Days of our lives
Author Karl Ove Knausgaard reads from his works, a Lannan Literary series event with author Zadie Smith
The Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard is one of our most sensitive chroniclers of daily rituals and of key phases in our lives. In his six- part autobiographical series, My Struggle ( published in t he U. S. by Archipelago Books in hardcover and Farrar, Straus and Giroux in paperback, and intimately translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett), he gives us such a granular look at his existence thus far that we may feel we know him better than our best friends. He has received near universal adulation from the literary world for the ways in which he mindfully records seemingly banal moments. His work has been compared to those of Proust, but Knausgaard’s prose, as readable as it is, cannot match the poetic intensity and the deep longing that is inseparable from Proust’s language. Knausgaard reads from his work and is joined in conversation by author Zadie Smith ( White Teeth) on Wednesday, April 27, at the Lensic Performing Arts Center as part of the Lannan Literary series.
Early in his series, Knausgaard rallies against fiction as we know it because it has been “made up” by someone, and also because there is so much of it around. This particular argument doesn’t hold up, not least because he conflates books with DVDS and lumps all books together, which is to say he makes no distinction between pulp fiction and literature. The universe of fiction may seem infinite, but mostly, the wheat gets reliably separated from the chaff. Fiction may be “made up” — the form is undoubtedly a human construct — but it has arguably allowed us to get to deeper truths about our lives than, say, travel writing. One reason Knausgaard is able to go deeper is because he uses standard narrative fiction tools such as jumping around in time.
It may seem at first that Knausgaard is recording his life moment to moment, but in fact he uses those narrative tools with considerable skill. Book 2 is a novel within a novel: It breaks the boundaries of a sequential, chronological narrative. In the beginning of the work, Knausgaard is a househusband, taking care of his eight-month-old daughter, while his wife, Linda, completes her training at a drama institute. He has negotiated with Linda that he is to get an hour off every afternoon. One day, around 4 p.m., after bringing the baby home, he leaves in search of a café, with a Dostoevsky novel in hand. He walks around until he finds the right café — it’s interesting to learn his parameters for choosing the right establishment — and then he joins the line to get coffee. He sits down and wonders what the other patrons might be thinking about, he ponders Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, and then he finally gets around to reading The Brothers Karamazov. When he looks at the time again, it is almost 6 p.m. He is inexcusably late. And it is a Friday night, when he and Linda like to make something special for dinner.
Knausgaard rushes to a neighborhood grocery, while mentioning who else is on the street. He picks up a bottle of wine and a few things for dinner, and gets to ruminating on how expensive the place is. We wonder how long it will take him to get home, where Linda is probably about to explode. Just when he finally climbs up the steps of his apartment building, he sees his Russian neighbor, whom he introduces to us as his “neighbor from hell.” Before we know it, he is telling us why she is a neighbor from hell, returning to the time when Linda was nine months pregnant and they were having a New Year’s Eve dinner party. This leads to his friendship with a man, Geir, who came to the party, and a philosophical digression on how being critical (as we’re taught to do at school) can become an evil unless we eventually move past it. And yes, there are moments when a reader could get restless, but mostly, we’re along for the ride. One reason is because Knausgaard constructs his frame in the shape of a question — will Linda flip out? — that we want the answer to. Another reason is that he is pathologically honest. And his inclusion of sensory details, such as when he is cooking for the party, makes us feel as though we are in the kitchen, sautéing garlic with him. “The oil in the two pots was spitting in the heat. I sliced some garlic and put it in, took the mussels from the sink, dropped them in, and placed the lid on top. Soon it began to rumble and roar. I poured in white wine, chopped some parsley and sprinkled it in, took the mussels off the hot plate after a few minutes, put the tagliatelle in a colander, fetched the pesto, and everything was ready.”
Knausgaard is a househusband, yes, but one who has literary philosophy on his mind. If a woman were to write 30 pages about being at a birthday party with her two children, and about changing her two-year-old’s diaper on the bathroom floor, her work would be considered chick lit or worse. So on one hand, Knausgaard has benefited from the cultural phenomenon that adulates men taking care of babies, while considering women who do the same thing commonplace. On the other hand, Knausgaard has the good sense to wheel the stroller into used bookstores and buy books, even if he doesn’t have time to read them. In short, he doesn’t allow child-rearing to get him out of touch with his philosophical side.
In fact, he emphatically uses his interactions with his children to his writerly advantage. Books 1 and 3 tell the story of how his fear of his father was a mainstay of his childhood and how he ultimately overcame that fear. In Book 2 he tries to be tender with his young children, regardless of their countless messes and tantrums, and despite the fact that taking care of them takes him away from where he really wants to be — at his writing desk. It may seem that Knausgaard is all stream of consciousness and banal detail, but he is in fact a sophisticated cocktail of a stay-at-home dad and a literary philosopher, with keen narrative acumen. To top it off, he asks potent questions about how we live and die.
Through his awareness of mortality — Book 1 starts with a discourse on corpses — Knausgaard turns everyday life into something ruminative. Book 3 has a more languid pace, like a cow at pasture, and occasionally it does begin to feel banal. At other times, it hilariously details the pleasures of childhood, and the damage an angry, perfectionist parent can do to a child’s psyche. Among this book’s small pleasures is a moment when young Karl Ove forces himself to drink a glass of fresh cow’s milk with lumps floating in it, which he considers disgusting, in order to keep his father’s injunction to mind his table manners.
In an elementary-school classroom, Karl Ove once blurts out an embarrassing detail about a classmate. After class, his teacher calls him over to talk. “‘ We all have private lives,’ she said. ‘Do you know what that is?’ ‘No,’ I said, sniffling. ‘It’s everything that happens at home, in your home, my home, their homes, everyone’s home. If you see what happens in other people’s homes, it’s not always nice to tell others. Do you understand?’ I nodded.” That private lives are private is a lesson Knausgaard evidently chose not to learn. Although more recent interviews suggest that the author has questioned the morality of spilling all the beans about the people closest to him, a few years ago he obviously did have the “nerve” to do it.
Knausgaard’s work is original and brilliant, but its highly autobiographical nature — he mostly doesn’t change the names of the real life people he writes about — begs some questions. If a writer is to expose every lurid detail from his or her life, what is the impact on the writer’s family? In real life, Knausgaard alienated several relatives after the first book became a sensation in Norway. In some ways, Knausgaard is the literary equivalent of the photographer Sally Mann who famously took intimate photographs of her young children. Not all artists are comfortable exposing their families to the extent that Knausgaard and Mann have done. It also says something about the times we live in, that we like to live vicariously through the daily lives of other people. Because of the attention Knausgaard has received, will his work cause a shift in how writers or readers see literature? And what happens after a writer has out-written his or her life? For now, it isn’t as though Knausgaard has changed what literature essentially is, but he has certainly transported the art of the personal narrative to previously unknown heights.