Sunday, September 30, 2018

The End of The End

 The End - 
My Struggle 
Volume 6 
by Karl Ove Knausgaard

Before starting this essay, I eat a crumpet.

The Marmite tastes salty. Salty Marmite. We used to have Marmite for breakfast when I was a child. Granddad called it rat's poison. He died. 

I am also going to have a mouthful of coffee. It is in a red cup. The coffee is warm and coffee coloured and tastes of coffee. There is a granual floating on the surface. It makes me think of a drowning refugee child or that old joke about the soup. I wonder if the Moors Murderers ever drank soup?

This is my essay. I am writing it now.


Strange that in the era of social media and limited attention spans, the novel everyone is talking about runs to six volumes and is stuffed full of philosophy and literature and art history, all translated from the original Norwegian.

But perhaps it is not that strange. My Struggle  (yes, I know) is essentially a seven million character Tweet: a macro blog in the age of micro-blogging. It is the tangible remains of hours spent at the keyboard recalling the details of day-to-day existence: what Karl Ove had for supper (prawns, probably); how many cups of coffee he drunk (dozens, on the balcony mostly, with a cigarette); what Karl Ove said when he settled his three little children down in front of Bolibompa (Norwegian Tellytubbies?) — yet prone to shoot off at any moment into thoughts about God and identity and the holocaust and the terrible burdens of being an artist.

For every passage which reads like this:

We hold the absolute at bay, firstly by levelling down the bigness of our existence, that which has to do with the very boundaries of life and materiality, to the commonplace, addressing the issues that concern us all, the great collective, mankind, only in the quotidian; secondly by ritualising the absolute in an unreal world of images: death is to us not the physical death of the body, but the figurative death, as it occurs in images, in the same way as violence is not physical violence, but figurative violence.

There is one which reads like this:

I snatched two packets of red sausages, the ones with the highest meat content, something I had suddenly and rather neurotically become obsessed by after someone at the nursery made me realise there were big differences from brand to brand, then dropped a bag of hot-dog buns into the basket along with a regular loaf, a bag of coffee, the dark-roast French blend I’d settled for after six months of experimentation and had since stuck to, a litre of milk, a litre of yoghurt, a six-pack of beer, toilet paper, and a packet of four bars of soap, seeing as how we had visitors and they probably washed their hands more than we did, and finally three ice creams.

The first volumes were written quite slowly, the culmination of a long period of writers' block during which Karl Ove went from being the most promising Norwegian novelist of his generation to the person journalists phoned up if they wanted to do a feature on one-book authors. But this final volume is written against the clock. His first manuscript ran to 1,200 pages, so his publisher suggested putting it out in twelve monthly installments of a hundred pages each. "If you are going to do that anyway" said Karl Ove "Can I expand it to 6,000 pages?" So this final volume is full of a sense of urgency and spontaneity and desperation and the need to keep on going; like a sort of high class NaNoWriMo.

Karl Ove has read more books than I have had Ikea Meatballs. While working flat out to finish this volume he is also working on a new Norwegian translation of the Bible. He doesn't believe in God but isn't sure quite how we are going to get along without Him. Although it can veer into the preposterously over-written — I am told the translation accurately reflects the original Norwegian, warts and all — he is so damn knowledgeable about nearly everything that he can hardly fail to be interesting. If he is going to talk about Abraham and Isaac — and since the whole epic is kind of about his father, he is more or less bound to talk about Abraham and Isaac sooner or later — then you can be sure he has studied his Kierkegaard and his Freud and his Girard before he begins to type.

But his real genius lies in descriptions of ordinary life; what he calls, over and over again until you want to throw the book across the room, the quotidian. (It is a very large book.)

It is easy to poke fun at this sort of thing. Here is Karl Ove making yet another cup of coffee: 

Impatiently I lifted the kettle before the water had started to bubble, and the crescendo of noise was interrupted and replaced by a soft murmur as the coffee rose inside the cup, at first a golden brown from the powder, visible as an earthy clump at the bottom, until over the next few seconds it completely dissolved and the surface became an impenetrable black with some lighter-coloured froth at the edges.

But this obsession with trivial detail is essential to the project. It is what makes you feel that you are inside Karl Ove's head; inside his life; inside his underpants. I am a slow reader and I found myself gobbling down these domestic disasters and private embarrassments in hundred page chunks.

One extended passage in this volume describes a disastrous holiday at a tourist resort in Gran Canaria. (Or perhaps it describes an idyllic, expensive holiday in a resort which Karl Ove cynically and snobbishly despises?) In one mercilessly specific episode Karl Ove and his wife agree to go on a free excursion without realizing that someone is going to try to sell them an expensive time-share. It literally felt like being there; it made me feel agonizingly embarrassed on behalf of  the characters; scared to turn the page in case Karl Ove really is persuaded to phone his mother to ask her to guarantee the loan. (Does this embarrassment and identification depend on my knowing that Karl Ove is real and this really happened: or would I have cared just as much if it had been two made-up people I was reading about?) The long description concludes:

‘Me too,’ Linda said. ‘Imagine you actually considering buying a timeshare!’
‘Yes, it’s unbelievable. But the worst is that I didn’t twig. I didn’t twig what was happening until afterwards! But you did, right?’
‘Yes. I wondered what you were up to.’
‘I was taken in hook, line and sinker....
Linda laughed.
‘Yes, go on, laugh,’ I said. ‘We won’t breathe a word of this to anyone, OK?’

"We won't breathe a word of this to anyone."

Karl Ove does a lot of mildly stupid things. He takes on an allotment he is never going to be able to manage, and then can't sell. He allows his wife to make her own way back to the psychiatric hospital after he has been specifically told not to. He does much stupider things too, when he is younger, like self-harming and glassing his brother and cheating on his wife. The sort of thing you wouldn't normally breathe a word to anyone about. 

It would be misleading to describe the book (as some people have) as an enormously erudite soap opera, a conjuring trick in which you are forced to care about Karl Ove's football practice and Heidi's ice cream cone by sheer weight of detail. It does that, certainly. The quotidian minutiae (you see, it's catching) make it the best and funniest account of what it's like to be a hands-on Dad as you are likely to read. But that's not really what the book is about. 

In volume two or three — I am certainly not going to look it up — Karl Ove is visiting Paris and lays a wreath on the grave of Marcel Proust. Which can only elicit the response from the reader "Son, you're no Marcel Proust." My Struggle and In Search of Lost Time are both very long books, and they are both full of the details of ordinary life; although Marcel spends more time attending exquisite dinner parties and admiring beautiful scenery and less time making coffee. But Proust is writing about consciousness and memory, about reconciling the subjective world with objective reality. Knausgaard is much more about the process of writing. Like Proust he makes connections and linkages and wild digressions. We go from the quarrel with his Uncle and the realization that he is going to have to disguise the names of some of the real people in the book to a discourse on the significance of Names in general, to a long critique of a poem by Paul Celan. (Pity the poor translator, offering an English version of a Norwegian. close reading of a German poet!) But these links are links which occur to him on the page, while he is writing. He doesn't know what he is going to say until he starts to say it.

So the enormously long canonical text of which The End most reminded me was not In Search of Lost Time or Ulysses but Don Quixote. You remember how volume two is very largely about the consequences of publishing volume one; about how the anonymous knight has become a public figure; about how his life is now being read, misunderstood and contested by strangers? That's what this feels like. An enormous book which turns out to be an account of its own coming into being.

The structure of My Struggle emerges only gradually: in the first volume, we see Karl Ove arranging his father's funeral and clearing the house where he was living at the time of his death; the second volume shows us Karl Ove as a Daddy himself. Only in the third book do we see his relationship with his father and start to understand why he is writing all this down. By the end of Volume Five he is a published author, struggling to begin his next book. Volume Six begins with the first volume of My Struggle already written and about to go to press. So he has to show it to his friends and family. And, astonishingly, they don't like it.

There is nothing you can say about Knausgaard which he hasn't already said about himself. I went to hear him give a talk in London last month to launch the English translation of the final volume, I was surprised at how pleasant and self-effacing and urbane he was: how patiently he answered the audience's doubtless very predictable questions. I had imagined that the craggy man on the cover would be distant and a little frightening.

But here his is in the last pages of The End:

It is therefore as though I can only be warm and sincere in front of a group of strangers and not with kith and kin. That is why what I do is a kind of trick. When I am sitting on the stage talking to an audience there is a great distance. I can manage that and appear close and warm.

When I queued up for him to sign my copy after the talk (and no, gentle reader, there is no other contemporary writer whose signature I would wait an hour for) I wanted to say something. So I said that it seemed strange to be standing in the same room as Karl Ove Knausgaard; that it felt as if I was meeting a character from a novel. Does that make sense? "Yes it does," he said politely and did one of those squiggles that pass for authors' signatures. But here he is in the last volume:

‘Actually we’re all characters in a novel sitting around this table,’ Yngve said.
‘That’s true,’ Asbjørn laughed.
‘We should set up a web page for characters in a novel so that we can discuss our experiences,’ Yngve said.
‘I can be the moderator,’ I said.

The first question anyone asks is whether the book is true of fictionalized; the second is how he can possibly justify writing about his late father, his kids, his wife and his ex- in such detail. And there we have pretty much the entire text of this final volume, which pretty much justifies the entire three thousand page construct. Not so much a book, more an experiment. Not the literary equivalent of a Tweet, after all: more the literary equivalent of Big Brother. The previous volumes are about being a Dad and a student and a teacher; this final volume is about being a writer who has committed himself to writing a 1200 page book in time for a deadline. The previous five volumes have told us everything in horrible, intimate, fascinating detail: This double sized final issue is about a man who has already told everybody everything and what that feels like.

People say things on Twitter and are surprised by the firestorms they set off. Sometimes firestorms which only effect Twitter and are meaningless outside that sub-culture; sometimes firestorms which have tangible effects on real people in the real world. Karl Ove seems astonished by the storm his macroblog unleashes; as if somehow he expected his family and friends to be happy with him publishing the intimate details of their lives because it was all true. His uncle reads the book and more or less accuses him of a hate crime. That's what the first half of this volume is about. Karl Ove eats prawns and takes the kids to the beach, but mostly all the time he's worried about whether his uncle is going to sue him. His wife reads the book, and finds out that he's cheated on her with other women. He never told her: she finds out when she reads the manuscript. She spends several weeks in a mental hospital, while he takes the children to kindergarten and drinks coffee and promotes the book. (She was probably bipolar so the book probably didn't literally cause the breakdown but it presumably didn't help.) He feels guilty; he feels sorry. He disguises some of the names. He cuts some passages. But he won't back down from the book. Telling the truth (the truth about where he buys his breakfast cereal and when he first learned to masturbate, and what rock bands he likes) is some kind of moral obligation.

And then there is the middle section. 

Desperately worried that his Uncle is going to sue him, stop the book being published, ruin his life, and desperately wanting to reach the end of this monstrous undertaking, Karl Ove writes a meticulously researched biography of Adolf Hitler.

We see the point, of course. Hitler's life is probably the most well-documented of any human being who ever lived; but at the same time his life is more than usually unrecoverable. It is impossible to find out what Hitler was like before he became Hitler just because we know he is going to become Hitler. For what it's worth, Karl Ove thinks that prior to the first world war Hitler was not very different from a lot of young men and aspiring artists. But it's the journey that's the point; the very idea of putting a 400 page historical essay in the middle of an autobiographical novel. Do we know what Karl Over Knausgaard was like before he became Karl Ove Knausgaard? Before his name became an adjective and his face became a logo? And if not, how does anyone ever know anyone?


It is ten in the morning. I have finished writing my review. I am no longer writing it. For two weeks now I have been getting up early and writing from as soon after 7pm as I can manage for as long as I can manage, until I have to go to the library or need breakfast. My flat is quiet and I feel as if I am being virtuous but also as if I am somehow playing truant. I remember at infant school when two little girls bunked off for an afternoon on a dare. They left the school and sat in the park for a few minutes; I think playing at being Enid Blyton characters more than anything else. The teachers knew perfectly well what had happened but pretended to be very worried and called the police to give the rest of us a scare. I suppose if they had been boys they would have been smacked. I was in Miss Griffiths' class. There were Gerbils in the corner by the book shelf. They died. 

I walk across my study to the toilet and notice that there are two plates and four cups on my desk: three containing undrunk half cups of coffee and one containing an undrunk half cup of Twinings jasmine tea, purchased from Tescos in a little green box. There were demonstrations when Tescos opened, riots even, and for years I wouldn't use it. There is also a plate on the floor, with a smear of Marmite on it, next to a pair of pink suspenders which I bought partly because they were eccentric and partly to keep my trousers up. Suspenders are more comfortable than belts, but you have to wear a jacket or a waistcoat or leave your shirt untucked. I suppose you could wear them outside your shirt, but then you would look like a violent American blue collar worker, or a children's entertainer, or a comedy policeman.

Anyone can type this kind of shit. Once you start with the trivial detail, there is no end to it, the tangled white headphones to my left, the big black letter edition of Spider-Man to my right, the dog-eared Douglas Adams in the left hand corner of my desk by the pot of pens which I took off the shelf to look up the quote for the Brexit essay and never put back. I don't write with pens any more.

It was C.S Lewis who said that writing was about structure and that stream of consciousness was merely a puddle, even if it was a puddle that contained very fine raw materials.

My Struggle gives the impression of rambling and going off at tangents but it is highly structured and full of artifice. It differs from Proust in one important respect. When I got to the end of, In Search of Lost Time, which I am very proud to say I did, I breathed a sigh of release and knew I would never read it again. When I got to the end of The End, I wanted to go back to A Death in the Family and experience the whole thing all over again.

If you would like me to write more book reviews, please pledge $1 a month at my Patreon. 

If you would like me never to write another book review ever again, please also pledge $1 a month at my Patreon.


Mike Taylor said...

Well, that really does sound the like the most absolutely tedious and pointless waste of time. I'm glad you enjoyed it.

Andrew Rilstone said...

The only response to that I have is: you read more and more quickly than I do; why not take the first volume out of the library and read the first hundred pages or so and see if you find it as addictive as I did.

Mike Taylor said...

That suggestion is a perfectly rational one, which I would follow were it not that I have 3,456 other things to do.

(Aside: one of the big transition points into adulthood may be the realisation that you simply can't do all the things you want to do -- the transition from finding things to fill your time into trying to fit in as much of what you'd like to do as you can. How retired people ever find themselves bored, I can't begin to imagine.)

Andrew Rilstone said...

Indeed. People keep recommending TV shows to me and wonder why I go away laughing pityingly. (I make time to read, write and go to concerts and plays; I occasionally even spend time with other human beings. Television has entirely dropped out of my universe, although Radio 4 is useful for sending me to sleep.) How could I have reached the point where there is an Iron Fist TV series and I haven't had time to watch it?

I gather from your blog that you do, in fact, read quite a lot of books.

Mike Taylor said...

It's true that I read a large number of books, as those blog-posts show; but it doesn't follow that I read a large amount of prose, as most of what I read is very lightweight: Agatha Christie, comic-book compilations, Chesterton, Rowling, etc. It's been a while since I attempted a "proper" book: that was Les Miserables and I got mired in the interminable irrelevant account of the Battle of Waterloo. Some day I will try to pick it up again.

Andrew Rilstone said...

I think everyone skips the battle of Waterloo and rhe swears of Paris. And my edition is so sure I’m going to skip the history of the convent and thieves slang that it leaves them out. And it’s still an enormously long book.

spoiler: it was the rotten innkeeper who save the life of Marius’s dad.

Mike Taylor said...

Actually, this is the one really concrete disadvantage I've discovered of reading on a Kindle instead of a physical book: it's much harder to leaf through, skipping irrelevances and finding where the actual story picks up again.

Andrew Rilstone said...

Of course there is a big problem with the idea of "irrelevance" and "the story". We tend to assume that the book is about Jean Valjean and Javert and think that Hugo wasn't paying attention one morning and accidentally wrote a hundred pages about the battle of Waterloo. He would probably have said "Oh la-la, zut alors, didn't you pay attention to the title? My book is about The Poor, all of the poor, and about the reasons they are poor and what ought to be done about it. (Clues: Sewers.) Of course I focus down on some of the poor in particular, but that is only one thread of the book." (C.S Lewis complains about modern critics who go to great lengths to cleverly explain how the long sermons in e.g Chaucer are very relevant and important to the overall Theme. I don't think they necessarily were relevant, says Lewis. I think that people in the olden days just liked sermons.)

Knausgaard doesn't fit in at the prestigious writing college he wins a place on because the prevailing assumption is that a proper book is small and perfectly formed and that a good writer spends all day writing One Perfect Sentence. He says somewhere that one of the books he most admires is Moby Dick -- a book that leaves nothing out and tells you everything there is to be said, not just about one whaling voyage, but about the whole universe and world.

Mike Taylor said...

Well, of course, I bow to Victor Hugo's absolutely right to write precisely the book he wanted to write. The thing is, I don't really want to read that book, but the one about Jean Valjean and his wacky crew.

But my position is completely untenable, because as it happens I really enjoyed Moby-Dick, including all the digressions about whaling (though I was distressed to find Melville classifying whales as fish). I can't explain that. Maybe I'm just more interested in whales than in military history.

Andrew Rilstone said...

And what are you, reader, but a Loose-Fish and a Fast-Fish, too?