Afterthoughts: Mysteries by Knut Hamsun

In a Nutshell: Dense and somewhat odd, Mysteries is a novel best suited to the more patient and thoughtful reader. Perseverance with this one can bring reward however, as Mysteries emerges as one of those few novels which has the ability to change a person after reading.

*****

Well dear reader I’m done and dusted with Knut Hamsun’s Mysteries and it’s time to offer up a few afterthoughts. However I’ve got to be honest with you from the outset and tell you that reviewing this one isn’t going to be easy, because this was one of the oddest novels I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. I use the word ‘pleasure’ purposely because as odd as Mysteries is it’s also an absolute delight to read, even though it’s fundamentally a difficult novel to follow, which makes it all sound a bit paradoxical doesn’t it?

We’ll explore the paradox of ‘delightful to read, but difficult to follow’ a little later on in these afterthoughts, but for now I want to address the ‘odd’ aspect, and explain why I consider Mysteries to be one of the strangest novels I’ve ever read. On a basic level the storyline for Mysteries isn’t that odd at all. In fact it’s reasonably straightforward. A stranger (Johan Nagel) arrives in a small Norwegian coastal town and camps up in the town’s hotel. He then goes randomly wandering around the town and its immediate locale, befriending a number of townspeople and engaging in random acts of kindness (these acts usually involves the offering of monies). All very basic, all very straightforward except for one thing, the crucial word, ‘random’.

Odd relationships
That’s right fellow readers, as kind and as warming as Nagel seems to be towards most other people (in the early stages of the novel at least) his actions and behaviour are often random, and most definitely odd. And to make things more confusing the reader is often never given any inkling – or at least not immediately – as to why Nagel may be behaving in a certain way. Example? Well without giving too much away Nagel forms a remarkable relationship with an equally remarkable fellow known as The Midget (definitely the best character in the book, after Nagel). As one might expect with a name like this The Midget is picked upon by a number of people, and Nagel is conscious of the bullying. He comes to The Midget’s aid and not only offers protection, money and clothes but also friendship. It is no mystery as to why Nagel would help someone so much in need so there’s nothing odd to be found in that. Instead the strangeness comes from Nagel’s ever-changing attitude towards The Midget. Sometimes he blows hot towards him, other times cold, and it all appears to be random, and for no apparent reason. And it is the oddity in relationship that really brings along the aspect of bizarre, and it’s not just the relationship between these two persons.

I could go on and provide further examples of the odd behaviour that Nagel shows towards other people (especially women), but I would be revealing too much of the novel and turning these afterthoughts into something resembling the same length as the novel. Suffice it to say that it is the random actions of Nagel, and his often changing mood towards others, which bestows upon Mysteries the greatest sense of oddity.

Really an exploration of existentialism?
But with the oddity must come a reason. Hamsun surely isn’t being outlandish just for the sake of it, is he? Well, I’m sure he isn’t because Hamsun is a much more clever writer than that. In fact in his characters the strongest feeling I get is one of ‘what’s the point’. What’s the point in living? What’s the point in loving? What’s the point in helping others? All very philosophical, and all very existentialist in nature. I’m not surprised by this really because you may remember in my forethoughts for Mysteries that I offered the notion that the novel may be a work of existentialism. Well after reading Mysteries that’s the notion that I most definitely come away with, and this may well go a lot of the way to explaining why this novel appears so odd. Through his characters Hamsun seems to be more concerned with exploring the philosophy of existence than telling a straightforward story, and it is this philosophical probing which turns a narrative prose into something more exploratory; something metaphysical; something that could definitely be labeled as ‘odd’.

A compelling read!
Of course now I’ve said all that I’ve probably put you off reading Mysteries for life. But please I really don’t want to do that, so let me turn to the reason why I consider Mysteries to be such a compelling read. Again it’s probably all down to the main character, Nagel, and his random and weird behaviour. Nobody could say that Nagel is orthodox in his methods; and he certainly isn’t predictable. And it’s this unpredictability i.e. wondering what Nagel is going to do next, that really keeps the pages turning. Sure, the reader is often lost in a whirlwind of monologic stream-of-consciousness warbling – whose content can range from anything from trippy dreams to political opinion – but there is a real anticipation that builds in waiting to discover exactly where Hamsun is taking the reader in chapter or scene, and it is this anticipation, this compelling urge to keep turning the pages, that really brings delight, and makes me proclaim Mysteries to be such a compelling read.

Now, I’m sure that I’ve not even scratched the surface with regards to what the real meaning of Mysteries may or may not be, or indeed what the true purpose of it really is. I’m nowhere near clever enough to even begin ruminating on such a thing. However, one thing I do know for sure is that Mysteries certainly isn’t a straightforward, run-of-the-mill read. Therefore it’s definitely not a novel I would recommend for everyone. Mysteries requires a heck of a lot of thinking and a ton of perseverance to get through, and if the reader is not prepared to put that effort in then he/she will abandon it quickly.

A novel that can change you
Persevere with Mysteries however, and I think the reader will be rewarded. This is one of these rare novels where one emerges from the other side of, feeling a little bit different. I can’t even begin to explain how Mysteries has changed me, but in some small way I feel that it has. I may be going around in exactly the same way that I was before – thinking the same thoughts that I always have – but there’s a minuscule feeling in me, that a tiny, tiny part of me has changed; that the essence of Hamsun’s Nagel has subconsciously and in a way unbeknownst to me somehow entered my being, making me that tiny bit more philosophical. All very strange indeed and definitely the biggest mystery of them all.

A ‘thumbs up’ to the translator
Before I close I should probably make a comment on translation. Up to this point I’ve only read Hamsun as translated into English by Sverre Lyngstad and I found his translation to be flawless; invisible, as though the original were created in the English language. In this edition of Mysteries, as published by Souvenir Press, the translation is Gerry Bothmar, a translator I’ve never read before. Thankfully I found Bothmar to be equally as readable and I’m happy to report that I felt the same sense of ‘invisibility’ in reading this translated work, that I felt when reading the translations of Lyngstad. So consider that a big thumbs up on translation too.

In summing up then, if you have the time and perseverance for it then I highly recommend that you give Mysteries a go. If however you prefer your novels to be quick and straightforward, then Mysteries definitely isn’t the novel for you.

Rating: ★★★½☆

Souvenir Press | 2009 | £9.99 | PAPERBACK | 340 PP | ISBN: 9780285647299

Note: This novel is being read as part of Totally Knut; an ongoing reading project in which I aim to digest the entire English-translated bibliography of Norwegian writer, Knut Hamsun.

About Rob

Rob, a self-confessed bibliophile, is without any hope of rehabilitation. He gets unnaturally excited over anything book-shaped, and if book sniffing were a crime then he would have been locked up years ago (which wouldn't bother him in the slightest provided his cell was lined with books).

Comments

  1. great review rob and it really does whet the appetite and make me want to go and read some Hamsun. Although it sounds odd your passion comes through and it makes me want to go and see what it’s all about.

    • Rob (Twitter: robaroundbooks)
      says:

      Simon,
      Thank you for taking the time and effort to impart such kind and motivating words. I hope you do check this novel out, because knowing your reading choices – not to mention your level of reading comprehension – I know that you will enjoy this one.
      Warmest
      Rob

  2. I am reading Tales of Protection by Erik Hansen at the moment and very much enjoying it. Reading more translated literature has become important to me in the last few months (partly inspired by your work here!) and I am pursuing Scandinavian writers. I like your totally Knut idea – the idea of getting to grips with one author is intriguing.

    What you say about translations is interesting. I am still feeling my way with translations and forming slow opinions. I read a couple translated by Tiina Nunnally, both by different authors, and they were very elegant but had the same feel. Was that because one author was inspired by the other author, or was I getting too much of the translator’s own voice? And will I ever know without learning Danish?!

    • Rob (Twitter: robaroundbooks)
      says:

      Wow Catherine,
      Based solely on this comment, I think I’m in love with you :).

      Seriously though you’ve said some very kind things. I’m humbled but also incredibly grateful. I was beginning to wonder if my turn towards translated-fiction only (mostly) was the right move to make. And to some extent you’ve calmed my fears. Somebody out there does care, and they are listening. So I thank you for saying what you have.

      Sadly, that’s the big fight with reading works-in-translation isn’t it? One always has to deal with the voice of the translator. Take David Coward for instance. I just read an Oxford University Press collection of Maupassant shorts by him, and as satisfactory as his translations are, he has this really bad habit of making the French rural peasantry sound like they’re from the West Country, and urban peasants all sound like they’re Eastenders 🙂

      There’s nothing we can do though can we? Even if you were to go and learn Danish (good luck with that :)), the translator would become you and your own ‘voice’ may skew things a little too.

      It’s something we’ve just got to learn to live with it. We have to try and work out for ourselves, and seek guidance from others, which translator we feel is closer to the original writer’s voice (provided of course multiple translations exist for a particular work :)). Thankfully most translators do, I think, try to the best of their ability to be true to the writer’s voice (the highly credible ones especially), and I think many of them succeed.

      Something I’ve found recently though is ‘latest isn’t always greatest’. When it comes to Russian translation I thought that Constance Garnett with her antiquated and awkward early twentieth-century should be passed over in favour of the ‘new kids on the block’ such as Pevear and Volokhonsky. Now, I’m not saying that reading Pevear and Volokhonsky translations is a bad experience – far from it. But the fact that Garnett is ‘of the age’ makes her a lot more readable and accurate for me. In many ways she’s using the same vocabulary as the likes of Chekhov did, and that’s important.

      The good news on that score then, using a similar ethos of old translations are best, means we can get a hold of these old works for free, or very close to it. So a win-win situation in my book. Maybe that’s something to bear in mind with your own reading, although I’m far from being any kind of expert in opinion of course Catherine.

      Anyway good luck on your wonderful reading journey. I’ll be keeping a close and interested eye on your progress.
      Warmest
      Rob

  3. I nearly had coffee all over the keyboard there. I’m easily spooked! 🙂

    Very interesting point about the Constance Garnett. Are contemporary (with the original not with the reader) translations better because they’ll catch something of the vernacular? I’ve never seen it done but I think publishing two translations en face like they do with dual language books would be fascinating. You could construct a third text in your head from between the two. Clearly wouldn’t work with a monster Russian novel simply on size but two alligned translations, then and now, would be fascinating to see with shorter works.

    • Rob (Twitter: robaroundbooks)
      says:

      An interesting proposal Catherine! Personally though I don’t feel I need to ‘construct a third text between the two’. For me it’s all about capturing the age, so Garnett et al is all I need for that. That said, for the sake of curiosity, an ‘en face’ publication would be interesting. Thinking about it though you can easily replicate that yourself too. Just grab an old translation and a new and read them next to one another. Sorted!! 🙂

      Oh and sorry about the coffee thing 🙂