Saturday, December 20, 2008

The Curious Mr. Nagel

Several years ago I had a job at the now bankrupt and extinct Lehman Brothers. For a fair amount of time, I'd tolerably toiled for Mother Lehman and done relatively well. Towards the end of my tenure however, I started working for their subsidiary, Neuberger Berman. Neuberger was a company whose leaders submitted themselves to be sold to Lehman and then later cashed out and split town. The Neuberger they left behind was filled with people who despised Lehman and often blamed me, an outsider, for all their ills. I hated that place and as a consequence I was lousy at my job.

Towards the end of this career disaster, I took refuge in the hidden perk of Lehman's sponsorship of the Museum of Modern Art. As an employee, I got free admission. I'd often go there on my lunch break. Incongruously, I'd become a Lehman Brothers vice-president and visiting museums during lunch was something Lehman VP's simply did not do. Really, eating lunch was questionable.

One day, I snuck into MoMA to find that an enormous retrospective exhibit of Edvard Munch's work had opened. Knowing only 'The Scream', I was ignorant of his massive accomplishments. I was instantly drawn in by the way Munch could dissect the tantamount pillars of humanity: birth and death, love and sex, loneliness and jealousy.

I was needing this experience. My life had suddenly become defined by a job I hated in an industry I didn't understand in a place that didn't want me. Munch transported me away from all that and reminded me that my life should be defined by birth, death, love, sex, loneliness and jealousy. I would go back again and again to that exhibit as I grew further detached from my flailing, failing career at Lehman.

I would find this copy of Knut Hamsun's Mysteries at the Stamford Public Library's used book shop a year after I'd left Mother Lehman. In as much as I was happy to be away from Lehman, there I was again taking another subversive lunch break, only to find Munch once again, now on this cover.

Understandably, Mysteries was misclassified under the store's 'Mystery' section. I didn't know that at the time, however. All I knew was that this curious book's cover bore a woodcut by an artist I loved. (Hamsun is one of Norway's most famous authors so it was quite a short stretch for Penguin to choose Munch for this reprint).
In Mysteries, Hamsun presents a central character, Nagel, who suddenly arrives upon a Norwegian coastal town. He is an outsider and this stigma is accentuated by his unusual behavior. He is at times graceful and generous, at other times, boorish and conniving. He seems, at times, ebulliently happy but then later contemplates suicide. Slowly, almost insidiously, he inextricably weaves himself into the lives of men of authority, beautiful society women as well as undesirable fringe characters.

This book is considered an early existentialist breakthrough. Through Nagel, Hamsun creates arguments against the trivialities of life symbolized by this town. Nagel questions everything that these people hold dear and as a consequence, everything you and I hold dear.

Much of the reason I loved this book is because of Munch. My mind brought Munch to these pages, the way I would employ the imagery of the impressionists while reading Flaubert. Hamsun's Nagel also bears evidence of a delicate balance between Norwegian stoicism and outright madness that runs throughout Munch's work.

I've never been to Norway. Should I visit someday, I imagine I will be enormously disappointed should I not to encounter scenic, sylvan scenes and beautiful, crazy people.

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