The Mysteries of Knut Hamsun
Farrar, Straus and Giroux has put out a new edition of Mysteries by Knut Hamsun, which is a good excuse to discover this great book, or to re-read it if you’ve already found it. Although it’s not a new translation, it’s a nice, attractive “quality” paperback, and this new edition should make it easier to find at the local bookmart for a while (but please BUY INDEPENDENT if at all possible). There’s a new introduction by Sven Birkerts, but it’s not very penetrating, in fact completely wrongheaded when Birkerts suggests that the main character Nagel has no comprehensible character. In our current academic literary environment an author is supposed to present a character’s entire resume, genealogy, and life story instead of revealing character through ACTION, as Hamsun does. Nagel is an existential character, as we all are, whose essential nature can seem to change from moment to moment, depending on the circumstance, life being an improvisation not an academic tract.
There’s also the hoary old essay by Isaac Bashevis Singer from 1967, here presented as an afterword, that Hamsunphiles will remember as the introduction to those beloved paperbacks that introduced us to the master back in the day. Singer is quite right in insisting on Hamsun’s pervasive influence on ALL subsequent modernist writing, including Hemingway and Fitzgerald. As the most famous Jewish writer of the time Singer was no doubt chosen to write the essay in order to cleanse the early Hamsun bools from the taint of Fascism, FSG hoping to catch the hippy crowd that were digging Hesse at the time.
And of course that is the essential, perhaps insoluble question about Hamsun – how could a person who wrote Hunger, Pan and Mysteries those magical, oh so human books, play so shameful a role as a Nazi sympathizer during World War Two? Singer makes the simple argument that the great young author who produced those books had ossified into an old hack forty plus years later. Reassuring as that reasoning is, it’s clearly specious. It’s much harder to find Hamsun’s later books, but they’re still great (except of course the one the literary establishment most adored, Growth of the Soil), even his final one On Overgrown Paths which shows a enduringly keen, insightful mind and a perspicacious writer after the war. The older Hamsun lacks the fire and vitality of his younger self, but replaces those qualities with maturity, objectivity, and worldly wisdom – the later novels are less PERFECT but more COMPLETE and hardly inferior.
So Singer’s answer to the big question is facile. The film Hamsun [and just as a sidebar, there is a movie of Mysteries – known in the US video release as “Evil Mysteries”! – it has its moments but is severely hampered by the fact that the obscure object of desire, Dagny, is played by soft-porn queen Sylvia Kristel trying to go legit I guess despite the gratuitous dream/sex scene] is a good look into Hamsun’s situation and the various factors that conspired to produce so grievous an error – his advanced age, deafness, ego, longstanding hatred of the English, misunderstanding on the Nazis, the Norwegian tradition of the writer as great man on the nation, overestimation of his own influence – and also dramatizes how he dissed his admirer Hitler to his face in a way that no other man did and lived.
But in the end there’s NO EXCUSE for Fascism. It’s the cancer of Modernism, not just as a political and economic system but as a hateful way of thinking and an emotional disfunction (still quite prevalent in people like Ann Coulter – it’s sadly ironic that Bush’s latest epithet for “the enemy” is Islamic Fascists when he and his buddies could similarly be described as Christian Fascists). The sinister symbiosis between Fascism and Modernism has yet to be fully examined by literary critics, who prefer to avert their eyes, to pretend like Singer that it only attracted bad writers, thereby marginalizing great figures like D’Annunzio, Pound, Celine, Malaparte and Hamsun. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a card carrying Modernist, even in this god forsaken post-mod age, and find Fascism, far from being fascinating nauseating at the most profound level, heck, EVERY level – but we must find a way to zap the tumor of Fascism without crippling the corpus of Modernism.
Maybe the truth is, though it’s yet another truth our PC paralyzed intelligentsia refuses to engage, that bad people can write good books, and we should disentangle our politics from our aesthetics. And that’s the thing about a great book, isn’t it? Despite the sea of nonsense surrounding it, Mysteries still floats, potent and inviolable, eternally intriguing and, well, mysterious. Just read the darn thing and you’ll find out.