Monday, May 19, 2008


I will make my character laugh where sensible people think he ought to cry.
And why? Because my hero is no character, no 'type,' ... but a complex, modern being.
- Knut Hamsun

I don't know whether Hamsun spoke these words to describe the character of Nagel in his work Mysteries, but I can say that in Nagel, he was successful in what he intended to carry out. Even though he does not want to call his hero a character, I found the (anti?)protagonist of Mysteries to be a remarkable character - for his inconsistencies and realities.

In this novel, a stranger (Nagel) lands in an idyllic, 'simple' coastal town of Norway, for no particular reason. In his unexplained, eccentric existence, he throws the apparently well-formed community into a commotion, bringing out the subtle evil and in-equations amongst the people. Throughout the story, everyone tries to unravel the mysteries behind this stranger - the town, the reader and most of all Nagel himself, who seems to be as puzzled by his actions as others are. Very appropriately, even the writer seems to explore the mystery for a while, and then leaves it unfinished.

I found Mysteries to be a novel of the subconscious. Very often, Nagel seems to act on instincts, which, if he explores, turn out to be conscious logical behavior choices. There are many dreams and memories that seem to guide him, and in each he (and the reader) tries to find a symbol. Although, Nagel's behavior could also be inspired by a very acute level of consciousness (as he suggests a few times), where he is able to predict the impact of his behavior on other people. In this calculation of moves, he appears to me very similar to the Johannes of Seducer's Diary, though Johannes was far more consistent with his premeditation than Nagel. In this, he is much closer to a 'normal' modern man, who is sometimes calculative, manipulative, sometimes moved to humanitarian acts and sometimes just plain silly and argumentative. It is quite remarkable that Hamsun is able to draw out these lapses into the subconscious, and so fluidly merge them into the conscious.
Apart from the symbols that drive Nagel, he himself is a symbol of modernism, as he breaks from the norms of a collective conscience and chooses personal and individual confusion. This choice may be the force that thwarts the town's order and poses a question to its apparent stability. He opposes all established beliefs, even though he may not have a very sound logical standing in negating them. He seems to uphold inconsistency, unpredictability, and risk, and is therefore dangerous to the limited town.
There is a lot that I feel like saying about this work, which I found remarkably enthralling, but I don't think I am much refined to put them down as a long essay - perhaps I will link those thoughts through in bits on the blog later. For now - I will stop at: I loved Nagel. And Hamsun. I will read more from this writer.


Alok said...

Of Hamsun's novels I have read only Hunger which is really an astonishing piece of work, one of the most amazing novels I have ever read. His Mysteries, Pan and Growth of the Soil are on my perennial to-read list! I will definitely check out Mysteries as soon as I can. Your post makes it sound like something I would really like.

The quote that you put in the beginning explains his method and conception of "character" really well. (Where did you get it from btw?) He might well be saying this in context of Hunger because it fits so well. In a traditional psychological realist novel there is this assumption that if you describe the external behavior of a person you can capture his inner mental state... or else you can describe inner state and this will "explain" his or her behavior or action... In a novel like Hunger with its radically alienated protagonist with a fragmented self this is no longer true. With excessive self-awareness comes freedom - you can choose to laugh at something that makes others cry because you are distanced and alienated from yourself. Also agree with you about Johannes. He seems "rational" and consistent but the same principle is there too. Many of Dostoevsky's characters also fit this criteria well. Underground Man is probabaly the best and the most famous.

Brian said...

I'm sure you will Hunger as well, as they are similar in their approach to the main characters-- revealing the complexities and allowing the reader to speculate wildly upon them. A much different narrative approach to Growth of the Soil. It would be interesting to know where and why Hamsun made the shift in his writing. I plan on reading more of Hamsun, so in all good time.

Madhuri said...

Alok, the quote was from a very good article on Hamsun in World and I called the Artist of Skepticism. You can find it here (I am breaking it in two lines - you can copy paste it in the address bar)

Alok said...

thanks for the link.. i actually found another nice essay in The Nation looking for the quote.

This older essay by James Wood is also fantastic. I don't know if you already read about him... his life was pretty interesting. after winning the nobel prize and being feted as a literary heavyweight.. he chose to support the Nazi party and its puppet regime in Norway, probably a case of premature senility. He was a cause of national shame in Norway and was only recently rehabilitated.

Alok said...

I mean his reputation was rehabilitated. he of course died long back.

this essay in new yorker is also worth bookmarking.