Enthralling Books: Mysteries, by Knut Hamsun

This is one in a series of essays about enthralling books. I asked my friends and colleagues to recommend a book that took over their life. I told them the book didn't have to be a literary masterpiece. The only thing that mattered was that the book captivated them and carried them into the world within its pages, making them ignore the world around them. I asked: "Did you shirk responsibilities so you could read it? Did you call in sick? Did you read it until dawn? That's the book I want you to tell us about!" See all the essays in the Enthralling Book series here. -- Mark


Mysteries, by Knut Hamsun

One night in the autumn of 1882, Knut Hamsun's roommate returned home to find a knife, a cigar, and a note laid out on the table for him.

The note read:

Smoke the cigar and stick the knife into my heart.

Do it quickly, decisively and as a friend, if you value my affection.

Signed Knut H.

P.S. This note will be your defense in court.*

Hamsun lay asleep in his bed, underneath an angel of death that he had painted on the ceiling.

What intrigues me about this... prank? is that it somehow manages to come off as both playful and disturbing at the same time. This quality is present in much of Hamsun's early work, particularly in his second novel, the aptly titled Mysteries.

Mysteries doesn't have much in the way of a story. The very first paragraph sums up the plot in a couple dozen words: an eccentric stranger named Johan Nagel shows up in a small Norwegian coastal town, his odd behavior causes a stir, and then he disappears just as suddenly as he came. The writing style is similarly sparse, consisting of brief, straightforward sentences.

But this apparent simplicity conceals a murkier core. I've read Mysteries several times in multiple translations, and it always manages to captivate me. There's so much to chew on: from Nagel's deliberate, self-defeating behavior, to the haunting, visceral anecdotes that he relates to the perplexed townspeople, to all the enticing details and the questions they raise. What's the deal with the vial of poison that Nagel carries around? Who is the veiled woman who visits him halfway through the book? And why is it so important that he be wearing his iron ring when the clock strikes twelve each night?

The title of the book being what it is, it probably won't surprise you to know that most of these questions are left unanswered. But rather than being frustrating, the loose ends are a big part of the book's charm. They linger with me for days after I reach the last page and tempt me to start over from the beginning, so I can be shocked and delighted by Nagel's antics all over again.

*Cigar/knife anecdote adapted from Ingar Sletten Kolloen's Knut Hamsun: Dreamer And Dissenter

Buy Mysteries on Amazon



  1. Hamsun’s early writing is absolutely fantastic. Also well worth reading: “The Hunger”, “Pan” and, “Victoria”, my personal favourite.

  2. Yes, “Hunger” IS an amazing read. Probably my favorite, but “Growth of the Soil” is also especially good.

  3. Congrats on discovering Hamsun! He was a modernist well before modernism existed; his influence on prominent 20th-century authors can’t be overstated. In a similar vein, Mysteries is as fine a catalog of schizophrenia as any produced by Bleuler or Pick or those who followed. If you’re reading English translations, IMO Robert Bly’s Victoria reigns supreme for that title. Hunger (1890) makes Kafka look like a 30 year Franz-come-lately ;-) Most of Hamsun’s magic lies in the four books mentioned here, but Wanderer Plays on Muted Strings and The Women at the Pump are also worth a read.

  4. He is great, I haven’t read him for a long time but “Wayfarers” was my fave, if yr from the Scandinavian North American areas you should def check it out, it’s yr Grandparents story. I  think Hamsun won the Nobel for “Growth of the Soil” but Mysteries was my next favourite, such an odd disjointed feel. I wonder if Clint Eastwood read this before he made “High Plains Drifter”, for me it’s like a cowboy version of this book. Little people and all.

  5. I just looked up Wayfarers and found out it’s the first of a trilogy – so some new reading for me. 

  6. Hunger and Growth of the Soil are two of my favorite books. Sucks that Hamsun loved the Nazis. Great writer.

Comments are closed.