domingo, 2 de noviembre de 2014

Mysteries

Mysteries [Mysterier] (Penguin Classics, 2001)
by Knut Hamsun [translated from the Norwegian by Sverre Lyngstad]
Norway, 1892

Mysteries, which managed to live up to its name if not exactly its fame for me, my chief complaint being that the novel's unexpectedly dull in between its many authentically certifiable moments, ostensibly concerns the series of "highly unusual events" which takes place one summer in "a small Norwegian coastal town" upon the arrival of a certain Johan Nilsen Nagel (loc 496/6702).  Nagel, "who did a lot of curious things and then disappeared as suddenly as he had come," is a suitably enigmatic person of interest as the wraith-like center of attention in the work both because of the unpredictable things he says and does and because, as early as the first paragraph, the narrator refers to him as "a remarkable, eccentric charlatan" (Ibid.).  What's the purpose of the narrator calling Nagel out in this way?  You tell me.  However, one possible answer for the editorial is that Hamsun intended Mysteries to be an admonition not to look for causality in life or literature in the overly scripted manner practiced by his contemporaries.  After all, what better way to subvert the meaning of a text than to make the reader wonder whether either the narrator or the protagonist not to mention the novelist is to be trusted, to be taken at face value?  Hamsun, who's down on record in a Wikipedia entry with the Nagel-like comment that modern literature should reject realism and naturalism in order to dedicate itself to the "whisper of blood, and the pleading of bone marrow," is similarly hermetic and/or impenetrable throughout much of Mysteries (note: I leave you with a choice between sacred and secular adjective options at no extra charge).  Fortunately, it isn't necessary to understand his intentions in this Rorschach test-in-prose of his to be amused by them.  For example, chapters VIII and XIII both include great, slippery set pieces on the nature and value of literature in which it's not all that easy to see where the criticism ends and the lunacy begins.  In the earlier chapter, Nagel tells Dagny Kielland about an "adventure" he once had which "changes and becomes like a fairy tale" (loc 2350/6702).  The details aren't all that important for our purposes here, at least not in comparison to Nagel's explanation about how fairy tales in India differ from fairy tales in Norway: "On the whole, no one could match the Orientals' ability to hatch colossal delusions, feverish products of bridling brains."  The reason?  "It was all due to the fact that those people lived under a different sun and ate fruit instead of beef" (loc 2441/6702).  Is this all a goof on Nagel's or the narrator's or even Hamsun's part or just the effort of a brain-addled beau to keep a woman interested in him via nonstop chatter?  Whatever the case may be, the increasingly out of sorts Nagel later starts referring to other people as "carnivores" in the sequences before he pulls his vanishing act! (loc 5013/6702).  In the later chapter, a drinking party at Nagel's hotel provides our protagonist with the opportunity to deride Tolstoy as a "preacher" rather than a "thinker," a man no "deeper" than the founder of the Salvation Army in terms of his, ahem, writerly gnosis: "They sell existing products, popularize ready-made ideas," he rails, "vulgarizing them for the masses at bargain prices and causing commotion in the world.  But if you're going to sell, you must do so at a profit.  Tolstoy sells with staggering losses" (loc 3539/6702).  As the evening progresses, Nagel replies to a student's support of Maupassant "in an absurdly hotheaded manner, banging the table, bragging, attacking writers at random" and even "foaming at the mouth."  This may be a not so subtle hint that the character's views when drunk aren't meant to be taken seriously, but you'll note that the mainstream-and-middlebrow insults here are far more rabid and vicious than the ones Tolstoy endured.  Item: "If there appeared a writer, a truly inspired bard with music in his breast, you could be damn sure he would be placed far behind a coarse, prolific professional like Maupassant, a man who had written a lot about love and shown he could turn out book after book!"  Item: "Alfred de Musset, in whose work love was not just a routine of rutting but a delicate, ardent note of spring in his characters, and whose words were positively blazing in line after line--this writer probably didn't have half as many followers as puny Maupassant with his extremely coarse and soulless crotch poetry..." (loc 3712-3726/6702).  Item: A writer named Bjørnson, "a vivid, thunderous presence on our planet," receives drunken, sullen props from Nagel because he doesn't just "sit there like a sphinx before the people, making himself great and mysterious, like Tolstoy on his steppe or Ibsen in his café" (loc 3759/6702).  The point of this proto-Bernhardian insult fest?  I'm not entirely sure.  However, both this chapter and the earlier one demonstrate Hamsun's ability to engage in writing about writing in which little actual "meaning" may be visible to the naked or the monocled eye--in Nagelian ethics parlance, a fine prank on the carnivores!

Knut Hamsun (1859-1952)

My page number-less Kindle version of Mysteries with the striking cover art was read with Tom's year-long Scandinavian Literature of Doom reading proyecto in mind.  Will link to other posts on the novel besides his and Séamus' below once I find out about them.  In the meantime, some of the more crackpot religious reference variants in Hamsun's text are to be found in Sverre Lyngstad's notes to chapter XX: the chapter where Nagel tells Miniman that "in my heart, I see you as a cowardly, groveling angel of the Lord, with a kind word about everybody and a good deed every day" (loc 5507/6702) because Miniman had emptied out his poison bottle unbeknownst to him.  "I shall rip off your mask and make you betray your true nature; my blood bridles with repugnance every time I see your mendacious blue eyes, and I shrink from you because I feel you have the soul of a counterfeiter," Nagel says at one point (loc 5520/6702).  Lyngstad's footnote explains the substitution of "Jesuit" for "counterfeiter" in another edition of Mysteries.  Later in the chapter, Nagel worries that Miniman's relationship to Miss Gude is a cause for concern: "But in a general sense I may be permitted to feel distressed if you should associate with her and possibly affect her with your sanctimonious depravity" (loc 5536/6702).  Blunt language but maybe not quite as blunt as the anti-Jesuit variant signaled by Lyngstad: "P uses the phrase 'cunning Jesuitry' instead of 'sanctimonious depravity'"!

Amateur Reader (Tom), Wuthering Expectations

Séamus, Vapour Trails

17 comentarios:

  1. I enjoyed reading your review. I haven't read the book itself, but for some reason I'm reminded of Krasznahorkai's Satantango, have you read it? I think it's your description of Nagel, his arrival in a community and the sense that the narrative is a bit of a Rorschach test.

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    1. Thanks, Jacqui. I've owned The Melancholy of Resistance for years and Satantango for a year or two but have somehow never gotten around to Krasznahorkai except for watching Bela Tarr's film adaptation of Satantango which I highly recommend if you have seven hours to spare! The Hamsun/Krasznahorkai "borrowing" that Tom mentions certainly answers the similarity question better than I'm capable of, but I thank you two for mentioning that since I'll have to keep that in mind when I finally get around to K. Wish me luck!

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    2. Satantango is the only Krasznahorkai I've read (so far), and I thought it an extraordinary piece of writing, very interesting both structurally and thematically. I'd recommend it!

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    3. Thanks, I think, although now I feel even guiltier for having put off Krasznahorkai for so long! I appreciate the rec, though. :D

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    4. I just ordered Satantango (for work; library) last week. I'll make sure to read it soon!

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    5. I look forward to hearing what you make of it, Jean, since you'll probably get to Satantango before I do. Of course, everybody's getting to it before I do. Glad I was in such a hurry to buy the book at the time!

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  2. "A writer named Bjørnson" - ha ha ha ha, this is what you get for winning the Nobel Prize! Well, this and a million bucks.

    The big difference from Bernhard - or the big piece of context I am missing - is that Bernhard was specifically indicting his own culture. Nazism was the background, he was attacking not just Austrians but Austrian culture for being complicit with Nazism. There is a sense in which he is even blaming Austrian culture for the dismal Austrian response to the Nazis. So even poor harmless Bruckner becomes part of the indictment.

    Nagel's rant is something else, and I don;t no what. Maupassant, no, but Musset, yes? Bjørnson's peasants good, Tolstoy's bad - maybe there is a nationalistic element here, I don't know. As you say, there is a strong sense of the prank here, of chaos for its own sake.

    My understanding is that Hamsun really genuinely hated Ibsen, though.

    The Kraszanhorkai novel that is even closer is The Melancholy of Resistance. Some direct borrowing there.

    "unexpectedly dull" - Hamsun's art is very rough, another similarity to Dostoevsky.

    What's the deal with stripping out "Jesuit," I wonder? Why shouldn't Nagel by anti-Jesuit?

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    1. I thought even Jesuits understood Jesuitry to be a bad word and their lasting fame to be their ability to make an argument fit their purpose, whatever the apparent truth of the matter. They are the 'lawyers' of the Catholic Church and hold the same place in people's hearts..
      I didn't see any 'point' to the ranting other that the joy of ranting, which was quite enough for me.
      I have to read Krasnahorkai. Where to start?

      I really love the 'whisper of blood, and the pleading of bone-marrow' quote!

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    2. Where to start? - doesn't matter. Whatever is at hand.

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    3. Tom, I should probably be a little embarrassed about the Bjørnson thing being a lacuna and all but on the other hand I imagine the odds are pretty high that this Scandinavian lit titan was one of those many undeserving Nobel winners like Sigrid Undset or Orhan Pamuk. Still, your response was pure comedy genius! Your points about Bernhard and Dostoevsky are well taken, and I think the dull moments I encountered in Mysteries from time to time prob. have a lot to do with how much Hamsun reminds me of Dosto without me having realized it at the time. Rough art? A great way to characterize all those longwinded speeches from both writers which often fall on their faces artistically speaking! Also, I agree that Nagel's rant is pretty thorny while still incredibly amusing. As an example, one of the things I wanted to mention before running out of gas at the end was how Hugo keeps getting taken to task for that line about the sharp steel--had read somewhere that that wasn't even a true Hugo quote, which of course still leaves the question of whether Nagel, the narrator or Hamsun was to blame for the "error." A true mystery! Thanks, by the way, for accepting the challenge of this as a group read title; I look forward to catching up on the rest of the posts that are out there.

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    4. Séamus, "the joy of ranting" works for me esp. since Tom's comment about "chaos for its own sake" deftly summarizes what seemed to me to be a big part of Hamsun's bag of tricks here. Still, I didn't really want to go back and reread the novel again so soon just to see if I'd missed anything interpretation-wise (not all of Nagel's speeches are created equal quality-wise). I, too, got a big kick out of Hamsun's crackpot "whisper of blood" quote.

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  3. I've only read hunger by him and now wonder if that maybe the best known book by him but is the best at representing him as a writer I wonder rob of robaround the books highlight a few years ago a reissuse of a number of his books by a small press I may try and track a couple of those down .

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    1. Stu, I'll probably read Hunger as my next Hamsun--found him a very interesting writer although a very erratic one as well. Thanks for the tip about Robaroundbook's old Hamsun's series; I'll try to look into that.

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    2. Hunger has the advantage of it's extremely narrow conceptual focus. It has one thing to do, and it does it, over and over again.

      Clear enough why it's the most internationally famous of the novels.

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    3. Thanks for the clarification, Tom--will look more closely at your Hunger posts when I return to Hamsun.

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    4. It depends how you like your writers represented. Late Hamsun is not the same as early Hamsun, so if you want a rounded representation then you could try Hunger followed by Growth of the Soil. Those are his two extremes. Don't read Victoria.

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    5. Thanks for that recommendation, Pykk--I keep managing to forget that Hunger and Mysteries were early works, so this is a good reminder. Anyway, sounds like a good course of Hamsun action esp. since I'm all about the extremes!

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