“Humility, a word so often bandied about in public contexts, was something hardly anyone knew the meaning of any more. Only those who had every reason to be conceited, those of real calibre, showed no trace of conceit, only they were humble. Conceit and self-righteousness were part of a defence mechanism without which a person would be crushed under the weight of their own weaknesses, shortcomings and flaws, and that fact underlay almost every discussion I witnessed, verbal as well as written, in newspapers and on television, but also in my immediate surroundings, in the private sphere. Such weakness would not be admitted, since so much would be lost, and the form of those discussions and the power of the media resolved it by endowing it with their strength. That was why opinions were so important in society, through opinions we appropriated a strength and supremacy we did not possess. That was the function of form here, to obscure the weakness of the individual.

— Karl Ove Knausgaard, The End (trans. by Martin Aitken and Don Bartlett)

“A morality that proceeds from the community of an all, that proceeds from we, is dangerous, perhaps more dangerous than anything else, because committing to an all is to commit to an abstraction, something existing in language or the world of ideas, but not in reality, where people exist only as separate individuals.”

— Karl Ove Knausgaard, The End (trans. by Martin Aitken and Don Bartlett)

“And writing was such a fragile thing. It wasn’t hard to write well, but it was hard to make writing that was alive, writing that could prise open the world and draw it together in one and the same movement. When it didn’t work, which it never really did, not really, I would sit there like a conceited idiot and wonder who I thought I was, supposing I could write for others. Did I know any better than anyone else? Did I possess some secret no one else possessed? Were my experiences particularly valuable? My thoughts about the world especially valid?”

— Karl Ove Knausgaard, The End (trans. by Martin Aitken and Don Bartlett)

It is characteristic that Knausgaard would think and express this sentiment in his book. (At a much lower level, it is a thought constantly on mind as I contribute in any way to blogging and other social media.)

Knausgaard Immersion: Week 4

It is nearing a month of my immersion into Karl One Knausgaard’s My Struggle. His voice is woven throughout my day. I began reading the final volume this weekend. It will I think take much longer to reflect on the fullest possible understanding of what this project means or does to the body of literature.

It raises that old adversary: the will of a text, its puppetry and attempt to dominate a reader through its explicit demand for a suspension of disbelief. It is of course a fiction in the same way as any journal or autobiographical work, but if feels less (beneficently) aggressive than those occasions when a writer tries to charm readers with a set of characters and situations conjured out of the ether and directed in some way towards spiritual or moral salvation (or damnation). It is a resistance to this sort of textual contrivance. Its effect, for me at least, is a reduction in distance, a micro-engagement with the very substance of life, not in any speculative or existential sense, though that is also present, but with the day to day struggle to understand another consciousness.

It is also, at least in Don Bartlett’s translation (shared with Martin Aitken in The End), a challenge to the Flaubertian obsession with the sentence. There is plenty of exquisite writing in My Struggle, particularly with Knausgaard’s painstaking observation of nature and place, but it doesn’t induce the queasy unease of overworked prose.

This work is closer to Balzac’s aspiration to incisively trace the modulations and inconsistencies of social and class structure, but through the lens of a microscope incisively directed inward. Whatever disinclinations readers have for Knausgaard’s style and form, for those who engage fully with the work, it is difficult not to admire its scrupulous essence.

“If the thought really yielded to the object, if its attention were on the ­object, not on its  category, the very objects would start talking under the lingering eye.”

— Theodor Adorno, Negative Dialectics, 150

How does he see?

“He wanted to write like Cezanne painted. / Cézanne started with all the tricks. Then he broke the whole thing down and built the real thing. It was hell to do. … He, Nick, wanted to write about country so it would be there like Cézanne had done it in painting. You had to do it from inside yourself. There wasn’t any trick. Nobody had written about country like that. … You could do it if you would fight it out, if you’d lived right with your eyes. / It was a thing you couldn’t talk about.”

Ernest Hemingway, The Nick Adams Stories

Gertrude Stein did this more than a decade earlier, learning from Cézanne how to see. I think of Hemingway often as I read Knausgaard, now reading his fourth book and wondering how his vision is formed. It is writing that gets close to another consciousness, perhaps more than any other writer, yet there is still that distance that comes from the unanswerable question: how does he see? A question that goes back to Altamira and Lascaux.