Category Archives: Notes and Queries

Knausgaard’s Reinvigorated Realism

Karl Ove Knausgaard, "Some Rain Must Fall"Once again the publication of a new volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle has been met with a flurry of extremely well-considered responses, but none so incisive as Anthony Macris’ long essay in the Sydney Review of Books. Although it’s ostensibly a review of Some Rain Must Fall, it actually goes much further in order to extrapolate from commonplace remarks on Knausgaard’s style in order to articulate precisely the governing aesthetic of the entire My Struggle series:

Much has already been written about Knausgaard’s literary style: the plainness of his language, the massing of detail, the ostensible tendency to over-narration. Critics seem divided as to whether his writing is long-winded and sloppy, his talent failing his ambition, or whether it’s fit for purpose, admirably serving the drama without overly drawing attention to itself. At any rate, there’s more than enough praise to counter the negative view, with writers like Zadie Smith and Jeffrey Eugenides lining up to support his work enthusiastically. Whatever your view I would argue that, no matter what camp you fall into, it’s hard to deny that with My Struggle Knausgaard has pulled off something extraordinary, that he has to some degree, if not reinvented realism, then refreshed it for a contemporary literary readership that is perhaps growing tired of tightly scripted novels that resemble movie scripts, or maximalist fictions that rely on outlandish hyperbole. In turning his back on the trappings of standard conceptions of literariness — for example, the kind of high-blown lyricism and overweening self-romanticism that sank Harold Brodkey’s much vaunted autobiographical novel, The Runaway Soul — Knausgaard has effectively employed a cruder mimesis, one that refuses to engage with the kind of trompe l’oeil effects that can in their own way achieve verisimilitude.

Instead, his style is based in part on what I word term a naïve epistemology, one that harkens back to the Cratylic tradition of the word, a belief that there’s a natural correspondence between words and things, and that by naming things we can create worlds. Metaphor, simile and other poetic devices are virtually non-existent in the My Struggle novels. While comparisons to Proust abound in discussions of Knausgaard (a comparison he invites), his style couldn’t be more different to Proust’s filigree, hypotactical sentences whose sinuous lines, in the great tradition of modernist subjectivity, mimic the train of thought. Knausgaard, like Proust, may draw upon the great internal sweep of remembrance to generate his novel, but his conveyance of choice is made up largely of concrete images, dialogue and simple declarative sentences. Often, in paratactical mode, these sentences are strung together with commas, breaking every rule of ‘good’ grammar. It’s tempting to think this style is a new kind of rendering of consciousness, but I would argue differently. Consciousness in Knausgaard is a kind of extreme ossification of realism, a near empirical entity, gleaned principally from observation of the external world and thoughts narrated as statements of fact, which is easy enough to claim in first person, where the narration of thoughts and emotional states correlate with the authenticity of the narrating subject. Consciousness as a mediating factor, a substance that distorts reality and that must be shown to do so, isn’t evoked. Language is at the service of a what-you-see-is-what-you-get sensibility, and it’s a sensibility that isn’t afraid to dwell on lived experience at length, a Stendahlian mirror that reflects not in a series of tableaux, but that is as vast as the universe it captures, and is somehow co-extensive with it.

This is a somewhat technical way of saying that Knausgaard’s realism is not the kind of realism we are accustomed to. In fact, while working in a realist paradigm, Knausgaard, in his desire to write rapidly and in volume (the near 700 pages of Some Rain Must Fall took, he claims, a mere eight weeks to write), has challenged the limits of contemporary realism. All the standard tropes of realism are there: concrete events plotted in chronological time (there is some achrony, but within the acceptable limits of realism); a hero narrator whose consciousness is the spoke of the wheel; carefully selected conflicts that drive the story forward; internal struggles with self, external battles with people and institutions. But the edicts of contemporary realism that Knausgaard chooses to flout are those of tightness and brevity, and of relegating description and ‘undramatic’ events to the background in order to foreground the ‘real meat’ of the narrative: heightened events, turning points, moments of conflict. There is instead a merging of foreground and background in order to create more vivid textures of lived experience.

Proof positive, as if any more were needed, of the extraordinary value of the Sydney Review, and a real enrichment of the experience of reading Knausgaard.


Distance and Partitions

Ben Parker has a perceptive and contrarian take on Karl Ove Knausgaard in the Los Angeles Review of Books, perhaps the best essay yet on Dancing In the Dark, the fourth volume of My Struggle. Parker begins with the observation that many novels “contain a spectral double, another book trapped within their pages” — Cervantes’ parody of an illicit sequel to the first volume of Don Quixote, for instance, or Tristram’s father’s Tristrapedia in Tristram Shandy — and then considers the purposes towards which Knausgaard incorporates fragments of his father’s diaries into his own work. One of his purposes, perhaps unsurprisingly, is to sharply differentiate himself from his father, which eventually leads Parker to the assertion that My Struggle in its totality “is an attempt to create distance and partitions, to police psychic boundaries.” Parker goes on to support this assertion, more or less convincingly, by carefully and compellingly reading the novel’s aesthetic strategies as an almost necessary outgrowth of the experiences that prompted Knausgaard to write it: Continue reading Distance and Partitions

Notes on The Notebook

How does a novel as slim and opaque as Agota Kristof’s The Notebook generate such extraordinarily unsettling power? Two twin brothers arrive at their grandmother’s house in the Little Town, not too far from the nearby Big Town, to wait until there is an end to the war consuming their country. In plain, unadorned prose, they describe the details of their new lives and their interactions with the grandmother they never knew until now. Their descriptions accumulate in the pages of a notebook that amounts to a compendium of their best “compositions”:

This is how a composition lesson proceeds:

We are sitting at the kitchen table with our sheets of graph paper, our pencils, and the notebook. We are alone.

One of us says:

“The title of your composition is: ‘Arrival at Grandmother’s.’”

The other says:

“The title of your composition is: ‘Our Chores.’”

We start writing. We have two hours to deal with the subject and two sheets of paper at our disposal.

At the end of two hours we exchange our sheets of paper. Each of us corrects the other’s spelling mistakes with the help of the dictionary and writes at the bottom of the page: “Good” or “Not good.” If it’s “Not good,” we throw the composition in the fire and try to deal with the same subject in the next lesson. If it’s “Good,” we can copy the composition into the notebook.

To decide whether it’s “Good” or “Not good,” we have a very simple rule: the composition must be true. We must describe what is, what we see, what we hear, what we do.

For example, it is forbidden to write, “Grandmother is like a witch”; but we are allowed to write, “People call Grandmother the Witch.”

It is forbidden to write, “The Little Town is beautiful,” because the Little Town may be beautiful to us and ugly to someone else.

Similarly, if we write, “The orderly is nice,” this isn’t a truth, because the orderly may be capable of malicious acts that we know nothing about. So we would simply write, “The orderly has given us some blankets.”

We would write, “We eat a lot of walnuts,” and not “We love walnuts,” because the word “love” is not a reliable word, it lacks precision and objectivity. “To love walnuts” and “to love Mother” don’t mean the same thing. The first expression designates a pleasant taste in the mouth, the second a feeling.

Words that define feelings are very vague. It is better to avoid using them and stick to the description of objects, human beings, and oneself, that is to say, to the faithful description of facts.

There are a number of forces at work here that combine to produce a distinctly unnerving effect that runs throughout The Notebook. The pluralistic narration, which doesn’t let up for an instant, prohibits readers from ever being sure about exactly who is speaking at any given moment. The proliferation of narrators whose identities remain unspecified leaves the twins largely depersonalised. Then, too, the abstraction of setting, in conjunction with the menace of an encroaching but otherwise indistinct war, means that readers do not know exactly where and when The Notebook takes place. Eventually, of course, in the second half of the novel, enough details are spilled to allow readers to infer that the conflict in question is the Second World War and that the twins are seemingly located somewhere close to the border between Austria and Hungary. But the nature of this revelation, delayed and only implicit, underscores the oddity of the entire situation. At the same time that the twins avowedly affect a prose style as dispassionate and as devoid of value judgments as it can possibly be, a style that they believe enables them to chronicle their lives with the utmost precision, they also synthesise their voices and leave their surroundings indistinguishable in a way that countermands their stylistic objectives. They also maintain a resolute focus on the minutiae of their exercises without directing any thought towards the war of almighty proportions that engulfs the world around them, and they begin playing a series of bizarre psychological games without ever explaining their motives or their aims. The twins have an explicit dedication to linguistic precision, and an extraordinary capacity for it, and yet they make narratorial decisions that obscure what their words would otherwise render clearly. What, then, is the use of striving after prosaic clarity at the level of the sentence when events as significant as a war are marginalised without explanation and mindgames with a significance known only to the twins are conducted without explication? Prose style and narrative focus are distinctly at cross-purposes here: like a vehicle with two engines propelling it in opposite directions, The Notebook is a novel trying to tear itself apart.

The Mathematics of Madness

“Madness” and “insanity” are the words most often deployed in descriptions of Hilda Hilst’s enigmatic novella, With My Dog-Eyes. It gives voice to “a mind unravelling,” writes Nick Lezard in The Guardian, “and through the gaps we see a horrified fascination with the body, a kind of carnal awareness of existential futility.” “[F]luid, shifting narration tells the story — if you can call it that — of mathematician and poet Amós Kéres’ descent into madness,” adds The Independent‘s Holly Williams, “mov[ing] rapidly between first person present tense, recalled memories, reported speech, and chunks of poetry; between absurdism, theory, fable and filth.” The novel “reads like a long poem,” Juan Vidal concurs in his review for NPR, “with utter insanity pervading each and every page. The vivid, disjointed prose mirrors the troubled mind of our protagonist… an expert in pure mathematics who is losing his grasp on reality.”

For me, however, the most captivating quality of With My Dog-Eyes is not the way in which Kéres’ burgeoning insanity leads his representations of events to become increasingly disjointed. That sort of thing has been done often enough before that it no longer bears remarking on. More captivating here is the way in which the novel’s structure projects a mind so fundamentally, inflexibly logical — so absolutely committed to mathematics — that when his reality begins to lose its logical underpinnings, when he ceases to grasp the causal connections between sequential experiences, Kéres mounts a resistance to insanity by seeking refuge in mathematical logic and marshalling his experiences into a form that follows its rules. Although this choice of form is to some extent suggestive of Kéres’ insanity, I was struck by how it also suggests his striving for coherence in the face of insanity — albeit a coherence that may likewise appear to be tainted by insanity insofar as the structure beneath the novella’s narrative surface is built upon an alternative to narrative logic. Continue reading The Mathematics of Madness

How Works Works

Like many readers of Édouard Levé, I first came to his books when Dalkey Archive published English translations of Autoportrait (2002) and Suicide (2008) several years ago. But while Suicide was arguably the title that received the most attention from critics — in no small part because Levé actually committed suicide ten days after delivering the manuscript to his publisher — I was more taken with Autoportrait for reasons best articulated by Mark O’Connell at Slate:

To describe that book in basic terms is to risk making it sound outright unreadable. It’s a single paragraph, 112 pages long, consisting of a continuous sequence of short declarative sentences, each of which states some or other fact about its author, a relentlessly present “I”. … It’s grueling and madly propulsive at the same time; you kind of want him to stop just saying things about himself, but you also can’t stop reading these things that he just keeps saying. “My uncle’s friend taught me to laugh at things I saw on TV that were not, on the face of it, funny, for example Bobby Ewing’s hairstyle on Dallas,” he writes. “I have not signed a manifesto. If I turn around while looking in the mirror, there comes a moment when I no longer see myself. Raymond Poulidor is one of the least sexy names I know. I like salad mainly for the crunch and the vinaigrette.” It goes on like this, in this arbitrarily funny and boring and horrifying way. The more it goes on, the more facts he asserts about himself, the more the referent — the autobiographical subject, Levé himself — is displaced, defined into obscurity.

“I was as transfixed by the book’s self-possessed commitment to its formal conceit as I was by its blank and pitiless gaze on the reality of pain… [its] strange combination of formal distance and emotional immediacy,” O’Connell writes of Autoportrait — although he writes those words in his review of Levé’s latest posthumous publication, Works, in order to identify the governing aesthetic of Levé’s entire oeuvre. “[T]his is the signature of Levé’s pulverized non-narratives,” he says, “this unflappable insistence on going on like this. He’s never afraid, in other words, of being boring in the service of some larger way of being interesting.” Continue reading How Works Works

A Perceptive Diagnosis

Bereft of intellectual or cultural stimulation, they proceed, as minds devouring themselves, to fixate on every sort of insignificance and absurdity, ranting giddily about how awful life is in voices that shriek with loathing and despair.

That’s Cameron Woodhead, writing the capsule reviews in today’s The Age, issuing an off-the-cuff but strikingly perceptive diagnosis of what tends to ail the characters of Thomas Bernhard. I would have used “howl” rather than “shriek” — I don’t sense a lot of hysteria or histrionics in their lamentations; I sense self-awareness and knowing purpose — but, with only two hundred words in which to offer a verdict on Bernhard’s Prose, Woodhead does a remarkably good job of pinpointing the unifying element of Bernhard’s entire oeuvre.