Britain's first book blogger (November 2000)

Thursday, January 10, 2013

An everyday afterlife: Knausgaard revisited

A question arises from my breathless response to volume one of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle: have I contradicted my exasperated review of David Shields’ Reality Hunger? At least, this is a question I ask myself. After all, as the author explained, this autobiographical work was written only when fiction failed him. He had published two novels but:
I wanted to write something completely different, and I wanted to write about my father ... About his fall, how he somehow changed from being a father, a perfectly ordinary teacher, a local politician, to a divorced, dead alcoholic. For three years I tried to write a kind of regular, realistic but fictional work about his death. Nothing worked. ... And [then] I started just writing it as it was: the truth, no artifice, no cleverness. Reality.
Perhaps my enthusiasm was relief at the abolition of the generic niceties that even the most impressive novels observe and, like David Shields, I mistook disillusionment for truth. Here was something elemental, I thought, the word Thomas Bernhard uses to describe Dostoevsky's The Demons after he had read the novel on his teenage deathbed. But, in my review of Reality Hunger, I argued that such reality cannot enter into the work without conforming to the pressure of the conceptual unity imposed by a book, and that writing plainly about plain things is no more a guarantee of realism than – following Wittgenstein – rain experienced in a dream is a guarantee of its wetness, even if it is connected to noise on the bedroom window.

Of course dream rain does mean something: meaning fills the dreamworld like sunlight, even when it is dark. We can only speculate on the meaning. This is our experience of dreams, and our speculation never feels quite enough, never proportionate to the generic purity of the dream. The quality of My Struggle I perceived is precisely a persistent analysis that maintains a propulsive force because it is aware that is never enough. Had Knausgaard written a regular, realistic novel instead, it might have appeared to be enough: a function of mastery and controlled distance, hence his writer's blockage and compulsion toward "no artifice, no cleverness". However, My Struggle is something other than reportage and the fundamental error of Reality Hunger is to conflate the aims of journalism with those of literature.

For this reason, Mark Thwaite makes a very good case for treating My Struggle as a novel, arguing that the relentless focus on “quotidian dreariness” is its method of seeking the meaning of its dream, to engage with the presence of “something numinous [that] lies just beyond sight, beneath grief, [what] lies always beyond language”. He aligns this to Freud’s shifting definition the uncanny: “He finds something deeply strange, something Unheimliches, during this work: secretly, heimlich is not the antonym of unheimlich at all, but rather its sometime synonym”. Words are thereby always in excess of themselves and “the yearned-for mot juste doesn't get us any further than just our everyday yearning". This is well put. Knausgaard must focus on "the stink, the misery, the pain, the boredom, the embarrassment" of everyday life in order to open up onto what it cannot name. "The subject here" he continues, "is death and whether writing/language has anything to say about this commonplace disaster that haunts and harries and shapes us everywhere we turn". Knausgaard himself is explicit that this can happen only when writing yields to literature's demand:
everything has to submit to form. If any of literature’s other elements are stronger than form, such as style, plot, theme, if any of these overtake form, the result suffers. That is why writers with a strong style often write bad books. That is also why writers with strong themes so often write bad books. Strong themes and styles have to be broken down before literature can come into being. It is this breaking down that is called “writing.” Writing is more about destroying than creating.
Writing as destruction is a striking contradiction and serves Mark's reading well, but "bad books" is vague and self-serving. He names no names here but My Struggle inevitably provokes comparisons with at least two. Who has stronger styles than Proust and Bernhard and what books have stronger themes than In Search of Lost Time and Gathering Evidence? (They are also named in My Struggle, Knausgaard having "virtually imbibed" one.) I regret mentioning them in my review, not because Proust and Bernhard cannot be usefully discussed in comparison but, in my case, they weren't usefully discussed and because doing so threatens the error that Marcel himself describes: when one hears of a great book, one can imagine only an assemblage of the great books one has already imbibed. It is only when one reads the new book that one becomes aware of its otherness and perhaps also its weakness in comparison. This has happened with three friends of mine who have read My Struggle, and it has caused me great consternation.

To compound this error, I shall now compare Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle to the work of Franz Kafka.

We can say Kafka’s work has more in common with Knausgaard’s in terms of style, that is, in its comparative disconnect from style. In both we are drawn more to the specific events described, their curious and horrific banality, rather than to immersion in aesthetic bliss, while at the same time we feel compelled to draw back and seek an organising principle, to imagine such events as part of a containable world view, and then to resubmerge in a newly configured aesthetic bliss. However, Kafka’s is the prime example of a body of work that is never quite enough, a lack into which it is impossible to submerge. The deluge of secondary texts does this for us. Maurice Blanchot asks what needs to done to rescue Kafka from this fate, one to which Kafka himself contributed, and his answer is to recommend regarding his work as Kafka had wanted: in its absence. He observes that, with the publication of the Diaries, Kafka the writer was placed in the foreground and he is the one we look for in the work. He wonders if Kafka foresaw such a disaster and that is why he wanted his work destroyed. The opposite is true of My Struggle: knowledge of Knausgaard life saturates the page and the interviews and reports of the scandalised response in Norway offer no room to move away in relief: there is nowhere else to look but the work. But what then is the work?

It certainly isn’t the everyday content of life. This is as much the subject of My Struggle as ice is the subject of Scott’s journey to the South Pole. An overwhelming sense of imminence is evoked by Knausgaard so that its banality becomes, as James Wood says, celestial. For example, when he walks home in the dark after a day of writing and describes his route with such precision that only an event of great significance would seem to justify it. As the event doesn't occur, another world makes itself felt instead; a possible world, just out of reach. This imminence has itself been promised by occasional epiphanies, which appear to open the work to its final destination, as well to align the author with the experience of Proust. But they are frustrated epiphanies, without message, each one a scintillating blank. The face in the sea and the inexplicable tears evoked by a patch of sky in an old painting appear as offerings of transcendence, but not an affirmative transcendence. Why not?

Blanchot places Kafka’s work squarely in the era after the death of God: his stories are “among the darkest in literature, the most rooted in absolute disaster”. Only it is not an anguished expression of lament but one of uncertainty and anxiety. “God is dead, which may signify this harder truth: death is not possible”. We think of The Hunter Gracchus fallen into a ravine and happy to wait for death: “Then the accident happened”. Not the accident of death but that of not dying: “I am here. I don’t know any more than that. There’s nothing more I can do. My boat is without a helm—it journeys with the wind which blows in the deepest regions of death.”

The theme is also clear in Metamorphosis: like Gracchus, Gregor cannot die even as his body transforms and disintegrates. Despite the utter misery and solitude of his condition, he still seeks moments of reprieve – food from his sister Grete, protecting the portrait on the wall – until, finally, he does die, only then for Grete, free at last from the burden of her looking after her brother and on a family outing, to stretch her young body, signalling life’s revival; one more metamorphosis. “There is no end,” Blanchot writes, “there is no possibility of being done with the day, with the meaning of things, with hope”. God is thereby not deprived of his infinite authority: “dead, he is even more terrible, more invulnerable, in a combat in which there is no longer and possibility of defeating him”.

We are battling a dead transcendence, Blanchot says, and notes the prevalence of the powerful dead in Kafka’s stories: the emperor in The Great Wall of China and the former Commandant in In the Penal Colony. We might add Knausgaard’s father. An absurd battle perhaps, something embodied in the comedy of Kafka’s stories (“he could hardly keep from laughing”) and by Knausgaard's solemn attention to the mundane. Yet it is perhaps the only battle left worth fighting; a combat of passivity. Blanchot believed that Kafka recognised his presentation of death had instead dimmed and erased it, and that our reading "revolves anxiously around a misunderstanding": we think we have witnessed what has in fact been hidden. Kafka wanted to destroy his writing because it hadn’t failed enough.

Similarly, My Struggle has been welcomed with astonishment and great sales, much to the author's horror: "I have given away my soul". He must also wish to recommend his own absence. Western man, Blanchot observes, has tried to make this bearable by focusing on the positive: immortality, of an afterlife that would compensate for this life, perhaps the afterlife of fine writing: “But this afterlife is our actual life”.

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