Reflections on Knausgaard, America, and Great _______ Novels.
I just returned from a second, almost unexpected trip to America this year. An opportunity arose to bring my wife and son there for the first time, and we surprisingly achieved a travel visa for my wife, something we were denied twice already. I was at first reluctant to return, having been there three months prior, but ultimately had to accept it, even though it meant briefly borrowing money from my brother and taking a month off from writing. I love traveling, but there are places I haven’t been yet in the world, and I at times detest my hometown, where we spent much of our time, but this sacrifice was hardly heroic – and I think it was good for everyone, for different reasons.
Sebastian traveled well, slept a lot, and as he does these days, developed nearly every day right in front of our eyes. He did get his first cold, which was worrisome, and in modern style this coincided with a mysterious new (recognized the day his symptoms arrived) respiratory virus that was hospitalizing children in the Midwest. We flew through Chicago, where he caught his cold, judging by the hours that elapsed before his symptoms arrived, so it is possible that he got this bug. But the snot eventually dried up, whether it was a less potent, average cold that he got, or he simply was one of those that handled the new alarming strain well.
America was in a heat wave, which lasted about a week when we arrived early September, during the onset of late summer, which then mellowed into cooler weather that more resembled the approaching fall. By the end of the month as we left trees were still green, but most only 50 – 70% green – yellows and reds were there to see but the crisp glowing orgy of autumn was still a few weeks off. The sun’s power still asserted itself on days when the clouds did not cover it, and my wife cut short a walk we were taking one day with our boy because of the sun, and it being too close to noon. The air was not hot that day, there was a nice breeze, so I complained “But it’s September” and a moment later “This is not Vietnam” but she was right, radiation bathed our fragile heads, beating against our skulls. I don’t remember the sun ever feeling that way when I was a kid, and there are three possible explanations for this, that I, in the mid-Atlantic region in America, didn’t feel irradiated by the sun’s presence when I was a kid because: 1) kids have a protective layer of vitality 2) kids sense things differently, some things they sense more simply, or even thoughtlessly (a kid could get a headache from being in the sun too long but might not even notice it unless they were bored or it was severe enough), (which may just be a mushy way of restating the first point) or 3) climate change has removed layers of protection from the atmosphere, or added pollution, allowing or creating more damaging rays to penetrate to our realm. I think maybe it’s all three but I seriously ran around in the sun all summer when younger without a hat and never felt any caution at all about the sun, and don’t remember napping either. Well, those were the days. I took my wife back to that neighborhood where I had lived thusly and felt transported as always.
We had some fixed events to attend during our allotted time in the U.S., and family members to see, but we had a month, and for some odd reason we didn’t seem to have much free time despite the openness of our schedule. There were many people I would have liked to see and didn’t, or saw only briefly. This time evaporation is a basic mystery of traveling, and for this reason I’ve learned, or tried to learn, to not try to bring a stack of books along with me ‘on vacation’ because the first one usually gets cracked the first evening or morning for about 5 minutes before being slammed shut and the next 2 or however many don’t get cracked at all, but just follow along with their mournful weight. I was able to read most of a good serious novel however, Volume 1 of Karl Ove Knausgaard‘s ‘My Struggle’.Karl Ove, as he is most frequently addressed in the book, recapitulates and comments on his life, in exhaustive detail; this is a memoir, an autobiography, and literature in the mode of À la recherche du temps perdu.
After I finished I allowed myself to read some criticism about him and his works and it seems that the word on Knausgaard, although still positive somehow, is that he largely transcribes banality. I think that this is just self-hate (a term I use here not without some caution) on the part of the critics because they and I and Knausgaard all grew up in the eighties, and if one were to write about that, what else but banality would we have to work with? I was almost hurt by this taunt, having enjoyed the book, and having gone through many of the rituals Knausgaard and so many other’s have, albeit in a slightly different milieu, of beer stashing and smuggling, listening to the beginnings of the new music, and, well, even falling in love when it was impossible and fruitless, and when the girls were, in their own way, more ready than the guys.
I’ve been told before that I’m too hard on myself, but I think I was maybe more a buffoon than he was during the college and immediate post-collegiate years. It’s an odd sort of self-flattery, but basically we were in the same camp then, in that we were awkwardly writers who had written little, if anything. A painful position to hold; one that he’s been able to overcome quite handily.
Without the freedom to actually sit down and write (speaking now just of the recent trip, not vast expanses of my life where this has also been true)(those traveling with 1 year-olds will understand) I found myself mentally composing passages à la Knausgaard, discussing my family life and relationships in exhausting, revealing detail. I’ve tried my hand at this before, not in the same conscious manner of course, before his example arrived, but similarly taking journal and diary and trying to forge literature with that – in a recent attempt at a novel, for example. I felt uneasy telling tales on people so I attenuated the treachery by disguising identities in a basic roman à clef format, also attempting to manipulate key events into a plot. I was shocked that I got through about 3 small bullet points on my outline key before I was well over 100 pages. Of this kind of thinking, 6 volumes are born.
I blathered on, yes, and no one I showed really liked it. The most interesting comment I got was that it seemed kind of like Judy Blume but a little stoned. Was this banality akin to the banality it takes to be mulled over in the New Yorker? If so, hurrah. One critic friend said it fell into the Faulkner side of American writing, a grave error in his estimation. Again, this is an accusation I can live with, that’s for sure, but was this what I was aiming for, and attaining, with my YA level run-on sentences? It’s important to have models in any case; this is standard advice.
For this reason I’ve been casting about for would be peers that I’ve never considered before. I decided to give Franzen another shot, after reading The Corrections last year and recognizing scenarios and things to take note of, so I picked up Freedom in the San Francisco airport. I love that he announces he is trying to write great American novels, something I would have admitted to with a ‘maybe, yes’ in my authorial majesty in high school days (my journal of not great, barely approaching good poems under my belt).
The trouble is, I’m not convinced anymore that there is such a thing (great American writing). Of course there are better writers than myself that are American, great writers, loads of them, both in journalism and in the business of writing novels, criticism or even poetry, its just that I’m starting to doubt that any of the better ones are pursuing this “Great American” thing. Well there’s Franzen, who says he is, but let him have special case status; I don’t care to endorse or dismiss his efforts here, only to say that for me to try to do the same might, as my test case indicated, just reveal my whole juvenile take on the matter, of the supposed greatness resident in this specific place. I’m thinking I might be better off just refashioning my work as genre, and hope it will come out as fusion, a lit sci-fi novel, that can be optioned as a B-movie that’s actually interesting. Astute pop aesthetes will know the example (or hopefully, examples) I’m referring to here.
So Franzen is a contemporary writer waving the G.A.N. (Great American Novel) banner, but what is the indisputable canon of G.A.N.? Well, indisputable, ha ha, but about 4 years ago I reread Catcher in the Rye, there was a nifty four dollar promo for some anniversary and I said “why not?” I have to say, it made me want to puke, and I’m sure On the Road would have a similar effect.
Here I think is part of the explanation for the “Min Kamp” title that Knausgaard dared to use. I tried to just dismiss the whole thing in a recent Facebook post, that there was any intended connection with… you know, that he was merely speaking of his struggle, and I don’t think anyone bought it. At least no one ‘liked’ or commented on it when a similar post about a different writer last year had lit up. It truly sucks that there are Hitler admirers in this world, among them true anti-Semites along with bandwagoners and other brain-addled losers and idiots. Knausgaard is not one of them.
So… Why Name Your Book After Hitler’s? – as Evan Hughes in the New Yorker asked. Knausgaard can answer himself, why the title, and maybe has, but an essay that might provide answers is buried in Volume 6, so… I’ll get to it later. My understanding is that it’s meant as both an ironic self-deprecating send-up, coupled with a reference to the fact that nearly every supposed great modern book written by a man is really a story of a rotten monster. Who convinces you he is a hero.
Every? Well, at least Holden Caulfield is a monster. The fact that both he and Jack Kerouac inspired me greatly in my life makes me shudder. The step they took to be outsiders I can admire. That they had adventures – that’s fine. But becoming a moronic self-important alcoholic – hopefully there’s more to achieve in life than that. But at least I never admired Hitler! So there, take that! Here is a new monster, myself, that can be fashioned into a hero based on the scantest of evidence and the flimsiest of arguments. That will be my struggle; shame being such a powerful tool.
Another thought is that there’s this idea of reclaiming stolen treasure from thieves, or even just raiding jewels from villains, just before they howl and go up in flames like in Spielberg’s ‘Raiders…’ “I’ll take that …” [coolly plucks]. “Schwein! – Ahhh!” [immolated by God’s holy rays of justice]. It’s a just reversal of history.
Punk, Glam and other subcultures, icons like David Bowie, the Ramones, gay leather boys and so on have all appropriated Third Reich paraphernalia, and it can all be debated and explored in journals of pop-culture. For myself, this title is the crown jewel of the branding those assholes came up with, surpassing even Triumph of the Will, that Nietzsche appropriation, and the Swastika, that Buddhist and every other culture that opted for sun motifs appropriation. Stuff like that is too grand, too pompous to ever really be redirected. But struggle? Come on, they can’t own that! On the other hand, maybe it is truly pompous, especially the ‘My’ aspect of it, oozing of self-importance, the forehead sweat of a loser plotting to rule the world. But struggle is just a part of life, what should we say? “Our struggle?” That has almost more opportunity to come off as pompous I think. Unfortunately, we struggle alone, even if the struggle is to know oneself without self-importance.
It is without a doubt that the Nazis are the most notorious criminals of the 20th Century, and Hitler is the king of the bunch. Many others have suffered, the Albanians for example, the list is too long, even the Germans, in Dresden. All of it matters of course but the Nazis win in the popular imagination. They have become pop evil.
I think it’s important to not minimize their crimes, but pop meaning is elusive. Is it a crime to make money on a thriller with Nazi villains? Swastikas have littered glossy pulp paperback covers arrayed on book carousels at airports and beach five-and dimes throughout my youth. Maybe that era is over but this basic impulse has been reiterated again and again. I’m clearly defending Knausgaard, saying he’s not of this ilk, is above this, furthermore that his act has punctured something that is over-inflated, and is thus a just, even heroic act. I welcome other views, but I cannot read Norwegian, where the most in-depth debate on this has occurred.
Let’s put all that aside though, for if he had just called the book I just read “My Book” Volume 1 it would have had the exact same effect on me, and called in the same questions I am asking myself now. Questions of what is mine to discuss, to reveal. It’s as if in the present situation I am writing the same book that he has, different context of course, and just putting it in the drawer “oh no, this will never do” and then preparing to share with you, the reader, what? Karl Ove said no, I will write what I know, be it private, middle-class, shameful, or universal, and do it until I have nothing left to say.
Oh the stories I could tell you! Want to tell you! From this month even…but will not. And another question I have – is this refusal of mine really out of consideration of those around me? Can I blame my cowardice on them?
And look at me. Here I am discussing literature as if I know anything about it, as if I have something great to tell if only.
I might as well mention another writer who puts a nail in the coffin at least to my obviously bad notions of the G.A.N. When I discovered Roberto Bolaño my reaction was on a completely different level then what I was getting from Franzen, and I started reading them at about the same time. Let’s just call my reaction visceral – as the opportunity presents itself. Visceral Realism, what ho! – the fictional, or fictionalized poetic movement Bolaño reports on in his Savage Detectives. With Franzen I see the problem he is getting at, but with Bolaño I see the problem solved. The tapestry of chaos unfolds, as it should, or as it does, but the correct gesture is made.
Bolaño and Knausgaard challenge the necessity of Great American Novels for me, but the problem is persistent, also the reason also why I was not an English major, Dostoyevsky, Kafka, Sartre, Camus having not being written in English were not part of that department. I guess Bolaño comes close in a way to ‘Great American’ –ness in his effort to create a pan-Latin-American literature but… and isn’t this true? – one must be a gringo to qualify. One must write about the spirit of our times and have a particular background; nothing in itself wrong with qualifying for that. But why fuss with such particularities? And it’s not that I’m trying to bash America. All experience is valid subject matter so ipso facto America is, and I have experienced things here that I wish to share. I’m just pointing out that the trick lies in resolving the ultimate cosmopolitanism of literature with the writer’s inevitable provincialism, is this not the crux of the ‘struggle?’ And so if it is great writing the locality of it will be so much smaller than ‘America’ and the universality of it will be so much larger.
Bolaño, Proust, Knausgaard show that the Great Novel is the horse, and that the cart, the American-ness, or Asian-ness, or whichever continent-ness the writer has collected her baggage is just the material, and though it may command some aspects of the form, is not specifically crucial as material in dictating whatever greatness is achieved. Maybe everyone but me has always understood this detail of emphasis, but here I am working it out. Because after being an expat for the short time that I have, the idea that if I ever write anything great it will be about America or else classify itself as travel writing is not sitting well.
Let me state here that I am not that well read. I’m certain there are important writers that I’ve never heard of. And also, not only important, but best-selling, popular, well-known authors, who are nevertheless still good that I’ve never heard of. Sure, I’ve read a lot of books in my life, not something every rube can say, but maybe I can only quickly list five important writers that weren’t assigned to me in my schooling. An hour after that maybe I would have come up with 5 more. Given more time maybe five again, or maybe not, but that’s it, and it’s not as if I have actually tested myself in this way. Nevertheless that’s how extensive my knowledge seems to me. My ignorance is buttressed by my belief that most writers are just writing crap. This heroic razor-sharp criticism may have also prevented me from writing very much, which has been an injustice to me but maybe a blessing to everyone else.
If I could just write what’s in my head as Knausgaard does, about my family for instance, about my father’s death, or our current state, would it be as fascinating? I could wait for all of them to die, but I could end up being buried first. Also, with this kind of writing, if you wait even a few days you will end up writing an entirely different piece. (Knausgaard: “I know that if I had started any of my novels two days later it would be a different kind of novel.”[here]) And I have things I want to tell! But relax friends and family, you nest of humanity, my lips are sealed.