Selfish gene: Karl Ove Knausgaard turns his mundane life into honest and provocative fiction. (Photo: David Sandson/Eyevine)
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Karl Ove Knausgaard's Nordic existentialism

Why have the confessions of a Norwegian Everyman become a literary phenomenon?

Boyhood Island (My Struggle: 3)
Karl Ove Knausgaard, translated by Don Bartlett
Harvill Secker, 490pp, £17.99

Some time in the late 1890s, Kate Perugini, the daughter of Charles Dickens, told George Bernard Shaw that she intended to burn her mother’s letters. Perugini argued that rather than fulfilling their intended role, to show the world that the Dickenses had once been happy, the letters served only to reinforce the familiar view that her father had been married to a boring woman. But Shaw responded that it no longer mattered either way, advising Perugini that, as he later put it, “the sentimental sympathy of the 19th century with the man of genius tied to a commonplace wife had been rudely upset by a writer named Ibsen”.

In the first two volumes of his free-form, fear-filled, densely descriptive, thoroughly autobiographical six-part novel sequence, My Struggle, published in England in 2012 and 2013 under the titles A Death in the Family and A Man in Love, the novelist Karl Ove Knausgaard, Norway’s biggest literary star since Ibsen, portrays with savage honesty the challenges of being a man of genius who is also expected to be thoughtful, sensitive, unmonkish. In a passage that begins “Ibsen had been right . . . Relationships were there to eradicate individuality” (a somewhat different reading from Shaw’s), Karl Ove, Knausgaard’s not-very-alter ego, explains that he would often say “yes, yes, when I wanted to say no, no” – to the detriment of his work. At one point, Karl Ove resolves that he must “start working harder” on his novel and tells his girlfriend Linda that he is going to write through the night. But when she arrives unannounced at his flat, he feels obliged to let her in. He doesn’t want her to think that his “miserable manuscript” is more important than their relationship. “At that moment it was,” he confesses, “but I couldn’t say that.”

Again and again in My Struggle, the third instalment of which, Boyhood Island, has just been published in Don Bartlett’s smooth translation, Knausgaard says the things that Karl Ove “couldn’t”. “When I was with other people I was bound to them,” he writes, setting out his credo as part-man, part-artist. “But the moment I was alone others meant nothing to me.”

In exposing the loveless, lordly genius-husband, Ibsen was also striking a blow for the artist as a trader in unpalatable truths, and if Karl Ove feels like a victim of egalitarianism, he is also a grateful beneficiary of artistic freedom. Yet isn’t he really a beneficiary of both? After all, Linda’s long-term demands on his time provided material for a manuscript that has fulfilled the “ambition” that he feared relationships would undermine: “to write something exceptional one day”. Saying yes, yes to Linda – coupled with his tendency to say yes, yes, to every artistic impulse, however harsh, that comes his way – has made him one of the great writers about male frustration. The startling passages about being “bored out of my mind” on days out with his baby daughter required Karl Ove to be that kind of man and Knausgaard that kind of writer.

An immediate response to Knausgaard’s exercise in truth-telling – his programme of uncensored revelation – was the publicly voiced anger of his uncle (who objected to Knausgaard’s portrayal of his father and grandmother) and also of his ex-wife, Tonje. But then writing as if other people mean “nothing” to you is a tried and tested means of turning intimates into enemies, relatives into plaintiffs. Thomas Wolfe, Knausgaard’s predecessor as an author of aggressively prolix, proudly autobiographical fiction, recalled that his first novel turned him into “a black sheep, a pariah and an outcast who had cruelly savaged his own people”. Hanif Kureishi, who incurred his own accusations of betrayal for writing about his father in The Buddha of Suburbia (1990) and his wife in Intimacy (1998), recently shrugged off such problems as inevitable, stating: “Writers are trouble . . . a writer is a nuisance.”

Knausgaard fits those descriptions, but not gleefully. He isn’t a wilful, tickled badboy like Michel Houellebecq. Though his willingness to alienate friends and relatives suggests, as he admits, a certain degree of dissociation, Knausgaard is not a slave to his own damage in the way Houellebecq is. In Houellebecq’s work, damage is only the motor; in Knausgaard’s, it is a subject. My Struggle is an example of what you might call New Man existentialism, whereby male anomie and exhaustion are depicted along with the pain that underpins them: a more talkative, touchy-feely Camus. Provocation is a by-product of Knausgaard recounting his personal history without letting anyone off the hook, just as exhibitionism is the vessel. Neither is an end in itself.

But as well as provoking legal threats, death threats, hate mail and arson, Knausgaard has earned himself a mass readership in his home country, where the series, published between 2009 and 2011, has sold more than half a million copies. Norwegians have an appetite for the kind of transfixing boringness that Knausgaard offers; Michael Booth, in his enjoyable new book The Almost Nearly Perfect People, describes how Norway’s national broadcaster scored a hit in 2011 with a six-day documentary of footage from a camera mounted on an express ferry, which it advertised as “watching paint dry – live on TV”. But Knausgård-manien seems to arise from a different impulse, at once more pleasure-grabbing and more flag-waving.

Knausgaard was born in December 1968, a year before the discovery by Phillips Petroleum Company of Ekofisk, the first oilfield in the Norwegian sector of the North Sea – and so My Struggle is the fullest account of what it has been to live in a country whose already fierce pride, based on its ancient traditions, recent independence and solid social-democratic agenda, has only increased with its sudden wealth. “Zeitgeist comes from the outside,” we read in Boyhood Island, “but works on the inside.” According to that logic, a family saga can also function as a national epic; and in a country excited about itself, a national epic can hold the appeal of a daytime soap.

The attraction beyond Scandinavia is of a more elevated, boredom-seeking sort. The arrival of My Struggle has coincided with a growing intolerance, expressed more by writers and critics than by average readers, towards the shapely, plot-led, made-up novel, and the made-up American novel in particular. Knausgaard embarked on A Death in the Family after failing to write an invented story about the death of his father, and in A Man in Love, Karl Ove recalls that the “only genres I saw value in, which still conferred meaning, were diaries and essays, the types of literature that did not deal with narrative . . . but just consisted of a voice, the voice of your own personality, a life, a face, a gaze you could meet”. Other writers who felt this weariness about narrative, together with excitement about directness and disorder, include Geoff Dyer, Sheila Heti, Frédéric Beigbeder – and David Shields, who first felt it 20 years ago, long before he wrote his own book about his father, The Thing About Life Is That One Day You’ll Be Dead (2008). One of Shields’s whipping-boys in his polemical collage of 2010, Reality Hunger: a Manifesto, was a writer’s successful attempt to turn his relationship with his father into a work of fiction – The Corrections (2001), where the Franzens become the Lamberts and Jonathan becomes Chip, which Shields derided as a big, conventional, blockbustery American novel, exactly the kind of thing he no longer wants to read (and, indeed, he hasn’t read it).

Knausgaard’s aversion to conventional shaping and selection has been somewhat overstated. Boyhood Island is the most repetitive and overtly mundane instalment of My Struggle so far translated into English, but only as Knausgaard works to reorient the reader to the child’s-eye-view of such experiences as being grounded, rejected and bullied. (As Karl Ove’s mother says, “Feelings are feelings whether you’re seven or seventy.”) It’s a task that by definition takes some time, resulting in an opening hundred pages of occasionally torturous blandness. But on the whole, the power of Knausgaard’s work comes from what it shares with Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections: its vocal fluency (both writers deal in the fifty-page set piece, the hundred-page stream of consciousness) and its author’s willingness to say, albeit more directly in Knausgaard’s case, My father beat me, my mother was submissive, my older brother couldn’t really help, I’m weak and scared, I’ve got no illusions left, my struggle is a real one. It is Knausgaard’s brazen humanity that distinguishes this project, not the way he writes about nappies and cleaning products and comic books, or his resistance to epiphanies and the three-act structure.

If a small, secret part of Knausgaard’s thrill in America is that he writes about ordinary, middle-class experience that isn’t American, then it is an anthropological or touristic thrill that Boyhood Island denies to the English reader. Thanks to the novel’s recipe of football, mucking about in the countryside and listening to Queen and Bowie, the third instalment reads like an English novel, with all the pleasing dowdiness that implies.

The critic James Wood has said that he initially feared that the portrayal of adolescence in A Death in the Family, with its “autopsied minutiae”, was just a less well-written version of Adam Mars-Jones’s ongoing novel sequence – until the book’s “morbidly compelling” second half justified the first half’s “plenitude of detail”. But Boyhood Island isn’t a book of two halves, or much variety. It doesn’t jump about, unlike the previous volumes, or make room for the adult narrator’s charged, extended musings.

Instead, it concerns itself exclusively with the way things felt – desperate, shameful, unfair – to the seven-year-old, the ten-year-old, the 12-year-old Karl Ove, and so it is very similar indeed to Mars-Jones’s books, Pilcrow (2008) in particular. Both Karl Ove and Mars-Jones’s narrator John Cromer are prone to tears; both have strict and unhugging fathers (though Karl Ove’s is more brutish); both swing between delight and disappointment (though Karl Ove swings more wildly); both make countless topical references; both engage constantly in tail-eating boy-logic; both describe a television turning off; and so on. A sentence such as “I liked Norwich, I liked their yellow and green kit” could come from either narrator, and in fact is delivered by Karl Ove.

If there is a central difference, it is in the level of knowingness. While Karl Ove reflects the temperament of the society he comes from, John reflects more directly on it. And though both Karl Ove and John are “precocious investigators of states of mind”, only John would describe himself that way.

But a topcoat of irony cannot explain why, despite all that the series share, there has been no sight of Mars-Jones-mania in England or anywhere else. A more likely factor is that John lacks Karl Ove’s “representative” features: he is homosexual, upper middle class, disabled, Hindu. Where Faber calls John Cromer “one of the most unusual heroes in modern fiction”, Knausgaard’s publishers can say with a clear conscience: “This is a book about one man’s life but, somehow, about everyone else’s too.” Karl Ove, in further contrast with John, lives in a country that is growing in confidence and might, and the books about him have been presented to a readership with increasing wealth and leisure time. It is also notable that whereas Knausgaard’s erasure of family privacy served as a magnet for publicity, Mars-Jones received permission from the friend around whose experiences he is composing his “free fantasia”.

Yet it would be wrong to suggest that Karl Ove is just an Everyman-plus-shading, and that Knausgaard has simply lucked out. Historical factors may account for why My Struggle has become a “phenomenon” but they can neither explain nor dilute the novels’ richness. Yes, Knausgaard appeals to the modern appetite for warty portraiture and off-page bust-ups and has chronicled middle-class Norwegian life during the country’s “exceptionalist” phase. To a loud anglophone minority, he constitutes a thrillingly boring alternative to boringly diverting invention. But he also displays a tremendous and irreducible zeal for penetrating what Karl Ove, reeling after a date with Linda, calls “the inner core of human existence” – an effort that brings fame to some but not others, and in which he has no obvious superiors among the writers now available to an English-reading public.

Leo Robson is the NS’s lead fiction reviewer

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, NEW COLD WAR

MARK GERSON
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It's unfashionable to call someone a "genius" – but William Empson was one

Father than denying the contradictoriness of being human, Empson revelled in it, as The Face of Buddha reveals.

William Empson was a genius. Describing anyone in this way is distinctly unfashionable nowadays, because it suggests a level of achievement to which most of humanity cannot aspire. There is nothing you can do to acquire genius. Either you have it or, like the rest of us, you don’t – a state of affairs that cannot be remedied. The very idea smacks of elitism, one of the worst sins in the contemporary moral lexicon. But if talk of genius has come close to being banned in polite society, it is hard to know how else to describe Empson’s astonishing originality of mind.

One of the most influential 20th-century literary critics and the author of two seminal books on language, he was extremely receptive to new thinking and at the same time combative in defending his views. He was a poet of the first rank, whose spare and often cryptic verse was immediately understood and admired by Ludwig Wittgenstein. Incomparably more thoughtful than anything produced by the dull atheist prophets of our own day, his book Milton’s God (1961), in which he compares the Christian God to a commandant at Belsen, must be one of the fiercest assaults on monotheism ever published. And as a socialist who revered the British monarchy, he had a political outlook that was refreshingly non-standard.

Empson’s originality was not confined to his writing. He led a highly adventurous life. Expelled from his research fellowship and his name deleted from the records of his Cambridge college in 1929 when one of the porters found condoms in his rooms, he lost any prospect of a position in British academic life. For a time, he considered becoming a journalist or a civil servant. Instead his tutor I A Richards encouraged him to apply for posts in east Asia, and in 1931 he took up a position at a teacher training college in Japan. For some years he taught in China – mostly from memory, owing to a lack of books, and sleeping on a blackboard when his university was forced to move to Kunming during the Japanese siege of Beijing. By the late Thirties he was well known in London literary circles (written when he was only 22, his best-known book, Seven Types of Ambiguity, was published in 1930 and a collection of poems appeared in 1934) but just scraping a living from reviewing and a small private income. During the Second World War he worked at the BBC alongside George Orwell and Louis MacNeice.

He returned to China in 1947 to teach in Beijing, living through the stormy years just before and after Mao came to power and leaving only when the regime’s ideological demands became intolerably repressive. He continued his academic career, first at Kenyon College in Ohio, briefly at Gresham College in London, and finally at the University of Sheffield, where he was appointed head of the English department in 1953 and remained until his retirement in 1972, but always disdained academic jargon, writing in a light, glancing, conversational style.

Inordinately fond of drink and famously bohemian in appearance (T S Eliot, who admired his mind and enjoyed his company, commented on Empson’s scruffiness), he lived in a state of eccentric disorder that the poet Robert Lowell described as having “a weird, sordid nobility”. He was actively bisexual, marrying the South African-born sculptor Hetta Crouse, equally ­free-spirited, and with whom he enjoyed an open relationship that was sometimes turbulent yet never without affection. His later years were less eventful, though rarely free from controversy. In 1979 he was knighted, and awarded an honorary fellowship by the college that half a century earlier had struck his name from the books. He died in 1984.

The publishing history of this book is as extraordinary as the work itself. “The real story of The Face of the Buddha,” the cultural historian Rupert Arrowsmith writes in his richly learned introduction, “began in the ancient Japanese city of Nara, where, in the spring of 1932, the beauty of a particular set of Japanese sculptures struck Empson with revelatory force.” He was “bowled over” by three statues, including the Kudara Kannon, a 7th-century piece in the Horyuji temple representing the Bodhisattva of Mercy, which fascinated him because the left and right profiles of the statue seemed to have asymmetrical expressions: “The puzzlement and good humour of the face are all on the left, also the maternity and the rueful but amiable smile. The right is the divinity; a birdlike innocence and wakefulness; unchanging in irony, unresting in good works; not interested in humanity, or for that matter in itself . . . a wonderfully subtle and tender work.” Gripped by what the art historian Partha Mitter describes as a “magnificent obsession”, Empson travelled far and wide in the years that followed, visiting south-east Asia, China, Ceylon, Burma and India and ending up in the Ajanta caves, the fountainhead of Mahayana Buddhist art. First begun in Japan in 1932, The Face of the Buddha was written and repeatedly revised during these wanderings.

Empson made no copy of the manuscript and in a succession of mishaps it was lost for nearly 60 years. The story of its disappearance is resonant of the boozy Fitzrovia portrayed in Anthony Powell’s novels. On leaving for his foreign travels in 1947, Empson gave the manuscript to John Davenport, a family friend and literary critic, for safekeeping. The hard-drinking Davenport mislaid it and in 1952 told Empson he had left it in a taxi. Davenport’s memory was befuddled. He had in fact given the text to the Tamil poet and editor M J T Tambimuttu, who must have shelved it among the piles of books that filled the rat-infested flat vividly described in the memoirs of Julian Maclaren-Ross. When Tambimuttu retur­ned to Ceylon in 1949 he passed on Empson’s manuscript to Richard March, a fellow editor of Poetry London, which ­Tambimuttu had founded. March died soon afterwards and his papers mouldered in obscurity until 2003, when they were acquired by the British Museum. Two years later an enterprising curator at the museum, Jamie Anderson, spotted the manuscript and informed the author’s descendants of its rediscovery. Now Oxford University Press has brought out this beautifully illustrated volume, which will be of intense interest not only to devotees of Empson but to anyone interested in culture and religion.

Although a fragment of his analysis appeared in the article “Buddhas with double faces”, published in the Listener in 1936 and reprinted in the present volume, it is only now that we can fully appreciate Empson’s insight into Buddhist art. His deep interest in Buddhism was clear throughout his life. From the indispensable edition of his Complete Poems (Allen Lane, 2000) edited and annotated by his biographer John Haffenden, we learn that, while working in the Far Eastern department of the BBC, Empson wrote the outline of a ballet, The Elephant and the Birds, based on a story from Buddhist scriptures about Gautama in his incarnation as an elephant. His enduring fascination with the Buddha is evident in “The Fire Sermon”, a personal translation of the Buddha’s celebrated speech on the need to turn away from sensuous passions, which Empson used as the epigraph in successive editions of the collected poems. (A different translation is cited in the notes accompanying Eliot’s Waste Land, the longest section of which is also titled “The Fire Sermon”.)

Empson’s attitude to Buddhism, like the images of the Buddha that he so loved, was asymmetrical. He valued the Buddhist view as an alternative to the Western outlook, in which satisfying one’s desires by acting in the world was the principal or only goal in life. At the same time he thought that by asserting the unsatisfactoriness of existence as such – whether earthly or heavenly – Buddhism was more life-negating and, in this regard, even worse than Christianity, which he loathed. Yet he also believed Buddhism, in practice, had been more life-enhancing. Buddhism was a paradox: a seeming contradiction that contained a vital truth.

What Empson admired in Buddhist art was its ability to create an equilibrium from antagonistic human impulses. Writing here about Khmer art, he observes that cobras at Angkor are shown protecting the seated Buddha with their raised hoods. He goes on to speculate that the many-headed cobra is a metaphor for one of the Buddha’s canonical gestures – the raised hand with the palm forward, which means “do not fear”:

It has almost the same shape. To be sure, I have never had to do with a cobra, and perhaps after practical experience the paradox would seem an excessively monstrous one. But the high religions are devoted to contradictions of this sort . . . and the whole point of the snake is that the god has domesticated him as a protector.

It was this combination of opposite qual­ities that attracted Empson. “A good deal of the startling and compelling quality of the Far Eastern Buddha heads comes from combining things that seem incompatible,” he writes, “especially a complete repose or detachment with an active power to help the worshipper.” Art of this kind was not only beautiful, but also ethically valuable, because it was truer to human life. “The chief novelty of this Far Eastern Buddhist sculpture is the use of asymmetry to make the faces more human.”

Using 20th-century examples that illustrate such asymmetry, Empson elaborates in his Listener article:

It seems to be true that the marks of a person’s active experience tend to be stronger on the right, so that the left shows more of his inherent endowment or of the more passive experiences which have not involved the wilful use of facial muscles. All that is assumed here is that the muscles on the right generally respond more readily to the will and that the effects of old experiences pile up. The photograph of Mr Churchill will be enough to show that there is sometimes a contrast of this sort though it seems that in Baudelaire, who led a very different kind of life, the contrast was the other way round. In Mr Churchill the administrator is on the right, and on the left (by which of course I mean the left of the person or statue, which is on your right as you look) are the petulance, the romanticism, the gloomy moral strength and the range of imaginative power.

With such a prolific mind as Empson’s, it is risky to identify any ruling theme, but he returns repeatedly in his writings to the thought that the creativity of art and language comes from their irreducible open-endedness and susceptibility to conflicting interpretations. As he wrote in Seven Types of Ambiguity, “Good poetry is usually written from a background of conflict.” Rather than being an imperfection that must be overcome for the sake of clarity, ambiguity makes language inexhaustibly rich. In The Structure of Complex Words (1948) he showed how even the most straightforward-looking terms were “compacted with doctrines” that left their meaning equivocal. There was no ultimate simplicity concealed by the opacity of language. Thinking and speaking invoked deep structures of meaning which could be made more intelligible. But these structures could not be contained in any single body of ideas. Wittgenstein’s early ambition of reducing language to elem­entary propositions stating simple facts was impossible in principle. Inherently plural in meaning, words enabled different ways of seeing the world.

Empson’s message was not merely intellectual but, once again, ethical. “It may be,” he wrote in Complex Words, “that the human mind can recognise actually in­commensurable values, and that the chief human value is to stand up between them.” The image of the Buddha that he discovered in Nara embodied this incommensurability. Rather than trying to smooth out these clashing values into an oppressive ideal of perfection, as Christianity had done, the Buddhist image fused their conflicts into a paradoxical whole. Instead of erecting a hierarchy of better and worse attitudes in the manner of the “neo-Christians”, as Empson described the pious humanists of his day, the asymmetrical face of the Buddha showed how discordant emotions could be reconciled.

Whether Empson’s account of asymmetry can be anything like a universal theory is doubtful. In support of his theory he cited Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals to show that human emotions were expressed in similar ways in different cultures, and invoked speculation by contemporary psychologists on the contrasting functions of the right and left sides of the brain. But the scientific pretensions of Empson’s observations are less important than the spirit in which he made them. Entering into an initially alien form of art, he found a point of balance between values and emotions whose conflicts are humanly universal. Rather than denying the contradictoriness of the human mind and heart, he gloried in it.

It takes genius to grasp the ambiguities of art and language and to use them as Empson did. But if we can’t emulate his astonishing fertility of mind, we can learn from his insights. Both in his life and in his work he resisted the lure of harmony, which offers to mitigate conflicts of value at the price of simplifying and impoverishing the human world. Instead, Empson searched for value in the ambiguities of life. He found what he was looking for in the double faces of the Buddha described in this lost masterpiece.

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer

The Face of Buddha by William Epson, edited by Rupert Arrowsmith with a preface by Partha Mitter, is published by Oxford University Press (224pp, £30)

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain