Karl Ove Knausgård: First reactions

I’m still contemplating the phenomenon that is Karl Ove Knausgård’s My Struggle: Volume I, or A Death in the Family as the UK edition is titled. For several months I’ve read references on social media to the series, which comprises six volumes of autobiographical fiction, and refused to pay much attention despite the plaudits of several readers whose opinions I value and respect.

Several factors deterred me: I’m chary of reading overweight Bildungsroman, almost exclusively written by middle-aged men with a tendency to prolixity; I’m immediately wary of any of those writers hinting of Proustian influence (see first point); I have trepidation about literary realism because in the hands of most writers it is as dull as celebrity culture (I’ll read Flaubert or Turgenev, but I’m fucked if I’ll ever open another page of Balzac or Maupassant). So when presented with the option of reading another realist Bildungsroman, which does suffer from moments of prolixity, and openly acknowledges its Proustian roots, I was in no hurry to open the copy that napped on my shelf.

Once I did start reading A Death in the Family on Saturday morning, I was unavailable for anything except snacks until I completed it on Sunday afternoon. And it is a very ordinary, in the sense of unpretentious, and extraordinary, in the sense of superbly good. I immediately ordered Volume 2.

Beyond the superficial reference points, it wasn’t the Proustian resonance that immediately sounded, but in the way Knausgård foregrounded the set pieces (the themes are love and death, are there others?) were echoes of Virginia Woolf’s conception of an elemental structure to life, an aesthetic order, like a recurring theme in a musical piece (Verdi keeps coming to mind). I’m reminded of the “mist between the people she [Clarissa Dalloway] knew best, who lifted her on their branches as she had seen the trees lift the mist, but it spread ever so far, her life, herself.” Knausgård perceives of a similar connection between other people and things, which is how his narrator tries to make sense of everyday life. His sense of this connectedness is entirely secular and, as Woolf writes in A Room of One’s Own, is an erratic and undependable reality found throughout an utterly mundane world.

Knausgård ultimately whetted my appetite for Woolf, and I dipped straight back into her diaries and autobiographical writings. This morning I found this paragraph (from Woolf’s Moments of Being), which captures so much more eloquently than I have been able the pattern that Knausgård seems to be exploring:

From this I reach what I might call a philosophy; at any rate it is a constant idea of mine; that behind the cotton wool is hidden a pattern; that we – I mean all human beings – are connected with this; that the whole world is a work of art; that we are parts of the work of art. Hamlet or a Beethoven quartet is the truth about this vast mass that we call the world. But there is no Shakespeare, there is no Beethoven; certainly and emphatically there is no God; we are the words; we are music; we are the thing itself. And I see this when I have a shock.

Once I’ve read enough Woolf, I’ll read the second volume of Knausgård’s monumental outpouring. Perhaps I’ll like the narrator more than in the first volume, though it matters little. I might then have something to say with greater lucidity.

Links of the Week

Many of these links have been tweeted in the past, but here I can tag and categorise them for future reference. I hope you find some of them interesting too. Please feel free to discuss in comments or on Twitter.

Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, film for the modern world: http://bit.ly/PcTXpZ

From Kafka to Sebald – essays on narrative form in modernist fiction: http://t.co/jJTPALWh

Maurice Blanchot and Fragmentary Writing by Leslie Hill – Preview: http://t.co/Qdjli4NO

Judith Butler – On Never Having Learned How to Live: http://bit.ly/VhrwJP

“Deleuze always insists on grasping the virtual , as it were ‘behind’ the actual.” http://bit.ly/Rd93b9

The HTMLGiant Beginner’s Guide to Deleuze: http://bit.ly/PgNudD

Frederic Jameson on Realism and Utopia in The Wire: http://awe.sm/n71Th

Fascinating piece on memory by Jenny Diski: http://awe.sm/o71JJ

Glenn Gould Explains the Genius of Johann Sebastian Bach: http://bit.ly/PEToVK

Roberto Calasso interviewed by Lila Azam Zanganeh: http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/6168/the-art-of-fiction-no-217-roberto-calasso

“Books are sublimely visceral, emotionally evocative objects that constitute a perfect delivery system.” http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10000872396390444868204578064483923017090.html

Remarkable colour photos from inside Nazi-occupied Poland, 1939-1940: http://t.co/n4R1Tjdy

God’s Angry Man — Werner Herzog (Full Documentary):http://bit.ly/RdqkB5

Aldous Huxley’s Most Beautiful, LSD-Assisted Death: A Letter from His Widow: http://bit.ly/PDZdTc

The story behind Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures album cover: http://thecreatorsproject.com/blog/the-story-behind-joy-divisions-iconic-iunknown-pleasuresi-album-cover

Links of the Week

Many of these links have been tweeted in the past, but here I can tag and categorise them for future reference. I hope you find some of them interesting too. Please feel free to discuss in comments or on Twitter.

New Inquiry review of Anne Carson’s Antigonick.

Yale Books: Extract from Joseph Brodsky: A Literary Life,

Lens Culture: Interrogations: terrifying real-life photographs from Ukraine.

In lieu of a field guide post: Snow Country by Kawabata Yasunari – “The novel suggests that both the purity of art and the ability to master one’s self can be derived from and conditioned by nature.”

Flowerville post: solstad/monikova: same but different.

Lauren Elkin essay: (The Quarterly Conversation): The Adversary: On Susan Sontag’s Journals (1964-1980). [Lauren Elkin’s site]

Derek Jarman’s film, Jubilee (1978 / Full)

David Winters’ review of Carl Cederström and Peter Fleming’s Dead Man Working.

One of the richest resources I’ve found. I’d heard rumours that these existed but they were surprisingly hard to track down. Download PDFs of out-of-print Loeb Greek and Roman classics.

Notes Towards a Theory of the Literary Magazine: Part One, The Textual Condition.

Lebanese artist, Zena Assi’s work brought to life in animation.

Prabuddha Dasgupta is a favourite photographer, whose work I got to know, I think, through Geoff Dyer. “An ongoing journal of memory and experience, based on the everyday… family, friendships, places known, spaces occupied, journeys remembered…revolving around the core of a pivotal love affair.”

Geoff Dyer writes about his favourite Hitchcock film: The Birds.

Links of the Week

Many of these links have been tweeted in the past, but here I can tag and categorise them for future reference. I hope you find some of them interesting too. Please feel free to discuss in comments or on Twitter.

Des Imagistes, Volume 1 Number 5, February 1914, includes HD, Richard Aldington, James Joyce, Ezra Pound [PDF]

After the Cold War: Eric Hobsbawm remembers Tony Judt.

Flowerville post: Why is Karl Ove Knausgård’s My Struggle a good book?

Biblioklept post: Stoner, John Williams’s Sad Novel About an English Professor.

María Irene Fornés’s play Mud (Part 1 of 5):  A dysfunctional love triangle.

A satirical, wild and irreverent story of rebellion, Věra Chytilová’s classic of surrealist cinema is perhaps also the most adventurous and anarchic Czech movie of the 1960s.

Emily Books post: A review of Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai.

Conversational Reading post: Four Questions for Kate Briggs on Roland Barthes’ Preparation of the Novel.

Complete Review post: A review of Bruno Jasieński’s I Burn Paris.

Side Effects post: Toward a Phenomenology of What About Bob?

Svetlana Boym essay: Nostalgic Technology – Notes for an Off-modern Manifesto.

Side Effects post: The Agoraphobic Homeworld – “How can the world become a home—how can we be at home in the world?”

A Philosophy of Boredom by Lars Svendsen

Using  more literary than philosophical sources, though there is a section on Heidegger’s idea that boredom was the ideal state for metaphysics to begin, Lars Svendsen provides a series of sketches on the theme of boredom.

Svendsen argues that boredom is significant because it involves a loss of personal meaning. Boredom is a modern condition, though there were similar historical states (the acedie of monks). With the advent of Romanticism, man began to see himself as an individual. At the end of the eighteenth century the word ‘boring,’ linked with the word ‘interesting,’ became widespread. Shortly afterwards, boredom is also linked with nihilism, which converge in the death of God. There is a kinship or overlap between boredom, melancholy (but without its charm) and insomnia.

[..] deep boredom is related, phenomenologically speaking, to insomnia, where the I loses its identity in the dark, caught in an apparently infinite void.

There are no reliable studies but evidence suggests that boredom is increasing. Its increase implies a serious fault in a society or culture. Neither leisure, nor work offer a respite from boredom because neither give any real meaning. We seek distraction and differences. The advertising industry flourishes to create these qualitative differences where there are none. In my favourite parts of the book, Svendsen uses Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho and Ballard’s Crash to build his argument of a profoundly bored late capitalist society.

Desperately seeking external distraction we turn to television:

But are not the extent of the entertainments industry and the consumption of intoxicants, for example, clear indications of the prevalence of boredom? People who watch TV four hours a day will not necessarily feel or admit that they are bored, but why else should they spend 25 percent of their waking hours in such a way.

Or build an ‘extended family’ of celebrities:

That boredom is probably more widespread than ever before can be established by noting that the number of ‘social placebos’ is greater than it has ever been. If there are more substitutes for meaning, there must be more meaning that needs to be substituted for. Where there is a lack of personal meaning, all sorts of diversions have to create a substitute – an ersatz meaning. Or the cult of celebrities, where one gets completely engrossed in the lives of others beaches one’s own life lacks meaning.

Or like Bateman in American Psycho obsess about fashion:

As Georg Simmel points out, dependence on fashion indicates the insignificance of the own personality, that a person is incapable of individuating himself.

Svendsen suggests only one possible cure for boredom: to relinquish personal meaning. He uses Beckett and Warhol as examples of people who have tried to embrace meaninglessness.

There is possibly one sure cure for boredom – to leave Romanticism behind and renounce all personal meaning in life. In a sense this was what Beckett did, but his work concerns itself mostly with the vacuum that is left.

A Doll House By Ibsen

Henrik Ibsen at the Grand Café (1898) by Edvard Munch

Ibsen’s A Doll House turns on a single sentence, Nora’s “We’re settling accounts, Torvald”. On that sentence the puerile Nora merges from her pupal cocoon and rejects her husband Torvald. Before that sentence the reader is accustomed to Torvald’s casual misogyny and pomposity. It is a sentence of deliverance, of the sort that lifts the hair on the back of your neck. Nora begins the dialogue that concludes this electrifying third act.

NORA: We’ve been married for eight years. Doesn’t it strike you that this is the first time that the two of us-you and I, man and wife-have talked seriously?
HELMER: Well-”seriously”-what does that mean?
NORA: In eight years-no, longer-right from the moment we met, we haven’t exchanged one serious word on one serious subject.

Michael Levenson, in Modernism, describes the impact that A Doll House had on Europe in the late nineteenth century. “Anecdotes abound of quarrels over dinner and demands by hostesses that guests refrain from discussing Ibsen”.

The event that thrilled and appalled Europe was Nora’s departure from her husband and sleeping children. But the shock of rupture needs to be placed within the speech conditions that prepare it. When the dialogue in the third act turns back on itself and confronts the disturbances of conversation, it lays out a challenge as radical as its final event, in some ways even more radical, Nora does not simply leave after speaking; she leaves because she speaks.

With repugnance, Ibsen was coerced to write an alternative ending for German theatre, a conciliatory conclusion that he later described as a “barbaric outrage”. In a letter to a newspaper Ibsen stated, “Those who wish to make use of the altered scene do so entirely against my wish.”