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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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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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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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!

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

Cool Internet Stuff (Ross Gay on basketball, Alan Jacobs leaves me teary-eyed, and more)

What I think I’m doing here: It’s a links post. Because every blog needs a links post once in a while.

  • Oliver Burkeman closes up shop on his wry and generous This Column Will Change your Life. I’m going to miss it. He ends with a summary of the main insights from his years writing the column, including: “The advice you don’t want to hear is usually the advice you need” and “When stumped by a life choice, choose ‘enlargement’ over happiness.”

The last time I played here I didn’t want to leave. I kind of couldn’t bring myself to. In my head I was kind of begging my friend, my partner in ball, who is no longer here, (don’t worry, he’s alive), to stick around, to stretch the game out. C’mon man. Five more points combined and we’re done. Now five more. Ok, two more possessions a piece. Two more. C’mon. Let’s stay a little longer, don’t you think? Let’s just keep going. Up and back. Your knees ok? The hammy’s good? Ankle? C’mon, let’s hang around. A couple more shots. Your ball.

  • Alan Jacobs’ newsletter always has something good (you can subscribe here), but this one, which told a story I had never heard before, about a teenager named Suzanne Big Crow, is one I’m still thinking about weeks later (he also has a new book out, which I haven’t gotten to yet, but looks great).
  • If your interest has been awakened at all by some of my recent Knausgaard content (and there’s more on its way … I have a problem) but you’re not sure you want to launch into the thousands of pages of My Struggle, you can get a taste of what his work is like by watching his 2017 Windham-Campbell Lecture (published as a short book in English titled, Inadvertent).

But rarely, something even better happens: A painting made by someone in a distant country hundreds of years ago, an artist’s careful attention and turbulent experience sedimented onto a stretched canvas, leaps out of the past to call you — to call you — to attention in the present, to drive you to confusion by drawing from you both a sense of alarm and a feeling of consolation, to bring you to an awareness of your own self in the act of experiencing something that is well beyond the grasp of language, something that you wouldn’t wish to live without.

And later, towards the end of the essay:

He was a murderer, a slaveholder, a terror and a pest. But I don’t go to Caravaggio to be reminded of how good people are and certainly not because of how good he was. To the contrary: I seek him out for a certain kind of otherwise unbearable knowledge. Here was an artist who depicted fruit in its ripeness and at the moment it had begun to rot, an artist who painted flesh at its most delicately seductive and most grievously injured. When he showed suffering, he showed it so startlingly well because he was on both sides of it: He meted it out to others and received it in his own body. Caravaggio is long dead, as are his victims. What remains is the work, and I don’t have to love him to know that I need to know what he knows, the knowledge that hums, centuries later, on the surface of his paintings, knowledge of all the pain, loneliness, beauty, fear and awful vulnerability our bodies have in common.

  • And finally, I’m not sure whether this qualifies as “cool internet stuff” but wasn’t sure where else to put this. I have never figured out a great flow between my blog and my Goodreads account. Goodreads is generally the place for short notes, and I’ll tackle longer, more ambitious things here, but I post pretty much every book I finish there (not the ones I abandon), so if you want to follow along at a faster pace in a more “rough draft” form, that’s the place to go.

Home and Away

Sometimes the right book arrives at the right time. Karl Ove Knausgaard and Fredrik Ekelund’s book of letters, Home and Away: Writing the Beautiful Game was a book I gulped down in a series of summer evenings, stretched out on the living room floor, trying to survive central California in July.

The book is a series of letters, ostensibly about the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, between Knausgaard, at home in a sleepy village in Sweden, and Ekelund, who is staying in Rio de Janeiro. I say “ostensibly” because while there is plenty of soccer analysis, the letters typically overflow their banks with a flood of other topics: class, memory, gender, parenting, culture, literature, meaning. We hear about trips to the local pool with the kids (Knausgaard) and pick-up soccer games on the beach (Ekelund). It’s about all of life, more or less, but grounded in a particular moment, with the spectacle of the games providing a through line for the reader to follow.

She smacked her forehead. Who’s going to read it?! she said. Is he in the stadium watching while you watch TV here? Yes, I said. But I write about other things too. Like what? she said. Whatever’s on my mind, I answered. Don’t write what you’re thinking about, Dad! she shouted. That’s what I do, I said. Today, for example, I’ve written about the drive to the theatre. How nice it was. Oh no! she said.

Knausgaard’s daughter on the project of Home and Away
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The Various Struggles in Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle: An Incomplete List

  1. The struggle to be a good father.
  2. The struggle to get over his own father.
  3. The struggle with readers who don’t recognize that naming the books My Struggle is partly a joke.
  4. The struggle with readers who don’t recognize that naming the books My Struggle is partly serious.
  5. The struggle of isolation and loneliness.
  6. The struggle to write.
  7. The struggle to write.
  8. The struggle to write.
  9. The struggle of being a younger brother.
  10. The struggle of shyness.
  11. The struggle with car seats, strollers, and trying to get from point A to point B with small children.
  12. Shame. So much shame.
  13. The struggle with alcoholism and its legacies.
  14. The struggle of a marriage (or two).
  15. The struggle of what to say at parties.
  16. The struggle of what to say at home.
  17. The struggle of mental illness.
  18. The struggle of being oneself (Monday. Me. Tuesday. Me. Wednesday. Me. Thursday. Me.).
  19. The struggle to find a home.
  20. The struggle to escape the home one has. (Argentina, a working title for the novel, still fits, I think).
  21. The struggle to remember what to pick up at the grocery store.
  22. The struggle between the Romantic ideal of The Artist and the reality that the children need their muesli and yogurt in the morning.
  23. The struggle for meaning in the face of absurdity and death.
  24. The struggle of a Norwegian living in Sweden.
  25. The struggle of navigating masculinity in an increasingly feminized society.
  26. The struggle of desire.
  27. The struggle of standing in the middle of an airport with a mound of luggage and gaggle of crying children and no luggage cart in sight (“Help!” She shouted in a loud voice. “Help us!”).
  28. The struggle of being seen.
  29. The struggle of being hidden.
  30. The struggle of the toddler as 5am alarm clock.
  31. The struggle of literature’s distance from real life.
  32. The struggle of this particular literary work’s closeness to real life.
  33. The struggle of trying not to cry (and failing).
  34. The struggle to get the beer to the party in the snow on a New Year’s Eve.
  35. The struggle to prevent the apartment from degenerating into a visible incarnation of the universe’s drive towards entropy.
  36. The struggle of friendship.
  37. The struggle of finding and celebrating beauty under the cynical eye of modernity.
  38. The struggle to find a moment to enjoy a cup of coffee and a cigarette in peace.
  39. The struggle towards that point where the author can finally say: “I am no longer a writer.”