Sunday, November 07, 2021

The Morning Star by Karl Ove Knausgaard

I began reading The Morning Star without any prior knowledge of the contents, just as I had begun reading every other book of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s since receiving an ARC of the first volume of My Struggle long before he shone above us like the morning star in this novel. This time, however, after having read the most of the opening chapter, a friend happened to mention Knausgaard had claimed it is a horror novel, following the example of Stephen King’s The Stand in which multiple characters narrate their experience of an apocalyptic event. I was then resigned to expect drama to enter the familiar world of everyday Norwegian lives narrated here much like the everyday Norwegian life in My Struggle, which until then I was enjoying in the same way. 


However, now that I’ve read all 666 pages, I can say I continued to enjoy it in the same way, perhaps because no apocalypse occurs, at least in the sense we understand it. What drama appears is not vast destruction but closer to the Greek meaning of apokalypsis: disclosure in the everyday sense and revelation in the theological. In The Morning Star there are only uncanny events in the corner of each individual’s everyday narrative: from excessively warm weather and wild animals appearing in great number, to characters who are apparently alive when they're dead, and, of course, the appearance of a new star in the sky. So comparisons to the horror genre are deceptive, as The Morning Star more closely follows volumes one and two of My Struggle in which the apparent banality of a human life presents itself against a background of absent meaning which is nevertheless forever impending, never quite arriving, no matter how many events promise resolution of the questions they present, which is why it’s surprising that Sam Byers’ very negative review reckons Knausgaard has “enriched” the My Struggle project “with a new and welcome undertow: unnamed dread”. But Unnamed Dread could be My Struggle’s alternative title! It's unname is there in the face in the sea young Karl Ove sees in TV footage in volume one and the sky in Constable's painting in volume two over which he weeps in the realisation that it can be depicted, if not named.

Naming what is unnamed in the novel – attaching public meaning where private meaning lacks – is not only expected by the reader and demanded by the reviewer but inevitable, as a book is defined by its submission to unity, from its title and all the way down through its sentences to its final full stop. The book differs from an everyday human life because the latter's meaning becomes a question only when it becomes a narrative, when something happens: a great love, a break-up, an illness, a bereavement, the loss of a football match; when what happens becomes something outside oneself; a genre narrative. This is why applying labels such as autofiction and horror by writer, reader or reviewer is an avoidance tactic, as it provides a name for the outside where its meaning is otherwise withheld. Byers is inadvertently on the right track when he calls The Morning Star “a literary supernova", which he uses as a metaphor for "the entire Knausgårdian project entering spectacular, all-consuming heat death”.

This is not an idea that has fallen apart in the execution, it’s a novel that dreams of having an idea, a novel that, over hundreds of pages, seeks meaning in everything from the boiling of an egg to the passing of a soul into the afterlife, only to come back empty-handed.

Indeed, what comes back is not an idea but the uncanny presence of the novel itself, emphasised here by what Byers calls its "bloated and inconsequential" content. That is, the novel and the Novel (if there is really any difference), an object of obscure fascination, an obscurity named to obscure it; the novel as the morning star, appearing in our heavens where heaven had previously retreated, further brightening what was otherwise already bright but which we could not see until it appeared, under whose blaze we sweat because nothing dies, hence the multiplication of animals and characters who remain alive despite their death, and an artist character whose most distressing symptom of mental illness involves resisting this fact, and in the final chapter an essay "On death and the dead" which nevertheless turns into a ghost story, as if the novel seeks its own end in vain, becoming the ghost of itself.

In 1969, Maurice Blanchot observed that:

Essays, novels, poems seem only to be there, and to be written in order to allow the labor of literature … to accomplish itself, and through this labor to allow formulation of the question "What would be at stake in the fact that something like art or literature exists?" (Translated by Susan Hanson)
The question is unintelligible to us because it is one, Blanchot says, the "secular tradition of aestheticism has concealed, and continues to conceal". Perhaps if we pay closer attention to the relentless, indeed interminable, presentation and inevitable evasion of the question, which Karl Ove Knausgaard fails to evade better than most, we may begin to hear what the ghost has to say.


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