Knausgaard: The New Novel Thing

Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle is sweeping the world in six volumes and 3,600 pages. It’s the novelized memory of a mostly ordinary Scandinavian life, a book whose boredom has been called riveting, transcendent, but also…boring.

In our conversation, James Wood of Harvard and The New Yorker finds in Knausgaard’s patient meditations, in his small-ball Fjordic stakes, nothing less than the rhythm of eternity:

There’s nothing eloquent about the phrasing, but the simplicity and pungency and innocence of the truth-telling struck me immediately. And what I mean by that seriousness and innocence is an awareness precisely of rhythms of life and death. The sort of rhythms that the psalmist knows. You know the Psalm 121: the Lord will know your going out and your coming in. In the larger sense, the form of our life is our going out and our coming in. It seemed to me that’s absolutely a rhythm that Tolstoy knew. It’s a rhythm that Proust knew.

Meghan O’Rourke, herself a poet and memoirist of personal experience, senses tension as the Norwegian works out what we want from letters as well as life:

In Knausgaard, there is a profound question about masculinity in the contemporary age and especially in the social welfare state. At times, there’s absolutely this kind of fascist-nihilist energy… He talks about his friend reading all this anti-liberal literature and philosophy. There is a real tension in this book. I’m really curious to read the last volume, which I think contains quite a lot about Hitler in it. To me, so much of this project is about this question of where do we find value today. How does literature potentially help us or not help us do that? So, to me, the news is in that. And it has something to do with masculinity and its sense of being.

The author’s own line has been that the books themselves are embarrassing, that he would burn them if he could. Yet they served as a way to open himself up and write (and write and write) a way out of some of his deep problems with fiction. Bill Pierce, senior editor of AGNI magazine, told us the struggle nourishes a “reality hunger” in readers and writers, too:

The fiction that I’m writing now is quite different from what I was doing before precisely because it’s less concerned with external ideas, received ideas, of what ‘literary’ means. [Knausgaard’s] work is literary because of what it does, but not because of how it’s written. He gets us all asking…where does my truth really lie? It doesn’t lie in wrought sentences. He knows that we can easily lose interest. And the strange phenomenon in Knausgaard is that we don’t.

If Knausgaard inspired a “period” in fiction writing — a version of the Raymond Carver grip on the American short story — Bill Pierce thinks it “would be a time when cleverness and literary language are always put in the service of heart truths, of our deepest sense of what is it to be human and alive at this moment.”

Does that seem like what books should be doing in this moment? If you’ve read My Struggle, tell us what you made of it — and even if you haven’t read the man we’re calling ‘the Knaus’, tell us what you think makes “fiction” fiction and “literature” literary — and share what you’ve been reading instead.

 

Sheila Heti: Smash The Fiction Section
heti-sheila-how-should-a-person-be

The problem with writing a different kind of novel is that interviewers won’t stop asking you why you did it. Even so, as part of our preparation this week, I asked Sheila Heti why she wrote How Should A Person Be?, a five-year-old book, to be found in the fiction section, that’s hard to think of as “fictional”.

https://soundcloud.com/radioopensource/sheila-heti-smash-the-fiction-section

Heti tells the story of her very real friendship with a painter named Margaux, living in Toronto, both by republishing their emails and by making things up that they did together.

In Canada the book has no subtitle. Heti’s American publisher asked her to append “a novel from life”, a name Heti likes because it doesn’t really say anything (all novels evidently coming from life).

The book is much sprightlier and less morbid than any volume of Knausgaard’s My Struggle (which Heti reviewed in the LRB). But Heti — together in a class with Ben Lerner and Rachel Cusk — did experience her own version of the feelings he describes.

She says she wrote her first book, Ticknor, with Beckett and capital-L Literature in mind. Then her head “got turned around”: she felt an aversion to artifice grow into an interest in the ‘backstage’, in the process, in the pop culture of the moment, in things thought to be unliterary: like internet porn, say. To grow up as a reader is to live in the past, she said — and that means missing a lot of what’s happening in your own moment.

In his book, How Fiction Works, James Wood argues that all fiction writers are realists in one sense. Barthelme to Breton, J. K. Rowling and Eimear McBride, they’re all trying to say something true using something false. And the same could be said of Heti and her fellow travelers. They’re still imagining things; they just imagine less or differently. Heti called it “a very grown-up thing”: the idea that novelists might use their imaginations not to go to another world, but to go deeper into this one.

—Max Larkin.

The My Struggle Soundtrack

Also, we’re rocking out this week to the music that stirred Knausgaard most during his adolescent years and beyond. Art rock, punk, and glam, mainly, from the likes of The Cure, David Bowie, and Joy Division. Our show begins with one of the My Struggle keynotes: “The Great Curve” by the Talking Heads. Here are some others we’re listening to (on repeat).

— Conor Gillies.

Guest List
James Wood
the books critic for The New Yorker, professor of literary criticism at Harvard, and author (most recently) of The Nearest Thing to Life.
Meghan O'Rourke
poet and memoirist of The Long Goodbye.
Reading List
Total Recall
James Wood, The New Yorker
Our guest James Wood wrote this review, in effect introducing Knausgaard to American audiences, in 2012. It's all there already: the frustration, the tedium, the morbidity, and by the end, much cause for admiration:
He wants us to inhabit the ordinariness of life, which is sometimes visionary (the Constable sketch), sometimes banal (the cup of tea, the Old Spice), and sometimes momentous (the death of a parent), but all of it perforce ordinary because it happens in the course of a life, and happens, in different forms, to everyone.
Why Has ‘My Struggle’ Been Anointed a Literary Masterpiece?
William Deresiewicz, The Nation
Our other guest, the firebrand critic behind "Excellent Sheep", doesn't get the anointment of My Struggle one bit:
The problem with My Struggle is that nothing happens in the writing. The prose consists, for the most part, of a flat record of superficial detail, unenlivened by the touch of literary art: by simile or metaphor, syntactic complexity or linguistic compression, the development of symbols or elaboration of structures—by beauty, density or form. Nothing happens, for the most part, in the thinking, either—no insight into the situations being described, no penetration of the characters involved, no unexpected angles or perspectives... My Struggle encourages the swerve, characteristic of our time, from things (art, politics), to the people involved in those things. Gossiping about books is appealing, because it saves you from having to think about them. Knausgaard makes it even easier. His book arrives, as it were, pre-gossiped. It already gossips about itself. Some of this may help explain why writers, in particular, are so enamored of it.
So Frank
Sheila Heti, London Review of Books
The young Canadian novelist — practicing her own barely-fictional fiction — defends the enterprise and describes its effects in her review of Knausgaard's second volume:
To write about the people one knows but to call them Noah or Cain is to dignify them – to say our stories are really that big. But to get beyond dignity involves removing that frame, which lends so much importance to what we do. So that while we might feel some anger towards a man who betrays his family to do God’s work by getting into an ark and sailing past his people who cry desperately for his help as the waves rise to drown them, it’s not quite the same as what we might feel towards a man who actually, not just in myth, held the phone away from his ear as his wife cried and demanded that he return to her and their baby, after he deserted them for the quiet ark of his writing studio, so he could carry out whatever writing is in an age in which no one believes it’s God’s work... Knausgaard told the Guardian that when the manuscript was finished Linda ‘read it, on a long train journey to Stockholm. She called once to say it was OK. Then she called again and said our life together could never be romantic ever again; this was all so frank. Then she called a third time, and cried.’ If he had turned their life into a novel, it would have been romantic, rather than ‘so frank’. She might have blushed, not cried.
Master of Banality
Meghan O'Rourke, Bookforum
Our guest delineates where Proust ends and Knausgaard begins — the Norwegian is never transported out of his bare life:
This passage points to a major difference between My Struggle and its great predecessor, In Search of Lost Time. In Proust’s novel, the character Marcel is able to find spiritual and aesthetic transport in the hawthorns on his walk, or in a piece of art. Karl Ove finds no such escape, and returns again and again to the plain realities of biological existence — in fact, the idea that we are all essentially things is one of his grand arguments. With its thickets of banalities, its preoccupation with our biological basis — a key scene here finds Karl Ove watching doctors perform open-heart surgery on TV — the book telegraphs a vision of lost spiritual dimensions, lost powers. But even from within the confines of its banal subject matter and unadorned worldview, My Struggle still manages to gesture toward grandeur. Like Proust, Knausgaard believes that literature is, in some way, a form of real life.
Reality Hunger: The Six Books of Karl Ove Knausgaard
William Pierce, Los Angeles Review of Books
A long, three-part and, dare we say, Knausgaardian stab at describing what works so well in the Knausgaard books from Bill Pierce, a local literato and editor of AGNI:
David Shields famously grew tired of the same old, same old and gave up on writing novels, opting instead to mash up other people’s words and then complain that he had to give them credit. Knausgaard arrived at a similar dead end, as he told Bookforum: “It seemed to me that fiction was everywhere — TV-news, newspapers, films, and books all provide a flood of stories, a continuous dramatization of the world. So what I did, naively, was to try to take the world back. That’s why I describe all these details in My Struggle.” Unlike Shields, he neither gave up on nor inveighed against the novel, but took the braver step of dispensing with everything that felt ossified and restrictive to him. His advance was to trust that a writer versed in the techniques of narrative does well to subvert his self-editor — not as a writing exercise merely, or to free himself from block, but to reach yet deeper instincts for what to tell and how to tell it.

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  • Cambridge Forecast

    NOVELS
    AND NOVELTIES

    This
    intriguing ROS discussion brought to mind several thoughts.

    ( I knew
    nothing about this Norwegian writer and have not read his novel nor heard the
    name of the author or book prior to the ROS show):

    1.
    Remember Ian Watt’s (1957?) classic
    study, “The Rise of the Novel: Defoe, Fielding Richardson.”

    Is this novelist an overturn of this tradition? New
    direction? Rejection? Workaround?

    2.
    Husserl was a twentieth century
    German-Jewish philosopher who died in 1938 and was Heidegger’s teacher. His brand
    of philosophizing is called phenomenology where the practitioner adopts a
    pre-theoretical attitude to things and phenomena and “brackets off” theory.
    Husserl’s emphasis in this was what he called the “life-world.” This means: how
    you get through your day and life and rooms and streets and chores and
    deadlines and utilize your things.

    Perhaps
    this Norwegian writer might be understood in these terms: ie dense descriptions
    as the only road to higher understanding.

    3.
    The “new novel” in the France of the
    1950’s was posited by Robbe-Grillet (and others) whom you may know from the
    movie script for “Last Year at Marienbad.”

    4.
    Such novels take a fixational obsessive tone towards things in the world. (see “La Jalousie”). Character and
    plot are embedded in such explorations and revealed tangentially. Could the
    Norwegian writer be continuing this “nouvel roman” tradition.

    5.
    Is there anything Ibsen-esque or Hamsun-esque in Knausgard, ie a Norwegian-ness stamp?

    6.
    Some of the ROS discussion made methink of Robert Musil’s “The Man without Qualities” which takes place in 1913,
    in Austria, and tries to convey a world where the world is such that having a
    unified personality becomes impossible and manias dominate. Musil writes: “a
    kind of pseudo-reality prevails,” hence the title, “man without qualities” (ie
    fixed attributes or continuity of self are out.)

    Richard Melson

  • Potter

    From your photos above Knausgaard looks like someone I see at stoplights with a homeless sign. All cleaned up for this brilliant interview with Stephen Grosz I am very intrigued by Knausgaard’s solidity or depth, enough to try to read his writing.

    I have yet to listen to the show and am always wary of the next great piece of literature. That’s a tall order!. But I am still open, I hope always for something more than just new. I look forward to listening.

  • Cambridge Forecast

    BOREDOM FLATNESS NOTHING HAPPENS:

    PICO IYER COMMENT AS “FLASHLIGHT”

    The ROS Knausgaard novel set up micro-essays
    has the following entry:

    “Why Has ‘My Struggle’ Been Anointed a
    Literary Masterpiece?

    William Deresiewicz, The Nation

    Our other guest, the firebrand
    critic behind “Excellent Sheep”, doesn’t get the anointment of My
    Struggle one bit:

    The problem with My Struggle
    is that nothing happens in the writing. The prose consists, for the most part,
    of a flat record of superficial detail, unenlivened by the touch of literary
    art: by simile or metaphor, syntactic complexity or linguistic compression, the
    development of symbols or elaboration of structures—by beauty, density or form.
    Nothing happens, for the most part, in the thinking, either—no insight into the
    situations being described, no penetration of the characters involved, no
    unexpected angles or perspectives…”

    This
    introduces the phrase: “nothing happens in the writing.”

    Here’s a potential “flashlight” from another corner of the universe:

    Pico Iyer, the brilliant India-Brit-USA-Kyoto cosmopolite has an introduction to the
    Natsume Soseki (leading Japanese novelist who died in 1916) novel “The Gate” by
    NYRB Books, English translation. (ROS listeners will remember Pico Iyer and his
    haunting by Graham Greene, in his recent ROS appearance).

    In his discussion of Soseki and his novels such as “The Gate,” Pico Iyer says
    something like nothing happens is a characteristic of Soseki’s and other
    Japanese novels and it’s not boring in the usual sense.

    Thus “nothing happens” (ie as mentioned in the ROS Knausgaard comment above) might be thought
    of using this Pico Iyer “flashlight.”

    This would mean there is needed a taxonomy of “boring.”

    Richard Melson

  • Judith Gurewich

    Phenomenology is the missing word of this amazing program James Wood hinted at it. K wants us to go back to things, to look at the anatomy of experience. Think Husserl, Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir.

  • JoshuaHendrickson

    I can’t imagine reading this megabook–for one thing, I’m committed to fiction and disdain memoir as essentially less truthful than fiction–but listening to this show definitely made me want to work harder at writing my own novels. Also, it was a delightful surprise to hear the Cure’s “To Wish Impossible Things” rise up during the break.

  • Cambridge Forecast

    PHENOMENOLOGY AND THE NOVEL

    Please see first comment in this thread called “Novels and Novelties”:

    2. Husserl was a twentieth century German-Jewish philosopher who
    died in 1938 and was Heidegger’s teacher. His brand of philosophizing is
    called phenomenology where the practitioner adopts a pre-theoretical
    attitude to things and phenomena and “brackets off” theory.
    Husserl’s emphasis in this was what he called the “life-world.” (“Lebenswelt”)
    This means: how you get through your day and life and rooms and streets and
    chores and deadlines and utilize your things subsumes theorizing ie
    ordinary life as more primordial than theory.

    Perhaps this Norwegian writer might be understood in these terms: ie dense
    descriptions as the only road to higher understanding.”

    One has to be careful: Gadamer tells the story of a Husserl student who wanted to folow Husser’s advice “to the things themselves” and spent six months intensely studying a mailbox. Perhaps there is no monistic way to understand the novel or the mailbox via phenomenology, only a pluralistic way that accepts various “flashlights and keys”.
    and doesn’t presuppose the one true way.

    Richard Melson

  • Isaac Fuhrman

    Around the 42:00 mark, a guest says that Knausgaard had been watching something or someone that sounded like “Schauer”, which inspired Knausgaard in terms of the formlessness of My Struggle. Does anyone know what or who “Schauer” (or however it’s spelled) is?

  • christopherlydon

    For sure, dear Isaac Fuhrman, the reference was to the film “Shoah,” from the French director Claude Lanzmann in 1985. It was a 9-and-a-half-hour reflection on the Nazi slaughter of Jews and others in Europe — told mainly through interviews with survivors. I see that the late Roger Ebert wrote of “Shoah” on his site in 2010: “There is no proper response to this film. It is an enormous fact, a 550-minute howl of pain and anger in the face of genocide. It is one of the noblest films ever made.”

  • Isaac Fuhrman

    Thank you, Christopher!

  • Sehnsucht….

    And yes, you have to ‘do all the work’ in this 13th century Chinese poem:

    Withered wisteria, old tree, darkling crows –
    Little bridge over flowing water by someone’s house –
    Emaciated horse on an ancient road in the western wind –
    Evening sun setting in the west –
    Broken-hearted man on the horizon.

  • Michael Finn

    Not being a scholar or a critic all I can say is that this novel engages the reader as no other I have read in a long, long time. By opening himself up and sharing his deepest angst along with the most mundane details of everyday life KON is holding up a mirror like no other for all of us to see ourselves. In every book I’ve read since adolescence I’ve been searching for a part of me out there amongst humanity. I’ve finally found it. I especially take issue with the overuse of boring throughout the discussion. Many writers have described events that were boring to move a story along. The deep and profound feelings KON holds up for us could not be said if they didn’t have the real life events surrounding them for context. How would we relate if he just shared his insights with us? If this were in any way boring we all would have put it down after page 20 of book 1. I am late to the game and I am just beginning book 2 and I am happy I have so much to look forward to.