Thursday, October 12, 2017

Time and the unthinkable

A review of Autumn by Karl Ove Knausgaard, translated by Ingvild Burkey

Karl Ove Knausgaard stands in front of a 14th century Swedish castle speaking to a film crew from Melvyn Bragg's South Bank Show. "I don't understand what time is," he says. "Place I can relate to. We are here now and the castle's there now. But I don't understand what it is that someone was there 700 years ago". There is a pause before the camera pans over the castle walls, as if performing a token search for long-dead Swedes. It's an oddly innocent moment in what is otherwise a predictable portrait of a successful author, in which mastery and control of a subject is invariably a given. Other documentaries confronted by such a moment might have rushed to interview physicists and cosmologists and then illustrated their theories with colourful animations and lens flare. Here, there is only innocent utterance.

Knausgaard's new book is this utterance developed over book length. Framed as collection of short essays on diverse subjects written for an unborn daughter, they are suffused by an innocence for time and for when time is apparently in abeyance, as in this hesitation before birth. Knausgaard describes digging a hole in waterlogged ground and seeing a plastic bag "Swollen with water, handles up [hanging] a few feet down in the water" and how, in that moment, he sensed the inexhaustible, something transcending its ephemeral appearance, then adding the date of the sighting, as if to bring it into human time. He senses it in early photography when exposure times meant the human form left no trace and only unmoving objects could be captured on film, so a practice that at first appears to be a straightforward representation of the human realm reveals a world altogether outside of it. When exposure times improved, people became visible and this uncanny experience disappeared. Knausgaard says he thinks the first human to appear in a photograph is actually the devil because his permanence allowed him to be seen. This wonderfully perverse suggestion is reminiscent of the small boy in volume one of My Struggle who sees a face in the sea and the son in A Time to Every Purpose Under Heaven who understands that seagulls are devolved angels. It reemphasises how Knausgaard is a writer deeply affected by the disenchantment of the world and willing to resist the recourse to the rational in order to bring attention to what has been submerged by modernity.

It needs to be said again: the features of Knausgaard's writing that have led to his public success and drew Melvyn Bragg to interview him are only a superficial by-products of its true subject. When the Norwegian stands before the countryside in the deep south of Sweden telling of how that, as soon as he arrived, he felt at home, it has nothing to do with a personal soap opera and everything to do with the absence the landscape evokes, which, again, is due to time: "everything I see is more or less the same as it must have been in the nineteenth century. Churches, villages, far-flung fields, great leafy trees, the sky, the sea. And yet everything is different". The landscape provokes a powerful nostalgia because "utopia is vanished from our time" and a longing for it can only project backwards onto the past. The churches, he says, are "feats of spiritual engineering" representing "another level of reality" which stood "open to the future, when the kingdom of heaven would be established on earth". If such a feeling suggests a conservative mindset, perhaps one wishing for the imposition of more hierarchical relationships, his perversity reappears to disarm:
That no one seeks the divine level of reality anymore and that the churches stand empty means that it is no longer necessary. That it is no longer necessary means the kingdom of heaven has come. There is nothing left to long for other than longing itself, of which the empty churches I can see from here have become the symbol.
It's a perplexing statement, as if utopia is at best a wilderness, at worst a waste land. But it is also a statement necessary to the form it takes, for if churches are symbols of what has departed, then so too is writing. If the divine is the inexhaustible and the foundation of language, writing can no longer reach for it without departing from common sense and, as a result, appearing quaintly absurd. The inexhaustible might appear in the world, materialising in moments like that of the plastic bag, but the neat opposition of science and superstition means there is nowhere for it to pass into common discourse. In recent years we have seen how the preciously affected language and sentimentality of 'nature writing' has directed what Knausgaard diagnoses as nostalgia for utopia or the divine into popular history and vicarious travel, thereby giving good reason why Knausgaard's writing is generally misconstrued. What he writes toward is almost unthinkable.

The majority of essays are structured to lead a young spirit to think in the open. 'Frames' follows the pattern: an everyday item is described as simply as possible – we all know what frames are but Knausgaard tells us anyway – whose effect is then applied in a more general sense – frames categorise what we can see – before it becomes a metaphor for human striving: the search for authenticity and truth is the wish for "a life, an existence, a world unframed". Potential gifts of the process are also noted: Knausgaard observes that all the chemicals necessary for photography were available in medieval times but the thought of photography was unthinkable and it was only "the slow turn of thought toward the material world" that enabled the discovery. Therefore, if we open ourselves to unframed modes of thinking, perhaps something other than what is expected might emerge. So while at first it is understandable that English reviewers have dismissed Autumn with such knee-jerk language as "the most colossal load of old cobblers" and "brain farts", it does suggest Knausgaard's consciously naive approach is necessary to combat rote thinking. But perhaps we no longer have the strength to let them come to us in their innocence.

It's notable that in the latter of the English reviews, the essays are criticised for being "rough sketches by a man who doesn’t know how to draw" while throughout the value of such knowledge is challenged, and challenged explicitly in an essay on Van Gogh's struggle to commit his life to anything in particular. Painting did not come easily to him; he wasn't a natural and his early paintings lack technique. But Knausgaard says the lightness in his landscapes "resembles nothing else" and comes not from finally acquiring painterly technique but from relinquishing it, adopting instead "a carelessness that allows the world to appear unfettered by how we happen to have conceived of it". He argues that only by committing himself to death does Van Gogh find the conditions to live and to paint as only Van Gogh could paint, with each work dependent "on the look he casts...really being his very last".

Such a commitment could explain why Knausgaard often specifies a date for an experience, as it thereby depends on what happened or what was felt in a human life, resisting a turn toward sterile abstraction. It also points to the influence of Peter Handke, especially in his prose collection Once Again for Thucydides, in which each transcription of an observation is given a precise date and location, and to the long poem To Duration in which "the most fleeting of all feelings" is sought in concrete experience. It is an influence that has, as far as I'm aware, gone unrecognised in the English reviews, despite Knausgaard's stated regard for the author. Given time, both books should become better known.


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