“Such are the perfections of fiction...Everything it teaches is useless insofar as structuring your life: you can’t prop up anything with fiction. It, in fact, teaches you just that. That in order to attempt to employ its specific wisdom is a sign of madness...There is more profit in an hour’s talk with Billy Graham than in a reading of Joyce. Graham might conceivably make you sick, so that you might move, go somewhere to get well. But Joyce just sends you out into the street, where the world goes on, solid as a bus. If you met Joyce and said 'Help me,' he’d hand you a copy of Finnegans Wake. You could both cry.” – Gilbert Sorrentino, Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things

Saturday, August 18, 2012

My Struggle (Vol. 1) By Karl Ove Knausgaard

The first volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle is simultaneously very easy and virtually impossible to do justice to in a book review. On the one hand, this is a novel whose very name aims for provocation: it's Norwegian title, Min Kamp, explicitly echoes Hitler's Mein Kampf. Moreover, the incredible ambition of the book screams for attention: billed by its publishers, Archipelago Books, as a "Proustian" novel, My Struggle stretches across six volumes all of which purport to dissect its author's life with an obsessive attention to detail. Indeed, the book, which was a bestseller in Norway, has prompted intense, negative reactions from many of the real people "depicted" in the book, including Knausgaard's uncle and his first wife. But these newsworthy details are ultimately misleading, and My Struggle is a far more nuanced, subtle and complicated book than this thumbnail sketch would suggest. In my opinion, it is also, without a doubt, the most exceptional novel yet to be published this year.
     The book opens with an abstract passage that has been much quoted in reviews: "For the heart, life is simple: it beats as long as it can. Then it stops." After several pages of beautiful expository prose, the narrative mostly focuses on Knusgaard's childhood and adolescence, with particular attention paid to his problematic relationship with his father. Much of the material here--though excellently paced--may feel like a fairly typical Bildungsroman: the older Karl Ove reflects on his younger self's naivete and failings with a subtle and distanced irony that recalls not just Proust but the long tradition of the self-ironizing "confession" that stretches back through Rousseau and Augustine. There is a wonderful charge to this section, and, although I grew up in America and not Norway and am over a decade younger that Knausgaard, I identified directly with a great deal of this material--as I suspect will most Western readers (in this sense, My Struggle demonstrates how universal cultural experiences in the first world have become under late capitalism). But I was also struck by the fact that at points the prose seems--while never dull--almost unremarkable; the attention to detail is beyond fastidious, and many recountings of conversations violate the first rule of novelistic dialogue (which is never to allow a character to give a straight answer to a simple question).
     As it turns out, however, this approach--though never calling attention to itself too directly--is essential to Knausgaard's aesthetics, which are indirectly articulated in the brilliant second half of the novel. Although My Struggle's style could hardly be considered Modernist, in the second section it becomes clear that the book takes very seriously the long history of 20th Century art, and what it seeks is rather to chart an alternate path to Modernity; instead of rejecting the mimetic mode of "realism" (in the 19th-Century sense), My Struggle is a hypertrophic realism, in which detail accumulates to the point where traditional modes of mimesis are overwhelmed by detail itself. The novel explains this position when Karl Ove discusses his preference for pre-20th Century paintings: "However, it was striking to me that [my favourite works] were all painted before the 1900s, within the artistic paradigm that always retained some reference to visible reality. Thus, there was always a certain objectivity to them, by which I mean a distance between reality and the portrayal of reality, and it was doubtless in this interlying space where it 'happened,' where it appeared, whatever it was I saw, when the world seemed to step forward from the world." (Obviously, this section also provides a key insight into the novel's complicated configuration of biography and fiction.) 
     Put simply, My Struggle is as much about the struggle to write a novel after the weight of the 20th Century and literary theory (the book explicitly references, albeit in a thankfully non-systematic fashion, Derrida, Walter Benjamin, and Blanchot), as it is about the life of "Karl Ove Knausgaard." Yes, there are intentional nods toward Proust; aside from being six volumes long, there are many descriptions of tea brewing in tea cups, which might be an allusion to Proust's "episode of the madeleine," although Knausgaard's versions are intentionally stripped of symbolic value through their repetition--and in this sense the seeming allusion is actually a marker of distance. If My Struggle is "Proustian," then it's a Proustian novel after Blanchot--a Proustian series of rememberances in which any sentimental notion of memory itself is intentionally "unworked" by an overly rigorous attention to detail, which becomes claustrophobic in the second half of the novel as Karl Ove is required to clean his grandmother's absolutely squalid house. The final section also significantly involves a corpse--a seeming invocation of Blanchot's "Two Versions of The Imaginary," a text that links the notion of the work of art directly to the conception of a dead body.
     At the same time, it's worth emphasising that this book is surprisingly easy to read; despite the fact that very little happens, there are a huge number of fulfilling narrative revelations, and, for this reason, I haven't tried to say too much about the novel's plot as such. What I will note is that the novel, in this sense, also represents a major achievement: for all of its (clearly) high-art pedigree, it is a book that will equally appeal to fans of more standard literary faire, and this, to me, is what makes it an exceptional work of literature: My Struggle simultaneously follows in both the 19th Century realist tradition and the 20th Century Modernist tradition (which rejected realism!)--no small feat. This is why My Struggle is likely to be the best book published this year. There have been other great novels out this year, like Laszlo Krasznahorkai's Satantango--but however good, Satantango is recongnisably a certain kind of late modern/postmodern novel: whereas Satantango's shifting perspectives, Faulknerian long sentences, thematic considerations of observation (i.e. Foucault's Panopticism/Systems Theory/Quantum Mechanics), and Moebius-Strip structure all draw from a well-established playbook, My Struggle cannot be so easily categorized. This isn't to criticise Satantango, which is a great late-modernist, high-art novel, but only to point out that it is a great example of a certain tradition rather than an exceeding of that tradition as such. My Struggle, on the other hand, represents something genuinely new--the establishment of a possibility in literature that has not yet been exhausted by Joyce or Proust or Woolf or Sebald or Gertrude Stein (although, arguably, My Struggle's compulsive detail is not entirely distant from Stein's linguistic obsessiveness). Simply put, this is one of the few books from the last decade (I would list Bolano's 2666 as another) to demonstrate that the novel has life left in it, and that there are trajectories that remain beyond the well-trodden paths of Modernism and Postmodernism. 

Friday, August 3, 2012

'Graham Greene Is The World's Greatest Second-Rate Novelist'

Below is a video of a talk I gave the other month on Graham Greene's The Quiet American, a book that I am ultimately not fond of (for reasons that I articulate in the video). Also, N.B. the clip assumes you have read the novel, so there are massive spoilers about the ending from the very start.