Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The Night was thick and heavy as Velvet: Knut Hamsun's Mysteries

When you have a book titled Mysteries, the author is the winner of the Nobel Prize for literature, and critics say that the whole modern school of fiction in the twentieth century stems from Knut Hamsun, than of course, it is going to be on your wishlist.

And the beginning does seem to fulfilling your expectations. A man, Johan Nilsen Nagel, arrives in a small coastal town. The day is festive as the town's beauty Miss Dagny Kielland's engagement to a handsome naval officer has been announced on the day and the flags are flying in honour. However, there is something else that interests Nagel and that is the death of a young man by the name of Karlsen who might have killed himself in despair after his love was rejected by Dagny. Soon Nagel too falls for the beauty of Dagny. However, she reminds him repeatedly not to act in an improper way towards her as she is engaged to be married to somebody else. Yet, she continues to lead him and when he proposes to another girl Martha is insanely jealous.

Meanwhile, Nagel also shocks the cloistered community by his views and rips the masks of many a face and doesn't hesitate to bare his soul too. Some of his views are worth treasuring:

I think I can detect undertones in the voice of the person I'm speaking with... When I am talking to someone, I don't have to look at him to follow his thinking. I can sense immediately if he is lying or trying to put something over on me. The voice is a dangerous instrument. I don't mean the timbre of the voice, which may be high or low, melodious or grating. I am not talking about the sound but about the inner world from which it springs - the underlying mysteries. (145)

What do people really know about life? We fall in line, follow the pattern established by our mentors. Everything is based on assumptions: even time, space, motion, matter are nothing but supposition. The world has no new knowledge to impart; it merely accepts what is there. (277)

Some beautiful imagery:

There were about a hundred passengers on board - a choral group from Sardania. Since I couldn't join in, I sat and listened to their voices floating on the sultry night air. I quietly closed the doors to the saloon, and that made the voices sound as if they were coming from the bottom of the sea; as if the ship were sailing into eternity to the strains of ethereal music. Try to imagine a sea filled with song - a subterranean choir! (71)

In fact, there are many passages detailing the evocative power of music which resonated with me since to me music is a universal language which makes an impact on the soul and brings forth all the happiness and sadness of the ages past and present.

Again I lay down and listened, and this time I heard sounds that seemed to come from a distance; marvelous music - a choir of a thousand voices, somewhere outside me, perhaps from the sky, singing softly. The music kept coming closer and closer, until finally it was just above me, over the tower. Again I raised myself on my elbow, and I experienced something which fills me with supernatural rapture whenever I think of it: a myriad of tiny, luminous figures, dazzlingly white, appeared. Angels in countless numbers seemed to be descending on a diagonal beam of light. There were perhaps a million of them, floating about in waves from floor to roof as they sang, naked and white. I held my breath and listened. They brushed my eyelids, touched my hair, and the whole vault seemed to be filled with the fragrant breath from their tiny open mouths.

I put out my hand to them; a few of them wafted down and settled on it. It was like having the twinkling Pleiades on my hand. I bent over, looked into their eyes, and realised that those eyes were unseeing. I released the seven blind ones and caught seven others, but they were also blind. They were all blind - the whole tower was filled with blind angels singing.

I lay there motionless; this vision left me breathless and my soul was in torment over those blind eyes.

After a moment or so, I heard a muted, metallic sound from afar which reverberated with cruel distinctness for a long time; it was the town clock again - this time striking the hour of one.

Suddenly the angels stopped singing. I saw them arrange themselves in formation and fly off. They soared up to the roof, swarming round the opening, eager to get out, riding on a broad beam of light, turning toward me as they floated away. The last one turned once more, gazing at me with its blind eyes before it departed. (114-115)

Or later:

Then, as everyone was moving toward the exit amidst loud talk and laughter, he suddenly began to play.Gradually, the noise subsided. The short, broad-shouldered man in his loud yellow suit, standing in the middle of the hall, was a startling sight. What was he playing? It seemed to be a potpourri of a lied, a barcarole, and one of Brahms's Hungarian dances. His playing was sentimental but a bit scratchy; the piercing strains filled the hall. He inclined his head to one side and took on a melancholy, soulful look. The sudden unscheduled performance in the middle of the emptying auditorium, the man's odd appearance, and his histrionic finger movements dazzled the audience, giving them the feeling that a magician was performing. He played for several minutes and they listened without a murmur. Then he played a piece that sounded like a solemn trumpet fanfare. He was standing perfectly still except for his arm, and his head was bent to one side. Because it was all so unexpected, surprising even the bazaar committee, it took the townspeople and the peasants by storm. They were overwhelmed; his playing seemed far better than it was though it was off-key and emotional. And then he played a few strokes that sounded like a desperate howl, a lament so plaintive, so heart-rending, that the audience was stunned (250- 251)

Like his creator who had his own opinion on matters (Hamsun presented his Nobel medal to Joseph Goebbels), Nagel too has an opinion (usually disparaging) on everyone from Tolstoy to Goldstone which makes for interesting reading but it is the images that Hamsun conjures up that stay in the mind. What can match the beauty of such a line: The night was thick and heavy as velvet? (113)

My mistake was to read Mysteries in the spirit of one reading a conventional whodunnit. One day, I'd like to read the book again - slowly.


First Line: In the middle of the summer of 1891 the most extraordinary things began happening in a small Norwegian coastal town.

Title: Mysteries

Original Title: Mysterier

Original Language: Norwegian

Author: Knut Hamsun

Translator: Gerry Bothmer

Publication Details: ND: Rupa, 2006

First Published: 1892

Pages: 340

Other Books read of the same author: None

New words learnt:

Barcarole: Song of gondolier, music in imitation of it

Juniper:Evergreen shrub or tree with prickly leaves and dark purple berry like cones yielding oil

Lied (leet) German Song esp. of the Romantic period

mise en scene: Scenery and properties of acted play; surroundings of an event


The book is available for free download. I borrowed it from the Morning College library [839 H189M C-1]


Submitted for the 2013 Translation Challenge

Also submitted for the following challenges: 52 Books in 52 Weeks, 2013 Genre Variety, 2013 Mystery/ Crime, The Classics, European Reading, Historical Fiction, Let Me Count the Ways, New Authors, Outside the Box, What Countries have I visited?, Wishlist.


  1. I've got this but haven't read it yet. He's not an easy writer, not one to read too quickly. I liked two of his books very much Pan and Victoria. I read them in German translations, so I'm not sure about the English titles.
    I like the imagery very much.

    1. You are not going to believe this Caroline but while I was reading the book, I kept on thinking of you - that you'll in all probability enjoy it.

      The library has a copy of Growth of the Soil, I'll see from where I can get Pan, and Victoria.

      The images he draws are beautiful. The thing I liked best about the book.

      Thanks for having a look.

  2. (came to you via the 52 in 52 challenge)

    I love that you keep track of new words you learn! Especially now that I read on my Nook, I'm always looking up definitions. :)

    1. Thanks Monika. I do underline a new word in a book but unfortunately am not diligent about looking it up in the dictionary.

      Thanks for the follow. Hope you like the posts.

  3. I am working my way (slowly) though books by Nobel winners, so I really appreciate this review. Thanks!

    And thanks for posting it on the European Reading Challenge page.

    Rose City Reader

    1. Thanks for hosting the challenge Gilion. I really liked the imagery in this book.