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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Intertextuality (Me and Karl Ove #1)

What I think I’m doing here: This is me getting Knausgaard’s My Struggle out of my system. “Intertextuality” is the first of three short, linked essays I will be posting (“Intertextuality” will be followed by “Identity” and finally “Identification“). There are many different possible approaches to My Struggle but this is my attempt at pulling at some different threads.

All writers are readers first. Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle hides its textuality under the immediacy and intimacy of its authorial voice, but the novel is as much a literary exchange with other texts as it is the strangely engaging record of a gloomy, middle-aged Norwegian’s reflections on life. Along with all the descriptions of making coffee and smoking cigarettes, there’s an intertextual conversation rumbling along, usually in the background, but every once in a while taking center stage in essayistic digressions and explicit references.

My Struggle is “literary” fiction, but the way in which it is may be slightly obscure. “Literary” can mean many things: a marketing term that determines where a book is shelved and the graphic design of its cover, a boundary to determine what “counts” as serious fiction and, in America at least, a label to justify publishing another dreary tale of adultery among middle-aged academics.

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A Wolf’s Christmas Eve

What I think I’m doing here: I wrote a little Christmas story for my kids (with thanks to Thomas Hardy’s The Oxen and Isaiah 11). Editorial suggestions from my offspring included the following: “maybe the wolves could pull Santa’s sleigh,” “keep the story going, but this time the farm animals trick the wolves,” and “maybe the wolves could wave with their little paws and say ‘Merry Christmas.'”

Silas the wolf loped through the snow. That is what wolves do, they do not trot like a horse or hop like a rabbit or frolic like a dog: they lope with long strides through dark, snowy forests with gleaming eyes and sharp teeth. Silas was a hungry wolf. He had not eaten for many days, and he dreamed of a feast of elk shared with the brothers and sisters of his old pack. But, he was alone now, a dark shadow in search of a meal. Right now, he would be happy with even the snack of a wayward squirrel that had ventured too far from its tree.

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There is no spoon long enough

What I think I’m doing here: This is a “he who has ears, let him hear” sort of thing.

I’ve been thinking of the proverbial saying “He who sups with the devil should have a long spoon” (apropos of nothing, of course). I think my initial interpretation was primarily the idea of protecting your reputation – not wanting to be seen associating with a gentleman of disreputable character, trying to make sure you don’t get the smell of sulfur on your frock coat (this is a very 19th century dinner scene I’m imagining). But, after reflecting on it some more, I don’t think that’s right at all. The reason you need a long spoon is because if you get too close to the cooking pot the devil will tip you over into it and devour you. You don’t need to worry about your reputation, you need to worry about being consumed (cf. 1 Peter 5:8). And so, really the insight of the proverb is: don’t dine with the devil, the potential cost of the meal is too high to pay.

Some Favorites from My Year in Books (2020)

It’s that time of year again and the rules remain the same (i.e. there are no rules – no particular order, no particular criteria – the list below is just what comes to mind in the time it takes to write this post). Overall, I read less this year than in recent years, at least in part because I listened to more music (and so, fewer audiobooks). It was a good trade-off.

I’m only listing one Knausgaard book below, but this will be the year of Knausgaard in my reading memory (more Knausgaard content on the way, I promise – the reading public is clamoring for it, I know). Really, I could just fill the list below with Knausgaard books. I had read Books 1 and 2 of My Struggle last year (along with Autumn, I think). This year I read the rest of his books currently published in English (yes, all of them, and re-read most of Book 1, and parts of Book 2). I became a little obsessed. I am writing up an essay on Knausgaard related things, so won’t say more here, but it was one of my peak reading experiences from the past few years. With his work, it seems you either love it or hate it and I loved it, even when I was hating it.

I’ll do links to Goodreads reviews again – just because in many cases I might have more notes there. Here we go:

Spring (Knausgaard) – Spring might be my favorite Knausgaard (and it was my favorite book this year) – but perhaps it is only my favorite because I’ve read his other books. The weight of My Struggle gives the 192 pages of this volume a gravity they wouldn’t otherwise have. From the closing pages:

We come from far away, from terrifying beauty, for a newborn child who opens its eyes for the first time is like a star, is like a sun, but we live our lives amid pettiness and stupidity, in the world of burned hot dogs and wobbly camping tables. The great and terrifying beauty does not abandon us, it is there all the time, in everything that is always the same, in the sun and the stars, in the bonfire and the darkness, in the blue carpet of flowers beneath the tree. It is of no use to us, it is too big for us, but we can look at it, and we can bow before it.

And later, the final lines of the book, writing to his young daughter:

You can count to fifteen, but you always skip the number three. You know who owns every single thing in the house and like to name the owners, whether of shoes or jackets, toys or helmets. You have a stuffed animal that you drag around with you, a polar bear. You like to watch the Ice Age movies, and the first words you spoke, besides Mummy, were thank you. You like to twirl around until you get dizzy, and you like to wave to people, whether you know them or not. You like how you look in the blue dress, then you stroke your hands flat across your chest and say, nice. Do you understand? Sometimes it hurts to live, but there is always something to live for. Could you try to remember that?

Tyll (Kehlmann) – War, disease, propaganda, demons – it’s brutal, and will make you happy to be alive in 2020 (really). Lots of fun Shakespearean stuff going on too.

The Queen’s Thief series (Turner) – Picked this up based on a reading recommendation from Francis Spufford a few years ago. Lots of playing with point-of-view (one can see the influence on Spufford’s own brilliant novel, Golden Hill), and the writing improves as the series goes on (but you should still start at the beginning).

Boom Town (Anderson) – It’s the story of America in microcosm, well-told (you’ll enjoy it more if you’re familiar with the NBA, but that’s not required).

And Then We Grew Up (Friedman) – A book whose impact on me seems larger now on reflection than it did at the time when I first read it in January (remember January, 13 years ago?). Tangled somewhere in the roots of the decision to start blogging again (for better or worse) is this book.

The Fate of Rome (Harper) – I wrote about it here.

Book of My Lives (Hemon) – Memoir-as-essays – often uncomfortable, but very good. Would make the list based on that final essay alone.

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass An American Slave (Douglass) – Ever since reading David Blight’s biography a couple of years ago, I’ve been meaning to read more Douglass. I hope to continue to do so in the year ahead. Eric Foner’s Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery was also an excellent window into this time period.

Midnight in Chernobyl (Higginbotham) – From my Goodreads review: “I think we seriously underestimate the difficulty human beings have in accommodating new information that conflicts with previous narratives/commitments. There are examples in this story of people (accomplished! not stupid!) receiving radiation readings, or you know, looking at a giant smouldering crater where there was once a functioning power plant, and not taking an appropriate action.”

Fall (Stephenson) – One of those books I’ve chewed over throughout the year despite a somewhat lukewarm initial reaction. I talk about the book here.

Motherhood: A Confession (Carnes) – Surprisingly, the only theology book on my list this year (I read others, just none of them came to mind when making this list). From my Goodreads review: “The book is at its best when Carnes ventures out onto the limb of real, genuine memoir – even the theological insights are better when she engages a little more deeply with the personal than when she slips into a slightly more academic tone. … I think theologians should do more of this kind of thing – try new forms, be willing to take a risk – it probably won’t help them get tenure, but might mean their books are actually read. So, I applaud the risk, and encourage you to take up and read.”

On Telling the Truth: Post-Election Edition

What I think I’m doing here: rambling, barely coherent commentary and critique on my own work. The better question is: what do you think you’re doing here?

I have been thinking about my earlier essay on telling the truth because, well … [gestures broadly at post-election discourse]. I received very little feedback on it, and I didn’t think it was entirely successful, but I was glad I spent some time trying to wrestle with it because … [gestures broadly again]. And, I find myself continuing to chew over some of the ideas I was working through.

There are a few reasons why the essay didn’t quite work the way I hoped. One was due to self-indulgence on my part – I was pleased with myself for trying to weave something together from diverse writers like Bonhoeffer, Fitzgerald, and Stephenson … too pleased. I’m not sure that weaving together all three quite provided the insight I was hoping for (or perhaps I just needed to spend some more time/effort on making it work). A more direct, streamlined approach might have been more effective (more truthful?): I think I was disturbed by the ways in which the real world was mirroring Stephenson’s novel and was hoping that Bonhoeffer might help me wrestle with that reality.

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Cool Internet Stuff (NBA bubble life with Ben Golliver, Oliver Burkeman newsletter wisdom, and more)

What I think I’m doing here: It’s another links post.

  • The news your life.” Oliver Burkeman is now delivering wisdom in newsletter form. I have definitely been a bit derailed by distraction these past two weeks. I mean, this about sums it up.
  • On a related note, I find myself hungry for competence and am thinking back to the NBA’s “bubble” – which looks like more of a success with each passing day. Ben Golliver wrote up one of the best reflections on NBA bubble life. Not sure what the next season is going to look like – but hoping they can pull something off.

The most damning thing about Substack is not any of these theoretical structural mechanics, it’s the easier more intuitive understanding that nothing great will be written here. Each piece we read and publish is a bite sized dose of momentary stimulation. It follows an unwritten contract between each party–I will not try too hard to writing anything serious, you will not try too hard to understand my writing, and both of us will be happier for it–that feels less like patronage, and more like a cheap imitation of actual craft, something that fulfils its surface level goals but goes no further.

On the whole, I find the shift towards so much internet writing being distributed as email newsletters extremely irritating. Even the newsletters I like end up over time feeling like some sort of spam. RSS readers exist! They provide a significantly better reading experience!

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Our Cousins in Rome

The ancients revered the frightful sway of the goddess Fortuna, aware, in their own way, that the presiding powers of history seem to be a volatile mix of structure and chance, laws of nature and sheer luck. The Romans lived at a fateful juncture in the human story, and the civilization they built was, in ways the Romans could not have imagined, the victim both of its own success and the caprice of the environment. The enduring power of the Romans to enchant us derives, at least in part, from the poignancy of our knowledge that they stood on the invisible edge of unsuspected change. The long, intertwined story of humanity and nature is full of paradox, surprise, and blind chance. That is why the particularity of history matters. Nature, like humanity, is cunning, but constrained by the circumstances of the past. Our story, and the story of the planet, are inseparable.

The Fate of Rome

Kyle Harper’s The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease and the End of an Empire is packed full of disaster. Volcanic eruptions blot out the sun, people drop dead in the street, crops rot in the fields because there is no one to harvest them – it describes, quite literally, the end of a world. And, it might be one of the most encouraging things I’ve read in the past few months as we grapple with our own global pandemic against a backdrop of shifting demography and a rapidly changing climate.

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