Friday, March 30, 2012

Apostle of impassioned sincerity: My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard

“It is not every day one is sent a masterpiece to review”,  wrote Gabriel Josipovici in reviewing WG Sebald's The Emigrants; “(I suppose one is lucky if it happens more than once or twice in a lifetime)”.

I started writing reviews in the year Josipovici's review was published (1996) and had not read a book by an author entirely new to me that I believed was a masterpiece. As I read Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, I thought that this is perhaps the closest I will ever get. Such is the reach of the word masterpiece beyond craft and industry considerations, my instinct was not to review at all but to thrust the book into the hands of friends for whom reading is absolutely central to their lives (not many).

But I must write something. Reading My Struggle was often like reliving fragments of my own life – an intensity resonating in a void – and a review would mean explicating this in formal terms, and that wouldn’t be right. Yet the terms available seemed too personal, something to be shared only by handing the book over in silence. How then to recommend? This is perhaps the gift of reading: others can open doors. Josipovici spends most of his Sebald review describing a twenty-page short story rather than racing through a summary of all four:
Like all good art, the form and the style bring into being what would otherwise have remained in darkness and silence for ever, so that a mere account of what the story was ‘about’ would not have begun to do it justice.
This is good advice for any reviewer: stick to what you believe is important. My Struggle (published in the UK as A Death in the Family) is 471 pages long and is ‘about’ the relatively normal, middle-class life of a Norwegian male born in 1968, so even an extended account would say very little (almost nothing), and while Knausgaard’s ability to make the unremarkable resound means the detail is vital, it is its framing that brings the book to vivid life.

Friday, March 23, 2012

To be of use: The Art Kettle by Sinéad Murphy

An art book is a curious item. Lifting the unusually heavy cover and flapping ahead to the large colour plates, one anticipates pleasure not only in looking at the art itself without the peculiar unease of galleries – departure lounges without destination, waiting rooms without delay – and with all the attention enabled by languid time and solitude, but also reading about the art. This is where the gift may be fully unwrapped. Except one soon rediscovers that there nothing in books quite as awkward and unsatisfying as reading about art. Embarking on paragraph setting the scene of, say, an allegorical landscape, one is impatient to turn to the particular plate to see again for oneself. The same is true when the author discusses the technical properties of the work, its critical context and its family tree. In the identical original gallery movement, however, one's eyes leave the painting to seek the caption and, a moment later, the related text one had impatiently abandoned. The next impulse is to put the book away and visit the gallery again, or perhaps abandon the subject altogether. Art appreciation sometimes appears less a process of discovery and growth than an unsatisfying, moth-like fluttering between partial illuminations. Why this oscillation in the dark?

Sinéad Murphy’s dissatisfaction with art is of a different order entirely and she has no hesitation in providing an answer: by suppressing the question of what art is for, contemporary art colludes with liberal democracy in making “social, cultural and political life free of ... unpredictable, revolutionary capacities.” Moreover, this collusion is not a failure of certain contemporary artists or movements but its very mode of being:
“the manner in which art is constituted in our society – that is, what we understand art to be and to do, and the value we attribute to what art is and does – operates primarily as a mode of control.”
The Art Kettle's case is worth setting out in as much detail as a brief review allows in order to let its unusual resistance to art show through.

Sunday, March 04, 2012

Despair all you can; it's a mistake not to: Dogma by Lars Iyer

I think we ought to read only books that wound and stab us. Kafka's letter, sent one hundred and eight years ago, is one I've quoted often enough and I'm reluctant to do so again. If the book we are reading doesn't wake us like a blow on the head, what are we reading for? Shouldn't its grave romanticism be left to teenage goths? But we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we love more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. But we're all teenage goths now. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.

Perhaps I've quoted the letter so often because it demands answers, answers to "what are we reading for?" and what kind of book constitutes such an axe. Answering the latter may help to answer the former. What books come to mind? Even if my head is rent daily by literary blows, I find it difficult to answer because knowing is the answer's contradiction: knowing is the fridge freezer for ideas.

For sure, there are books we can say we love and books we can say we admire, books we think we ought to know better, better appreciate, and books we would like others to know better, better appreciate; citing them is easy – bookchat parrots the familiar names and titles, and while one knowing reader reminds us that "it's all subjective anyway", another expresses a need. This is less about objectivity and sharing than a need to understand the effect a book has on the one and not the many; a need to externalise, to actualise a recurring dream.

Maintaining the secret protects us from the risk of such an occurrence. There are risks. A hatchet is invariably buried beneath public mitigation of a private function: a book's debatable controversy, its relevance to TV news, its prize-winning status, its bestsellerdom. (I remember a work colleague recommending Carlos Ruiz Zafón's The Shadow of the Wind because "it was a best seller in Spain". Was this, I wondered, really why she liked it?). A romance is disfigured.

The first axe-nomination to occur to me was Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones, because its reading provoked a demand to spend hours sitting on a beach staring at the horizon. Except this is probably easily explained: the subject matter given such prolonged and intense attention is bound to stir dark pool. The same could be said, in their own way, more or less, for all of the titles I paused over: Kleist's Michael Kohlhaas, James' Beast in the Jungle, Duras' Malady of Death, Bernhard's Gathering Evidence, Rosalind Belben's Is Beauty Good, Jacques Roubaud's Great Fire of London, Coetzee's Elizabeth Costello, Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle. Duras' short novel is a companion piece to James' long story, so perhaps a connection can be made more explicit; the ostensible task of literary criticism of course. Yet, again, the necessary connection is likely sidestepped in analysis of influence and engagement; the discourse of gender power relations and such like. How strangely this discourse sounds to me.

In the short or long hours waiting for an answer, I cannot get close to the necessary connection. Perhaps this axe-idea is after all only the illusion of a promise arising from a haphazard accumulation of generic effects; occasional recognition of unconscious susceptibility to buttons pushed. What suggests itself then is that what has really abandoned us is Literature itself; the disaster that affects is the death of Literature.
Literature is a corpse and cold at that. Intuitively we know this to be the case, we sense, suspect, fear, and acknowledge it. The dream has faded, our faith and awe have fled, our belief in Literature has collapsed.
Lars Iyer's manifesto after the end of literature and manifestos confirms the suspicion. We read in a forest far from everyone. But what was Literature when it was alive?
It was the literature of Diderot, Rimbaud, Walser, Gogol, Hamsun, Bataille and most of all Kafka: revolutionary and tragic, prophetic and solitary, posthumous, incompatible, radical and paradoxical, a dwelling for oracles and outsiders, it was defiant and pathetic, it sought to break and alter, to describe, yes, but in describing, shatter, it was outside the culture looking in, and inside the culture looking out. Works of this nature, works in this spirit, no longer exist. Or rather, they still exist, but only as a parody of past forms. Literature has become a pantomime of itself, and cultural significance has undergone a hyperinflation, its infinitesimal units bought and sold like penny stocks. 
The hyperbole is familiar from Kafka's letter and similarly enchanting. Unlike Kafka, Iyer offers a fresh breadcrumb trail out of the forest:
Write about this world, whatever else you’re writing about, a world dominated by dead dreams. Mark the absence of Hope, of Belief, of Commitments, of high-flown Seriousness. Mark the past from which we are broken and the future that will destroy us. Write about a kind of hope that was once possible as Literature, as Politics, as Life, but that is no longer possible for us.
The manifesto marks the publication of his new novel Dogma, which follows Lars and W., two hysterical and hapless academic philosophers, as they travel to the American South and initiate their new rules for giving papers at conferences, the dogma of the title. You should know Lars and W. from their first appearance on the blog Spurious and the subsequent novel with the same title. Lars and W. pursue the big themes of philosophy and literature from the disadvantage point of dead dreams, absence of hope and seriousness, with some inadequacy and redundancy added, just for them.

W. is the Oliver Hardy figure, berating Lars for Stan Laurel-like innocence and passivity. W. by contrast has grand ambition and dedicates his life to learning from philosophical greats: Spinoza, Franz Rosenzweig and the neo-Kantian Hermann Cohen, and admiring the seriousness of filmmakers like Werner Herzog and Béla Tarr, all the while submitting to the disastrous company of Lars: "You should never learn from your mistakes, W. says. He never has, he says, which is why he associates with me." As this, the consummate opening line, suggests, the novel is narrated by Lars, so W. is trapped anyway. His contribution to Philosophy can only ever be filtered through a gauze crusted with Lars' pop culture references and fast food consumption, and, more ominously, the spores of damp spreading through his flat.

This is our condition; we're all W. and Lars now. For all the comedy of failure and despair, however, there remains a tension as the shape of a glacier is outlined by the moraine of a shattered intellectual culture. Here at least it cannot be ignored. One form it takes is with a fascination with Kafka. Their inaugural Dogma presentation seeks to express the affect on their miserable lives of discovering his writing:
...the room was packed, and W. spoke very movingly of his encounter with The Castle in a Wolverhampton library. I spoke rather ineptly (W. said afterwards) about my encounter with The Castle in a Winnersh Triangle warehouse. – 'What were you on about?'
Lars and W. also have a thing for Kafka's friend Max Brod. W. suspects fat Lars is his contemporary equivalent:
'I bet Brod was fat'. Definitely, I agree. He drank too much, that's why he got fat. – 'Why do you think he drank?', W. says. Because he knew he was stupid, I tell him.
Max Brod is the truly modern figure: pouring out populist kitsch from the shameful lowlands of writing as his friend wasted away on the summit. What can Lars and W. do but carry forth his unwitting shame? In Dogma, in order to renew the revolutionary and tragic, the radical and paradoxical, they formulate rules for conference papers.
First rule: Dogma is spartan. Speak as clearly as you can. As simply as you can. Do not rely on proper names when presenting your thought. Do not quote. Address others. Really speak to them, using ordinary language. Ordinary words!".
Second rule: Dogma is full of pathos Rely on emotion as much as on argument. Tear your shirt and pull out your hair! And weep–weep without end!
Further rules demand sincerity, collaboration, reticence and affirmation (the latter seems especially apt: "Ignore those with whom you disagree. There's no point! Never let the critic teach you the cloth, says W. quoting Burroughs). This aligns them to Iyer's rules set out in the manifesto, and the connections are multiplied when we read the author telling Full Stop magazine that Spurious "was written to be straightforwardly readable. It is not supposed to be ‘literary’."

So we can read both novels as a Dogma presentation extended beyond the academy. It doesn't matter that Dogma breaks the first rule on the same page as it is announced! Dogma is paradoxical after all. Yet while W. thinks the disastrous Lars prevents him from scaling philosophical heights, he does enable his despair to reveal itself. This is also the despair of the contemporary waste land. Adam Kotsko has better explained how the form of the book creates "a strangely co-narrated novel" that "takes on a life of its own beyond the control of either partner". This is why Spurious and Dogma, while seeming to disengage purposely from the high purpose of Literature, just as with their rules W. and Lars disconnect from the task of academic philosophy, are overtly literary, even if the rhapsodic rhythm of the narrative, the learned references and the timing of the laughs wasn't enough already to betray the author's claim.

The irony is that the reality of W.'s and Lars' despair is palliated as it is affirmed and actualised. Writing alone opens a space in which a cure becomes possible, but only if despair is acknowledged. Dogma saturates despair with despair with disingenuous charm; a sly disavowal of despair.


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