I was led to novelist Knut Hamsun—as I was to Blaise Cendrars—by Henry Miller. Miller talks a lot about Hamsun in The Books in My Life and also in Plexus, referring him as “the Dickens of my generation,” and saying, about the novel, Mysteries, that it was “closer to me than any other book I have read.” He admits he once tried to write like Hamsun and couldn’t. Mysteries was, he said, the “strangest” book he’d ever read, a judgement that certainly makes sense to me.
The first book I read of Hamsun’s was the Norwegian novelist’s first--Hunger, published in 1888. It’s about what it says it’s about: the novel’s young protagonist—a Hamsun-like writer—wanders around Christiana (now Oslo), writing and starving. It sounds bleak (and some of it is), but it’s really, in the end, a bracing, galvanizing, almost euphoric book. As poet Robert Bly writes in the Introduction to the Avon paperback edition, “It‘s odd to suggest that a book named Hunger is essentially a joyful book. But it is true. The mood of the prose is delight: a delight in watching the intelligence, particularly the tendency of the intelligence to play, even in deep crisis.” That’s why Miller loved Hamsun.
Mysteries was Hamsun’s second novel, published in 1892. It is like no other book.
Here’s the beginning: “In the middle of the summer of 1891 the most extraordinary things began happening in a small Norwegian town. A stranger by the name of Nagel appeared, a singular character who shook the town by his eccentric behaviour and then vanished as suddenly as he had come….”
“Eccentric” barely begins to describe Nagel’s behaviour.
Indeed he seems outlandish—but only because the things he says and the things he does are relentlessly located just a very little bit to the left or right of what is everywhere considered normal.
Nagel is a revolutionary—but in miniature. He is a surrealist—but inadvertently. Nagel doesn’t do anything wild or violent or horrifying. Not a bit of it. No, Nagel’s unforgettably bizaare behaviour is bizaare only to the degree that it always appears almost reasonable, almost plausible, almost--almost understandable.
But never really so.
Henry Miller, for example, just couldn’t get out of his mind, they way Nagel totes a violin case but carries only his soiled laundry in it. I couldn’t get out of my mind the way Nagel leaves opened telegrams sitting around that he wrote to himself, or the way he lures the town beauty, Dagny Kielland, into an affair and then does everything he can to hurt her and outrage her affections.
Often, he teases her with non-sequiters: determined to admire the medal he wears, he tells her roughly “It’s a lifesaver’s medal. It just happened to be in my pocket. I didn’t earn it.” At a houseparty he is persuaded to play the violin (somebody else’s) and does so brilliantly. The partygoers are stunned. “But you told us you couldn’t play!” cries one of the women, in ecstasy at Nagel’s performance. “But I can’t” he tells her. And so on, for 340 pages of small, increasingly irritating, puzzling, destabilizing, hallucinatory non-events that, in accumulation, nearly drive you mad.
At one point, Nagel utters to the bewildered Miss Kielland, the lines that Henry Miller treasured more than anything else in Mysteries: Nagel is recounting to another woman, Sara, certain ways by which he might discomfit Miss Kielland—however weird they might be. “I might walk up to her in the street,” he tells Sara, “within earshot of other people and say ‘Good morning, Miss Keilland! I congratulate you on your clean undergarment!’ It seems an outrageous thing to say, but I would be capable of doing it…”
Immediately after that, he comes up with another idea with which to bedevil poor Dagny Kielland (this is the one Miller loved): he decides he might conceivably enter the church on Sunday during the service, walk right up the centre aisle, stop in front of Miss Keilland and say “Would you like me to pinch your puff?” By “puff,” he explains, he “doesn’t mean anything in particular—it would just be a word to make her blush. ‘Please let me touch the puff of your sleeve,’ I would implore her.”
These are the mysteries of Mysteries. The book can make you crazy. It’s early postmodernism, I suppose (yawn), but in fact it’s real life, if you ask me.