Reading Group Selection for May

The Book Beat reading group selection for January is Mysteries by Knut Hamsun. The Reading Group will meet on Wednesday, May 31st at 7pm in the Goldfish Tea Room (117 W 4th St #101, Royal Oak, MI 48067). Reading Group selections are discounted 15% at Book Beat. For more information, please call (248) 968-1190. All are welcome!

Mysteries is the story of Johan Nilsen Nagel, a mysterious stranger who suddenly turns up in a small Norwegian town one summer-and just as suddenly disappears. 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. The novel creates a powerful sense of Nagel’s stream of thought, as he increasingly withdraws into the torture chamber of his own subconscious psyche.

“It is as immediate as last night’s dream or nightmare.” – The New York Times

“Mysteries is closer to me than any other book I have read.” – Henry Miller

“Never has the Nobel Prize been awarded to one worthier of it.” – Thomas Mann
“The whole modern school of fiction in the twentieth century stems from Hamsun.” -Isaac Bashevis Singer

Knut Hamsun (1859-1952) was born in Gudbrandsdalen, Norway, and grew up in poverty in Hamarøy in Nordland. From early childhood he was a shoemaker’s apprentice, but was also a road worker, stonemason, junior-level teacher, and so on. He spent some years in America, travelling and working as a tram driver, and published his impressions, chiefly satirical, under the title Fra det moderne Amerikas Aandsliv (1889) [The Intellectual Life of Modern America]. The novel Sult (1890) [Hunger] and even more so Pan (1894) led to Hamsun’s literary breakthrough and Sult is regarded as the first genuinely modern novel in Norwegian literature.

Hamsun’s work is determined by a deep aversion to civilization and the belief that man’s only fulfilment lies with the soil. This primitivism (and its concomitant distrust of all things modern) found its fullest expression in Hamsun’s masterpiece Markens Grøde (1917) [Growth of the Soil]. His early works usually centre on an outcast, a vagabond figure, aggressively opposed to civilization. In his middle period, Hamsun’s aggressiveness gives way to melancholy resignation about the loss of youth. The decay of age is the theme of such plays as Livets Spil (1896) [Game of Life] and Aftenrøde (1898) [ Sunset], as well as of the novels Under Høststjernen (1906)[Under the Autumn Star], Benoni (1908), and En Vandrer Spiller med Sordin (1909) [A Wanderer Plays on Muted Strings]. In 1904 Hamsun also published a volume of poems, Det vilde Kor [The Wild Chorus].

Hamsun’s later works focused less on individual characters and more on broad attacks on civilization. Apart from Marken’s Grøde one should mention Børn av Tiden (1913) [Children of the Age], Segelfoss By (1915) [Segelfoss Town] Landstrykere (1927) [Vagabonds], August (1930), Men Livet lever (1933) [The Road leads on], and Ringen sluttet (1936) [The Ring is Closed].

Hamsun’s admiration for Germany, which was of long standing, made him sympathetic toward the Nazi invasion of Norway in 1940. After the war he was sentenced to the loss of his property, temporarily put under psychiatric observation, and spent his last years in poverty. A fifteen-volume edition of his complete works was published in 1954, two years after his death.

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