Why a Novel?

Who knows what to make of Jenny Erpenbeck’s new novel, Go, Went, Gone?

James Wood has written a deeply appreciative review in the New Yorker, calling the novel “magnificent” and counting “among its many virtues” the fact that “it is not only alive to the suffering of people who are very different from us but alive to the false consolations of telling ‘moving’ stories about people who are very different from us.” He basically reads the novel as a character study of its protagonist, Richard, insofar as Richard’s established character is impinged upon and mutated by his voluntary encounters with asylum seekers in Germany. He doesn’t really read the novel with an eye towards the political, moral, or aesthetic implications of Erpenbeck’s choice to take Richard as her protagonist, except to see Richard as a sort of device that buffers Erpenbeck from simply telling a “moving” story about one or more refugees.

Jonathan Dee, however, has an exceptionally perceptive take on the novel, which really amounts to a takedown of impeccable detail and nuance. “Richard goes to a town hall to discuss the refugee issue,” he writes: Continue reading →

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 →

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.

Infiltrations, Translations

[W]hen she’s asleep he likes to sit down beside her bed and make one further attempt to get to the bottom of what has seemed to him the greatest riddle in all the history of mankind: how processes, circumstances, or events of a general nature — such as war, famine, or even a civil servant’s salary that fails to increase along with the galloping inflation — can infiltrate a private face. Here they turn a few hairs gray, there devour a pair of lovely cheeks until the skin is stretched taut across angular jawbones; the secession of Hungary, say, might result in a pair of lips bitten raw in the case of one particular woman, perhaps even his own wife. In other words, there is a constant translation between far outside and deep within, it’s just that a different vocabulary exists for each of us, which no doubt explains why it’s never been noticed that this is a language in the first place — and in fact, the only language valid across the world and for all time. If a person were to study a sufficient number of faces, he would surely be able to observe wrinkles, twitching eyelids, lustreless teeth, and draw conclusions about the death of a Kaiser, unjust reparations payments, or a stabilizing social democracy.

Jenny Erpenbeck
The End of Days

Translated by Susan Bernofsky