Tag Archives: Karl Ove Knausgaard

The Book Group and Book One of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s Struggle

Karl Ove Knausgaard, A Death in the Family (My Struggle: 1) (2009, translation by Don Bartlett 2012, Vintage 2013)

0099555166When we googled “My Struggle” at the Book Group last month, the top result was Hitler’s Mein Kampf. We were mildly amused by what we took to be a google oddity. But the Norwegian title of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six-volume novel is Min Kamp – a similarity that could hardly be accidental. At the Sydney Writers’ Festival, the man himself told us that the sixth and final volume is a 400 page essay about Adolf Hitler. One has to wonder: if A Death in the Family is point A, how does he get from point A to point Way Off the Chart?

But since only two of the books are available in English so far, that’s a question for later.

Before the meeting: I finished reading A Death in the Family a couple of weeks ago, just after hearing Karl Ove speak at the SWF. I would have moved straight on to the second volume, A Man in Love, if I hadn’t had other more pressing demands on my imaginative faculties. The appeal, for me, is to do with shoe leather.

In the movie business shoe leather is the term for precious screen time wasted on actors walking from place to place. Knausgaard has elevated its written equivalent to a high art. It seems no one ever just gets in a car and drives somewhere: they always turn on the indicator, check the rear-vision mirror and pull out into the traffic, then follow a series of carefully named streets until they arrive at their destination. When a character cleans a book case, it goes like this:

I sprayed the glass door of the bookcase, crumpled up the newspaper and rubbed it over the runny liquid a few times until the glass was dry and shiny. Looked around for more to do while I had the spray in my hand, but saw nothing apart from the windows, which I had determined to save until later. Instead, I went on with the bookcase, tidied everything, starting with its contents.

That man be unremarkable, but so much of the book is taken up with similar attention to detail that how a reader responds to it will have a huge influence on their response to the book as a whole. Early on, there’s a passage about growing up that helps explain what’s happening, as I understand it:

As your perspective of the world increases not only is the pain it inflicts on you less but also its meaning. Understanding the world requires you to keep a certain distance from it. Things that are too small to see with the naked eye, such as molecules and atoms, we magnify. Things that are too large, such as cloud formations, river deltas, constellations, we reduce. At length we bring it within the scope of our senses and we stabilise it with fixer. When it has been fixed we call it knowledge. Throughout our childhood and teenage years we strive to attain the correct distance from objects and phenomena. We read, we learn, we experience, we make adjustments. Then one day we reach the point where all the necessary distances have been set, all the necessary systems have been put in place. That is when time begins to pick up speed. It no longer meets any obstacles, everything is set, time races through our lives, the days pass by in a flash and before we know what is happening we are forty, fifty, sixty.

I read the narrative’s wealth of undifferentiated detail as an attempt to reverse that process: to give priority to specific observations and experiences over any abstraction, to go for immediately apprehended ‘meaning’ over calm, generalisable ‘knowledge’, to avoid our habitual exclusion of some things from consideration. As well as the tiny acts, the brand names, the hyper-specifics, we are given the narrator’s play of mind, apparently unfiltered – memories and meditations that are jogged by the brand names on cleaning products, say, his adolescent worries about the shape of his penis when erect, or  the strange feeling he had as a boy about the gravel on the floor of the family garage. And, because nothing is being left out, he tells us things that are just not talked about: how he shakes his little girl when she irritates him, the extraordinarily squalid circumstances of his father’s death, his grandmother’s incontinence. These last things don’t feel deliberately shocking – more like the inevitable result of a  decision made at the beginning to put everything in.

Karl Ove has said that the overwhelming emotion he had while writing the novel was shame. He couldn’t believe anyone would read it, and now he is embarrassed to realise that roughly half a million people know all about his failures as a parent and his sexual inadequacies (those are yet to come, perhaps in the second book).

After the meeting:  This book provoked as much sustained conversation as any we’ve discussed in the group. One man who spent his childhood in Britain was most deeply struck by the way the weather was evoked: the grimness of the winter and the way spring came as a great relief. This struck a chord with others who had lived in northern Europe for any length of time. Another man, following his daughter’s lead, had been watching a lot of Simon Amstell‘s recent melancholy stand-up and found a striking resonance with this book. Another man was struck by the book’s failure to make him empathise with the narrator – at one stage he thought it might all be total fiction, that Knausgaard the author might be no more Karl Ove the character than Mark Haddon is Christopher in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time – and in that case it’s a brilliant creation. I don’t know that anyone liked it as much as I did.

As always, the conversation ranged widely, from the sexist bile being showered on Julia Gillard to details of our lives, all to the tune of excellent pasta, grilled zucchini and fennel and tomato salad.

Sydney Writers’ Festival: My Weekend

The best laid plans etc. I was going to blog about the SWF daily, but it turned out that though I only got to one event on Saturday I still had no time to write about it then or on Monday or Tuesday, so here are my days 3 and 4 all mooshed up.

Saturday returned to the cloudless sky that’s traditional for the festival. The average age of the punters dropped by about 20 years, but the crowds at Walsh Bay didn’t seem to be any worse.

My day started with the half past two session, Shami Chakrabarti: WOW at Sydney Writers’ Festival Lecture. WOW, ‘Women of the World’, is a big feminist festival held annually at London’s Southbank Centre. There were a number of WOW events at this festival, a kind of taster-festival within the festival, and a friend I met at quarter past two or thereabouts had been wowed at one of them in which a number of women spoke for ten minutes each (there’s a nice blog post about that one on Guys Read Gals).

The 2.30 session was a tepid affair. Jude Kelly, Artistic Director of the Southbank Centre and founder of WOW, gave a long and  promising introduction – introducing herself as a very senior arts administrator, WOW as a feminist festival unlike any other in the world, and Shami Chakrabarti as her friend and a foremost human rights activist in the UK. ‘Why Women of the World rather than Feminists United?’ she asked, and I honestly thought she was going to say, ‘Because Wow! is so much more attractive than Eff you!’ Sadly no: she explained that it was because the word feminist had such a bad rep and they wanted to attract as many people as possible. This explanation enraged one of my companions, who also bridled at Jude’s admittedly eccentric suggestion that the men in the audience should consider themselves to be women for the occasion. Neither of those things particularly distressed me, but I could understand.

Then Shami Chakrabarti spoke. The same friend told me later that Ms Chakrabarti is a brilliant and heroic activist, who often appears on British TV and is completely formidable, someone you are very glad to have on your side. That wasn’t evident from this speech. She started off saying that in her view gender rights is the most important human rights issue in the world today – she hadn’t always thought so, but she now does. But instead of giving the reasons for her change of mind – arguing, for example, that no other human rights abuse can be adequately addressed unless women’s issues are also addressed – she just repeated the assertion, listed off a number of appalling statistics and atrocities, gave us a timeline of the gaining of important rights by women in Australia and the UK respectively (a part of her talk that someone said afterwards sounded like notes she had taken in preparation for visiting Australia, failing to realise that a Sydney audience might already know, for example, that women had the vote here 20 something years before Britain). Towards the end, she said, ‘It’s not my place to tell you what you should be doing in this country …’, and it struck me that that may have been the problem: as a citizen of London she was trying so hard not to be condescending to us ex-colonials that she ended up not saying anything much. Or maybe she was just jet-lagged.

Whatever, I think I picked the wrong WOW event. I do wonder if at I’m a Feminist – Can I Vajazzle? Jude Kelly invited the men in the audience to consider themselves as women.

I tried to get into the 4 o’clock Marathon Poetry Reading, but if the room holds 100 people, I was 102 in line. I tried to sit in the sun and listen: the ear was willing but the bum was sore and I got a cramp. So I went and sat and read until I could meet up with my companions who had gone to hear Bob Brown on the Future of Activism, where the reciprocal passion so absent from the WOW talk was by all accounts there in spades – even though he kept pointing an accusing finger at his audience and telling them that come September they were about to vote against their own interests and the interests of their children.

Sunday was another brilliant day – I speak mainly of the weather and the way it was possible to strike up an interesting conversation with compete strangers.

We started with Sylvia Nasar: Is the West Over and What Would Keynes say? at 10 o’clock, probably my most worthily motivated event of the festival. As is often the case, the conversation bore very little relation to the title of the session. It was mainly a promotion of Sylvia Nasar’s book, Grand Pursuit: The Story of Economic Genius, which tells the history of economics through the lives of its key practitioners, and argues that economics is responsible for transforming the possibilities for human wellbeing. As one of my companions remarked afterwards, if the book is as facile as this session, it’s a good one to skip. Her responses to two questions at the end are indicative of that facileness.

A young woman, after a courteous squee about having a woman discuss economics, asked how Ms Nasar’s account of the vast benefits brought to humanity by economics related to the imminent threat from global warming. Ms Nasar said that many problems had been solved in the past and there was plenty of time so she was optimistic that economics would solve this one too. She probably didn’t mean that we should just place our faith in neoliberalism, but she could have meant that, and evidently didn’t see any need to dissociate herself from that view. Then someone asked what she saw as the importance of Amartya Sen. This question might well have been a chance to distance herself from the neoliberal world view, and perhaps come at last to the advertised theme of the session; instead she told us how she had followed ‘Amartya’ around in India for weeks when writing the book, and been struck by the way his photo appeared constantly on the front page of newspapers there – that in India economists could be treated as rockstars are in her native USA. End of reply.

Sylvia Nasar wrote A Beautiful Mind, the book about economist John Nash that was made into the excellent movie with Russell Crowe, so she’s clearly done better than this. Maybe she was jet-lagged too.

I dashed to the scene of my unsuccessful queuing on Saturday, and this time I was among the last five people admitted – to stand at the back of the room for Research and Writing. This session turned out to be a lot of fun. The panel was the winner and two shortlisted authors for the 2012 Nib Waverley Library Award for Literature: Jane Gleeson-White (Double Entry: How the merchants of Venice shaped the modern world – and how their invention could make or break the planet), Robin de Crespigny (The People Smuggler: The true story of Ali Al Jenabi, the ‘Oscar Schindler of Asia’) and Fiona Harari (A Tragedy in Two Acts: Marcus Einfeld & Teresa Brennan). They were billed as talking about their approaches to research, and that’s what they did.

If there was a common thread, it is that each of their books began with the discovery of an interesting person, and none of them knew when they started what the book was going to be about. Jane Gleeson-White (who incidentally had just done a fine job as Sylvia Nasar’s amiably sceptical interlocutor) started out writing about the Viennese Monk Luca Bartolomes Pacioli, intimate of Leonardo and teacher of Dürer, and had to be told by her editor that she had actually written a history of accountancy. Robin de Crespigny set out to make a film about people smuggling, but was so captivated by Ali Al Jenabi that it had to be a book and, evidently, an enduring friendship. Fiona Harari began with questions about Marcus Einfeld, the eminent former judge who perjured himself over a speeding offence and ended up disgraced and in gaol, intending to devote just one chapter to Teresa Brennan, the deceased person he had claimed was the speeding driver, but expecting hostility from Einfeld’s friends and family she decided to write the Brennan part first, only to discover a whole rich story there. The panellists enjoyed themselves and each other, and a good time was had by all.

Fiona Harari said that Teresa Brennan was famous for telling outrageous lies for the fun of it – she had convinced Sir Gustav Nossal that she was planning to become a nun. As I’d relayed on this blog something I was told by Teresa when I met her in 1976, I used question time to ask if I’d been sold a pup: but no, it’s on record that, among many other improbabilities, she had indeed been a publicist for Barry Humphries and it was quite plausible that she had written jokes for Edna.

My final event was Karl Ove Knausgaard in conversation with Sarah Kanowski. I’d nearly finished the first book in his six volume novel My Struggle, A Death in the Family, which we’ll be discussing at my Book Group, and which I’ll write about here after the meeting. So this session was like homework. All homework should be so mesmerisingly interesting.

Sarah Kanowski seemed to have read everything Karl Ove had written, some of it at least twice. She pronounced his name as if she had been speaking Norwegian all her life, and was right up there with Ramona Koval in establishing a warm rapport with her interviewee. Karl Ove said that shame is the dominant emotion in Norwegian culture and these books set out to name things that are simply not talked about: drunkenness and incontinence, but also mistreatment of children and sexual matters. When he was writing the novel he couldn’t imagine anyone wanting to read it, and now he is alarmed to think there are more than 500 thousand people who know all about his sexual inadequacies. He claimed that when he finished speaking to us he would go off by himself and vomit with shame. Was it just me, or would everyone in the room have been willing to hold him by the shoulders while he vomited?

I hadn’t been sure I would read on past the first book, even though I was exhilarated by it. Now it looks as if I won’t be able to resist reading the whole 2000+ pages. Evidently the final book is a 400-page essay about Adolf Hitler. Can you believe I’m looking forward to it?

So that was my festival. We didn’t get to the Big Read, a highlight of previous festivals, because its new time slot was in working hours. I’ve subscribed to the podcast of  ABC Radio National’s pale shadow of the Book Show so as to hear some of the sessions I missed. I’ll happily advise people devising sessions to think in terms of readings and conversations rather than delivery of papers or rambling discourse. I recommend anyone travelling to Sydney to time it so you can attend, especially if it continues to overlap in time and location with the Vivid Festival (about which I’ll blog a little tomorrow).