I have begun reading Knausgaard again after an initial, disappointed first try. It is not especially like Proust, and my guess is that people who make this comparison have not read very much of Proust or the many other very long novels by Arno Schmidt, Anthony Powell, or Marguerite Young with which My Struggle might be compared, at least for variation’s sake. I wonder whether there is something in the Zeitgeist, if Zeitgeist is indeed a real thing, that compels both the literate and subliterate to stories told with a long arc, if there is an overarching cultural drive expressed in the compulsivity with which various persons read My Struggle or the Harry Potter novels or stay up for nights on end burning through whole seasons of Breaking Bad or The Wire; and if there is, what it might mean; whether it might, for example, bear some relation to the voyeuristic tendency that leads one to gawk at a person’s photos on social media or google people one hasn’t seen in years.
Sadly, the better part of book-reviewing, which has come increasingly to fall into the error of calling itself literary criticism, consists in the main of the deployment and redeployment of a small set of adjectives so weak and genetically similar that they resemble a tribe that has lived in long isolation and has no immunity from foreign invaders; as a consequence, when an apparently novel idea comes along, the contagion is near catastrophic. This has happened with the word “banality” in reference to Knausgaard: the notion that he should be praised for making the banal captivating or that the book’s profound allure and alleged banality constitute some sort of paradox. The word is useful because it doesn’t necessarily mean anything and people who write about Knausgaard do not take much trouble to be sure that it does, because then they would have to say something definite and hence falsifiable and taking a proper stand is not a well-developed habit among today’s field of professional, semi-professional, and self-elected literary opinion curators.
It is difficult to see why banality should be more characteristic of Knausgaard’s work than Chekhov’s, or Peter Taylor’s, or countless others’. In fact My Struggle is rife with nuanced discussions of art, emotional conflict, literature, the problem of integrity, and so forth.
My feeling is that actually the writing people have accustomed themselves to is so lacking in the basic skills a writer is supposed to exhibit –– a feeling for texture, for history as embodied in place, sensitivity to detail –– that they are surprised to find a living, still-young writer who displays them consummately, so much so that they herald him as unprecedented. I would not say that Knausgaard is over-hyped, because he writes beautifully and because there is no such thing as the proper amount of hype, in any case; but I have the sense that the exultation characterizing so much of the press surrounding him is as much a product of the deficiencies in literary culture typical of many writers of book-chat as it is of Knausgaard’s obvious talent.
There is a lovely description of frozen green beans in Book One of My Struggle, when Knausgaard is preparing dinner for his brother and his enfeebled grandmother. When he pours the vegetables from the bag, they are “covered in a thin layer of downy frost.” Whether or not a green bean is seen as a dignified subject, it is not at all right to call this observation banal. Elsewhere he describes the folds in an undertaker’s neck as lizardlike. Hundreds of times people look at lizards without noticing how the thin skin of their necks collapses in folds as they turn their head. Knausgaard’s doing so is not a break with what writers have done before; describing things better, more clearly, more truly than others is what writers have done for centuries.
I am never done thinking about the problem of sentimentality in art, and it came back to me this morning, because I am translating an awful book that purports to be a meditation on lost love and lost friendship. Among its less agreeable features are the comic scenes with their tiresome, overwrought jokes to which the characters naturally respond by laughing. The novelist has a poor memory, I think, and so he doesn’t remember what children actually thought was funny; or his powers of observation are poor, and he isn’t quite clear on what people normally find funny; or perhaps he has made the mistake of thinking the story is what matters and so the barest lineaments of a joke will do to move things forward, he can write “everyone laughed” and the effect will be like a laugh track on a syndicated comedy and will similarly trick the dimwitted into believing something comical has transpired.
A writer’s integrity hinges on the truth of such small moments.
Late in the first volume of My Struggle, Karl Ove and Yngve are drinking with their grandmother, and, enlivened by the alcohol, she begins to tell stories from her past. She reminds Yngve of how he stayed with her when he was a boy, and when his father came to pick him up, he had grown a beard, “And you ran upstairs shouting, ‘He’s not my Dad!'” She continues: “And then there was the time we were listening to the radio, and they were talking to the owner of Norway’s oldest horse. Do you remember that? ‘Dad, you’re the same age as Norway’s oldest horse,’ you said.”
It is hard to pin down what is so vibrant and true in passages like this; in some sense, that is the task of aesthetics, to clarify such intuitions.