun was about 85, and a trial would not have served any purpose. If the State had done nothing, he might well have been assassinated by a patriot who was sufficiently angry with him. I don't think they picked a bad solution, though, as we can see from the fact that we're having this discussion, it's still controversial.


How interesting. Insanity as a form of protection by the State. Do you think that Hamsun himself might have preferred to be assassinated with his sanity not in doubt? I wonder.

Consider too what the political climate was like in previously occupied countries during the period immediately after the end of WW II. Many collaborators were put on trial and executed, or thrown into prison. Many more were subjected to summary extra-judicial killings. This is described well in de Beauvoir's Les Mandarins, which stresses the breakdown in normal concepts of morality.


I would not past tense this behaviour. Even now Western citizens who believe in the principle of innocent until proven guilty take on a different persona altogether in the case of Nazis.

One of Australia's best chess players for many years became a candidate for prosecution for war crimes back in the 1990s. His identity was kept secret, but one chess journalist took it upon himself to divulge the identity because he felt that this chess player, not innocent til proved guilty, deserved summary popular justice. He did so in a major newspaper. And sure enough this fragile old man suffered a series of encounters such as being beaten up and run over.

Perhaps Ozols too would have been grateful for a declaration of insanity and a cozy room in a lunatic asylum compared with this fate. But maybe not?

I must say the whole experience of becoming involved with a person who may or may not have been responsible for the deaths of many thousands of people did much to make grey what might be black and white.


message 17: by Whitaker (last edited Nov 15, 2009 07:09PM) (new)

Whitaker Notgettingenough, I don't think Manny is advocating the designation of Hamsun as a general solution or practice. I think, rather, that he is saying that in this case, this was a masterful stroke of politics, a diplomatic pretence that allowed the country as a whole to get past its anger and that in the specific circumstances of this situation, perhaps uniquely so, it was the right step to take. I don't think--and Manny could you correct me if I am wrong in this--he was put away in a mental asylum or otherwise given psychiatric treatment.

Checking out his books after reading Manny's review, I noticed that Hamsun wrote an apologia for his war-time behaviour, On Overgrown Paths . The GR blurb to the book states:

the psychiatric report declared him to be sane, but concluded that his mental faculties were "permanently impaired." … During the war, however, his wife, a supporter of Quisling and the Nazis, traveled across the country reading from his work, particularly Growth of the Soil, which seemed to support notions of agrarian return by a superior Aryan peasant class. Old and confused, Hamsun traveled to Germany to meet with Hitler, hoping, he claimed, to change the conditions of occupation in Norway. The meeting ended disastrously, and after the war, Hamsun was arrested for his Nazi sympathy. As this book reveals, however, Hamsun was anything but mentally disturbed. It is a sad and tragic book filled with pained sorrow of an old man, great in stature and contribution, but completely out of touch with his own time.

Manny, was Hamsun on record as supporting the genocide of the Jews? Or simply a believer in the superiority of the white man? Or was he just someone who believed in the wholesomeness of peasant living and return to the fatherland type ideology?



message 18: by notgettingenough (last edited Nov 15, 2009 11:06PM) (new)

notgettingenough Whitaker wrote: "Notgettingenough, I don't think Manny is advocating the designation of Hamsun as a general solution or practice. I think, rather, that he is saying that in this case, this was a masterful stroke of..."

Hi Whitaker, Thanks for giving me your thoughts. But nonetheless we are left with the idea of States or power groups within a society taking away a person's sanity in order to deal with a problem. Frightening stuff!

It is certainly not unique. Pound was actually incarcerated as well as declared insane for being a supporter of Fascism. His friends had to agitate for years to get him released.

Curiously, I think Wodehouse was left alone despite his work for the Nazis. Is that a difference in State between Norway, the US and England? Or is it a reflection on the artist in each case? I wonder.




message 19: by Whitaker (last edited Nov 15, 2009 11:28PM) (new)

Whitaker Notgettingenough wrote: "I still don't understand how it is that we can disapprove of one State doing this and approve of another. Ie I don't quite see how it is that what makes the action right or wrong is the ideology of the State concerned."

Well, we generally acknowledge that most rules have exceptions. Lying is bad, but it's considered okay if you are lying to a Nazi stormtrooper by saying, "No, there are no Jews hiding in my house." Or if your wife asks you if she looks fat in her dress, and you say, "Of course not, honey." (Okay, maybe that comes under self-defence). Killing is bad, but is usually considered okay if it's to defend oneself or one's country.

I agree that the use of a claim of insanity for political reasons is generally bad, but perhaps this case might be considered an exception along the lines of, "No, there are no Jews hiding in my house."

PS: I hadn't realised that Pound was treated that way. That's quite vile, especially in the land of "free speech".


notgettingenough For me the problem is that I can't see the difference between this and, for example, Western States doing the same thing to homosexuals, women...any group with dangerous political/social dissident ideas.

If you take it further, these particular cases involving Nazi/Fascist sympathisers/supporters belong in that same group, don't they? Western States who have historically routinely taken the same steps in the case of homosexuals equally believed they were doing the right thing and would, no doubt, have had similar support from the population at large.

I'm wondering about something else...Manny, you found it difficult to read this book because of your knowledge of the author's political beliefs. Does the same apply to music? To visual art? Is it only the fact that we have a special relationship to words that make the writer particularly vile, or potentially so? Or is the composer and artist so as well? This is off the topic, but.




notgettingenough Whitaker wrote: "I hadn't realised that Pound was treated that way. That's quite vile, especially in the land of "free speech"

That's my point, though. Why would/should he have been treated differently from Hamsun? Why does one have any confidence that the line would be drawn in a good way? Too scary for me!



message 22: by Anne (new) - rated it 4 stars

Anne I was sent to Manny's to check out translation issues and found so much else :-)

Hamsun depressing? How? Where? Never thought about that. I find his writing poetic, disturbing and/or funny, but depressing?

Whitaker wrote: Manny, was Hamsun on record as supporting the genocide of the Jews? Or simply a believer in the superiority of the white man? Or was he just someone who believed in the wholesomeness of peasant living and return to the fatherland type ideology?
None of the above. The wholesomeness of peasant living, yes, but I can't see the fatherland thinking in there. Mind you, exaggerated romatic views about peasant living is a genre in itself and has been since antiquity. In Under the Autumn Star (Under Høststjærnen, in arcaic Hamsun Norwegian) he writes about a country boy turned city/café-man who tries to go back to the country life, but really can't. A novel that grew on me :-)


Manny Thank you Anne! You make me want to go back to Hamsun. But I'm astonished to hear you say you don't experience him as at all depressing. For example, in this book Nagel steadily becomes more and more out of touch with reality and ends up killing himself? And I found the descriptions of being hungry and desperate in Sult extremely painful. I get the impression though that people read him in different ways - Jessica Treat said similar things about Sult.

Your comments on his links to Nazi ideology are illuminating... maybe I will finally understand that one day. Will see if I can get hold of a copy of Under Høststjærnen...


message 24: by Anne (new) - rated it 4 stars

Anne Well, Nagel is depressed, but I don't find the book depressing. Is that possible? Hm.

We must remember that he wrote quite a lot before Nazism was even invented. His idead weren't uncommon in his day, like the romantic view on country living, but some took that thinking in an awful direction. An explanation often used in Norway, is his admiration for anything German and disgust of anything English; That his support of the Nazis wasn't necessarily ideology. Another explanation is his admiration for the independent soul,i.e the strong man. I think of Nagel or August, and I don't really understand this view. Those "heroes" never lead their community or anything like that. They're independent from everyone and everything, and that's pretty far away from Nazi thinking.

Hamsun writes very little on Jews, (there has never been a large Jewish community in Norway), and what he writes reflects the prejudice of the day: They are all tradesmen, but I can't remember anything mean.

BTW, I inherited a 1936-edition of Hamsun's Collected novels from my resistance grandfather. He fought the Nazis and had little understanding for Hamsuns political views, but he still admired his works. Burning books was out of the question! In fact, the burning has only recently been discussed in Norwegian media, I had no idea until a couple of years ago. I mean, burning books? Who the hell does that? Except Nazis and anti-fascist Norwegians...


Manny Well, I'm glad to hear a Norwegian person who knows Hamsun well say they don't properly understand the Nazism either. I was wondering if it was something that became more apparent in the later books, but it sounds like it doesn't.

All I know about the book-burning is what I read in Halvbroren... it was presented there as something that many people might have done. But maybe I wasn't properly getting the message. It's a powerful scene, anyway.

You really make me want to get back to Norwegian novels! Thank you :)


Andrew Schirmer This is why I love Goodreads. I, too, always thought of Hamsun simply as a byword for Nazi-sympathizer. A random Penkevich review in my feed brought me here. Halvbroren is in my queue, but it looks like I may have to read this first. Manny, have you seen the Hamsun film or read Hansen's Processen mod Hamsun?


Manny Logically, I think it's better to read the Hamsun before Halvbroren, though I did it the wrong way round. I haven't seen the film or read Processen mod Hamsun, I?m afraid! Both sound very interesting.


message 28: by Elena (last edited Mar 16, 2013 01:47PM) (new) - added it

Elena Holmgren Ahem, nobody escapes intact from -any- imaginarium, though we like to think so - that's just a self-preserving illusion kicking in.

This Hamsun fellow seems like a good place to start digging a little deeper into the labyrinths of the mind.


Manny Good point about not escaping intact. And yes, you could find worse places to dig.


message 30: by Rahul (new) - added it

Rahul Great review Manny, with superb choice for excerpts. FUCK Goodreads for threatening you with account deletion.


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