Saturday, December 24, 2016

Coming of Age in Bergen: Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle: Book Five

Outside of a classic that contemporary readers often feel obligated to read, for example, Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, few probably ever spend 3000 pages reading a single writer. There are only a handful of writers who I would admit I would stay with for over a million words: J.M. Coetzee. Norman Rush, possibly. Beckett, of course. Beckett’s entire oeuvre likely doesn’t equal 3000 pages. I also think of William T. Vollmann, with his voluminous output, some of which I’ve read and dared to read, but I’ve never read anywhere near 3000 pages of his work; 3000 pages is merely a fraction.

Having read almost 3000 pages of My Struggle thus far, I’ve been with Karl Ove Knausgaard for the long haul. Every book of My Struggle has had me eager to read the next one.

It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what draws me in and keeps me coming back; there’s voyeurism in looking at his life. I found myself fully engaged reading Book Five, feeling a mix of recognition tinged with despair, and the satisfaction of simple narrative anticipation.

Whereas there was a kind of romantic youthful innocence an easy settling in Book Four, with Book Five we live with Knausgaard through that difficult period that is the twenties. Of the five books so far, Book Five is where Knausgaard reveals himself becoming serious about his life. This might be the most fraught, most difficult time of a man’s life. For Knausgaard, it’s that period where he discovers the first inklings of adulthood with the casual recklessness of relationships, the reckoning with a career and the daunting prospect of trying to imagine life going forward. As this is a writer’s memoir, Knausgaard is searching for his voice at this time, also, to become a writer and find the inspiration to take to the page. I’m reminded of Bryan Charles’s There’s a Road to Everywhere Except Where You Came From, though in that memoir the writer is coming to terms with similar issues, a kind of extreme social anxiety was the narrative driver.

I’ve had many of the same experiences that Knausgaard had growing up in the seventies, though of course with different landscapes and cultures. There’s the curiosity of the unfamiliar, which is embodied in the Norwegian customs and rituals, the rural differences. This is an enthrallment of an unfamiliar, or an eerily familiar, like an alternative universe paralleling my own. All of which made me feel present and involved in his life in the way the best fiction manages to engage. His musical references are mine, also: XTC, The Smiths, Simple Minds, are among some of the bands he is often profoundly affected by. On the other hand, I never went through the desperate relationship that he had with his father, nor did I have a gravitational attraction to alcohol. In some way, the crying he readily admits to feels manipulative of the reader; it can smack of forced sentiment. But his life is lived on his sleeve. The helpless anxiety that Knausgaard expresses at believing his future wife, Tonje, is going to slip away from him and fall into his brother’s arms--is palpable. It has already happened, after all, with another girlfriend early in the book. The pain and shame that is clearly a burden of an alcoholic father and wrestling with a major drinking problem himself, as well as a tendency to self-harm, feels painfully real to me as a reader.

Reading Knausgaard becomes an act of empathy. On the other hand, Knausgaard comes off as a sad case, and the inclination to take pity on him is there. But he’s not exceptional. His initial words on the book are retrospectively bleak:

“All that is left of the thousands of days I spent in that small, narrow-streeted, rain-shimmering Vestland town is a few events and lots of sentiments. I kept a diary, which I have since burned. I took some photos, of which twelve remain; they are in a little pile on the floor beside the desk, with all the letters I received during those days. I have flicked through them, read bits and pieces, and this has always depressed me, it was such a terrible time. I knew so little, had such ambitions, and achieved nothing.”

This might be a near universal sentiment for anyone looking back on their youth. I avoided seeing his story this way, perhaps out of some further sense of identity with him. Halfway in to the book comes the recognition that the engine that drives his life, is Knausgaard coming to terms with a shame instilled by an abusive father.

Knausgaard overcomes the role his father portrayed: brute, quick to anger, alcoholic, everything that’s the opposite of Knausgaard’s mother. This awareness is a component of the first few volumes, assuming one has read them in sequence, and this knowledge, I think, colors our subsequent reading. In a sense, a man learns the role from his father, good or bad and all in between. The male of society is not typically thought to be a natural nurturer.

Questions linger, unresolved in Book Five. Why do the two sons—Karl Ove and Ygnve--hate their father so much--and how overwhelming to them is his death? They are rife with sadness, as much as his passing might be a relief to them. In Knausgaard’s life, the death of the father becomes a kind of transfer of the role. When Knausgaard goes into family life, he seems to want to overcome his own father’s terrible life and legacy. That’s the struggle of My Struggle. Shame is the more obvious statement, as some reviewers have grasped onto, but is it shame at being like his father? Or not being obedient enough as his father demanded of him? What is really the source of shame? When you are sensitive, and you are shamed for it, it can be one of the most crippling experiences. I almost added the phrase “to overcome”, but I think one does not overcome their true nature: one learns to live with it.

Moving forward with a family for Knausgaard, would seem to suggest a sort of bargain. He’s confused about his life going into his thirties; as difficult as the family situation is, however fraught or full of joy and tribulation--it’s not easy. But as he leaves his family, he returns to one. The difficulty of his life with his father lingers and seems almost unresolved. AS much as he struggles with his new life, having children saved him. At least it makes him less self-involved. In them, his life carries on.

In a sense, in Knausgaard’s closing words at Book Five, his escape from Tonje and Bergen is, as he says, a way of not thinking. To play armchair psychologist, could we surmise that his eventual marriage and four children is also a way to move forward without thinking about the past? In other places in the memoir he talks about how he will do right by his children--it is stated almost as if it’s in spite of himself. It seems more as if he believes it’s the only thing he can do to not become his father--which some would say he is fated to do anyway.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Vicarious Narratives Part I: On David Szalay’s All That Man Is

The relationship of a reader to a work of fiction, when it works, is symbiotic. In the best instances--or at least the most conducive to a level of enjoyment for the reader--there is an element of the vicarious. This is the sense that you, as a reader, are privy to certain information. The irony of this is that you can feel this way--when anyone else who picks up the book will get the same experience. I’ve often thought a gossip quality in a narrative can serve a similar function as it allows the reader an entry into the piece, and a sense of engagement; maybe this is the same quality as “getting something” from the text and akin to what occurs for genre readers (horror, thriller, romance, et. al.) I’m thinking of this as I read David Szalay’s much praised All That Man Is which, though the opening story did not feel compelling to me--in fact, so underwhelming is it that I considered stopping. The only reason I did read the entire novel (which is essentially a novel in stories) was having favorably read chapters that had appeared in the Paris Review. On the whole, there are elements of several chapters that offer what I’m calling a vicarious experience, and these made it worthwhile.
Szalay does not write charming characters, another quality I’ve been fixed on as a necessity for an engaging read. Maybe the vicarious quality makes up for this lack of charm. With a degree of winsomeness, I can summarize the book as a series of male characters in their attempts, however pathetic, to find willing members of the opposite sex. As Szalay’s novel exemplifies it, this is a formative primal urge.
As often as it is there, this welcome and engaging quality of the vicarious is as often missing in Szalay’s work. I’m not sure if Szalay has deliberately tried to dampen his character’s appeal to the reader, and for what reason. Nevertheless, he frequently manages pulling a reader in to the narrative. This is the gift that a writer must strive for, and achieve.
I suspect Szalay did not start out the book with that first story, as I doubt many agents or publishers would have found it compelling. This aspect is something that I become conscious of in my own work, usually with the novels. It is obvious that the narrative needs to carry a reader. I think post Knausgaard, this quality of the vicarious is one that I need, as well because I’m finding less fiction engaging these days. Or I need to find this quality in order to commit to reading.
For Szalay, the curiosity for me began to kick in fifteen or twenty pages into the second story. Up to that point, I believe I was thinking, “where is this going?” while suspecting it would have to go to the obvious places. But isn’t this then just an instance of having my expectations met? If so, is that merely a kind of escapism, and is that what I’m really looking for? I think I teeter on the edge of that: the expectation of having my expectations met, and the expectation, still, of surprise.
Szalay isn’t always clear on where he places the focus in the novel. The opening ot the third story is almost bewildering in its lack of clarity as to the narrative’s direction. I don’t believe this is intentional, but the sense is that the author is trying to work within a close third person. As with the first story, the storytelling puts the reader at sea in trying to understand the writer’s intent. I get the sense that Szalay may have started the story with one idea, then shifted focus (and none of the chapters have titles, just numbers).
Szalay is often sloppy, and lacks precision (it might be argued that that is one and the same thing). I think I wanted to like All That Man Is more than I did, based on those constructed notions that the author was writing for me, not coincidentally the vicarious quality I believe we are praising Knausgaard for. But in this case I come away with an equivalent sense of unease, as if I’ve just had to listen to someone’s tawdry coming of age tales on a cross country (Europe) bus trip, and maybe that was ultimately more of a disappointment.