Tomas Espedal’s Against Art and Against Nature are exquisite, as good as anything I’ve ever read. Our modern preoccupation with, and anxiety about, intimate interpersonal relationships comes through in the precarious and peevish relationships between the narrator and his wives, girlfriends and children.
I read them both this week, oases of erudition amid a chaotic, exhausting time at work; both invaded my sleeping dreams to the point of wakefulness. Both books continue my love affair with Seagull Books.
Espedal writes perceptively of modern affluent society, where one time concerns of hunger, disease, catastrophe and religion are replaced with an almost obsessive concern for our personal relationships. His narrator is unable to truly grasp the blind spots or emotional roadblocks that stand in the way of achieving emotional fulfilment through his human relationships.
Art and literature, essentially solitary pursuits, offer Espedal’s narrator a way to, as David Winters writes in Infinite Fictions, “withdraw from the world, while bringing us back toward it.”
Sparing prose, translated by James Anderson, that drifts close to poetry in its condensed style makes me think that Espedal’s undertaking is similar to what Knausgaard attempted in his study of the impossibility of intimacy, but I only read the first edition of Knausgaard’s autobiographical novel so I may have missed something. It amused me to come across this piece in Against Nature:
We lay side by side and read. We read our separate copies of the Knausgaard books, began at the same time and read in tandem, suddenly she’d put down her book and look at me: Did you read that? she’d ask. How does he dare, it’s quite extraordinary, he must have a screw loose, she’d say.
Then we’d read on.
Until I put down my book and looked at her; Did you read that? I’d ask. How does he dare, it’s quite amazing, he’s destroying himself, I’d say.