Forethoughts: Mysteries by Knut Hamsun

Note: My afterthoughts for this novel have now been posted.

And so dear reader I finally bring myself to the reading project I set up for myself in September of last year (2009). The project, christened Totally Knut, will see me chronologically working my way through the translated bibliography of Knut Hamsun, with the journey beginning as of now with Hamsun’s 1892 novel, Mysteries. As I always like to do before setting off on any literary journey, I present to you my forethoughts.

Of course, by rights my journey through the literary works of Knut Hamsun should begin with Hamsun’s debut novel, Hunger (first published in 1890). But because I already read that one back in July 2008 (it was the novel which gave me my first introduction to the wonderful literature of Hamsun), I will instead be starting with Mysteries, Hamsun’s second novel, published in 1892). Before I begin to offer up my initial thoughts on Mysteries however, I’ll give you a run down on the cover blurb which accompanies the translated edition I’m reading, from Souvenir Press:

Mysteries is a classic of European literature, one of the seminal novels of the twentieth-century. It is the story of Johan Nagel, a strange young man who arrives to spend a summer in a small Norwegian coastal town. His presence acts as a catalyst for the hidden impulses, concealed thoughts and darker instincts of the local people. Cursed with the ability to understand the human soul, especially his own, Nagel can forsee, but cannot prevent, his own destruction.

So it all sounds a bit heavy and full-on doesn’t it (even a bit..gasp..existential :)); no ‘fun read’ some might say. Well if it’s any conciliation the blurb for Hunger reads pretty the same, and that turned out to be one of the most remarkable works of fiction I’ve ever read. And while I’m not expecting Mysteries to reach the same euphoric level of reading experience that Hunger did – mainly because Mysteries standing in the literary world has never reached the same levels as that for Hunger – I’m confident that a good read may lay ahead.

Actually, for anyone who’s ever read Hunger, the link to Mysteries may be a little closer than we may think, if Hamsun biographer Hanna Astrup Larsen is to be believed. In her 1922 biography on the Norwegian literary great (available to read for free HERE), Larsen states that Nagel – the central figure of Mysteries – is ‘a reincarnation of the nameless narrator of Hunger, a few years older, gentler, but no less erratic, and even more sensitive.’ If true then this is an exciting prospect for me, because I did bond quite profoundly with the unnamed star of Hunger, with the empathy I felt for him being nothing short of absolute.

So what else do I know of Mysteries? Well, Ingar Sletten Kolloen in his most excellent biography on Hamsun, Knut Hamsun: Dreamer and Dissenter (Yale University Press), tells us that Mysteries had a rough ride initially, as accusations of plagiarism surrounded Hamsun, weeks after he had sent the final manuscript of the novel off to the typesetters. It appears that a short story penned by Hamsun (Hazard) had been read by an eminent German theatre critic, who then publicly slated Hamsun in a Berlin magazine for having a story which so closely resembled Dostoevsky’s The Gambler; so close in fact that the critic accused Hamsun of stealing the work of the Russian writer.

The knock-on effect of these accusations was devastating for Hamsun at what was a critical time for the success/failure of Mysteries. Publishers and translators suddenly turned their back on this latest novel from Hamsun, and critics – especially the German ones – were vehement in their dislike of it. Worst of all was the turnaround of the one man who could refute these damaging claims of plagiarism, Olaf Thommessen – editor of Norwegian newspaper, Verdens Gang – who allowed a review of Mysteries to be printed in which Hamsun was described as a ‘pitiful but opportunistic imitator of modern Russian literature, who has written a book about a mentally disturbed and abnormal figure who bears a striking resemblance to the author himself’. Not very helpful at all, as I’m sure you’ll agree fellow reader.

So not the best of starts for Hamsun’s novel amidst all of these claims of literary theft. And it looks like not a lot of support was shown for Mysteries initially, aside from, as Kolloen suggests, the Norwegian writer Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, who singled the novel out as one of the great works. And it seems to me that this level of marginal support for the novel has stuck with Mysteries ever since, with it being one of the lesser known, least-favoured of Hamsun’s novels, especially when put next to the real literary ‘jewels’ in Hamsun’s bibliography, Hunger, and Hamsun’s Nobel prize winning epic, Growth of the Soil. Perhaps all the more reason to read it then, given its understated existence.

Before I close these forethoughts on Knut Hamsun’s Mysteries, I should perhaps offer some information on the translated edition of the novel I’m reading. First published in the US by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, the edition I’m reading is UK one, published by Souvenir Press. The translation is by Gerry Bothmer, a translator I’ve heard of vaguely but have never read.

So for now what more can I say? I come to Mysteries with high expectations, but I’m not sure if those expectations are going to be fully met. If the novel turns out to be, as Larsen says, something of a ‘sequel’ to Hunger, then I’m sure I’m in for real treat. But on the grapevine I’ve also heard that this is a tough novel to work out; it’s a bit dense and allegorical. So perhaps this is rather an apt title with which to kick off my Totally Knut reading project, for nothing is more mysterious to me right now than this novel is. Wish me luck fellow reader, and remember you can always follow my reading progress through the virtual pages of my Reading Journal.

I’ll be back with my full afterthoughts on this as soon as. In the meantime I’d love to hear your thoughts on Mysteries, and on Knut Hamsun in general. Have you read Mysteries yourself? How did you find it? How do you find Hamsun’s writing in general? Drop any comments below and I’ll be happy to respond to them.

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

A note about forethoughts
‘Forethoughts’ offer an insight into what my initial thoughts and impressions of a book are before I begin reading it. Informal, and largely written as a stream-of-consciousness exercise in a single sitting, my ‘forethoughts’ capture an important stage of the reading experience for me – the anticipatory period before the book is first opened, when my excitement is piqued for the reading experience which lies ahead.

Blissfully ignorant my ‘forethoughts’ may well be, but when combined with my eventual ‘afterthoughts’, the result is a unique and comprehensive record of a very personal literary ‘journey’ through a particular book; a literary journey which will hopefully be of some value to other readers.

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).


  1. donald kerr says:

    in anticpation of giving a paper on hamsun here at otago university come november, I am working through my own pet project: an english language bibliography of hamsun’s works, based very much on my personal collection. SNAP! Ostby is there, but entries are skimpy at best. strong reliance on e-book sites, e-bibliographies, and books sighted in various institutions around the world.

    Donald Kerr

    • Rob (Twitter: robaroundbooks)

      Dear Donald,
      I wish you well in presenting your paper on Hamsun. How exciting. And yes. the Internet seems sadly lacking in Hamsun information, and indeed bibliographies. You may be interested in taking a look at my introduction page for my Totally Knut reading project. I list a few books there that you may or may not be aware of.