Days of our lives

Author Karl Ove Knaus­gaard reads from his works, a Lan­nan Lit­er­ary se­ries event with author Zadie Smith

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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.

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