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Outrunning the Constables

By (February 1, 2015) No Comment


About a thousand pages into Karl Ove Knausgaard’s autobiographical novel cycle, My Struggle, I paused. Not because I was bored or fed up with Knausgaard’s multivolume travails. Like most readers around the globe, I was mesmerized by them. Nevertheless, another book seized my attention for a day or two. It was Creativity: The Perfect Crime by Philippe Petit, the great French magician and outlaw aerialist who in the summer of 1974 strung a high wire between the top floors of the Twin Towers and walked across it.In addition to being an artist of rare beauty and daring, Petit is a prolific writer, and Creativity is his most recent meditation on the virtues of monomaniacal pursuits. In the opening pages, he writes this:

The true artistic impulse has nothing to do with pleasing the audience—or, for that matter, with pleasing the impresario so you’ll get more jobs or more money. That’s not art. If you are an artist, you want to create a giant wall around yourself and, inside that wall, to follow your honesty and your intuition. What the audience will see is a man or woman who is prisoner of his or her passion, and that is the most inspiring performance in the world.

I thought of Knausgaard. He is surely the most celebrated prisoner of passion in our time.

Shortly after the birth of his first child, Knausgaard finished his second novel, called A Time for Everything (2004). His first novel, Out of the World (1998), won the prestigious Norwegian Critics Prize and marked Knausgaard as someone to watch, but despite more than five years of full-time work, the second book was stalled. In part, this is because the novel is so ambitious that when summarized it sounds slightly insane. A Time for Everything is about the history of angels on earth from Genesis to the present day. It re-imagines key sections of the Old Testament in great psychological detail and with a wise disregard for historical and geographical accuracy that liberates the novel from iconography. There are guns, for example, as well as fjords and an active fur trade. There are also flaming cherubim, in addition to the story of Cain and Abel, the flight of Lot from Sodom, the prophecies of Ezekiel, and the flood that destroys everything other than the fortunate specimens rescued by an albino outcast named Noah, who loves rain because the sun blisters his delicate skin.

atimeforeverythingIn Knausgaard’s hands, these stories are not epigrammatic legends. They are about specific human beings who tend bees and crops, figure out how to carry a paralyzed man up a mountain when the oceans rise, and decide that it is better for a mother to drown her two-week old son as a final act of mercy than to let the child be taken by the impersonal waters. I will not soon forget that scene. Nor will I forget the one in which men scale the sides of the ark hoping for refuge for themselves and their families, and are instead bludgeoned to death by Noah’s implacable sons. In the end, the sides of the ark are slick with human blood.

A Time for Everything also contains long excerpts from a fictitious sixteenth-century treatise called On the Nature of Angels by an imaginary theologian named Antinous Bellori, who may have been murdered by the fallen Archangel Michael, right around the time when all the angels began to turn into seagulls and then migrated, en masse, to coastal Norway, where fishing boats offered a ready food supply. In the novel’s coda, which is set in the 1980s and features characters who are clearly stand-ins for Knausgaard, his brother, and his father, this angel-to-bird metamorphosis is confirmed by the discovery that seagulls have a vestigial hand hidden beneath their breast feathers. Part the feathers, and you will see it: “a tiny little arm… thin as a piece of wire,” last remnant of the fiery angelos, or messengers, who once guarded the tree of life in the Garden of Eden and opened up lines of communication between the divine and the human. Now the angels are gone and we are on our own with the gulls, who bear no gospel, and are mainly interested in eating our garbage.

I read A Time for Everything after I had finished the three volumes of My Struggle that have so far been published in English: A Death in the Family (2012), A Man in Love (2013), and Boyhood Island (2014). There are three more to come. What I read left me hungry for more, and I was intrigued by a series of questions that Knausgaard asks in a radio interview on CBC’s “Writers & Co,” hosted by Eleanor Wachtel. In this interview he says that he is not religious Adeathinthefamilyand that in Scandinavia the Bible has become culturally inert. No one reads or talks about it anymore, not seriously. It is no longer seen as a resource for thinking people. “What has happened to religious ecstasy?” he asks. Has this register of emotion and experience vanished from contemporary life, along with the Bible, or has it found another avenue of expression? If so, what is it? He conjectures that it might be painting, which he thinks of as a medium governed by pure and intense feeling. I’m not sure that all contemporary painters would agree with this claim. But that doesn’t matter. The questions are what interest me.

Toward the end of A Man in Love, Knausgaard and his wife, the Swedish writer Linda Boström, arrange for their first child to be christened. After the ceremony, Knausgaard shocks himself and his family by rising to take communion. He has long thought of himself as a materialist, and anti-Christian. The act of walking to the altar is “pure impulse,” and it leaves him shaken. Yet he realizes that this impulse is exactly what he wants to explore:

In my novel [A Time for Everything] I had both travestied and invoked it [the sacred], but without the hymnic gravity I knew existed in these tracts, in these texts I had started to read; and the gravity, the wild intensity in them, which was never far removed from the sacred, to which I had never been or would ever go, yet which I sensed all the same, had made me think differently about Jesus Christ, for it was about flesh and blood, it was about birth and death, and we were linked to it through our bodies and our blood, those we beget and those we bury, constantly, continually, a storm blew through our world and it always had, and the only place I knew where this was formulated, the most extreme yet simplest things, was in these holy scriptures.

Gravity, intensity, extremity, simplicity, immanence: if these are the primal qualities that draw Knausgaard toward scripture, even though he is not a Christian and does not wish to be, they are also the qualities that draw me to his work. They are already present in A Time for Everything, although that novel is ironic in a way that My Struggle is not. In his earlier writing Knausgaard still holds on to familiar novelistic techniques for creating distance and deliberate interpretive uncertainty, including a frame structure and a narrator whose historicity (and sanity) are alternately called into question and verified by historians who are themselves fictitious. My Struggle mothballs all of this chicanery and confronts the storm directly — the storm that has always blown through our world and through all of us.

Knausgaard2Despair is one name for this storm, and Knausgaard uses it a lot. At the beginning of A Time for Everything, he describes “the struggle the Bible speaks of,” which is the struggle to resist “the darkness that descends again and again on person after person, generation after generation, century after century, until the despair is unendurable.” This is also what My Struggle is about. Not the attempt of a middle class man to produce great art while also being a responsible husband and father to three (now four) children, but the ancient and everlasting attempt to stave off grief, rage, and terror, the great scourges of our species.

At the end of A Time for Everything, a teenaged boy living alone on a remote island off the Norwegian mainland is so filled with unexplained distress and self-loathing that he contemplates suicide, and instead cuts his face and chest open with a piece of broken glass. He doesn’t know why he is compelled to act this way, or where to turn for help. Certainly he can expect no assistance from the seagulls. He thinks that his only guide is intuition:

From experience, I always trust blindly in intuition. The fact that it always gets to the scene of the crime before my thoughts must mean either that it’s more observant, and gets a head start that way, or that it’s simply faster. It gets there first, anyway. While thoughts, those slothful constables of the consciousness, have barely got moving, intuition is already at work examining what is going on.

At first, intuition leads only to the stale contents of own mind, “the old prejudices, the long-deserted thoughts, the oldest memories”; but once the constables of consciousness have been chloroformed, things become “stranger and stranger.” He begins to feel that the busy circuits of blood and nerve fibres that keep his body alive and his mind capable of thought open onto other circuits, that “you are a system you can’t control, and what is you is also outside you.” For a person who feels that the pressures of individuality are unbearable, this loss of control is a great relief, and a way of laying the burden down.

AManinLoveIt is one thing to argue for the existence of this uncontrollable interdependence, as many scholars have done. It is quite another to show how it works in the life of a suicidal person who for a moment can feel his cells touching other cells so that the flow of blood through his body leads quite naturally to the sight and smell of a spruce forest, and to the crow perched on a branch, scanning the canopy for prey. Here, and everywhere in his writing, Knausgaard creates the expansive feeling of touch that links the particular with the general through a commitment to empirical specificity, the piling up of details in torrential prose, and the belief that the largest questions about life can only be addressed through microscopic attention to the physical and emotional processes constantly whirring away inside us. Above all, Knausgaard makes it clear that in the absence of angels, or any notion of the self that is sanctioned by the sacred, meticulous attention to these processes is our only guide to understanding the value of an individual life, what it is and might be for, and a serious attempt to treat the varieties of despair that lead people to cut their bodies open, drink or drug themselves to death, or more quietly give way to feelings of meaninglessness and isolation. To get out of the enclosure of your mind, you have to tunnel in.

The tools required are intuition, impulse, and the willingness to follow where they lead without calculating the consequences. In his interview with Eleanor Wachtel, Knausgaard says that he had to write My Struggle very quickly and without revision, at the astounding rate of over a thousand pages a year, in order to knock the constables off their feet. He wanted to shut down the part of his mind that makes judgments, censors, and calibrates effects, and write only from the tiny fraction of his intelligence that he believes to be “really me” (one to two percent, he estimates). The rest is just a pastiche of cultural and familial influences, and he wanted to get rid of it, at least while at his desk. This attempt not only requires shedding most of himself, but stepping “out of society, almost out of humanity.” He was quite sure that no one would want to read the results of this rapture, or even publish them, but that was not worth worrying about, because he wasn’t writing for readers, but to prevent himself from either committing suicide or abandoning his family.

AdeathinthefamilyThe first volume of My Struggle, A Death in the Family, is primarily about the premature death from alcoholism of Knausgaard’s father, but the series is equally driven by birth. Fatherhood gives Knausgaard the creative energy to finish A Time for Everything and compels him to try to access the one to two percent. At first, love for a woman and a child is ecstasy enough. The first time he kisses Boström, Knausgaard loses consciousness and nearly requires tending by paramedics. He feels that life is “packed with meaning,” time slows down, and he is “truly at home in this world and in myself” at the same time that he is literally out of his mind. This feeling does not last. (How could it?). The birth of his daughter produces a similar surfeit, but in due course it diminishes. This is not to say that love disappears — it is always clear that Knausgaard loves his children deeply and spends a good deal of his time caring for them. It is to say that daily life, and particularly with small children, demands adherence to routine, which speeds up time, numbs the senses, and in turn accelerates Knausgaard’s fear that he is hurtling toward his own death without knowing himself or understanding anything. He writes, “once more the world moved out of my reach.” He needs a steady source of ecstasy, if that is not a contradiction in terms, and his tendency to binge drink is too dangerous to be indulged. Writing is the only reliable source he knows, because like a birth or a death it takes him to a threshold where nothing is certain, and where familiar rhythms open onto what is strange.

Much has been made by reviewers of the fact that My Struggle is itself a threshold genre. It is transparently autobiographical, which is cause for praise in some quarters and scandal in others. The reasons for scandal are obvious, particularly in a small country like Norway; the reasons for praise often echo Knausgaard’s own indictment of fiction at the end of A Man in Love. Here he says that he has “lost faith in literature” because it has become indistinguishable from the other stories that saturate the public sphere, from ‘reality’ television to the nightly news. “Wherever you turned you saw fiction.” What he craves instead of storytelling is writing that “just consisted of a voice, the voice of your own personality, a life, a face, a gaze you could meet.” Portraiture, or pure lyric.

When I read a book by Marilynne Robinson, or Colm Tóibín, or J.M. Coetzee, or any of several dozen superb contemporary writers in English, I don’t think, “This is a lie. These characters don’t exist!” Unlike Knausgaard, I don’t think, this is just “something someone has made up.” A novel that has no voice, or no singular gaze you can meet, is a bad novel; the problem is with the writer, not the genre. When reviewers praise Knausgaard for liberating the novel — as though it were a rigid and relatively parochial form like a haiku or a villanelle— all I see is evidence of amnesia.

DoreDonQuixoteThe novel is and has always been the stretchiest and most global of literary genres, happily making space for conventions including diary entries, essays, letters, travelogues, sermons, drawings, natural histories, recipes, myths, songs, poems, and, more recently, emails, texts, hypertext, photographs and any other representational technique you can name. And it is no accident that the foundational European examples, Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote and Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, are about questing men who leave home in a welter of confusion about the difference between art and life. Like the trompe l’oeil revival in the visual art and architecture of the eighteenth century, the early novel thrived on the deliberate confounding of the invented and the real. This is the threshold where the novel was born, and where it continues to live.

In other words, I am not reading Karl Ove Knausgaard because I think he has revolutionized the novel. Nor because I always agree with his ideas about literature, visual art, or culture. I disagree with some of them quite vehemently. Somehow this doesn’t bother me at all. I regularly read academic arguments that are impeccably researched, rigorously argued, fully persuasive, and yet dead on arrival. Knausgaard’s work is vibrantly alive. It is filled with wild energy and the most passionate creative purpose. Knausgaard is not afraid to announce that he is on an “existential search,” or to ask the kinds of earnest questions about the nature of selfhood and the meaning of life that are normally associated with bookish adolescents hunched over copies of Camus’ The Stranger or Sartre’s Nausea. His work is vulnerable and sometimes ridiculous. Its method, as described in A Death in the Family, demands risk:

You know too little and it doesn’t exist. You know too much and it doesn’t exist. Writing is drawing the essence of what we know out of the shadows. That is what writing is about. Not what happens there, not what actions are played out there, but the there itself. There, that is writing’s location and aim.

Autobiographical fiction is no more or less likely than any other kind of writing to draw the essence of what we know out of the shadows. I am reading Knausgaard for the same reason as a great many other people: because he succeeds.

knausgaard3No summary of My Struggle will communicate this success. It is not reducible to the content of the series, nor to Knausgaard’s willingness to reveal every source of shame and humiliation that he has experienced since childhood. It’s true that his honesty about this shame is comforting. Many readers, including me, will find moments of companionship with a writer who admits that he often feels ungovernable fury toward his children, sometimes despises his wife, finds ordinary social interactions generally unbearable, and is guilty of every kind of intellectual vanity and emotional excess. The boy in A Time for Everything who cuts his face open with a shard of glass is based on Knausgaard, who scarred himself in exactly this way when Linda Boström refused to go out with him the first time he asked. (Who can blame her?). What astonishes me far more than any of these revelations is the naked sincerity of Knausgaard’s literary enterprise, beginning with his determination to outrun his mind until he finds the one to two percent of himself that is not a jigsaw of influences. What also astonishes me is the pure joy of it all. In A Man in Love, Knausgaard describes the weeks of work in which he finished A Time for Everything, rarely sleeping or eating. “I was filled with an absolutely fantastic feeling,” he writes, a feeling of great happiness and invincibility. In reading him, so am I.

petitcreativityWhere does this fantastic feeling come from? From watching someone risk everything to follow his honesty and his intuition, as Philippe Petit advises. I imagine that the New Yorkers who happened to catch a glimpse of Petit as he walked back and forth between the Twin Towers on the morning of August 7, 1974 must have felt fantastic too. It’s the feeling we get from watching an artist in any genre reach somewhere — the there itself — that was previously inaccessible, closed to language and thought, but now suddenly available to those of us who are not willing to step into the air one hundred and ten stories above ground, or write three thousand pages in a struggle against despair.

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NB: Volume 4 of My Struggle, Dancing in the Dark, will be published in English this spring.

Alice Brittan teaches post-colonial and world literature at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. She is finishing a book called Empty-Handed: On Gifts and Grace and beginning one called Notes on Miracles.