Monday, July 14, 2014

How to Read Knausgaard

I can forgive you for not liking Ulysses or Lolita or Tristram Shandy or In Search of Lost Time or really any masterpiece of literature of any time, by any author, and in any genre. Masterpieces are, almost by definition, distinctive and when something is distinctive, again, almost by definition, not everyone will enjoy, like, agree with, whatever distinguishes the work from everything else in the world. It is probably too early to tell whether My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard is a masterpiece, (I think it is) but it certainly is distinctive. Which means some readers won't like it and I'm fine with that. (A little less fine with accusation, sometimes overt, sometimes implied, that everyone who says they like it is just saying that because they think it will make them look cool. Just because you didn't like the book, doesn't mean it is unlikable, in the exact same way that just because I think it is a monumental achievement of the written word doesn't mean I think you are deficient if you disagree.)

Often, distinctive books need to be read distinctively as well. Because they tend not to follow the guidelines of whatever genre they reside in and because they also tend to pose new ideas and new challenges, you often need to learn how to read the world's greatest books as you read them. (Insert extremely long, well-researched, point on how the structure of American schooling, though efficient in teaching literacy, is inherently incapable of teaching literature. Thanks.) If you're willing to put in that effort to be uncomfortable, to be baffled, to be confused, to be totally and utterly lost, I believe you end up a better reader (and, yes, to me “better reader” is essentially synonymous with “better person”) with new reading tools you can apply to any books, distinctive or typical. I've read all three of the current volumes of My Struggle in English, so for those of you thinking or participating in “The Great Knausgaard Debate of 2014,” here's how to read My Struggle.

"This is my 'humble' face."
Forget the whole fiction/memoir/autobiography debate.
The autobiographical nature of the work raises major questions about the distinctions we draw between what is “real” and what is “that other thing that isn't real.” Given the unstable nature of memory, all “memoirs” have aspects of “fiction.” (And, of course, some memoirs are complete fiction.) But given the inherent artificiality of a book in general, all books, no matter how well-researched, well-annotated, well-fact-checked, will have aspects of fiction. The very act of compartmentalizing something into a book removes it from reality and, unless you're reading about something that happened to you specifically, asks the reader to use their imagination as much as anything else.

My Struggle pressures this long standing debate about the divide between fiction and non-fiction, but, obsessing over whether this fact is “true” in the “The New York Times will say it is true” way or “true” in the “it is an expression of human experience,” way will only hobble your reading experience. It's a vital part of the overall literary effect of the book, but in the reading moment, it's a distraction. Since Knausgaard calls it a novel and the bookstore shelves it in the fiction section, while I'm reading I think of it as fiction. Though I'm not sure it responds to the close reading I like to do in the same way most other great works of literature do, I've found it a lot more satisfying to think of Karl Ove as a fictional character in the traditional sense, than as a fiction character created through the processes of memory in the contemporary memoir sense.

Let your memories roam.
My Struggle is written in what I think of as meditative prose. Though it has a fair amount of detail and a fair number of syntactically complex sentences, in general the prose is lucid, direct, and accessible. It manages to be both simple and complex. It engages my brain, without straining it. Which means, I begin to remember events from my own life. Which is part of Knausgaard's point. By writing his own life in novelistic detail and technique, Knausgaard provides us a means to approach our own lives with novelistic detail and technique. (Which places it firmly in the tradition of high modernism, but the persistence of high modernism in contemporary literature is an idea for another piece.) So if you find yourself drifting off, drift off. My Struggle will be there for you when you get back. And honestly, there's enough of it that you don't need to internalize every single word, so don't worry if you end up drifting and reading. That said...

Be ready for moments of brilliance buried in the endless pages of minutia.
Despite the constant comparisons, My Struggle shares very little with In Search of Lost Time. But, along with being really long and really autobiographical, the books share one other fact; sudden moments of striking brilliance. Some observation about art or literature. Some perfect encapsulation of a life experience. Some phrase like a display of fireworks that just appears above your brain. In Proust and Knausgaard, these moments are both rewards and propellants; payoffs for all the work you've done through some long and dense passage and promises that the next long and dense passage will have a similar reward.

But, if you've reached that meditative state described above, it can be easy to miss these, sometimes very brief moments. So you have to read in two minds; one that lets the drifting happen and the other keeping real track of things. For me, it's a lot like reading and walking. You focus on the book as you would, while keeping just enough of your thoughts external to make sure you don't bump into people or walk into the street. (Yes, there is a “The Dark Art of Walking and Reading” post kicking around in my head.)

This is exactly my point about the power of learning how to read a specific book. The dual reading consciousness thing isn't one you use in the course of normal reading, but once you've developed it through My Struggle, it is yours forever to apply (or not) as you see fit.

My Struggle is a thought experiment, but then again so is every book.
Ultimately, My Struggle is a thought experiment, one that requires a massive multi-volume work to execute. Knausggard has asked a question: What happens if I write my life out in novelistic detail? and My Struggle is the result of his exploration of that question. Experiments, by definition, can fail. In fact, the power of experiments, in science and art, literature, music, whatever, comes from the value of their failure. If My Struggle is a “failed” book, as many people, so far, believe it is, we still learn about literature, life, and memory, through Knausgaard's effort. We still gain something through whatever effort we put into reading, and the world of literature is still richer for its presence.

But all works of literature are, at their fundamental core, thought experiments, it's just the nature of My Struggle makes its experimentness more overt. All books present a thesis. All literature is the written expression of one human being wondering if something will work. All that distinguishes “experimental” literature from other literature is the overtness of its experimentation. In a way, “experimental” literature is more honest, because it is upfront about the possibility of failure. Austen experimented. Dickens experimented. What we consider “traditional” or “mainstream” now, was once the radical experimentation of an outlier, executing a thought experiment to see what would communicate. In that sense, those who argue against experiments in literature, who assume that atypical forms or styles are just compensation for a lack of storytelling skills, or that any attempts to communicate beyond the most used forms of communication are proof of an insufferably arrogant writer, argue against the very idea of literature. Why are we writing books if we are not trying to continually remake the world into something new?

My Struggle and Literary Stardom
I have no idea why My Struggle has surged to literary stardom. I also have no idea why a trilogy of Twilight fan-fiction (not knocking Twilight fan-fiction) are some of the most bestselling books of ALL TIME. I have no idea why the persistence forces of radical humanism in literature all coalesced into modernism and I have no idea why so little of the energy of that modernism moment persisted into mainstream literature, even as so much of its content did. I have no idea why Ron Currie Jr. , isn't a literary superstar (or Jesse Ball or Kathryn Davis or...). Culture is chaos with moments that look like order and extracting those moments from the chaos in any kind of accurate or meaningful way is impossible. But we can try. We can propose solutions (a huge population of mostly women realized they were allowed to enjoy pornography) and even if those proposes solutions have limits (but why would that trilogy create the permission?) we grow that one step towards an understanding of our world.

The passage of time may reveal that My Struggle is everything its detractors accuse it of being. It might be the height of self-indulgence. It might be boring without redemption. It might, ultimately, say nothing about the human condition. It might be a complete and utter failure. But something happened in the course of that failure. We've discussed, we've debated, we've argued, we've critiqued, and we've learned, either in concert or in opposition to My Struggle.

Knausgaard tried, and even if he failed, his attempt belongs to the long process of human progress.

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