Review: Mysteries by Knut Hamsun

I feel somewhat uncomfortable expressing tepid feelings about a book that’s universally praised as a phenomenon in world literature but I was less than impressed with Mysteries. Perhaps it was that it was oversold on the back cover (the author was pronounced to have „complete omniscience about human nature“, where I only found incomplete, albeit self-absorbed, knowledge about a certain type of male person), or that I read it in 2016 with my firmly 2016 point of view, or that I can’t read much anymore without running it through the very specific lens of a host of modern values and expectations. But my ultimate impression is of a pretty worn-out cliche – though I guess it wasn’t that glaringly cliched in 1892 – of the misunderstood, tortured genius who’s enormously magnanimous but can’t ever be happy because he sees the ugliness of the world and it causes him pain, and spends all his time in self-absorbed internal and external monologues that are supposed to be mysterious and brilliant but are in fact predictable and hollow. Yawn.

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He goes around treating women and the less fortunate like children, manipulating them „for their own good“. He carries around a firm belief that he’s better than other people, expressed not only in his treatment of them, which is rarely concerned with their expressed wishes or convictions, but in his penchant for „shocking“ polite society with his disdain for popular icons of the age such as Gladstone, Tolstoy and Ibsen. Nagel experiences zero character development – one gets the idea that he’s above it, that he’s no mere mortal and therefore can’t have a story arc where he errs and learns as a result – or doesn’t. He enters the stage heavy with the wisdom of the world and exits it the same way. He has transformative power in some wretched souls’ lives, never gets any gratitude for it, or the love he clearly deserves more than any other man, and then leaves.

Apart from the general boredom of reading about the kind of (male) character/author I was taught to admire throughout my formal education and with whom I became disillusioned once I started thinking for myself, there was an extra treat in the form of Nagel’s „courtship“ of his great – tortured, obviously – love, Miss Kielland. His pursuit consists of never shutting up about himself, forcing his company on her at every opportunity, disrespecting her feelings and her engagement, stalking her (at one point he says „So I come every night to stare at your window even though you forbade me! It’s not a crime!“, no joke), forcing his embraces and kisses on her despite her resistance, threatening suicide and killing her dog. He motherfucking kills her dog. And the reader is supposed to sympathise with him and his great anguish – which he talks about while forcing the woman he’s supposed to love to endure him and listen to him after she’s told him at least a dozen times she wants to be left alone. I suppose he doesn’t see her as a person like himself, but as a personal goal. I had to stop and laugh in exasperation at some of his lines. „I’ll kill myself right here to rid you of my presence!“ he says to her pleas to leave her alone – well, you can rid her of your presence by doing what she asked and walking away. But that wouldn’t have the power to manipulate, would it? He doesn’t really care about her wanting nothing to do with him, he cares only about his not getting what he wants, to it’s either her affection or death. Accepting the fact that his feelings are unrequited doesn’t come in anywhere. His „You’ve got to give me a chance!“ – shouted at an engaged woman who’s told him expressly, several times, that he cannot expect anything of her, that she loves her fiancé and that she wants him to go away – is so depressingly familiar and modern, I got genuinely angry reading it. What do men think „Give me a chance“ means? „Let me have what I want“? Because it was made perfectly clear to him he could not have a chance. But his desires are more important to him than her feelings or wishes. Some things never do change.

Maybe I’m not sophisticated enough or sufficiently versed in philosophy to appreciate Nagel’s long monologues about greatness and the mediocrity of universally hailed great men, but they dragged so badly, I kept counting the remaining pages.

The two rather interesting aspects about the novel, for me, were the impactful descriptions, in a presciently Modernist manner, of Nagel’s episodes of altered consciousness – when he’s under the influence of opium, when he’s feverish and when he’s clearly having hallucinations. It’s a curious look at the instability of the mental state that sounds strikingly modern to me. The other thing that was somewhat intriguing was the mystery – who killed Karlsen? Was he really killed? What’s the Midget’s secret vice? And what became of him? It would usually be anticlimactic to leave such questions unanswered, but in this novel, I think it works to its advantage and fits in with the general atmosphere of uncertainty, the style of smoothly switching back and forth between traditional narration, stream of consciousness and downright surreal descriptions of apparitions, premonitions and fairy-tale visions.

Yes, I know the book is about investigating the depths and the implications of human consciousness. About how the more evolved suffer more because they understand more, about exploring the edges of the human experience of the world. I’m just not impressed with it. As usual, this theme is seen through a narrow and narcissistic perspective that confuses a limited and demographically specific personal experience for the universality of the human condition. I can’t respect that.

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