Sunday, March 15, 2015

Karl Ove Knausgaard’s Lonely American Journey to the Center of his World

I don’t quite understand America’s persistent infatuation with most everything Nordic (i.e. Scandinavia plus Iceland and Finland). Things had just returned to a relative calm after a couple of years when you couldn't open a newspaper or turn on your TV without facing Stieg Larsson’s ghost when the editors of the New York Times Sunday Magazine decided to ask Karl Ove Knausgaard, the great Norwegian explorer of the mundane, to spend ten days in search of real and imaginary Viking landmarks and Scandinavian descendants.

Knausgaard began his journey in L’Anse aux Meadows in northern Newfoundland in Canada, the desolate piece of land where a group of Vikings landed about 1,000 years ago. It was cold, a storm was approaching, but a friendly newfie, husband of the receptionist, took Knausgaard to the historic site, which he however found underwhelming, quite contrary to the locals he saw at Jungle Jim’s restaurant in St. Anthony (pop. 2,418). 
“Everyone in the place, except the waiter, was fat, some of them so fat that I kept having to look at them.“
The first half of Knausgaard’s 21,000-word essay gives us a close up (CSI style) retelling of the author’s general incompetence at handling life’s little things: 
“I use top-up cards because no Swedish phone company will let me open an account, I have too many late payments on my credit report. Nor will any bank lend me money to buy a house or a car. I have to pay everything in cash.” 
If you are planning a road trip in North America, actually, in any country, it helps to have a driver’s license. He did not, as he confesses in the opening paragraph of his personal saga. 
“I lost my driver’s license over a year ago. I lose stuff all the time. Credit cards, passports, car keys, cash, books, bags, laptops. It doesn't worry me, they usually turn up eventually.” 
Not only did he not have the license, he never applied for a new one, and he left for America without it. Once in St. Anthony, it hit him that he had a problem: 
“I lay back in bed and stared at the ceiling. I should email The Times and explain the situation. Maybe they had a solution. But I couldn't. I just couldn't bring myself to tell them that I’d undertaken this great road-trip assignment across the U.S. without my license. They’d think I was a complete idiot.” 
But maybe he was too hard on himself. 
“These things happen often; in my experience they always turn out fine. There is a saying in Norway that he who loses money shall receive money, and I think that’s true, because when you lose things, it means you’re not on your guard, you’re not trying to control everything, you’re not being so anal all the time — and if you aren't, but allow yourself to be open to the world instead, then anything at all might come to you.” 
Say what you want about our author, his flow is hard to stop once it gets going. 
“When I came back in, I went to the toilet. I hadn't gone since I arrived in America, so the result was significant. I wiped myself thoroughly, then flushed.” 
But this particular toilet was not ready for such a significant download, and initiated an upload of its own, leading to a long hand–to–bowl battle that the author relates blow-by-blow.

That was a low point for our hero, and things could only get better from then on. He found his way to Cleveland in the United States, where he met his assigned photographer, who offered to do the driving. That was a nice gesture, but Knausgaard was concerned about something else. 
“I didn't really enjoy talking to people that much, at least not to strangers, and the thought of spending the next five days in a car with someone I didn't know was a bit unsettling.” 
He overcame his hesitation and the pair set out westwards, smoking a lot, staying in dingy hotels and eating among the locals. 
“So what’s your plan?” he asked.
“I don’t really have a plan,” I said. “Drive up toward Minnesota, that’s all. And then maybe rent a car myself tomorrow or the day after. If you don’t mind, that is.”
“No problem.”
“I’m a little shy,” I said. “I don’t usually talk very much. Just so you know what’s in store for you.”
“I don’t think you’re that untalkative,” he said. “But it’s fine with me. I can talk, and I can be quiet.”
We ate on in silence, he checked something out on his cellphone. Then he looked up at me.
“So your idea is to drive across America and write about it without talking to a single American?”
“Yes,” I said.
“That’ll be a challenge,” he said.
“I know,” I said. 
Having been driven through Detroit, a city that imploded after the near-death of the U.S. auto industry, Knausgaard compares it to “the slums outside Maputo, in Mozambique.” 
But Detroit was worse. 
“If what I had seen tonight — house after house after house abandoned, deserted, decaying as if there had been disaster — if this was poverty, then it must be a new kind poverty, maybe in the same way that the wealth that had amassed here in the 20th century had been a new kind of wealth.” 
This sounds profound, until you reread it and realize that it is an pompous setup for a reflection on contemporary America. 
“I had never really understood how a nation that so celebrated the individual could obliterate all differences the way this country did. In a system of mass production, the individual workers are replaceable and the products are identical. The identical cars are followed by identical gas stations, identical restaurants, identical motels and, as an extension of these, by identical TV screens, which hang everywhere in this country, broadcasting identical entertainment and identical dreams. Not even the Soviet Union at the height of its power had succeeded in creating such a unified, collective identity as the one Americans lived their lives within. When times got rough, a person could abandon one town in favor of another, and that new town would still represent the same thing.” 
Almost exactly the same thought returns a few pages later in the article. 
"Nowhere in the world has shared culture been a more imperative requirement than in America. More than 300 million people live here, and they had descended over the course of a very few generations from a huge number of disparate cultures, with different histories, ways of behavior, worldviews and experiential backgrounds. All of them, sooner or later, had been required to relinquish their old culture and enter the new one. That must be why the most striking thing about the United States was its sameness, that every place had the same hotels, the same restaurants, the same stores. And that must be why every American movie was made after the same template and why, in this sense, every movie expressed the same thing. And that must be why all these TVs were hanging on the walls, unwatched; they created an immediate sense of belonging, a feeling of home." 
Albeit his editor at the Sunday Magazine suggested that he write as “a tongue-in-cheek Tocqueville,” this is more like a warmed over New Left critique of late capitalist alienation. It’s an as stale as stereotypical view of America, which it would be hard to maintain unless you like Knausgaard make it your business not to talk to people. (And I bet he never listened to “The Prairie Home Companion.)

It is true that most products in the United States are standardized, but this is certainly true for most products in most countries, and I’m quite sure that cars in Norway looks pretty much the same and so does its gas stations, TV screens and hotel rooms. And if a worker leaves his job or is fired, he or she can be replaced there too.

What is confusing to many foreign observers of America is that you have such a blend of people, and that they still basically get along with each other, smile when meeting strangers, and say “Hello, how are you?” Something the Swedish anthropologist Åke Daun explained decades ago in his book "Swedish Mentality."  But for Knausgaard, it seems unfathomable that you can have a shared shallow culture that makes it easy to fit in and get along, at the same time as you have a subculture with deeper roots that you share within your ethnic group and your family. (What most foreigners see as America’s superficial culture is actually a cultural user interface that by necessity must be shallow.) 

The fact that he thinks American’s form a “unified, collective identity” that “not even the Soviet Union at the height of its power had succeeded in creating” leaves me dumbfounded. And his claim that people in America have been “required to relinquish their old culture and enter the new one” reveals an ignorance and lack of perception that is amazing.

The only occasions when Knausgaard allows himself to venture outside his safety zone is when he reflects on books he read, music he likes and people (preferably Norwegians) that he can trust and empathize with. He tells about his mother’s uncle Magnus who migrated to America but left his heart back in the Old Country. 
“When I saw Bergen and Bygstad, Flatråker, etc., I felt such a powerful longing that I could not hold my tears back,” Magnus wrote home from Grafton, N. D. back in 1928. 
The second part of Knausgaard’s "My Saga" had the subtitle "On the Road in the American interior" and ran on March 15, but a better choice would have been: “A meandering exploration of the author’s interior.”  

In it we learn that it is cold in Minnesota in January, that the author doesn't know how to drive an automatic, but is reluctant to reveal his incompetence by asking for instructions, that Target stores are big (“at least 50 feet high”) and that they probably would not have been there if Columbus like the Vikings had left the continent alone and just returned home.
“It’s inconceivable” he writes, only to conceive it a few paragraphs down. “Leaving America and yet keeping it under watch would have turned the continent into a kind of vast human nature reserve, the people there following their own path of development, without knowing they were under observation.”
The road trip continues and we are treated to half a page about the challenges of smoking in a rental car when it is so cold that you freeze if you keep the windows open. Knausgaard loses a burning cigarette butt and can’t figure out how to push the button so that the seat moves back and reveals the cigarette.
"When we continued north, I felt depressed. What Peter had said, about the burning cigarette being the most exciting thing to happen so far on our trip, was actually true. If this had been just any old trip, it wouldn't have mattered. But I was supposed to write something about this trip, and not only that, I was supposed to use this trip to grasp something essential about the U.S., perceive something with my foreign gaze that Americans couldn't see for themselves. Instead, I saw nothing. I experienced nothing."
Back on the  road, the pair pulls over somewhere to take a look at a big Jesus statue, which makes our foot-in-the-mouth Tocqueville ponder on religion in America.
"The statue of Jesus was obviously not the work of a modern caricaturist or intellectual, toying with the fundamentally childish nature of faith. It had been made, I assumed, in a sincere attempt to represent what is finest and most important in the world. Over the course of the past two days, I had seen many images of Jesus, all of them cartoonish stereotypes, yet they must have been genuine expressions of something many people considered deeply significant.”
Once again, the Americans come up short in comparison with Russia.
“The contrast with, say, Russia, was striking: Had I been driving there, I would have come across a very different caliber of representations of Christ, given the nation’s many monasteries, churches and thousand-year-old tradition of icon painting. Throw Dostoyevsky into the bargain, and Russian Orthodox Christianity becomes something you could spend your entire life studying, because it seems so close — with its notions of guilt, grace and redemption — to the enigma of existence itself, touching the core of what it is to be human.
How do you compare that to a billboard with a line drawing of a good-natured, bearded man and a phone number to dial for salvation?”
So the American Jesus expresses “the fundamentally childish nature of faith,” while “you could spend your entire life studying” Russian religion. But wait, there is more, as they say in TV commercials.
“I gloated a little over that thought as we drove north through the empty, darkening woods, until it struck me how wrong I was. The depth of American religion lay not in visual art, not in representation but, obviously, in music. I had some gospel records at home; some of the recordings were from the 1920s, and their raw force, their fervor, heartfelt and ecstatic at the same time, was like a fire, brutal yet beautiful, no less exquisite than a Russian Orthodox icon."
Thank God for Gospel music! Without it, America wouldn't have a chance to touch the core of what it is to be human. 

This far in, I have all but given up any hope of finding America in this saga, which is about Karl Ove Knausgaard, a rather sad and lonely fellow in need of the talking cure. An evening at Izzy’s BBQ Lounge and Grill in Duluth, Minnesota, provides an opportunity to try just that.
"When I woke up the next morning, I had an anxiety attack. I lay there for a long time, staring out at the empty room. The last thing I could remember was that I had gotten into an elevator. I had no recollection of seeing the room before. Everything was terrible, everything was diseased and I was a ridiculous, laughable character. Oh, God, what an idiot I was.
I had talked.
To total strangers, I had babbled away. With no dignity whatsoever, happy and enthusiastic over every little thing. I had given compliments! My eyes had filled up with tears at my own human warmth and goodness.
Oh, Jesus, was I an idiot."
Knausgaard did also get a chance to visit an American home and talk soberly to an actual American, since he – prodded by the photographer – located Mark Hatloy, a second cousin living near Grafton, North Dakota. They met and the author was suddenly at ease.
"It felt odd, getting so close to a man whom I had met for the first time a few hours ago, who was so American in everything he said and did. And yet somehow I felt as if I knew him. Why the feeling of intimacy? Because our grandfathers were brothers?"
Knausgaard hates to be among strangers. It’s understandable, but the contrast to Bob Dylan, who he admires couldn't be any bigger:
“…there was nothing about Bob Dylan to remind one of a statue, nothing about his music or his role had become rigid or clearly defined, no final form enclosed him. In fact, it was as if he weren't really a person at all, but had somehow dissolved into his music. His old songs were constantly in motion, and the new songs emerged from the same stream. As he traveled around, permanently on tour, you couldn’t tell what came from him and what belonged to the American song tradition; he was just playing the music.” 
“All writers, artists and musicians know the feeling: when you disappear into what you are doing, lose yourself in it and are no longer aware that you exist, while at the same time the feeling of existing is profound and total and what you make is never better. Work created in this state really shouldn't be published in the artist’s name, because it has been created precisely by the artist’s nonpersonal, nonindividual, selfless side. Bob Dylan is the master of the selfless self, the king of the not-one’s-one, a deeply paradoxical figure who lived and breathed the music of this deeply paradoxical country.”
Which makes me wonder if Bob Dylan would have written anything like "My Struggle" or “My Saga”? Would his story be about him, and him alone?

The final stop on his journey was Alexandria, Minnesota, (pop.  11,070), which sports Big Ole, a 25 feet tall Viking statue built for the World’s Fair in New York 1964, but is more known for the Kensington Runestone, which Olof Olsson Ohman, a Swedish immigrant, claimed to have discovered in a field back in 1898.

The inscription on the controversial stone goes:
“Eight Goths and twenty-two Norwegians upon a journey of discovery from Vinland westward. We had a camp by two skerries one day’s journey north of this stone. We were out fishing one day. When we returned home we found ten men red with blood and dead.
Ave Virgo Maria, save us from evil. Have ten men by the sea to look after our vessel, fourteen days’ journey from this island. Year 1362.”
Here he is facing a rather typical piece of American fakery, created by immigrants eager to make a mark and extend their roots, and he finds nothing childish in this. In fact, he draws a line to a literary God, Vladimir Nabokov:
"I loved it not only because I had finally seen something in the United States that Humbert and Lolita could have seen — a fabulous entry for Nabokov’s catalog of American monuments, wonders and reconstructions — but also because it struck me that the image of reality that this particular reconstruction presented was, in a curious way, absolutely true.
It was liberating to see how small and insignificant each separate part of this history was, compared with our notions about its grandness. It felt liberating, because that is what the world is really like, full of insignificant trifles that we use to blunder on as best we can, one by one, whether we happen to be 19th-century immigrants building a log cabin in some forest glade, cold and miserable, longing to sit motionless for a few hours in front of the fire; or a local museum director in a Norwegian children’s sweater; or a crafty Swede, carving runes into a stone and burying it in a field in an attempt to change world history. Or for that matter, an inept Norwegian writer who has spent 10 days on assignment in the U.S. without discovering anything, apart from this."
That is his excuse for having wasted ten days, 21,000 words and too much of our time.

Monday, March 9, 2015

New York's Mayor Bill de Blasio Spoke at the March 6th Memorial for Deborah Darrell

Deborah Darrell was a dear friend who suddenly passed away this past December. My wife Lisa became friends with Deb soon after becoming U.S. Press Director for H&M back in 2004.

Deborah Darrell in 2009.
I had actually first met Deb several years before, at a party back in the 1990s when she was working for the U.S. Foreign Press Center, but it was after she became Lisa's friend and mentor that I really got to know her. We often met at Niles Bar across the street from Penn Station to discuss business ideas, since we were thinking of starting a consulting agency together. (Lisa would collaborate with Deb in her agency Cue several years later.)

It was always fun to meet with Deb as she had this ability to make everything sound possible and just around the corner. Which in a way made her a soul mate of Barack Obama, whom we heard speaking at Coopers Union in New York on March 27, 2008.

Bill de Blasio and guests at a fundraiser
Deborah Darrell held in her home in 2009.
Deb would campaign for Obama in 2008, holding fund raisers and knocking on doors, doing what she could to help him win.

In April 2009, she invited us to a fundraiser for Bill de Blasio in her new apartment on 110th street, which overlooked the northern edge of Central Park. We were not sure about who he was then as he was fairly unknown and running for Public Advocate in New York.

But we trusted Deb and we drove in to Manhattan from our home in the Princeton area. It was a great party and a nice mix of people. Bill de Blasio had his entire family with him. I remember Bill not only because he was so tall, but because of his intensity and for exuding honesty and uprightness. He was unabashedly progressive and spoke with clarity and force.

And he would win the election for the job as Public Advocate. Three years later he would become Mayor of New York City in a landslide election. I don't know if Deb or anybody else had any idea back then, but one thing I know and that is that she did her part in helping him move forward.

Lisa remembering Deborah Darrell.
Hence it was fitting that Bill de Blasio and his wife Chirlane McCray showed up at the memorial for Deborah at the Snapple Theatre in New York this past Friday. They arrived up a bit late, which according to Deb's and Bill's friend Monsignor Kevin Sullivan is his habit, so he missed both Sullivan's, Bethann Harding's, my wife Lisa's and Benita Gold's reflections on their respective friendships with Deb.

The ceremony continued with Carol Levin singing "They Can't Take That Away From Me" accompanied by Nick Moran on guitar. Then Bill and Chirlane entered the stage.

I captured their reflections with my cellphone camera, so be patient if it gets a bit shaky now and then.