Khoury originally published these 30 tales in Arabic in 2014, having collected them as she traveled through Lebanon with a puppet troupe during the country’s civil war from 1975 to 1990.The storytellers shared tales from their oral tradition with Khoury. Instead of a Western fairy tale’s promise of “Once upon a time,” these Arab tales begin with the charming, more realistic equivocation, “There was or there was not.” Yet Western readers will recognize the wicked stepmothers, princes in love with poor girls, plucky unloved children, sorcerers and talking animals. Rapunzel-like heroines grow up locked away from the world in stories like “The Girl Who Had No Name” and “Thuraya with the Long, Long Hair.” A huntsman substitutes animal blood for the blood of the Snow White-like damsel he’s hired to kill in both “Lady Tanageesh and the Eggs of the Tawawees” and “O Palace Beautiful! O Fancy Friend!” whose heroine sets up household with Ali Baba’s 40 thieves (instead of seven dwarfs) until an old woman shows up with a deadly apple. There’s an Aesop ring to animal fables like “Abu Ali the Fox,” about a fox taking birds under his protection until he gets hungry. However, the attention paid to bodily functions may startle Western readers. “A Cow Called Joukha” centers on farting, while a sweet romance centers on “The Singing Turd.” According to Khoury, in the oral tradition, “certain stories told by women were for women only.” Both proto-feminist innuendo—crafty women outwitting men—and sexual double-entendres abound. So “Jubayne the Fair” agrees to let an old man suck her finger whenever he wants until she wises up and runs away. And in the complex title story, a king rejects his only daughter because he mistakenly thinks she’s tried to trick him into bringing her a husband when he travels to Mecca; she seeks revenge on the young man who caused this disgrace through overt sexual trickery and bed-swapping. A funny, bawdy, occasionally gruesome, and decidedly adult collection that celebrates small cultural variations amid large universal values.
by ADRIAN NATHAN WEST
Josep Maria de Sagarra
Translated by Mary Ann Newman
240pp. Archipelago. Paperback, €16.
978 0 914671 26 8
From the mid-nineteenth century to the eve of the Civil War, which smothered what vanguardist tendencies Spain might have had, Continental innovations in literary form arrived to the country late. At worst, this gave rise to writers labouring in Zola’s shadow, forcing crude notions of class conflict and heredity onto tales peopled with stereotypes incomprehensible beyond the country’s borders; at best, it engendered a decadent, languid style well suited to the dissection of Spain’s venal elites. Josep Maria de Sagarra’s Private Life is in the second category.
A chronicle of the economic and moral decline of Catalonia’s aristocracy, the novel opens with Frederic, a drunken would-be rake, coming to in the apartment of a prostitute. He ruminates on love and gentlemanliness before recollecting his onerous gambling debts, due to be paid in a matter of days. Too poor for a life of leisure but too proud to soil his hands with work, Frederic appeals to his father, who lambasts him as a wastrel, then feigns an apoplectic fit and calls for a priest to minister his last rites. Frederic’s brother, secretly a prostitute in a brothel for the rich and dissolute, offers to pay off the debt by means he refuses to disclose. His scheme to blackmail Frederic’s creditor unleashes myriad intrigues that draw in Barcelonans from all walks of life.
The large cast of characters offers an ideal canvas for Sagarra’s withering wit. Everyone gets it in the neck: the upper classes, for whom “baseness” is a part of their “merit and grace”; the bourgeoisie enraptured by garden parties and Hispano-Suizas; and the communists, whose revolutionary fervour springs from soured religious yearnings, which, in turn, are the outgrowth of stifled sexual urges.
Private Life’s centrepiece is the 1929 Universal Exposition, when “anyone who didn’t steal simply didn’t have fingers”, and the proclamation of the Catalan Republic a couple of years later. The book’s second half is less convincing than its first; what had been a satire on manners becomes a racier, but also more mechanical, account of prurient liaisons larded with sometimes dreary philosophical divagations. Sagarra shoehorns his anecdotes into an overarching thesis about the centrality of sexual passion to social life. Thankfully, his homilies are brief, and shadow neither his ribald asides, nor his indictment of the frivolity and “mobile indifference” of Catalonia’s wealthy on the eve of the Fascist uprising.
TLS, May 13, 2016
Review of Something Will Happen, You’ll See by Christos Ikonomou. Trans. Karen Emmerich.
Christos Ikonomou’s award-winning second collection, Something Will Happen, You’ll See, is a thoughtful glimpse into the flawed and sometimes-comic existence of the working-class men and women living at the periphery of Greece’s capital.
In the opening tale, “Come On Ellie, Feed the Pig,” a woman molds halva into the likeness of an estranged lover and proceeds to eat him. In “Placard and Broomstick,” a grocery clerk mourns the death of his childhood friend, carrying a blank sign through the streets in protest because he’s “filled with an incredible emptiness.” An unemployed dockworker in “For Poor People” watches a strange woman paint an expression of a choking face onto a bollard, where a rope is tied from a boat like a noose. In the closing story, “Piece By Piece They’re Taking My World Away,” a couple spends their final days in an old house as the unique stones of its foundation are looted by neighbors and the government moves to expropriate the property.
This collection is a kind of Dubliners for the postcrisis generation and a lament for the marginalized inhabitants of neighborhoods around the shipping district of Piraeus. Ikonomou succeeds at immersing the reader, through a panoramic stream-of-consciousness method of narration, into fifteen lives where “pain and fear come later, when the wound cools.” Characters are increasingly preoccupied with memories or daydreams even as hardship envelops them. An undefinable dread lingers and builds steadily over the course of the book, leaving you feeling that the worst hasn’t even started yet, despite occasional glimpses of hope or closure.
Where there’s fault to be found with the book, it’s most noticeable in occasionally rigid efforts at Faulknerian tangents where the sentences struggle to find their footing at the expense of flow, though it’s unclear if that’s on Ikonomou or the limits of the translation. Still, the collection mostly shines, particularly in its clever symbolism and living characters. Ikonomou is an author of substance as much as style, and Something Will Happen, You’ll See is a stunning, if somewhat bleak, sketch of a country in flux.
“At times slow and monotonous, at others funny and ridiculous, de Sagarra paints a meticulous portrait of the dawn of modernity in Catalonia.” – Publishers Weekly
Read the full review of Private Life, one of our forthcoming titles here!
Time Ages In a Hurry: Stories
(Archipelago Books, 2015)
Over in Italy, Time Ages In a Hurry was one of a spate of Antonio Tabucchi titles preceding his death in early 2012. He wasn’t that old, 68, but he’d long been battling cancer, and in his last year friends and family moved him from Siena, where he taught, to Lisbon, the home of his heart. In the Portuguese capital, Tabucchi could, one last time, share the haunts of poet Fernando Pessoa, his lifelong inspiration. There too, Tabucchi had set the fiction that remains his best-known, actually composed in Portuguese, Pereira Declares (1994). In the mid-’90s this off-kilter look at Spanish Fascism won worldwide esteem, and in Italy there was a movie (Marcello Mastroianni’s last great role). Before and since, to be sure, the author had explored other locales. The novella Indian Nocturne(Italy ’84, US ’89) toured a shape-shifting contemporary India, and my favorite of his story sequences, The Flying Creatures of Fra Angelico (Italy ’87, US 2012—and on Archipelago Books, like Time Ages), time-travels back to the Florence of the Medicis. In short, Tabucchi had a restless sensibility that tried on many imaginative forms; for this, he often drew comparison to the great Italian of the previous generation, Italo Calvino. So as the cancer destroyed him, publishers rounded up whatever they could.
The final titles include for instance an assortment of travel writing, or the Tabucchi equivalent, elliptical reflections on places that mattered to him, Lisbon in particular. One wonders if a catch-all like that will see translation. But Time Ages in a Hurry, originally published in 2009, soon enough asserts itself as a text both coherent and necessary.
The book itself is another beauty of an Archipelago production, its gray cover just faintly blued, faintly rippled, while the title and promotional text are nicely sorted out between its front, back, and deep French flaps. The stories themselves all fall into a similar pace, meditating on whole lives over 15 to 25 pages (one slightly less). While they rove back and forth across the former Iron Curtain, all are distinguished by understatement and indirection, as Tabucchi characteristically takes experience towards dream. Each, however, packs an unexpected blow to the heart, a drama that mushrooms up as dislocated wanderers pore over the wreckage of their 20th Century. Everyone rises to the same desperate if quiet conviction, namely, that they may yet unearth some lost connection, some vestige, providing a stay against the onrush of the years.
Proust comes to mind, in search of lost time, but Tabucchi keeps literary self-consciousness to a minimum. Only the second story, “Drip, Drop, Drippity-Drop,” features a writer, the kind of person who references Proust’s “madeleine” when thinking of his Italian shoes, once fashionable, now broken down. So too, the piece is the only one that has much to do with Italy, but both place and protagonist come across as broken down, indeed rudderless. The writer goes unidentified, though we catch the fond nickname, “Feruccio,” used by his aged, ailing aunt. She provides the skeletal plot, the visits to her hospital bed, a bed she’ll likely never escape. The old woman’s ramblings touch on loved ones lost during the last war, while also raising the question, “do you remember how beautiful Italy used to be?” Her morphine drip provides the title, the soundtrack to the protagonist’s long night in her room, yet when he steps out in the morning the larger loss feels like his own: “How is it possible at his age, with all he’d seen and experienced, that he still didn’t know what the most beautiful thing in the world was?”
My summary emphasizes the downbeat, when Tabucchi has a light touch even with a Nazi massacre. Still, “Drip, Drop” works in a more somber key than most of Time Ages, and so one passage exemplifies the great work of Cooley and Romani, in converting this to English. At one point “Ferrucio,” in a chair beside his aunt, meditates:
How can the night be present? Composed only of itself, it’s absolute, its mere presence is imposing, the same presence a ghost might have that you know is there in front of you but is everywhere, even behind you, and if you seek refuge in a patch of light you become its prisoner.
Material like this could’ve felt leaden, starting with a question (Come può essere presente la notte?) that might seem like the opener in a Socratic dialogue. The subsequent metaphor of the ghost (fantasma che sai che è lì di fronte a te ma è dappertutto) could have bogged down in overexplanation, but Cooley and Romani get the thinking behind the omission of punctuation, or more precisely the lack of thinking: the meandering of a mind at midnight. This couple’s bicultural background —she’s American, he Italian—has resulted in a terrific fluency. I’m sorry they didn’t get the assignment on the next Tabucchi title for Archipelago, a novel due later this year.
And as I say, when it comes to drama, “Drip, Drop” feels wheelchair-bound compared to some of the later pieces. The sequence really hits its stride in stories further from the author’s experience. “The Dead at the Table,” for instance, features a former East German spy, adrift in Berlin after the Wall has come down, and “Between Generals” an Hungarian freedom-fighter, likewise knocked this way and that by the upheavals along the Iron Curtain. The narration moves like a skipping stone over the extremes of such experience, the betrayals and reversals, surprising us each time it touches down on high emotion. Then too, this splendid pair of dramas takes us to opposite poles of Tabucchi’s retrospective imaginings. The spy is forced to conclude “we missed out on the best,” while the soldier lives long enough to enjoy, in the last place he’d expect it, “the best days of [his] life.”
Time Ages intrigues in other ways as well. The number of stories, nine, recalls Salinger, and one of them, “Clouds,” presents a seaside conversation between a pubescent girl and a wounded, unhappy man. Still, that story isn’t the set’s lead-off, and Tabucchi closes it with the assurance that these talks will continue. More importantly, the girl and man see more than glass. They read shapes in the clouds, shapes that matter to them. In other words, readers shouldn’t make too much of the connection to Salinger, no more than of any connection to Calvino. The older author was always less tethered to earth, more about testing the limits of storytelling. Rather Tabucchi, forever returning to the well of saudade—that resonant Portuguese term for nostalgia—might line up most closely with W.G. Sebald, trying to read significance in the rubble of Holocausts large and small. Wherever we place this author, though, Time Ages In a Hurry must rank as one of his signal accomplishments.
Master of the Mundane
Karl Ove Knausgaard’s encyclopedic novels
By Francine Prose
From the July 2014 issue of Harper’s, pg. 90-92
Discussed in this essay: My Struggle: Book Three, by Karl Ove Knausgaard. Archipelago. 300 pages. $27. Archipelagobooks.org
Few of us are glad to be seated, on a long-distance flight, next to a loquacious stranger who ignores the signals of our open book, our headphones, the sleep mask we pull down over our eyes. Imagine, then, that the stranger in question is a craggy, middle-aged Norwegian determined to tell us everything that ever happened to him — every boyhood memory, every random association or metaphysical speculation, every song he listened to, every book he read, every detail he can recall about his parents, his first friendships, his three children’s personalities, the diapers he changed, the meals he cooked, and the highs and lows of his marriages. Would we like to hear about how much his father liked seafood, or about the eating habits of an airport Burger King customer? The situation is not all that difficult to imagine, but what seems far more improbable is that we might actually become riveted by our companion’s story.
That unlikely scenario approximates the unusual experience – and the mystery – of reading Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, a dense, complex, and (judging from the three volumes that have so far appeared in English) brilliant six-volume work, totalling more than 3,500 pages, that might be described as a cross between a memoir and an autobiographical novel. The series has been a critical and popular success in Europe, where it has won several important literary prizes. It was a sensation in Norway, its notoriety boosted by Knausgaard’s nervy decision to borrow the title (Min Kamp, in Norwegian) of Hitler’s literary call to arms and by the media scandals that erupted when his ex-wife and uncle objected to the way in which they had been portrayed.
In a masterful translation by Don Bartlett that follows Knausgaard’s tonal shifts between colloquial and the lyric, the first two volumes, subtitled A Death in the Family and A Man in Love, were published in English in 2012 and 2013, respectively. They gained a cult following, especially among writers, that has gradually broadened to include a large base of readers, most of whom agree that this is an unclassifiable work, a genre of its own. Knausgaard has frequently been compared to Proust, but in fact the two writers have little in common except the length and ambition of their books and their fascination with memory. Even at their most poetic, Knausgaard’s sentences are shorter and punchier than Proust’s, less ornately strung with dependent clauses. And Knausgaard seems less obsessed with recapturing the past than with escaping it. It is a tribute to his prodigious grace and skill that although he goes on and on about himself, My Struggle possesses not a hint of the narcissism and solipsism that tend to mar memoirs and autobiographical novels.
The third volume, Boyhood, was released in May, and is (like the first half of A Death in the Family) an account of the author’s childhood – his loving but distant mother, his tyrannical father, his adored elder brother, Yngve, his teachers and neighbors, and the local girls who become the objects of his first romantic obsessions. What Boyhood shares with its predecessors is not just Knausgaard’s alternations between narration and essayistic rumination but also its author’s determination to include everything, no matter how prosaic, trivial, or embarrassing. Nothing is held back, nothing is left out – not the party at which he gets drunk and alienates his wife’s friends, not the childhood game in which he and a friend defecate in the woods and later return to see what time and nature have done to the turds they’ve left in the forest.
Boyhood poses the same questions as the previous books: How do we construct a self from each experience and impression? How can the ghosts of the past be exorcised? And why, given the volumes’ unexceptional subject matter and the author’s encyclopedic approach, is the series nonetheless so hypnotic, a word that keeps cropping up in reviews? Why do we follow, with breathless excitement, the seventy-page account, in A Death in the Family, of the teenage Karl Ove’s efforts to procure beer for a New Year’s Eve gathering? Why do we so happily indulge his description, in Boyhood, of how he liked his breakfast cereal?
In this new volume, Karl Ove (as the character is called) could be Everyboy. He and his friends, a ragtag gang of Scandinavian Huckleberry Finns, search for the pot of gold at the end of a rainbow, play soccer, start fires, and visit the local dump to watch some guys shoot rats. They learn to swim, go fishing, pore over a treasured cache of porn. They grow older, compete on the playing field, in their classrooms, and in a school election. Karl Ove joins a terrible rock band with the generationally perfect name of Blood Clot and falls in love with a succession of girls who ditch him for more attractive and popular boys. He wrecks an early romance by persuading his sweetheart that they should try to break the local record for length of time spent kissing; he is mocked by the other kids when his mother buys him a swimming cap decorated with flowers; a family crisis erupts when he loses a sock. “Landscape in childhood,” Karl Ove writes of this lost-forever world in which he came of age,
Is not like the landscape that follows later; they are charged in very different ways. In that landscape every rock, every tree had a meaning, and because everything was seen for the first time and because it was seen so many times, it was anchored in the depths of your consciousness, not as something vague or approximate, the way a landscape outside a house appears to an adult if they close their eyes and it has to be summoned forth, but as something with immense precision and detail. In my mind, I have only to open the door and go outside for the images to come streaming towards me. The gravel in the driveway, almost bluish in color in the summer. Oh, that alone, the driveways of childhood!
Knausgaard is determined to record not only the incidents of the past but also the child’s way of seeing the world, before that bright view is dulled and tarnished by age. (In an interview with The Believer last year, he called the whole of My Struggle “infantile”: “It seems like a child has written it. There are childishness, stupidity, lack of wisdom, fantasies. At the same time, that’s where my creativity can be found.”)
The freshness of childhood, but also the fear. In A Death in the Family, we witnessed Karl Ove’s Pavlovian response to his father’s presence. Just the sound of Dad’s footsteps on the stairs was enough to inspire a watchful unease, perpetually on the brink of panic. And so too in the third volume the boyhood idylls come to a halt whenever Dad appears onstage to perform his petty acts of cruelty, impatience, and injustice. As stern, omnipotent, and implacable as the Old Testament God, Dad is uninterested in the difference between intentional and accidental, disobedience and carelessness, innocence and guilt. Perhaps it’s true that Karl Ove got five kroner from an old woman he and his friends helped by removing a fallen tree from a stream, but the punishment – slapping, ear-pulling, shouting, humiliation – is the same as if the boy were lying. When Dad’s capricious unfairness makes the child cry, his tears not only shame him but further enrage Dad, whose son is weak enough to cry like a girl. After his father punishes him for eating too many apples by making him eat so many apples he nearly vomits, Karl Ove fantasizes,
I could hurl him against the wall or throw him down the stairs. I could grab him by the neck and smash his face against the table. That was how I could think, but the instant I was in the same room as he was, everything crumbled, he was my father, a grown man, so much bigger than me that everything had to bend to his will. He bent my will as if it were nothing.
Yet Karl Ove monitors Dad for the slightest sign of approval and derives helpless joy from his father’s infrequent moments of contentment. A trip to the fish market and the record store, where Karl Ove’s choice of music (Elvis!) pleases Dad, ends with an almost ecstatic interlude during which Dad shows his son how to “cure” the warts on his hands by rubbing them with bacon grease. The pair’s tense relationship continues until, three quarters of the way through Boyhood, Dad leaves for Bergen, on Norway’s western coast, to “major in Nordic literature and become a senior teacher.” “Many years later,” Karl Ove tells us, “he was to say that Bergen was where he started drinking.”
That last sentence will be extremely ominous to anyone who has read A Death in the Family; everything that happens in the latest instalment is shadowed by what we have already read. This is the result of Knausgaard’s inspired decision to tell his story not chronologically but thematically, and to begin the series (more or less) at the end, with the death of the father whose influence he has spent his adult life trying to escape. The first volume starts with a meditation on death, features the aftermath of what may be the most horrific (and the most squalid) demise in literature, and concludes with Karl Ove contemplating his father’s corpse:
And death, which I have always regarded as the greatest dimension of life, dark, compelling, was no more than a pipe that springs a leak, a branch that cracks in the wind, a jacket that slips off a clothes hanger and falls to the floor.
For some time, Dad had been living with his mother, Karl Ove’s grandmother, drinking himself to death, while Grandma intermittently aware of her surroundings, feeble, incontinent, and forced to witness the spectacle of her son’s slow suicide, kept up with him. Mother and son have constructed a sort of fortress of garbage; the rooms of Grandma’s house are full of hundreds of liquor bottles, filthy clothes, old newspapers, rotten food; the furniture is covered with excrement. The brothers must clean up the mess. Knausgaard spares us nothing – we see the sheetless, “piss-permeated” mattress and decomposing clothes; the prodigious tubs of Ajax, Jif, Mr. Muscle, Klorin; his own bouts of weeping and vomiting.
We read Boyhood with a highly particular combination of foresight and hindsight, knowing the destination to which Dad and Grandma are heading. When Karl Ove tells us how much he loves his grandmother, who smells so good and is generous with physical affection, we cannot forget the heartbreaking old woman who will wind up as Dad’s housemate and drinking buddy, in whose living room Dad will die. Afterwards, she will try to manipulate her visiting grandsons into having a drink and will urinate on the floor in the midst of a conversation.
Boyhood captures a thing rarely seen in literature: “the conversion of a child into a person as it is happening,” as John Berryman said of Anne Frank’s diary. Reading about young Karl Ove is a bit like watching the childhood home movies of a friend – we observe the physical features and personality quirks that will harden and become visible in the adult we know. Karl Ove’s best male friend and confidant in A Man in Love is Geir, with whom he has soul-searching Dostoevskian conversations about human nature and literature. In Boyhood, we again meet Geir, this time in an earlier incarnation as Karl Ove’s childhood best friend and partner in mischief.
We already know about Karl Ove’s propensity for erotic obsession: in A Man in Love, that mania focuses on Linda, a poet and writer (and sufferer from bipolar disorder), who eventually becomes his wife and the mother of his three children. In Boyhood, too, Karl Ove becomes infatuated, this time with a procession of local girls who tend to merge in the reader’s mind into one girl whom he cannot stop thinking about, who shows a passing interest in him – and then dumps him. The naïve agonies Karl Ove endures over these crushes in Boyhood seem like innocent rehearsals for the scene, in A Man in Love, in which, rejected by Linda, he returns to his room at a writer’s seminar and deliberately cuts his face with a shard of glass. A broken heart, a squalid death, a lifelong friendship: it is Knausgaard’s structure as much as his subject that shades every moment, no matter how seemingly mundane, with significance.
In the first three books of My Struggle, Knausgaard mostly lets us draw our own conclusions about his parents’ marriage, which seems to involve efforts on the part of both spouses to find pressing professional reasons for living apart. By contrast, they contain an unusually complete dissection of Karl Ove’s marriage to Linda, alternately passionate, resentful, joyous, tedious, grateful, and contentious. In the publicity surrounding My Struggle, there’s been a surprisingly intense interest in his description in A Man in Love of his mixed feelings about changing his children’s diapers. It is rare to find a male author so engaged by (and so honest about) the profound pleasures and the numbing boredom of parenthood, and the problem – nearly always considered a woman’s problem, though serious women novelists tend not to write about it, either – of how to balance the demands of being a writer with the very different demands of raising children.
Karl Ove’s anxieties are partly the result of his fear that he and Yngve will repeat Dad’s failures, of his uncertainty about “whether what Dad had handed down to us was in our bone marrow or whether it would be possible to break free.” In Boyhood, he reflects,
I have my own children and with them I have tried to achieve only one aim: that they shouldn’t be afraid of their father. They aren’t. I know that. When I enter a room, they don’t cringe, they don’t look down at the floor, they don’t dart off as soon as they glimpse an opportunity, no if they look at me, it is not a look of indifference, and if there is anyone I am happy to be ignored by, it is them. If there is anyone I am happy to be taken for granted by, it is them.
By the time we reach this section, we understand what this small familial happiness has cost him. Karl Ove struggles with the shaming but undeniable fact that pushing a stroller and bringing his children to classes and parties makes him feel emasculated. In the second book, we read about the toll taken on both Karl Ove and Linda by their bickering over housework and child care:
I wanted the maximum amount of time for myself with the fewest disturbances possible. I wanted Linda, who was already home looking after Heidi, to take care of everything that concerned Vanja so that I could work…All our conflicts and arguments were in some form or another about this, the dynamics. If I couldn’t write because of her and her demands, I would leave her, it was as simple as that…The way I took my revenge was to give her everything she wanted, that is, I took care of the children, I cleaned the floors, I washed the clothes, I did the food shopping, I cooked and earned all the money so that she had nothing tangible to complain about, as far as I and my role in the family were concerned. The only thing I didn’t give her, and it was the only thing she wanted, was my love. That was how I took my revenge.
The very things that keep Karl Ove from writing – the responsibilities of being a husband and a father – become the subject of his writing in the moments he is freed from them. Whereas many novelists take us on the whaling voyage or the safari – as far as possible from the trivia of daily life – Knausgaard trains his eye entirely on trivia, making from it an orchestral plot peopled by characters who happen to be his family (or himself). In his completist determination, he is willing to surrender his privacy, his dignity, and the impulse to seem like a good person. As Knausgaard told The Paris Review last year, it was in fact “the belief that the feeling of shame or guilt signified relevance that finally made me write about myself, the most shameful act of all.”
There are few activities more private or intimate than reading. It is something we do in solitude and quiet, yet the paradox is that when we read we are allowing – inviting – another voice to speak to us, in silence. The voice of My Struggle – as well as its cast – take up permanent residence in our consciousness. For how can we not be changed by 3,500 pages of such personal narrative? Afterward, we can never see a father pushing a stroller or a boy riding his bike without thinking of Karl Ove. Indeed, our interest is sustained in large part by our relentless, almost brutal intimacy with the characters: they are a family we know almost as well as we know our own.
by Michelle Kyoko Crowson
Wilma Stockenström’s The Expedition to the Baobab Tree—translated by J.M. Coetzee—is a portrait of slavery and dislocation. First published and translated in the 1980s, the novel is a first-person account of a nameless young African girl and former slave who has clawed her way to a peculiar sort of freedom. She was torn from her home village at a young age, and proceeded to spend her youth in sexual slavery to several rich men in a prosperous coastal town. Her last owner, a sea captain in search of inland adventure, drags her along on his journey to the African interior in search of a mythical city. The narrator accompanies her new master on an expedition into unfamiliar terrain and the party gets lost, wandering into increasingly dangerous territory. One by one her travel companions die or disappear, until she finds herself alone in the veld, finally finding shelter in the hollow of a massive baobab tree. The baobab has a thick trunk that expands and contracts with the seasons. When we first encounter the narrator she is wedged in the tree’s hollow. With few tools to help her survive and no means to measure the passage of time, she spends her new life in a solitary and malnourished state, filling her days with memories of the past. We come to understand the story of her life through these recollections, starting with her first experience as a slave and ending with her journey to the baobab tree.
Ben Lerner dissects My Struggle, Books One, Two and Three for the London Review of Books:
“Reading Knausgaard is like the first time one looks at Google Earth: from space you can zoom in on the continent, then the country, then the town where you grew up; you can click on ‘street view’ and walk up to the house where you were born. It’s all there, just keep clicking, you might even see, one imagines, your younger self climbing a tree or disappearing around the corner on a BMX. Perhaps it’s less that we identify with the particular experiences Knausgaard recounts than that his writing makes us feel we might be able to recall our own past, near or distant, with all the texture and urgency of an inhabited present. This is why the extreme inclusiveness of Knausgaard’s attention – and the flatness of the language in which it’s conveyed – is so important: it feels universal, less interested in the exceptional life than in the way any life can feel exceptional to its subject (even if it sometimes feels exceptionally boring). Much of My Struggle isn’t a story so much as an immersive environment…a work of genius, a fictional farewell to literature.”
Ted Weesner reviews My Struggle, Books One, Two and Three for the Boston Globe, saying, “artifice can be beautiful but how bracing it is to read (and feel) as if you are living truly, faithfully, candidly on the inner track of a real and thinking consciousness in more or less real time?”
“What others might cast off, he picks up, wipes clean, narrates in real time, and seals in amber.”
“Intellect Is Everything”
by Thomas Meaney
Karl Ove Knausgaard
My struggle: 3
496pp. Harvill Secker. £17.99.
Translated by Don Bartlett
978 1 8465 5722 4
There was a time when artists concealed themselves behind their work. The idea of revealing the trifling incidents of their lives may never have occurred to them. It is difficult to imagine Shakespeare or Racine recording their daily trivia for other people’s interest. Perhaps they even wanted to distort the image of who they were. The art of their time was still filled with the exalted poses of heroes and saints. There was an advantage in this: expectations of authenticity exact a toll on today’s novelists, and those who base books on their own lives sometimes seem unconvinced, or embarrassed, by their search for meaning. They take comfort in psychology, which promises to lend their actions intrinsic value. But only rarely do they treat the fragments of their lives as parts of a greater whole and impose a higher coherence.
In the past half-decade in Norway, a writer has recast the confessional novel in hyperbolic form. Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six-volume, 3,600-page My Struggle is a mercilessly quotidian epic of the author’s journey from boyhood to fatherhood. It is not so much original as extremely, almost fanatically, untimely. Knausgaard’s narrator openly longs for the opposite shore of the Enlightenment, when social life, he likes to think, was saturated with purpose and meaning. But he also believes there is no going back; that he must make his home in a disenchanted world. He often rails against the evaluations of psychology, but while doing so gives us a sharp sense of his inward irradiations. His solution is not to ignore or transcend or even aestheticize the indignities of day-to-day living – the pram-pushing, the nappy-changing, the school run – but to linger for a while over every difficult inch.
The opening volume of My Struggle – A Death in the Family – opens with an account of the death of a heart. “For the heart, life is simple”, Knausgaard writes, “it beats for as long as it can.” The author goes on to describe the entry of bacteria into the bloodstream, which seem to abide by a kind of “gentleman’s agreement” with the dying body. When they arrive at the heart, the bacteria find it “strangely desolate”, like “a production plant that workers have been forced to flee in haste, or so it appears, the stationary vehicles shining yellow against the darkness of the forest, the huts deserted, a line of fully loaded cable-buckets stretching up the hillside”. This is very fine writing – how close that “shining yellow” comes to turning the simile rogue with its excessive naturalism – but Knausgaard only keeps it up for a few pages, as if to sharpen the contrast with what follows. His overture signals that he knows “good writing”, that he can perform it, but that his novel will be about things that virtuosic writing cannot get at. Within a few pages, like the bacteria entering the corpse, Knausgaard starts to invite clichés into his work: things start flowing through his hands “like sand” and “falling like the drop of a hat”. What is mysterious is how the gamble pays off: the flattening of the prose only seems to contribute to its magnetism.
Knausgaard’s style in My Struggle marks a break with the flourish-prone prose of his previous novel, A Time to Every Purpose under Heaven (reviewed in the TLS, February 6, 2009), which, among other things, treated the book of Genesis as a mere reduction of a more psychologically complicated and morally ambivalent epic set in Norway. In an interview with the Paris Review last December, the author partly credited his scaling down of tone with his revelation at reading the Swedish playwright Lars Norén, whose 1,680-page diary caused a scandal in the Stockholm theatre world when it was published in 2008. En dramatikers dagbok, which Norén retrospectively called a novel, heaped venom on Norén’s fellow directors and actors, and recounted his life in unsparing detail. Here is a typical entry:
“I was sitting watching a worthless Harrison Ford movie when I suddenly got a bad bout of stomach cramp. Went to the lavatory. Shit on my shorts. Mainly blood. A significant amount. I cleaned up, washed my clothes, hung them up to dry, packed my rucksack, shoved in cigarettes, glasses, book, money. Phoned the emergency room at Danderyds Hospital, but the nurse who answered said she didn’t think I needed to come in. She said the blood might be the result of an inflammation which I’ve got because I frequently need to go to the lavatory. She told me to wait and see. Fell asleep late. Restless. Woke at 7 this morning. Beautiful outside. Calm, minus 14 degrees celsius. Sun. Went shopping at Rimi. Sat and read between cramps. Called Charly and said that unfortunately I couldn’t make it. Went out to buy cigarettes. Slept two hours. Spoke for a while with Masja and Linda. Slept again. I love the current silence. Don’t know if I can travel to Gotland. Will have to see if there is more blood tonight.”
It says something about Knausgaard that he read a grim passage like this and saw possibilities for his art. In My Struggle, the accounting is more solemn, almost Lutheran in its austerity – Knausgaard has opted for an unusually formal variant of Norwegian for this book – but a touch of Norén’s plodding insistence remains:
“Today is the twenty-seventh of February. The time is 11:43 p.m. I, Karl Ove Knausgaard, was born in December 1968, and at the time of writing I am thirty-nine years old. I have three children – Vanja, Heidi, and John – and am in my second marriage, to Linda Bostrom Knausgaard. All four are asleep in the rooms around me, in an apartment in Malmö where we have lived for a year and a half.”
From the outset, we have the uncanny sense that Knausgaard is not writing about himself so much as for himself. The facts laid out by the narrator match the facts of the author’s own life. Whatever else My Struggle is about, Knausgaard makes us feel he has staked his life on it. He is committed to capturing the tedious, repetitive, microscopic mood switches of human consciousness – and the result is paradoxically absorbing.
The formula Knausgaard has devised for the project is simple: “Meaning requires content, content requires time, time requires resistance”, he writes in A Death in the Family. My Struggle shifts variously between Knausgaard writing his novel in the present, reflections on his early career as a writer and student, and the time of his childhood in 1970s Norway. Knausgaard was born, just one year before the major discovery of oil in the North Sea promised to make the country’s social democratic dreams something close to a reality. On the island of Tromøy in southern Norway, we observe Knausgaard’s mother committing herself to leftist causes, while his father serves on the town council and teaches at the local elementary school. But at home this “new” Norwegian man is a tyrant, who drills fear into his youngest son and snuffs out his joys one by one. The young Knausgaard comes to nurse a vital hatred for him:
“I hated dad, but I was in his hands, I couldn’t escape his power. It was impossible to exact my revenge on him. Except in the much-acclaimed mind and imagination, there I was able to crush him. Could grow there, outgrow him, place my hands on his cheeks and squeeze until his lips formed the stupid pout he made to imitate me, because of my protruding teeth. There, I could punch him on the nose so hard that it broke and blood streamed from it. Or, even better, so that the bone was forced back into his brain and he died.”
Much of My Struggle is the struggle of Karl Ove against his father. At times this hints at a deep conflict of world views, such as when Karl Ove swears he has witnessed a face in the water of a shipwreck reported on the evening news, which his father takes as a sign of his weak son’s worrisome attachment to Christianity. But for the most part the father’s terrorism is domestic: he forces his son to eat four apples in a row, yells at him for losing his socks, grounds him for breaking the television. The transgressions are banal; the responses are genuinely menacing. As Knausgaard gains more perspective on his father, who dies of alcoholism at the end of A Death in the Family, the struggle becomes to not end up like him, or be dominated by his memory. Karl Ove feels his father’s presence in his own attitude towards alcohol, Christianity, Norwegian social democracy. But he is determined not to repeat the sins of his father on his own children. In the third volume, Boyhood Island, which has now been translated into English, he reports some success:
“When I enter a room, they don’t cringe, they don’t look down at the floor, they don’t dart off as soon as they glimpse an opportunity, no, if they look at me, it is not a look of indifference, and if there is anyone I am happy to be forgotten by it’s them. If there is anyone I am happy to be taken for granted by, it is them. And should they have completely forgotten I was there when they turn forty themselves, I will thank them and take a bow and accept the bouquet.”
But My Struggle contains another struggle as well, the struggle to become an artist, and this is the more complicated one. There is a startling confession that sets Knausgaard’s mind running in Volume One: “When I look at a beautiful painting I have tears in my eyes but not when I look at my children. That does not mean I do not love them, because I do, with all my heart, it simply means that the meaning they produce is not sufficient to fulfill a whole life. Not mine at any rate”. My Struggle is also a struggle to fulfil this need for meaning, which Knausgaard quenches in moments of the sublime, which arrive sporadically amid the overwhelming mundanity of the book. Here, in A Death in the Family, is Knausgaardon the train from Stockholm to Gnesta:
“I wasn’t thinking of anything in particular, just staring at the burning red ball in the sky and the pleasure that suffused me was so sharp and came with such intensity that it was indistinguishable from pain. What I experienced seemed to me to be of enormous significance. Enormous significance. When the moment had passed the feeling of significance did not diminish, but all of a sudden it became hard to place: exactly what was significant? And why? A train, an industrial area, sun, mist?”
There is something extremely humanistic and Romantic about this passage. Knausgaard seems to be able to conjure up his experience of beauty all on his own – with only minimal support from nature. He goes on to say the light he sees from the train reminds him of his favourite painters: “Vermeer evoked the same, a few of Claude’s paintings, some of Ruisdael’s . . . some of J. C. Dahl’s, almost all of Hertervig’s . . . . But none of Rubens’s painting, none of Manet’s, none of the English or French eighteenth-century painting with the exception of Chardin, not Whistler, nor Michelangelo, and only one by Leonardo da Vinci”. The type of devotion exhibited here – “only one by Leonardo” – is arrestingly, amusingly precise; but what links these painters who stir him? Knausgaard cannot say for certain; he hazards it has to do with a “certain objectivity, by which I mean a distance between reality and the portrayal of reality, and it was doubtless in this interlying space where it ‘happened,’ where it appeared, whatever it was I saw, when the world seemed to step forward from the world”. After this clawing towards the sublime, the author unleashes a cascade of thought about contemporary art:
“The situation we have arrived at now whereby the props of art no longer have any significance, all the emphasis is placed on what the art expresses, in other words, not what it is but what it thinks, what ideas it accrues, such that the last demands of objectivity, the final remnants of something outside the human world have been abandoned. Art has come to be an unmade bed, a couple of photocopiers in a room, a motorbike in the attic. And art has come to be a spectator of itself, the way it reacts, what newspapers write about it; the artist is a performer . . . . Those in this situation who call for more intellectual depth, more spiritual depth, have understood nothing, for the problem is that the intellect has taken over everything. Everything has become intellect, even our bodies, they aren’t bodies anymore, but ideas of bodies, something that is situated in our own heaven of images and conceptions within us and above us, where an increasing large part of our lives is lived. The limits of that which cannot speak to us – the unfathomable – no longer exist. We understand everything, and we do so because we have turned everything into ourselves.”
“Everything has become intellect” – it could be Hegel we’re reading. And this diatribe comes close to the view Hegel put forward in his own lectures on aesthetics, in 1828: once upon a time, Hegel argued, art was about saints and heroes. After the Reformation, artists became interested in the fact that most people are not saints and that lives are determined by externally imposed constraints. It is here, under the regime of the market, that, Hegel says, “everything that is called the prose of life belongs”. It is impossible to invest subjects in such an age with the complete harmony of content and form required for beauty because of the finite nature of everyday life. But if the moderns cannot rival the ancients in terms of beauty, Hegel still thought they had “liveliness” and “absorption” on their side. The Dutch masters might no longer be able to paint beatific Madonnas, but they could paint a woman knitting socks or receiving a letter, provided they concentrated sufficient power on heightening her vitality. They could, as it were, force meaning into her features with the sheer virtuosity of their brush.
Knausgaard’s project is similar but also crucially different from the Dutch masters who were among the first to make a home in the disenchanted world. He wants to push his way towards the sublime moments of our earthly existence, but he believes it can be done without virtuosity:
“I sat leafing through a Constable book for almost an hour. I kept flicking back to the picture of the greenish clouds, every time it called for the same emotions in me. It was as if two different forms of reflection rose and fell in my consciousness, one with its thoughts and reasoning, the other with its feeling and impression, which even though they were juxtaposed, expulsed each other’s insights. It was a fantastic picture, it filled me with all the feeling that fantastic pictures do, but when I had to explain why, what constitute the “fantastic,” was at a loss to do so . . . . But the moment I focused my gaze on the painting again all my reasoning vanished in the surge of energy and beauty that arose in me. Yes, yes, yes, I heard. That’s where it is. That’s where I have to go.”
Knausgaard finds the sublime in the everyday; he also finds it in classic pieces of art. He shows us that these realms, as well as the realm of love, cannot be fully intellectualized.But unlike Joyce or Woolf, who required a renovation of language to communicate this, Knausgaard prefers to show his narrator bumping up against his own limits of expression. This may be less satisfying to read on the level of the sentence, but it captures something about our reality, and our relationship with art, which seldom moves us in the ways we expect, and whose effects are no less strong for the clichés we use to describe them, just as our passions are no less genuine for our use of borrowed language. “You cannot chase the Holy Grail with a pram”, said Karen Blixen. But Knausgaard shows that, with enough intensity, you can.
In A Time to Every Purpose under Heaven, Knausgaard dramatized the story of art as described by Hegel, and he took it a step further, by telling the story of angels in Western art: at first the angels were depicted as the rare, austere messengers from God; then they gradually became the pudgy, decadent cherubim of Caravaggio; then they were nearly exiled from our consciousness altogether. In Knausgaard’s telling they became seagulls on the Norwegian coast, where only a few residents dimly remember their former glory. Knausgaard’s project here was to bring the Old Testament back down to earth and treat its parables as pitiless reductions of his much richer tapestry. But in My Struggle, the aim is the reverse: to lay out his whole profane existence for sacred inspection. When the writing is at its most mundane we feel faint biblical echoes in the background.
Simply on the basis of My Struggle’s length, it seems, critics have compared Knausgaard with Proust. There are some similarities between the two: both tell stories of artistic education and taste formation: just as Proust goes through the apprenticeships of Bergotte, Elstir and Berma, so Knausgaard worships at the altars of Queen, The Clash and the poet Olav Hauge. (Unlike nearly every contemporary American novelist, Knausgaard makes his movements between so-called high and low culture appear seamless and natural, not so much a joy ride between registers, strenuously exhibited, as a matter-of-fact reflection of his tastes). But the major difference with Proust is in the way My Struggle is engineered to operate with the reader: Proust carefully curates his moments of revelation; Knausgaard leaves it to the reader to distinguish between the meaningful and meaningless.
Boyhood Island revisits much of the same territory as the previous two volumes but in a much more sustained fashion. Here Knausgaard looks back on his difficult childhood while only very rarely returning to the perspective of the writer and father he has now become. This volume contains the longest stretch of total recall that Knausgaard has yet allowed himself in the course of the work. It opens with the narrator claiming that he can’t remember anything of “this ghetto-like state of incompleteness that is what I call my childhood”. He wishes we could assign different Christian names to ourselves during our different stages in life – to the foetus, the child, the teenager, the young adult, the man, the old man. The idea that all these selves are presumed to form some kind of coherent being is absurd to the author. But then comes the plunge where, after saying he remembers nothing of his childhood, he suddenly remembers everything – how to speak like a child, think like a child, reason like a child
Boyhood Island reverberates with the joys and anxieties of early youth, and Knausgaard brilliantly recreates their exaggerated feel. Here he is on his boyish fixation with construction workers: “What fascinated us most apart from the change in the landscape they wrought were the manifestations of their private lives that came with them. When they produced a comb from their orange overalls or baggy, almost shapeless, blue trousers and combed their hair”. He communicates everything from the loud sound a toothbrush makes in his head to the minute discoveries of childhood that have the force of major revelations: “I came to the conclusion that cornflakes were best when they were crispy, before the milk had soaked into them”. There are powerfully felt scenes of sexual and intellectual awakening, and if the book has its longeurs it’s mostly because we’ve grown accustomed to Knausgaard switching between time sequences, or following an episode about shopping for groceries with an exegesis on the fate of angels.
It is too early for English readers to tell what the relation of this half of the book will be to the whole. We do now know that they can continue to rely on the deft and sure translations of Don Bartlett, who has recently signed a contract to translate the entire work. And whatever the outcome, there is already the sense that the author’s views going in will not be the same as the ones he comes out with. Knausgaard looks with envy on Rimbaud, whose final act as an artist was to quit art altogether, and we sense that he too is looking for an exit. We already know the final line in the final volume to be: “And I’m so happy that I’m no longer an author”. It would be a mistake to read My Struggle as a struggle away from art. But its extreme artlessness creates a far more intense realism than we might have thought possible – a confessional novel that outdoes most confessions – and that makes us feel that these are things as they really are for a forty-year-old man from Norway.