Saturday, March 22, 2014

Boyhood Island: My Struggle: 3, by Karl Ove Knausgaard

It's been said that Boyhood Island is "the most Proustian" of Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle series, and while this is true that both Proust and Knausgaard present intense remembrances of childhood, the same could be said of many other novels, for example Tomas Bannerhed's The Ravens, recently published by the Clerkenwell Press and, like Boyhood Island, a novel of a 1970s childhood set in Scandinavia. Both Proust's and Knausgaard's would surely be lost among them were it not for what sets them apart.

What sets them apart might best be summarised as the lingering uncertainty of their status as novels. For all the differences between the authors that are finally destructive to the casual comparison, there is a common pressure exerted by the formal quality of each narrative voice: an essayistic spirit set within a distinct, first-person predicament refusing the comfortable distance of the knowing third person and, because of that, demanding that the reader participates in the questing nature of the narration.

While the Overture to In Search of Lost Time emerges from the uncertain place between dreaming and wakefulness, Boyhood Island merely introduces a discussion of the status of childhood memory. After a traditional family scene of moving into a new house on a Norwegian island narrated with objective confidence, Knausgaard interrupts the nostalgic flow and admits that he doesn't remember any of it himself: the action and dialogue are inventions based on family legend. As the distance is made explicit, there is no blurring of generic edges.
Memory is pragmatic, it is sly and artful, but not in any hostile or malicious way; on the contrary, it does everything it can to keep its host satisfied. Something pushes a memory into the great void of oblivion, something distorts it beyond recognition, something misunderstands it totally, something, and this something is as good as nothing, recalls it with sharpness, clarity and accuracy. That which is remembered accurately is never given to you to determine. (Translated by Don Barlett)
This is certainly a truism yet, placed before a narrative explicitly based on the author's own life, it introduces anxiety to the mournful dejection that personal memories invariably provoke, making what proceeds less an indulgence than a nervous exploration of what remains. As a writer then, Knausgaard, like Proust, must navigate a path between the total freedom offered by the constraints of genre – amply demonstrated by Tomas Bennerhed's reliance on heavily descriptive prose to dissemble its lack of truth and necessity – and the silence of terminal uncertainty. It is here that Knausgaard retreats from Marcel's quest to recover the living presence of the past and instead sticks to a straightforward narration of everyday life. There are only two, brief, vertiginous diversions that resemble anything like those in the first two volumes and what elevates them beyond fictionalised memoir, and, as a result, the sly and artful come to the fore.

He writes that young Karl Ove took great pleasure in not defecating when he felt the need, sticking his fingers up his backside to smell what he held back, which means we have the author of a six-part autobiographical work reporting that he was anally retentive as a child! He then enjoyed the relief of letting go, a feeling perhaps similar to completing the sixth and final volume of My Struggle. Moreover, he is told off by his teacher for revealing in class the reasons for a classmate's broken home and is told that he should learn some social decorum. Are these anecdotal precursors of later life too good to be true? Sometimes it seems that way, especially as much less trivial events are later pushed toward the void.

The best edition of the Scott Moncrieff/Kilmartin translation
Where Knausgaard might become realigned with Proust is the tension in the book created by opposing ways of life. In Swann's Way, the child Marcel walks two paths in the country surrounding his home: going in opposite directions and accessed by different gates, the Méséglise Way is full of lower class sexuality and sensuous nature, while the Guermantes Way presents the aura of history, nobility and the glamour of high society. Each represents a core example for Marcel's understanding in later life and the potential for happiness – what Deleuze called his apprenticeship to signs. Each has its appeals but are apparently irreconcilable. Which should he choose? Knausgaard has similar paths: the island's wooded landscape full of schoolmates, adventure and exciting temptations, and the one provided at home under the Panoptic gaze of his tyrannical father. How will the boy deal with such competing pressures? Outside he behaves recklessly, testing the limits of his freedom while at home he cringes with fear at the probable consequences. Knausgaard has acknowledged the "dynamic force in this book" is:
the difference between the freedom outside and the prison-like state inside, and how the latter very slowly influences the former, and in the end changes it fundamentally. Another word for that would be integration, I think. The eye of God ends up inside, so that, in the end, you take care of judgment and punishment yourself.
Perhaps a supplication to greater powers sums up the reckoning with the past and present that the book sequence displays and why it began with the death of his father. However, in Time Regained, the adult Marcel takes the Méséglise Way again and discovers it is in fact physically linked to the Guermantes Way; there wasn't such a profound opposition and, in revising his assumptions, makes him more aware of continuities and possibilities for revising ongoing assumptions. The proximity of separate paths turns out to be true of Karl Ove's paths too, leading us to a better comparison than with Proust's novel – that of Kafka and his father, or, more specifically, George Bendemann and his father.

The Judgment begins with Georg's self-assurance that he can write about his life to his friend in Russia without worrying too much about the consequences. Writing is freedom. But this is soon ended by his father when he reveals that the Russian friend knows all about Georg's self-serving behaviour because he, the father, has been in contact with him all along. Georg's suicide then is a submission to the power that reveals itself to be present in writing too. His suicide is the murder of writing by means of writing. Compare this with Karl Ove's actions as his family prepares to leave the island idyll. The teenager finds himself out of God's sight and, at a school camp, he and other boys pursue girls and behave in ways that readers will have to read and judge for themselves, if indeed they notice it all, so cursory is the description. Collusion with other boys is significant here because it dilutes responsibility, allowing the brute instincts of teenagers to stand in for the 'suicide' of the oppressed little Karl Ove; these girls disappear into the distance like a roadkill in a rearview mirror. Writing is as pragmatic as memory.
I guess I have a talent for humiliation, a place within me that experience can’t reach, which is terrible in real life, but something that comes in handy in writing. It seems as though humiliation has become a career for me.
Behind this confession is perhaps what is most disturbing about Boyhood Island: the possibility that father's tyranny is growing in the little boy even as he appears to resist it, or, to be less personal and less judgmental, the manifestation of the manipulative power that secretes itself within even the most open, honest, self-abasing act.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Existential OuLiPo: The Illiterate by Ágota Kristóf

Today marks fifty days since I began learning German on Duolingo, a website I discovered by chance. That is, fifty days in a row. I know this because the site rewards continuity and persistence. Online e-learning has now enabled me to progress far further than I had ever imagined possible. Many years ago I signed up for a schoolroom course in which "immersive" interaction with neighbours in the new language was the sole method of learning. No lists of nouns, no gender tables, no rules of grammar. We didn't even look at words. I should have known better: this was how they taught French at junior school and my persistent memory of that time is of our teacher Mrs Hollick repeating out loud the question Qu'est que c'est? and me being resentful that the spelling I had seen in my mind was not the one she eventually wrote on the blackboard. Not only did "Kiskersay" lack the letter K, it was several words with vertical dashes inserted apparently at random. I never learned French, and the German course was a waste of time.

I need to look at words, to see their shape and how they relate to each other. Perhaps this visual imperative is why I am uncomfortable at author readings, as the voice appropriates the agitated silence of letters on a page. This has nothing to do with me, I think.

Mehr nicht!

Learning German has no apparent motive. Yes, I have German friends and many of my favourite authors write in the language and perhaps one day I'll be able to read Kafka, Rilke, Celan, Bernhard and Handke in the original, but the translations have already been more than enough. I do not fetishise the master text as composed by the great man. If it makes any sense, I would say I am drawn more toward the other of the original. This could mean that I think criticism should be less analyses of textual nuance than exposure of the work's silence to the Lebenswelt.

So what if, in handling the original manuscript, the writer's editor had made a mistake on a crucial point and the text was never corrected? So what if the editor's error was then compounded by the printer and was itself never corrected? That makes two mediating barriers. And so what if the editor's error compounded by the printer was compounded further by the translator, and then by the editor of the translation, and then by the printer of the translation? One should use Occam's Razor only to slash the throats of New Critics.

Ágota Kristóf says she also struggled to learn French. Unlike her native Hungarian, it is not a phonetic language, so the difficulty was amplified. But she didn't give up and The Illiterate is her account of moving to a new country, living in its language and eventually writing Le grand cahier, her extraordinary novel translated as The Notebook, both now published by CB Editions.

The need for language is there from the start:
I read. It’s like a disease. I read everything that comes to hand, everything that meets my glance: newspapers, schoolbooks, posters, bits of paper found on the street, recipes, children’s books. Everything that is in print. I’m four years old. The war has just begun.   [Translated by Nina Bogin]
For another seventeen years this continues, but then the uprising in Hungary forces an end and, to escape persecution, she makes the dangerous crossing of the border into Austria. The welcome they receive and the hospitality of the locals is a pleasant contrast to what reading Thomas Bernhard might lead one to expect of his fellow countrymen. The refugees are dispersed and Kristóf, her husband and child end up in Neuchâtel in Switzerland where she begins work in a factory. Life is settled and safe and, you would think, happy. However, the loss of home, family and language dominate her life:
We expected something when we arrived here. We didn’t know what we were expecting, but it was certainly not this: these days of dismal work, these silent evenings, this frozen life, without change, without surprise, without hope.
A chapter entitled 'How do you become a writer?' – First of all, naturally, you must write. Then, you must continue to write – hints at a more passionate and wilful person behind the quiet, cool prose: the two years it took to compose what she calls "short texts based on my childhood" that make up Le grand cahier pass in four and a half lines. And while she shares Thomas Bernhard's expressive reticence displayed in My Prizes, his own book of little personal essays, this appears to be a quality imposed by the French language rather than, as Gabriel Josipovici suggests in his introduction, a personal artistic credo. (Of course, it could be both.) The simplicity and directness of the prose prevails upon Kristóf in the manner of a formal constraint as practised by OuLiPo, that legendary band of French writers for whom mathematical patterns and linguistic games provide an armature for literary creation. In Kristóf's case, however, the constraint is imposed out of existential necessity. Whatever the cause, Josipovici welcomes the effect, as it means "her books are, thankfully, free of the overwriting which one finds in so much of the best post-war Hungarian authors".

One wonders then how much exile, silence and the struggle for a voice made Ágota Kristóf the writer she became, and how stifled or stifling she may have been as a writer of Hungarian rather than French literature. The new language does not then suppress the writer as reveal what she would not have discovered otherwise, making the space between home and exile a living presence. Samuel Beckett provides surest evidence of what happens when a writer adopts or is adopted by a language. Perhaps such a constraint is what I seek in learning German, as this sort of thing is easy to write after all.

More evidence of the value of distance comes in her chapter about the death of Stalin. She knows of no Russian dissident who has addressed his catastrophic influence on the national identity and culture of countries like Hungary.
What do they think, those who suffered under their tyrant, what to do they think about those "unimportant little countries" that suffered, in addition, under foreign domination, their domination? That of their country. Are they ashamed of it, or will they be ashamed one day?
Her role model for dealing with such shame, with standing outside and alone, is a writer to whom she admits devotion. This writer "never ceased to criticize and to denounce his country, his era, and the society in which he lived" albeit with love and humour as much as with hate and anger. She wishes there were more like him: "Thomas Bernhard will live on eternally as an example to all those who pretend to be writers". Ágota Kristóf's own name might easily replace his within this sentence.

Sunday, March 09, 2014

An excursion via Thomas Bernhard's My Prizes

After days of inert wondering why Thomas Bernhard's My Prizes felt like more than "a weakish book" and thereby, according to the dictates of professional reception, valuable only for throwing the so-called greatness of his novels into finer relief, or, rather, why it felt that this so-called weakness was in fact a strength in the same way that the illness, or, to be more precise, the double illness that I was enduring, demanded the choice of an episodic book to read was fortunate, as it enabled me to consider basic questions rather than suffering to read another product of industry-friendly dilettantism, I read Ingeborg Bachmann's brilliant short essay on her friend and discovered she had asked questions about Thomas Bernhard that had also nagged at me:
The fact that a certain person writes at a distance from contemporary literature and increases this distance through solitude... is already a reason for not knowing how to begin to do him justice. Where does he belong, what does he want, where are his points of reference (to what end?), in which conversation, hence in which non-conversation, does this monologue of his participate, what does he have to say and to whom?     [Translated by Flowerville]
Yes, I thought, what makes Bernhard uniquely disturbing appears to have something to do with his personal reticence, a silence reminiscent of the terrible solitude out of which his characters begin to speak and yet which seems to have been Bernhard's only way of speaking, a kind of self-stifling game, or something to do with how his work emphasises the solitude necessary to all writing, its remove from Sunday Supplement profiles, bookshop signings and prize ceremonies (hence their spectacular proliferation) and why it is best to go, like Bernhard, in the opposite direction, even if that means reinforcing exceptional solitude.

The Notting Hill Editions' edition

After reading Bernhard, one is left with the impossibility of doing justice to the silence behind the game. Clearly this is due to the moderating activity of the critical act and its tendency to orchestrate traditions rather than self-blinding before singularities, but this is also present in the malady of existence, as brought forth by Thomas Bernhard so clearly in his narratives. So, yes, My Prizes is a minor work, a collection dredged from the publisher's bottom drawer and dilute compared to the novels, and, yes, while the anecdotes expose the grotesque vanity and philistine violence of municipal art culture so brilliantly that it is probably enough only to celebrate the comedy, the anger and the excess of My Prizes, none of this would express anything new or worth saying. Every week someone announces to a startled world how funny and dark Bernhard is or how unfunny and dark Bernhard is, and everything they say is true or not true and not worth saying again

The Alfred A. Knopf edition

But what might be worth saying again is the significance of the recurring ambiguity of the reckless acts in Bernhard's fiction, something repeated throughout My Prizes. In the first essay he needs a suit for a ceremony and at very short notice chooses one from the rack of a posh menswear store. After the event he decides it's too small, takes it back to demand a replacement, which, to his surprise, he receives. For the next prize he decides the money should go towards buying a house, so an estate agent lines up twelve farmhouses in upper Austria for a full day's viewing. The first is mouse-infested, has damp-rotted floors and is much too big, but, before he's seen the second let alone the twelfth, he decides to buy it there and then. Days follow in which he frets over the decision: the prize money will pay only an installment – so where will he find the money to pay the remainder let alone refurbish the building? We don't find out but we know from elsewhere the farmhouse became his country retreat for the rest of his life. Later, another prize pays for "storm windows".

Another prize prompts him to buy a car despite having never driven one. In a showroom he sees a Triumph Herald and once again buys it on the spot, demanding the example on show to drive away immediately. He drives to Croatia where he and his "aunt" had rented a villa. In his room he writes the terrifying novella Amras, sends it to his publisher and, to clear his head, goes for a drive along the coast and promptly has a life-threatening accident. Back in Vienna, he hires the best and most expensive solicitor to deal with the case and frets about the extravagance given the regular ill-fortune of cross-border justice. But once again things work out and he gets more money in compensation than he had ever hoped for.

Not My Prizes

These are just a few examples of reckless behaviour from the nine essays but, as I said, they appear throughout his work. I've mentioned before the famous bike ride in Gathering Evidence and the abrupt changes in habit that recur in various novels, such as the beginning of Gehen, translated as Walking, apparently his breakthrough work stylistically. Except in My Prizes he doesn't talk about his work! The car and the crash are discussed in detail but Amras itself, this extraordinary work whose 50th anniversary it is this year, is mentioned only in passing and almost dismissively as "romantic, something born of a young man who'd been reading Novalis for months".

The most notable example of behavioral change comes at the beginning of the valedictory novel Extinction, with perhaps the greatest opening sentence in modern literature.
On the twenty-ninth, having returned from Wolfsegg, I met my pupil Gambetti on the Pincio to discuss arrangements for the lessons he was to receive in May, writes Franz-Josef Murau, and impressed once again by his high intelligence, I was so refreshed and exhilarated, so glad to be living in Rome and not in Austria, that instead of walking home along the Via Condotti, as I usually do, I crossed the Flaminia and the Piazza del Popolo and walked the whole length of the Corso before returning to my apartment in the Piazza Minerva, where at about two o’clock I received the telegram informing me that my parents and my brother, Johannes, had died. Parents and Johannes killed in accident. Caecilia, Amalia, it read.                                            
                                                                [Translated by David McLintock]
The implicit connection of the change in Franz-Josef's routine to the change in his fortune comes from the excess of detail within the proliferating clauses and the desolate two-sentence telegram that follows immediately. But how can they be connected? The connection is both obvious and absurd. However, rather than seek cause and effect, we need only see this perplexity as the birth of the narratives we are reading and the voices of individuals rising from the predicament of "exigency, necessity, inexorability", as Bachmann describes it.

This is the key to Bernhard's radicalism and why he is more than a scourge of bourgeois pretensions, or whatever else the critics say, and why it's impossible to pin him down. His prose soars, exploding like fireworks illuminating the landscape for a moment before plummeting to earth in darkness. If he knew where he belonged, what he wanted, what he had to say and to what end, in what conversation or non-conversation he might participate, his work would be very different; das gewöhnliche Zeug, to borrow Kafka's uncle's phrase: the usual stuff.

In 1970 – during the Mexico World Cup in fact – Bernhard starred in Drei Tage, a filmed monologue (a translation of which you can read here) in which he suggests why his style of writing does not escape what is written about:
The thing I find most terrifying is writing prose…it’s pretty much the most difficult thing for me…And the moment I realized this and became conscious of it, I swore to myself that from then on I would do nothing but write prose. Of course I could have done something completely different. I have studied many other disciplines, but none of them are terrifying.


Please email me at steve dot mitchelmore at gmail dot com.

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