Wednesday, June 11, 2014

To Knausgaard or not to Knausgaard?

An ad for Knausgaard's My Struggle
in the New York Times Book Review, June 1, 2014.
Being a Swede living abroad, you have a soft spot for people and things Swedish. IKEA, Volvo, Saab, Ericsson, knäckebröd, Västerbottensost, lingonsylt - they all have taken on an additional meaning, and this is also true for Swedish (and Nordic too) artists, scientists, actors, and writers. When Stieg Larsson was all the rage, I felt a certain pride, but then I read his first book and was embarrassed. Not that I had expected great literature, but it was not even a great thriller. More like a Swedish Dan Brown.

Fortunately, the Larsson wave did eventually peter out, but now we have another big wave of Scandinavian origin. It's of course the Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard, whose six-volume monster of an autobiography is compared to Marcel Proust's Recherche. Could this be true? It would be fantastic, but reading the reviews I couldn't help feeling what I felt when I read all those reviews of Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy. There was something funny about the whole thing, as if the new literary emperor had no clothes on, but nobody dared to come out and say it.

Until now.

William Deresiewicz, an American literary critic, has written a devastating review of My Struggle for The Nation magazine, where he also asks why so many authors and critics have fallen for Knausgaard's self-obsessed naïveté, taking it for honesty.
There is also the question of what constitutes the real and how to represent it. Knausgaard is invariably praised for his realism—indeed, his “hyperrealism.” “Come with me,” Smith says his book implies, “come into this life…. It might not be pretty—but this is life.” Is it really, though? I don’t mean that other people’s lives are more interesting than Knausgaard’s. I’m willing to stipulate that most of what we do, most of the time, is pretty banal. The issue is more about realism than reality. Is an exhaustive scan of the visual surface, rendered in colorless language, really the best way to represent “life”? I happen to be reading Updike at the moment. Here is his description of a young woman in an unfamiliar surrounding: “She is serious, a serious small-faced animal sniffing out her new lair.” We don’t just see her; we see into her. Here is Knausgaard’s description of a girl he liked at age 11, his first serious crush, as emotion-saturated an experience as one can imagine: “She wasn’t very tall and she was wearing a pink jacket, a light-blue skirt, and thin, white stockings. Her nose was small, her mouth large, and she had a little cleft in her chin.” And that’s the first time that he catches sight of her, no less. I’m almost ready to fall in love myself.
Is Knausgaard’s description more realistic than Updike’s? Does it bring us closer to “life”? Or does it rather leave us on the outside of life? The term “hyperrealism” derives from the visual arts, where it refers to paintings that are designed to look like photographs. To call writing like Knausgaard’s hyperrealistic, to enthrone it as the apotheosis of realism, is to cede reality to the camera. It is to surrender everything that makes literature distinct from the photographic and the televisual: its ability to tell us what things look like, not to the eye, but to the mind, to the heart. What they feel like; what they mean. The camera believes in surfaces, but the real is more than what we can see, more than what we can hear, smell, taste and touch.
The modernists were also realists, in the truest sense of the term. They were also searching for techniques to represent the real, only their conception of that entity was somewhat more expansive. It was Virginia Woolf who said, about the realism of her own day—so complete in its detail that if all its “figures were to come to life they would find themselves dressed down to the last button of their coats in the fashion of the hour”—that the one thing that escapes is life itself. Eugenides believes that Knausgaard “broke the sound barrier of the autobiographical novel.” Smith has said she needs his books “like crack.” Lethem calls him “a living hero who landed on greatness by abandoning every typical literary feint.” How sad it is to imagine that some of our most prominent novelists look at My Struggle and think, That’s the book I wish I could have written. How depressing to suppose that just as modernism culminated in Joyce, Proust and Woolf, the literature of our own time has been leading up to… Knausgaard.

And as for comparing Knausgaard to Proust, Deresiewicz emphatically says no. Rather than a deep analysis of the self and memory, it is more of a reality TV show in print.
With its subject and size, My Struggle has invariably drawn comparisons to Proust’s Recherche, the great prose epic of the self remembered—comparisons the book itself does much to invite. But here are some things that the Recherche contains that Min Kamp does not: wit, satire, comedy, verbal and symbolic complexity, psychological penetration, sociological reach, the ability to render complicated situations, a genuine engagement with the subtleties of memory, the power to convey the slow unfolding of the self. And here is something that Proust did that Knausgaard did not: he took his time. The Recherche, only fractionally longer than Min Kamp, was labored at for thirteen years. About a page a day of finished prose appears to be the speed limit for a sustained work of competent literary fiction. You want to write shit? Write fast.
Smith sees Knausgaard’s attention to the world around him as a rebuke to today’s distractibility. But his work is all too typical of our technology-assisted culture. The novel strikes me as a giant selfie, a 3,600-page blogologue. Like mumblecore or reality television, it’s premised on the notion that all you need to do is point your camera at the world and shoot. Like all these genres and more, it tells us that breadth is preferable to depth, that art is best created in a spirit of hurried amateurism, that the only valid subject is the self. 

Having read half a dozen reviews, Deresiewicz rings true.

I suspect that if H.C. Andersen had lived, he would have seen Knausgaard as a Scandinavian househusband desperately seeking social status through self-obsessed “reality writing.”

To Knausgaard or not to Knausgaard?

I think not!  


William Deresiewicz: Why Has ‘My Struggle’ Been Anointed a Literary Masterpiece? (The Nation, June 2, 2014)
James Wood: Total Recall (The New Yorker, August 13, 2012)
Ben Lerner: Each Cornflake (The London Review of Books, May 22, 2014)
Rivka Galchen: Man With Many Qualities (New York Times, May 23, 2014)
Dwight Garner: The Bad Father, and Other Childhood Memories (New York Times, May 27, 2014)
Zadie Smith: Man vs. Corpse (New York Review of Books, December 5, 2013)

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