From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
In this intensely psychological Modernist novel, the community of a small Norwegian coastal town is "[shaken]" by the arrival of eccentric stranger Johan Nagel. An eccentric stranger who proceeds to shock, bewilder, and beguile its bourgeoisie inhabitants with his bizarre behavior, feverish rants, and uncompromising self-revelations. He does not reveal a complete and thorough past—partly because he guiltily enjoys the shroud of mystery people pin on him—partly because he can not come to grips with it himself. He is a man able to intelligently articulate on the scope of man's most pressing questions of existence, but struggles repeatedly with his own conscious and interactions with people.
He is a philosophical man who seeks to do good, but whose deeds are largely unaccepted. His simple wish is to have "a mission in the world", but failing this basic requirement, he seeks to somehow achieve something "that would scandalize the carnivores" of the world. Nagel gives respect to a man who is continuously maltreated by everyone with whom he comes into contact. Yet when Nagel hands this poor soul, aptly named Miniman, a letter to deliver to a particular person, Miniman refuses to comply. Nagel offers a substantial sum of money to a woman for a family heirloom, a chair, that she owns, only for the woman to refuse anything but a paltry sum for it.
He's not in town long before he becomes hopelessly infatuated with the unavailable fiancée of a naval officer away on duty. This woman has already been the rumored cause of one young man's recent suicide. Nagel, while scorning the young man's melodramatic self-demise, seems nevertheless to be rapidly heading in the same direction in spite of himself. She does not allow Nagel to become interested in her sister, an unusually plain looking woman, simply because if Nagel cannot have her he certainly has no right to her sister either.
Nagel is a complete outsider, a sort of modern Christ treated in a spirit of near parody. He condemns the politics and thought of the age, brings comfort to the insulted and injured and gains the love of two women suggestive of the biblical Mary and Martha. But there is a sinister side of him: in his vest he carries a vial of Prussic acid. Though kind of an eccentric, he seems to start to fit in with the local crowd. Despite this, he increasingly withdraws into the torture chamber of his own subconscious psyche. It's almost as if Nagel only just landed on Earth, and while he wishes to live correctly, has no idea how to do it. Nagel draws out the seemingly innocent townsfolk, exposing their darkest instincts and suppressed desires. At once arrogant and unassuming, righteous and depraved, sane and truly mad, Nagel seduces the entire community even as he turns it on end—before disappearing as suddenly as he arrived.
This is the story about the human mind. An underlying theme is the illustration of how the great thinkers of the world end up so tightly wrapped with pessimism that they are unable to function in society. Published at the end of the 19th Century, Mysteries preceded the existentialist movement but managed to underpin many of its later tenets.
- Mysteries, Knut Hamsun, Penguin Books, New York, 2001, ISBN 0-14-118618-6