Knausgaard and Narrative

What I think I’m doing here: It turns out Knausgaard was not just a pandemic coping technique (more at the tag at the bottom of the post, if you’re interested).

Perhaps in a novel it is that simple, for novels are written to elucidate some aspect of human life, so that something which exists but perhaps lacks form is given a form and becomes visible. Life has no such form.

Knausgaard in Spring

Knausgaard’s fiction is sometimes described as plotless. Which, ok, I get it. I mean, spend enough time on extended descriptions of smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee and anyone might feel the motivation to continue turning the pages start to fall off a little (although of course, the mystery of Knausgaard is that some of us not only keep turning the pages but can’t stop). It’s not just the detailed description of everyday life that contributes to the loose and wandering feeling of the books – the long essayistic digressions exploring art, literature, and culture don’t increase the dramatic tension. And yet, to describe the work as plotless feels like it’s probably a mistake, or at least an exaggeration.

I recently reread Spring, which may be my favorite Knausgaard book. Rereading it I recognized that part of the reason I enjoy it as much as I do is that it his most tightly structured work in terms of plot – it’s a sort of existential page turner. Using the same tools as any thriller writer Knausgaard starts off early in the book: “Last summer, half a year before you were born, I had been summoned to a meeting with the Child Protection Service. It was a routine meeting, they always arranged one when it happened, the thing that happened here ….” The reader does not know what “the thing that happened here” might be – only that it must be bad (Child Protection Service? Knausgaard is meeting with them alone?). The book continues by interweaving two parallel timelines – the summer when “the thing that happened here” happened, and a single day the following spring, Walpurgis Night, which has its own (more mundane) thrills and chills (Knausgaard forgets his bank card at home, has no milk to feed his infant daughter on a long trip, and almost runs out of gas).

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The Elusive Tom Stoppard

Even after reading 800+ pages of biography there remains a hidden core to Tom Stoppard. That a person is not entirely captured on paper is true of any biography, the map is not the territory and all that, but the reader feels it especially keenly with Hermione Lee’s exploration of Stoppard’s life and work (I really enjoyed her previous biography of Penelope Fitzgerald). Part of it is that formidable page count, which at times feels slightly padded out with lists of the celebrity attendees at Stoppard’s annual parties and descriptions of home decorating choices. It seems that part of the way Lee chose to address her subject’s reticence was to aim for an exhaustive comprehensiveness, but I couldn’t help but feel as though the book might have been improved if she had adopted some of Stoppard’s own love of speed and concision. The exhaustiveness can become exhausting.

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Writing in the Real World: Four Quotes

As embarrassment has both private and public functions, so, too, do writers’ self-criticisms have several purposes, which are more complex and performative than an outright condemnation of their writing. Though, to some extent, it comes from a real and desperate need to admit how awful it is to have to live with the things one has made, it is also a way of controlling the narrative around one’s work: pre-empting the failings others might find, and therefore mitigating them.

Considering First Books – Lamorna Ash
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All Creatures Great and Small

What I think I’m doing here: Passing along my enthusiasm for the recent TV adaptation of All Creatures Great and Small and feeling some feelings.

When I was little my mom would read me stories from the series of illustrated books James Herriot wrote for children. Memories of Blossom the runaway cow or Gyp the silent sheepdog are symbolic shortcuts back to the safe harbors of bedtime stories. My mom passed away a number of years ago, shortly after I graduated from college, but when I had children of my own I bought used copies of Only One Woof and The Market Square Dog and Blossom Comes Home, hopefully creating new memories, new harbors. To be an adult is to live a life where “everything has to be parried” says Knausgaard in Spring. If you’re lucky, like I was, you have opportunities as a child to simply accept and take in, and part of what I took in were stories of a vet at work in the Yorkshire Dales.

So, I am the sort of person primed for what the recent television adaptation of All Creatures Great and Small has to offer – a certain nostalgia for a place I’ve never been, long tracking shots of rolling green fields, the comfort of knowing that James will always do the honorable thing (always), and the web of family and community that Skeldale House promises (a safe harbor for its characters, and for its readers/viewers). Even if it was absolutely terrible, I would probably tune in – my adult defenses are no good here (so fair warning for what follows). But, I’m pleased to say it is actually quite good – strong performances, excellent production values, good writing – it works.

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Charles Portis and Chekov’s Gun

Charles Portis’ Dog of the South has a sort of Arkansan Wodehouse vibe to it (this is not a slam, I think Wodehouse is a comic genius). While I like comic novels (I will fight for comic Dickens as the best Dickens) I am not usually a “laugh out loud” sort of reader, more of an amused half-smirk sort of reader. But, when Dr. Reo Symes, defending the unjustly overlooked salesman/writer of With Wings as Eagles (one John Selmer Dix, MA) states that “Dix puts William Shakespeare in the shithouse” I found myself, yes, laughing out loud (later: “He said that all other writing, compared to Dix’s work, was just ‘foul grunting'”). But, while I appreciated Dog of the South, I liked it a little less than Gringos, which I also read earlier this year (I read True Grit a few years ago, and loved it). There are a lot of common threads between Dog of the South and Gringos – a distinctive voice (Portis’ superpower), a south-of-the-border setting, lots of talk about proper maintenance of one’s vehicle, and wandering, slightly off-kilter, southern, male narrators – so I wanted to think through why I liked one more than the other.

It may seem strange to compare Wodehouse’s Edwardian-dreamland country house comedies with a story of a man chasing after his stolen car and unfaithful wife through Central America in the early 1970s, but the comparison is not too far fetched. Ray Midge, hapless protagonist trapped in a state of arrested development (“I had accumulated enough hours over the years for at least two bachelors’ degrees but I had never actually taken one”) is the southern American cousin to Bertie Wooster, the perpetually youthful narrator of Wodehouse’s Wooster and Jeeves stories (although Ray’s familial wealth is received in the form of an American Express card and Ford Torino from his father). Just as in Wodehouse, Dog of the South is filled with verbal fireworks and most of the action is to be found in the conversation between characters. The difference is that the dialogues take place in a 1963 Buick Special on a dirt road in Belize rather than in the drawing room of a country house and are punctuated by exchanges regarding the development plans for a private island in Louisiana (“How about a theme park? Jefferson Davis Land … Every afternoon at three Lee would take off his gray coat and wrestle an alligator in a mud hole”) rather than discussions of who is marrying whom among Bertie’s numerous upper-class friends and relations. There’s even a stand-in for Wodehouse’s abundance of aunts, in the form of two elderly missionaries, Nell Symes and Melba, who run the Unity Tabernacle mission in Belize (“This remarkable lady had psychic gifts and she had not slept for three years, or so they told me. She sat up in a chair every night in the dark drinking coffee.”).

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Cool Internet Stuff (Gessen on fatherhood, Niemann on learning the piano, and more)

What I think I’m doing here: time for a links post.

  • Artist/illustrator Christoph Niemann describes trying to learn classical piano during the pandemic (“I know I will never produce anything at the level of a talented 8-year old on YouTube”). His Instagram is one of my favorite feeds. I have not learned the piano in the past year, but I did pick up the guitar with more discipline than I have in many years and found some of the same benefits (note: not too much discipline – basically I’m just happy to have some calluses again).

Still there was something in sports that I had not found anywhere else. The summer that Raffi was born, I was trying to finish a draft of my second novel, worrying about money and trying to manage my literary career, such as it was. But I was also on two excellent beer-league hockey teams. Each team was headed for the playoffs. The email messages celebrating our victories flew back and forth. I wanted Raffi to have this too — this life outside his life, this group of friends dedicated to a common cause. In short, of all the things that I felt I could give my son, the one I most wanted to give him was sports.

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Identification (Me and Karl Ove #3)

What I think I’m doing here: This is the final essay of three linked essays on Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle (the first two are “Intertextuality” and “Identity“).

I abandon a thought mid-sentence, leaving it stranded in white space, and begin a new paragraph. I sit with my fingers on the keyboard but typing nothing. I stare into space (there is no window nearby in which to gaze at my own reflection). I shuffle disconnected bits of prose around, hoping that some coherent whole will emerge. This is embarrassing, I think. I am embarrassing myself. But embarrassing how? I will hit the little blue “Publish” button and the message will float out on the tides with the rest of the day’s virtual flotsam and jetsam. I am only embarrassed before myself.

There is a scene I particularly like in Book 6 of My Struggle where Karl Ove has just won an award for Book 1 (intertextuality and identity all wrapped up in one package):

When the evening was over, Linda and I, holding the statuette in one hand, walked to the hotel arm-in-arm. She was hungry, I went down to the 7-Eleven to buy some food for her, and on the way back I burst into laughter, it came from nowhere, and I stopped and turned to the wall. Ha ha ha, I laughed. Ha ha ha. Then I carried on walking, through the rain and darkness, over the shimmering asphalt, to the hotel, which was the Savoy, where I stopped again and lit a cigarette, the last before going to bed. I didn’t know what I had been laughing at, but just the thought of it made me laugh again. Ha ha ha. Ha ha ha. Ha ha ha.

I enjoy Knausgaard’s laughter (again with the Tintin comic “ha ha ha” – is “ha ha ha” different in Norwegian, I wonder? Is there some sort of specialized Norwegian orthography involved?). I enjoy the “to the hotel, which was the Savoy,” and the fact that after spending thousands of pages with Knausgaard I could be confident that one of his purchases at the 7-Eleven would be Pepsi Max (confirmed in the subsequent paragraph). But, what I really enjoy the most, what I hear when Karl Ove is laughing by himself on the sidewalk, is the sound of success.

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Identity (Me and Karl Ove #2)

What I think I’m doing here: This is the second of three linked essays on Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle (the first one is “Intertextuality” final one is “Identification“).

Does it matter that when the protagonist of My Struggle answers the phone he says “Hi, Karl Ove here” and not “This is Henrik Vankel”? It certainly seems to matter to Karl Ove Knausgaard, the author, but should it matter to me, Thomas Cairns, the reader? Henrik Vankel is the central character in Knausgaard’s (as yet untranslated) debut novel, Out of the World and also appears at the end of A Time for Everything. Vankel shares a number of biographical details with Karl Ove Knausgaard, the protagonist of My Struggle, a character who, the author Karl Ove Knausgaard insists, is himself (or, was himself, at certain points of time).

But, how much to trust this insistence? The instability in this question of identity is not just due to the fictional nature of the project (which Knausgaard admits throughout in asides regarding his own faulty memory and other narrative indicators of unreliability), but Knausgaard’s own inability to see himself clearly. I am willing to accept, up to a point at least, that Knausgaard sat down and simply wrote down his life, but the person that ends up on the page is not identical with the one who is typing at the keyboard. This is basic to art, even art that flaunts its artlessness like My Struggle (I admit to laughing whenever Knausgaard drops in a “ha ha ha” as if the dialogue was pulled from a speech bubble in a Tintin comic). There is always some reduction and expansion in the transition from art to life, a gap between the ideal and the actual – even when the ideal is an intense attempt to depict the actual.

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Purposeful Public Foolishness

Austin Kleon recently posted on the need to “learn to play the fool” (included in the most recent edition of his excellent newsletter – I also liked the “searching outside the algorithm” and “nobody should have to hustle” links this week). In the post Austin reminds the reader that learning anything new generally involves being willing to risk embarrassment and failure.

This reminded me of a J.M. Coetzee quote from Youth that I had posted a while ago and came across again the other day while working on my little Knausgaard essay project (no one is waiting for them, but #2 and #3 are on their way). Coetzee describes the dawning realization (and accompanying frustration) that fundamental to learning to write (and to live) is a willingness to fail:

What more is required than a kind of stupid, insensitive doggedness, as lover, as writer, together with a readiness to fail and fail again? What is wrong with him is that he is not prepared to fail. He wants an A or an alpha or one hundred per cent for his every attempt, and a big Excellent! in the margin. Ludicrous! Childish! He does not have to be told so: he can see it for himself. Nevertheless. Nevertheless he cannot do it. Not today. Perhaps tomorrow. Perhaps tomorrow he will be in the mood, have the courage.

I, like Coetzee’s protagonist, even though I am old enough to know better, often still want an “Excellent!” in the margin on first try, at least in the things that matter to me. Being willing to risk a little failure, a little foolishness can be hard.

I frequently start a post with a “what I think I’m doing here” statement just to give a little signpost to the reader. And, I have been doing some big picture “what do I think I’m doing here” reflecting on this blogging project as a whole (the reflection isn’t happening in public, thank goodness, that sort of navel-gazing is for my journal, to be burned after writing). But, “an attempt at a little purposeful public foolishness” isn’t the worst description in the world of what’s happening here.

Plotting with Paddington

What I think I’m doing here: a little criticism in the “how does this work?” vein – taking something I like and figuring how and why it works (or doesn’t) – usually with a pretty narrow focus on one or two elements. In this post: the movie, Paddington. Spoilers follow etc.

I watched the 2014 movie, Paddington, a few weeks ago with my kids. I enjoyed it, and my kids enjoyed it, and we seemed to enjoy it for the same reasons (not necessarily a common occurrence): it was funny, tenderhearted, and charming. And yet, I found myself drifting towards boredom at various points when the villain of the story, Nicole Kidman’s deranged taxidermist (the estranged daughter of the explorer who Paddington goes to London to see), took center stage. As these were ostensibly the most exciting parts of the story (tranquilizer darts! daring super-spy-style wire drops from the ceiling!) I thought it was worth thinking through.

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