The Golden Notebook (1962)

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First time with Doris Lessing.

For the most part reads like it was written at a thousand miles an hour. Ideas and abstractions pressed through a filter of lived experience (although a central theme is the 20th Century inheritance of Dickensian “telescopic philanthropy;” Nikhil’s aversion to Levinas on the grounds that the most crucial modern ethical exchanges are conducted over massive geographical and experiential distances). Another theme is the dissolution of meaning within words, its porous packaging; this dealt with equally urgently through the wrangling with party communism and the conversational mannerisms detected with a hypersensitive diagnostic ear (occasionally cross-examined, as on RN 153 “the roles we play, the way we play parts”).

Despite the escalating and intoxicating focus on mental processes there’s a consistent eye for empirical beauty. Anna pictures her memories of “the smell of dust and the moonlight” above a friendly gesture and an “overgrateful response” as moments from a “slow-motion film.” (115) Foreshadows her later feverish dissociation and troubling capacity for schizoid self-observation, coming in the form of a projectionist replaying memories in a dream. Before this, on the downward slope – a pervert hovering nearby in the underground and by fruit stalls – she sinks into “the tart clean smell … [the] faintly hairy skins,” becomes “immune” to his gaze. (345) Experience as refuge. TGN‘s relationship to the everyday is dizzying and shocking: it’s narcotic but also a prison house. It is the everyday gothic, particularly and most acutely as a portrait of the single mother – the figure who, Saul insists, is hidden behind every locked English door – that needs to be dwelt on: it is dizzying and shocking (see 298, “the disease of women in our time”) It is a way of seeing and I want it to sink in.

A is devout in shirking self-dramatisation (135), continually checking herself (sometimes redacting herself) in a way which runs entirely counter to Knausgaard’s attempts to respect the weight of experience as it is experienced, while constantly lapsing into free writing. Two pages later she looks back on time “like beads on a string,” a “lazy memory”. Barthes’ codes; again this is undercut by the later examination of self-writing, the projectionist replaying select details to show her what she has missed. The first BN entry concludes:

I read this over today, for the first time since I wrote it. It’s full of nostalgia, every word loaded with it, although at the time I wrote it I thought I was being ‘objective’. Nostalgia for what? I don’t know. Because I’d rather die than have to live through any of that again. And the ‘Anna’ of that time is like an enemy, or like an old friend one has known too well and doesn’t want to see. (150)

TGN is not a book with crescendos (despite the protracted one at the end, I think), but one clear highlight is the end of the second section of the BN, with its heartbreaking revision of her experience (326). “I must pull myself together”.

Prologue stresses a) the central conceptual importance of splitting or disintegration, b) the formal importance of the intertwining diaries, the metafiction.

I see Ella, walking slowly about a big empty room, thinking, waiting. I, Anna, see Ella. Who is of course, Anna. But that is the point, for she is not. The moment I, Anna, write: Ella rings up Julia to announce, etc., then Ella floats away form me and becomes someone else. … (404)

I thought of Kathy Acker’s Devoured By Myths: “I wanted to explore the use of the word I, that’s the only thing I wanted to do. So I placed very direct autobiographical, just diary material, right next to fake diary material. I tried to figure out who I wasn’t.” See the nightmare on 229-30, the nightmare of identifying with the fiction.

Splitting, then: DL’s vision of the novel as “a function of the fragmented society” is ever more relevant. (75) Reportage and connection (this probably the most powerful literary statement – though it is central to the politics, as on 155). Self-division is seen as bleakly valuable in the context of constant disappointment, of “the great sin”:

It’s not a terrible thing … to do without something one wants. It’s not bad to say: My work is not what I really want, I’m capable of doing something bigger. Or I’m a person who needs love, and I’m doing without it. What’s terrible is to pretend that the second-rate is first-rate. To pretend that you don’t need love when you do; or you like your work when you know quite well you’re capable of better. (242)

I read that one a few times. Of course the central accusation, Tommy’s suicide attempt – the reported trauma to rival the unspeakable one of Michael’s abandoning her – frames splitting as an accusation. (247)

Shelley’s Queen Mab in the hallucinatory flights.

I want to return; I want to psych myself up and read it all in two days.

9

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My Struggle: Book 4 (2015)

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1,986 pages / 6.5 shelf-inches into the series now. Opened 4 the day before catching a train to Ox to start a first full-time job in a new town by myself; found Karl Ove Knausgaard catching a train to the north to start a first full-time job in a new town by himself. 4 lauded in the praise section as his most well-arced, which is true despite the same typically engrossing internal eddies and fizzling of vignettes and echoing events. However this sense of structure is surely derived also from the embedded reminiscence back to KOK’s final year at school, which occupies 4‘s middle third at least. Reading this on holiday in Mont was less circumstantially satisfying but still I found myself reading my own moments and memories in his level but mystified way.

If the defining image of 3 was “the interplay of two worlds, often one of light versus one of shadow” then here the two worlds are of inside and outside, and the fear comes not from experience but exposure and openness. The town of Håfjord is introduced immediately as having a silence which “was not oppressive … but open” (15), an atmosphere which seeps into its affably engaging but also disarmingly candid inhabitants. In an autobiographical series which epitomises “openness” (and in the volume which certainly most embodies its much-laud quality of lacerating self-exposure), KOK struggles to reconcile his sociable extroversions, guarded fledging literary efforts, and (painfully) personal experiences of humiliation with this cultural transparency.

Of particular importance in 4 are drunkenness and girls, KOK’s twin preoccupations in this period. Anticipating later graduation excesses and even-later indulgences in H, he recounts early experiments with hard drinking, “I had disappeared, I was empty, I was in the void of my soul … it felt as if I had been let loose in the town, I could have done anything…” (118). This exposure enacts a trip to the “ghost world” (120) in an explicit echo of the penumbral duality of 3. His carelessness is replaced by shame and terror in H:

The worst was probably the notion that others saw me, that I put on a show for them, and that the side of me I displayed then was reflected in the way they looked at me every day. (370)

Alcohol is a violent negotiation between individual freedom/confidence and sexual b/pathos. Women mock him by being “accessible to the eye but in no other way.” (123) He’s constantly tasting ashes in his dreams and imagination, especially as his desperation increases, leading towards the (13-y/o?) pupil Andrea who seems to haunt the school which he prowls out-of-hours:

I hardly knew I had these thoughts, they lived in a kind of no-man’s-land … Everything that came from the outside was dangerous. (438)

The nexus of joyful self-expression and sexualised frustration is KOK’s first literary efforts, which are exposed both to us and to critical friends and family. Apotheosis 463-4 when housemates prank him by adding a graphically parodic passage to a WIP:

It wasn’t just a text he had tampered wth, that wouldn’t have offended me in the slightest, it was something else, much more than that, there was a soul in it, my soul. And when he tampered with that, I could feel it. It  looked different from the outside than  from the inside, and it was perhaps that which lay at the heart of my despair. What I wrote was worthless. So that meant I was worthless too.

Especially poignant given metatextual references to other published works, and memories from 3 (29) (see also 364-5 for memory of tv surgery, Mannian human excavation). Criticism and writing-the-self; another more-direct angle on the Struggle.

Stress on detail again here, flattened coexistence of abstraction and particularity definitely anticipating ‘seasons’ series. Just as young KOK in 3 learned lessons of empathy here he is taught the significance of the differing weights assigned by people to events and elements of life; see particularly appeal of dad of fat kid 460.

What is different is that this is less empirical than 3, more introspective and passionate. Experience is more obviously already memory in a way that confirms praise of experience of being this age. Memories made of this:

Half an hour later we were walking up the hill from the flat. I was drunk in that pure joyful way you can be from white wine, when your thoughts collide with one another like bubbles and what emerges when they burst is pleasure.

We had been at my place, I thought, and this filled me with pleasure.

We were colleagues and on our way to becoming friends, I reflected.

And I had written a damn good short story.

Pleasure, pleasure, pleasure.

And then there was this light, dim down among humans and things human, attended by a kind of finely honed darkness which became diffused in the light though did not possess or control it, only muted or softened it, high up in the sky it was gleamingly clear and clean.

Pleasure.

And there was this silence. The murmur of the sea, our foot-steps on the gravel, the occasional noise coming from somewhere, a door being opened or a shout, all embraced by the silence, which seemed to rise from the ground, rise from objects and surround us in a way which I didn’t formulate as primordial, though I sensed it was, for I thought of the silence in Sørbøvåg on summer mornings when I was a child there, the silence above the fjord beneath the immense Lihesten Mountain, half hidden by the mist. The silence of the world. It was here, too, as I walked uphill, drunk with my new friends, and although neither it nor the light we walked in was the main event of the evening it played its part.

Pleasure.

Eighteen years old and on my way to a party. (105-6)

Happy to read that line as a self-evaluation not just in the past but also, satisfied, from the present – think he’s caught an adolescent evolution of attention here. This bit goes on to -112 as an evocation of lonely sociability at a party, blending-in but not quite, slipping over the fault-lines of acceptance and isolation. Not surprised that this is the volume of MS in which KOK discovers hash (327).

More stuff on anticipation of self-writing through experience of memory:

One evening we went to the primary school I had once attended, not so far from the their house. I had been twelve when I left, now I was seventeen. The five years felt like an eternity there was almost nothing then connected me with the person I had been, and I remembered next to nothing of what I had done then.

But when I saw the school before us, hovering in the its and darkness, my memories exploded inside me. I let go of Cecilie’s hand, approached the building, and pressed my hand against the black timbers. The school really existed, it wasn’t merely a place in my imagination. My eyes were moist with emotion, it was as though the whole bounteous world that had been my childhood had returned for an instant. (282)

Chimes with discussion elsewhere about need to let personal memories take shape through (ie. pushing through) literary recollection.

What’s left to say is that KOK is a total dickhead in 4. After the estival departure from the end of 3 he has pupated into an ugly creature of teenagerhood; he thoroughly exorcises memories of exploitation, sexual humiliation, pettiness, egregious adolescent self-importance. In a way the grotesque ending is fascinating: its a culmination of My Struggle as perceived by a 19-y/o KOK, and therefore also a cathartically self-accusatory completion of the section of the grander task of MS that 4 represents: revisiting the unrevisitable (he repeatedly assures us from both the past and the present that he will never physically return to H).

On reflection 4 is a fascinating companion to 3 in terms of its stylistic shift as well as the chronologically continuous but qualitatively disjunctive development of KOK’s character; this despite being singular in the series for its grotesqueness and unflinching commitment to necessary structural redundancy and repetition.

8

At Swim-Two-Birds (1939)

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Watched AJ’s The Holy Mountain again yesterday. The triumphant “Zoom back, camera!” conclusion is earned not just by the preposterousness of the story, nor the constant interplay between levels of fantasy and reality throughout, but also by the film’s core of sincerity. THM is a savage takedown of societies that have become tolerant of and cooperative with fascistic commerciality, trivialisation of history, perversion of progressive ideals, and artistic degeneration; on some level it’s a sympathetic though appropriative adaptation of old mystical manuals that advocates a regenerated social self-consciousness. The meta rupture is consistent with the barmy genius and sleight of hand throughout THM but also with its sense of urgent appeal.

ASTB is a milestone in metafiction, indulging almost from its first page in multi-narrative intertwinement and intrusion, though, like THM, there’s a sense of climax in the trial scene. Like THM, it’s barmy and dripping with talent, as in the deft evocations of traditional verse and legends. Its humour is mostly lyrical, particularly in the timing and the believable Dublin registers – the middle section covering the Pooka’s journey with the Fairy to the birthday celebrations becomes increasingly farcical. The profanity, while derided on publication, is always funny too, from the first page’s description of Finn MacCool’s prodigious bulk: “three fifties of fosterlings could engage with handball against the wideness of his backside, which was large enough to halt the march of men through a mountain-pass.” It’s not funny the whole way through though, and again I think this is in part because of an underlying urgency.

It’s possible I’m just weighed down by the density. Joyce comparisons are of course apt and appropriate but Ulysses is comparatively nimble, in some of its registers. While there are frequent interruptions from imported adverts and reference works, the predominant authorial voice here is latinate, polysyllabic, declarative; sense from the beginning of legal documentation attempting to establish objectivity (there’s some chat at one point about author’s failing to make their characters distinct, giving them all the same voice). Fits also with the structure of titled sections. There’s lighthearted satire of Joycean predispositions to academic discussion in both the internal characters and the students, but the concluding section is a bitterly tragic musing on superstition. Throughout, the difficulty of finding a position from which to speak (suggestions on wiki of polysemy as postcolonial anxiety seem very interesting).

This instability is tackled most honestly, at plot-level, at the plane on which I most enjoyed spending time: the lazy, often literally supine student. Definitely something of the (much funnier) Lucky Jim about his sozzled, sociable destitution, literary absenteeism and quietly troubling tendency to retreat into private imagination – ASTB may not be the “portrayal of Dublin to compare with Joyce’s Ulysses“, as it is proclaimed to be by Mr Penguin Editor, but it is perhaps a kind of Merrie Ireland. The insecurity is also a literary one, with a stinging attack on the novel form on p.25 standing out as a portable truth, presaging (in its suggestion of the novel as a reference work for already-written characters) the aporetic conclusion(s).

In all, looking back through what followed it, I don’t think it’s travelled entirely well. We need less formal smartarsery in 2017. Its two-pronged attack, consisting of merciless disregard for closure and capricious indulgences in quantity (scanning almost entirely as deadpan, except for one hilarious undercutting of poetic filibustering on 129), is hardly welcoming. Read it again, and read about it before you do. At the very least you can take home A PINT OF PLAIN IS YOUR ONLY MAN in your back pocket.

7

Heshel’s Kingdom (1998)

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Fist time with Dan Jacobson. Certainly clear why Sebald found it thought-provoking enough to write Aust, though DJ’s style is more level (less uniformly melancholic), despite some excursions into passionate questioning (eg. 180). Also a lighter touch (“His Britannic Majesty’s Lieutenant-Colonel Wholly Illegible” 51), with some Brysonian travel moments on 115 and 175. Some pretty devastating meditations and vignettes on 39, 104, 178, 189, etc. Overall just as elusively intergeneric as WGS, being a blend of travel writing, history and auto/biography. Plenty on witnessing, exile, photography (and representation more generally), distances (geographical, psychological, vital/mortal), religious (Jewish, exclusively) constitution of these issues, commemoration and museums.

  • Xi Unreachable history. Human creation
  • 3 witnessing for H. I can speak of him and he cannot answer. 5 task and gift of the living. 219 impossibility of giving testimony. 234 I did not know how to speak of him
  • 6 h is death before and after life
  • 7 more spatial metaphors for death 52 17
  • 8 Jewish nationalistic view of immortality
  • 12 exile at home in Lith. 35 L strange world, obscure moral. 55 to ask for a cup of tea is an adventure, alienating the familiar. 72 only world SA post exile is narrativised. 170 arty world of Lith. 181 reciprocal distance
    • 30 DJ himself feels stranded between poles
  • 13-4 vulnerability of the face to face
  • 15 looking through his glasses, Aust
  • 19 homesickness is universally similar
  • 39 historical similarity only backwards. 47 Hs emphasis on continuity
  • 51 light touch Colonel. 115 bill bryson travel 175
  • 64-5 lives set out, dispersed from point of H death
  • 67 cunning of unreason
  • 69 DJ through train window
  • 75 Lith was like a wound within me. Returning is uncanny
    • 77-8 old world like a womb fled. Dj spoken for in literature. 96 inarticulation
  • 91 holocaust hard to believe though known to have happened, “quasi-fictional”
  • 92 barrier in history
  • 94 compulsion to return
  • 98 spacelessness and timelessness of Jewish experience
  • 104 night terrors
  • 112 WGS underpopulation, 115 witnessing
  • 126 Polyvalence of place names
  • 129-30 ethics of photography. 143 nazi synagogue museums
  • 149 survivors like deaf
  • 158 spatiality of evil
  • 176 quasi revenants
  • 178 welled up a bit at the negotiations of responsibility. 180 passionate criticism of Austria
  • 189 death of a cemetery
  • 208 mundanity replaces the abyss
  • 217-9 ease of blaming victims. Impossility of secular extraction from J teleology
  • 230 dormancy
  • 234 see above

 

The Devils (1871)

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Second time with Dostoyevsky after The Brothers Karamazov.

Effectively dealing with the undermining of ascendant and characteristic Russian “higher liberalism” – “liberalism without any aim whatsoever” (47) – by a group of reactive and destructive young nihilists, socialists, etc. At the centre (supposedly) of the plot is Mr Nicolas Stavrogin, a man whose superficial beauty masks potentially horrifying secrets in the manner of Dorian Gray:

Our dandies regarded him with envy, and were completely eclipsed in his presence. I was also struck by his face: his hair was just a little too black, his light-coloured eyes a little too calm and clear, his complexion a little too tender and white … he would seem to be a paragon of beauty,yet at the same time there was something hideous about him. (56-7)

This initial portrait follows 50 pages of introduction, which themselves focus on the pitiful but pitiable Stepan Verkhovensky, professor, admirer of S’s mother, and windbag exemplar of that “higher liberalism” in his ridiculous pretentiousness and grandiloquent proclamations (undercut frequently by his dearest associate, our narrator). V embodies the kind of baroque and waffly sociability of the town, punctured by S’s wordlessly mocking acts of iniquity, such as comically assaulting a beloved captain. David Magarshack’s fustily labouring translation from the 50s enhances the magnetism of S’s indecencies, as the relentless social pussyfooting around him becomes indistinguishably beige.

There’s a running theme in this early section – pre a significant congregation at which S makes a scene which precipitates agitation throughout the town and initiates plot momentum – dealing with Russia’s self-ignorance. Mrs S hatches the idea for a periodical omnibus which would preserves newsworthy events in the national memory, facts published in journals which “make an impression and are remembered by the public, but then forgotten.” (137; here one echo, among many, of The Secret Agent). These are mirrored by the reams of ineffectual political leaflets which are distributed by unwilling lackeys (275).

Result is that the political insurrections can bubble occultly. The first half is peppered with mysterious events, usually heralded by the narrator as then-inexplicable and summarised with a depiction of the confusion that follows. Increasingly frustrating; narrator’s feelings are ironically mine: “all this led me to believe that something had happened before my arrival, something I knew nothing about, and that, consequently, I was not wanted and that it was none of my business.” (143) V’s son Peter takes centre stage as the mob’s ringleader, exercising a pied-piper influence over the manipulable townsfolk. He stirs up trouble and disingenuously frames this in the same terms as the narrator – “all of you know something and … I’m the only one who does not know that something.” (207-8) He trades in ignorance as currency: he intentionally inflates S’s public persona (323) while himself under his spell.

The reentry of S, at that congregation, is deftly paced; this is definitely the point at which the air of mystery is most alluring in TD. By this point (190) I was eager for S to fill the screen, to sideline the increasingly indistinguishable extras. While we get an alluring section entitled ‘Night’ where we follow S like a shade visiting and bewitching his associates, the focus (contra my synopsis) shifts instead to PV’s cabal of Four Lions-esque nihilists (less funny obviously). At first they are empty but deadly (250) but as we spend more time with Virginsky, Shatov, Lyamkin and Kirilov they get less and less interesting and less and less memorable.

Reduced to a thin series of highlights: Mary Lebyatkin’s introduction is eerie and alluring; the fête is amusingly chaotic and a good centrepiece; Shatov’s assassination is suitably black. There was one moment in the entire book which I loved: PV’s pursuit of Kirilov, the atheistic would-be suicide. It descends into a terrifyingly wordless confrontation, in which K is driven to a kind of statuesque madness, as if paralysed before the possibility of accomplishing or failing in his mission to attain the status of a god through willed self-destruction. 619.

Writing about TD is tiring. Thinking back to The Way of All Flesh – perhaps I don’t have the attention-span or patience for these Victorian wedges any more. It’s fine; definitely not Karamazov (Elder Zossima gets a shoutout 268!). Stavrogin is interesting but unsatisfying; PV is pretty annoying; Kirilov is eventually the most alluring. The chorography is opaque and the social portrait stodgy. The interruption of peasants at the end is an unsatisfactory compromise: TD could certainly do with more life (more Alyosha K etc.). More in note. Next!

5

Skylark (2010)

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Picked up because of the publisher and the author’s name. Was actually written around 1923.

A surprising little tale: gently comic but with the eerie atmosphere of a faded photograph. First chapter introduces the bustling parents, the thick and blinded reliance on habitual duty which dominates their daily activities. They prepare to see their daughter off on a rare holiday with family, leaving them alone for a week – an almost intolerably irregular prospect. Skylark (apparently the girl, although in fact in her 30s) has the purity of heart but absent passivity of Esther Summerson – derived, however, from her extreme lack of external beauty. At the chapter’s close her father cannot meet her gaze after all the devotion evident in his attentions.

The subject of the novel practically in name only, S casts a shadow over the lives of her parents as they struggle blinking back into the world of the town they had long-since abandoned for the society of their child. She has rendered her father, especially, a ghost: “alive” only “here in the past”, in his private studies of heraldry and national historic continuity (24), looking forward only to “his approaching death” (27). S takes on a Gorey-esque domestic-gothic mythos: she returns to him in his dreams as the subject of disquieting nightmares (35) and later haunts him as an apparition after a drunken spree (165), an accusatory manifestation of conscience like Banquo.

S plays with the tension between the parents’ perception of their child and S’s own self-understanding, which is upsettingly snatched at in an account of her hysterics on the departing train; in the end her ghostly, reluctant appearance in a family photograph – in which “she appeared to be reaching out for protection from something that frightened her” (213) – manifests her outward mysteriousness as a product of this inner turmoil. She exudes human frailty and insecurity, but she’s also small as a character; I think we’re encouraged to read her this way by the faintly ridiculous image of the foppish and failed poet Ijas who “dramatised [his] minor literary disappointment into a more general and deeply rooted fin-de-siècle melancholy” before formulating the image of S and her tottering parents as the subject of a new work.

The beginning section prior to the departure is understated and slips by without much fanfare, but the reintroduction of the couple into the world of the town is intoxicating and quite poignant. Food is a central theme, internalised attitudes to luxury challenged by sights and smells. The mundane world is that of the “warm, sour milk” and grumbled complaints of the local market (37) which nevertheless blooms with colour like a Netherlandish communal scene. The town itself bustles with a teutonic regularity – as in the itinerary of appearances in the square (101) – while each character sings their own tarot identities like the types of Russian fiction (this Hungarian/Serbian world does seem an interesting confluence of western and eastern influences, which is reflected in the tastes and prejudices of the townsfolk). At the centre of the community is the King of Hungary restaurant, whose menu entices the couple into health:

Ákos straightened his back and breathed the air deep into his lungs. A sudden warmth spread through his limbs as his digestive system set to work. The food he had eaten was already filtering its fortifying goodness into his circulation. (51)

It’s as if they’ve been wound into clockwork life, ready to rejoin the rhythmic parade of the town (there are rebirth metaphors too, as in “the old man sucked at his cigar with all the voraciousness of a baby at the breast” 72). Á still interprets his desires as sin, though, as in a brilliantly amusing section of food fantasies (61) like blind Pi on the boat. The most indulgent, sensational residents of the town are like the actress Olga Orosz, drunk on the decay inherent within decadence:

Her flesh was powdery and voluptuously weary, as if tenderised by all the different beds and arms in which it had lain. Her face was as soft as the pulpy flesh of an overripe banana, her breasts like two tiny bunches of grapes. She exuded a certain seedy charm, a poetry of premature corruption and decay. (94)

There’s a generous, falstaffian humour throughout, as in the wry observation of the grace of the drunkard: “A drunkard never walks where he can fly … Nor shall the inebriate come to any harm, for the blessed Virgin carries them in an apron. But opening the gate was another matter.” (154)

The drunkard is also outside of time, time which appears to represent the world of labour: the temporal fixing of the opening description of manual preparations returns as an “inexplicable melancholy” after Á is reminded of his frivolity, late in his wild evening, by a glance at a clock (140). This runs in contrast to a kind of cultural deep time, invoked in the card game Taroc (“its roots reach way back into the past” 136) and traditional music (the landowner crying despite his wealth; “who could tell what ancient memories of wedding feasts and long-abandoned reveries the music stirred within him?” 143) This temporal shifting and sliding increases the sense of S as an expansion of Bloom’s night out in Ulysses: this is 1899 and forever, a modern moment in which life and death are at risk on personal, national and human scales. DK’s overriding preoccupation is, though, with death, and the return of S signals an “insidious” autumn (208) and a reminder of that decay lurking inside every pleasure.

8

My Struggle: Book 3 (2013)

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Why is this the only one in FSG’s series that doesn’t have a picture of Knausgaard on the front, just some pensive stock-photo kid?

Flicked through 2 after finishing this and was surprised at the amount of philosophical musing I’d bookmarked (ready to concede that I probably remember startlingly little of the second volume, my favourite of the series so far, which I admittedly finished at least a year ago now. After I’m currently 1,484 pages or about 5 shelf-inches into MS.) The first note follows this conundrum:

From my own childhood I remember only a handful of incidents, all of which I regarded as momentous, but which I now understand were a few events among many, which completely expunges their meaning, for how can I know that those particular episodes that lodged themselves in my mind were decisive, and not all the others of which I remember nothing? (2: 17)

3 begins with a captivating discussion about photography and memory (ideas including that personal photographs document an era rather than an individual, because they represent only exteriority [10]; there is also a beautifully Proustian taxonomy of memory on 12) and a blank space where the first six years of his life should be: nothing until the age of six was memorable; all self-knowledge comes from anecdotes. 3 proceeds to tackle the next six years until the move to Kristiansand which connects the story to the chronological start of 1. Strange, then, that K claims at the end of 3 that

little did I know then that every detail of this landscape, and every single person living in it, would forever be lodged in my memory with a ring as true as perfect pitch. (451)

This is in contrast to the figures that populate his life on the island, who are branded with the same wilful memory alluded to in the quote from 2 above. Connecting these passages indicates the extent to which perfect recall is an embellishment employed to give the rest of the fiction – the colouring inside the lines which constitutes the bulk of MS‘s prose – a haunted air. Karl is, supposedly, condemned to remember.

A running symbolic theme throughout 3 – certainly, otherwise, the most straight-faced and mimetic instalment so far – is the interplay of two worlds, often one of light versus one of shadow. The young K’s fear of “seeing your own reflection in the black windowpane and thinking, that image is not me, but a ghoul staring at me” from “beyond” (22) subconsciously recalls the terrifying apparition of a face in the sea on a TV report near the beginning of 1. In 3 the empirical observation, coupled with the relative free reign permitted both to the young boy and his imagination, leads him to interpret crepuscular shadows as reaching from “a parallel reality of darkness, with dark-fences, dark-trees, dark-houses, populated by dark-people,” a world quickly allied with night-time and a fear of the inhuman often derived from comics or TV (48-9, see also 110-1). One of 3‘s most illuminating passages is the account of a book which tells of a boy wizard who conjures up a shadow from the world of death, a shadow which pursues him until it becomes apparent that “the shadow was himself.” (308-10) That this bit occurs after years of maturation from the formative night terrors above suggests that the notion will stick with K; indeed it also suggests that MS is a process not just of attaining maturity but of plumbing the dark side of human nature, even that MS has painted a picture of a “dark-K” which he must learn to identify with himself. Recall the end of 1:

And death, which I have always regarded as the greatest dimension of life, dark, compelling, was no more than a pipe that springs a leak, a branch that cracks in the wind, a jacket that slips off a clothes hanger and falls to the floor. (1: 441)

It follows that the two-worlds image is often transplanted, in 3, onto the engrossing interplay between childhood and adult life, “parallel lives that never meet” (FSG synopsis). K’s blooming fascination with clothing appears impelled by the synthetic smell of expensive sportswear which “didn’t seem to belong to this world,” (74) the “distant and utterly radiant” world of comics aimed at older kids (76). After splitting “two worlds” between boy and girl friends (200), K later apprehends duality in his pre-pubscesent interest in pornography: “within me there were two incompatible entities,” good and bad, the latter of which “was fantastic, it was terrible, it was the world opening and hell revealing itself, the light shining and the darkness falling…” (295) The increasing focus on sexuality leads towards an orgiastic party on the first day of summer, evoking some unnerving mass pupation, a seasonal attainment of maturity and a curious abdication of K’s individuality (MS at its most ritualistic; see also seasonal aspect of inside/outside world duality on 293).

Of course the strands of terror and maturity connect at a nexus which again forms the text’s gravitational centre: K’s father. K illustrates the personality of the man who haunts 1 and gives us an insight into their poisoned relationship which is engrossing after reading 1 and 2. Having seared his system of discipline into the young K’s mind he becomes omnipresent:

Dad might be behind the house, might come round the corner at any second. Might be waiting for me in the hall, might be in his study, and tear the door open when he heard me. Might be standing at the kitchen window waiting for me to appear. (131)

He sometimes appears in K’s image (as in his “notori[ety] for manipulating the truth”, 261), sometimes its negative (“he wanted to dispel from his mind everything that existed around him”, 211) We see K try to develop away from him – his young Christianity is presented as a reaction against secular paternal authority (286) – until we reach the suggestion that MS as a project is a means of finally attaining control over him, “in the much acclaimed mind and imagination.” (345) The absolute standout passage is a rare secession from character, a resumption of K’s present-day voice to passionately insist upon his overriding desire in life:

I am alive, I have my own children, and with them I have tried to achieve only one aim: that they shouldn’t be afraid of their father. (260)

In this light, K’s father appears as a kind of “dark-K”, a shadow that pursues him everywhere.

What struggles to germinate under the shadow of his father is K’s childishly poetic vision. The versatility and potency of young imaginations is signalled early, as in 67’s delineation of all the scenarios that could arise from the discovery of an abandoned car in the forest. The forest passages are the text’s best, K’s most convincing inhabitation of a young mind; they are also often quite romantic, as in the wordsworthian account of a race through the trees: “it was a good thought, a good feeling, and I tried to hold on to it for as long as possible.” (83) I read Hopkins, too, in the way the trees – like shadows – “seemed to stretch out to whoever looked at them. And that was all they spoke about, what they were, nothing else.” (81) This obviously connects to the issue of attaining singular identity, as in the identifiable characteristics of each kid at school: “each one of us had something of his or her own.” (97) This is also of course the struggle for self-determination beneath K’s father – one which, interestingly (after Louis’ The End of Eddy) elaborates frequently on issues of traditional masculinity and childhood, with K struggling to negotiate his way around his father’s expectations and the taunts of his friends.

K’s humour is often drier in 3, particularly when dealing with his own past. The anecdote about him being warned to respect the privacy of others (159) is a wry inclusion; it also grows into K’s insensitive inability to reconcile truth and prudent empathy (see 225). The childhood subject does afford plenty of opportunity for disgusting and embarrassing (but sometimes uncomfortably recognisable) stories (of which the most striking is probably the discussion of shitting on 105-6; cf. White Noise on going through human waste). The masochism of the self-revelation in MS is often vaunted; there’s a particularly interesting Mannian moment when the boy K is engrossed in a program about surgery, concluding with a shudder that “the heart should not be seen, it should be allowed to beat in secret.” (176) The episode with the pranked gym teacher (368) suggests that the kind of exhibitionism which has made K’s name is endemic to children or derived from childish curiosity.

The themes outlined here surface and are submerged gradually and rhythmically: most of the book details personal experience, expanding and contracting as conclusions suggest themselves, slowly accumulating as K develops as a person and a personality. I like this passage as representative of the natural ease with which K moves through ambient detail and behaviouristic observation:

When we emerged from the shop, each with a small bag in hand, there were just four minutes to go before the bus left. But that was enough time, we told each other, running down the stairs. The steps, covered with hard-trodden snow and ice, were slippery, so we had to hold on to the banisters, which was at odds with the speed we were after. beneath us lay the town, the white streets appearing almost yellow in the reflection from the lamps, the bus station, where the buses skidded in an out like sleds in the snow, and the tall church with the red tiles and green spire. The black sky arched above everything, strewn with twinkling stars. When there were only ten to fifteen steps left Geir let go of the banister and set off at a sprint. After a couple of strides he lost balance and his only chance to stay upright was to run as fast as he could. He swept down the hill at a blistering pace. Then he had more momentum, he was pitched forward and plunged headlong into the drift beside the road. it has all happened so fast that I didn’t start laughing until he was lying in the snow. (325)

is not without inconsistency, even failure. Occasionally leakage between child and adult voices leads to some quite superficially pretentious reflections (“the problem is not so much that the world limits your imagination as your imagination limits the world.” 385). Sometimes the  experiences are so universally recognisable as to merely vocalise the already over-familiar; it feels less like an attempt to elevate the mundane than a requirement to exorcise uninteresting memories (reflecting an unflattering sense of logorrhoea onto that aforementioned compulsion to recollect). 3‘s final third is a kind of extended meditation on pubescent maturation, whose processes of experimentation can wash over each other and feel less formative than inconsequential. However K subtly begins to introduce the darker aspects of developing masculine sexuality until that almost entomological transformation.

Profits from a break from the theorising. A sustained investigation of memory and experiential formativeness. Again balances universal observation and particular biography. A definitive study of childhood to match 2‘s definitive study of modern parenthood – perhaps its shadow.

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