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Why the novel matters

Against the “imperialism of the absolute” – a personal manifesto on the art of fiction.

By Karl Ove Knausgaard

The poet Rainer Maria Rilke once wrote that music could lift him up. Of course there’s nothing remarkable about that – only he then added: and put me down somewhere else. I recognise that quote so well, especially when it comes to literature. The last time I experienced that sensation was last winter after reading Claire Keegan’s novel Small Things Like These. It’s a short novel and I read it in the space of a couple of hours. When I finished it, I remained in my chair with the book lowered in my lap for a few minutes, completely filled by its emotions and moods. After a while I got to my feet and vanished into the daily round, the impressions the novel had made on me slowly dwindling until there was barely anything left other than a certain feeling that came over me when I turned my thoughts to it.

Reading is nearness; we read to get near to something. What do we get near to in Small Things Like These? The novel, set in a small Irish town, follows the thoughts and perceptions of Bill Furlong. Furlong is a coal merchant, a married man with five daughters. He works hard, but the family is struggling. Sometimes he feels life is running through his hands. But the thing about Bill Furlong, which he perhaps isn’t aware of himself, is that he’s a good man. And in many ways Small Things Like These is a novel about goodness.

In Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, goodness as an idea takes on physical existence in the figure of Prince Myshkin, the absolute example of the good person, and gains its force in the collision between the ideal and the real. The Idiot is a novel of ideas, or, as Dostoevsky himself called it, fantastic realism. The goodness we encounter in Small Things Like These is of a quite different character. It is vague, fleeting, elusive – in Bill Furlong it manifests itself in a thought here, a small action there. If goodness is a light, then it’s not a powerful beam exposing a social reality, as in Dostoevsky, but a weak, flickering flame. No one in Keegan’s novel talks about the good in people, it’s just something that occurs, nameless and ordinary. And that – bringing to life what is there, teasing it forth, as if from underneath the conceptions that so firmly hold it in their grasp – is something only the novel can do.

[See also: Margaret Atwood: Why I write dystopias]

Usually we think that for something to be significant it has to have a certain impact on the existing state of affairs. If I asked what mattered right now, some might say the war in Ukraine; others the environmental crisis, others still, inflation and rising poverty, or perhaps the growth of right-wing populism or structural racism. For some, it would be an energy-sapping conflict at work, a sick and dying mother, or a shiny new love interest. I doubt that very many people, if asked to name something that matters, would say the novel. That anyone would think the novel mattered at all.

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Does the novel matter?

One of many to have given their take on why the novel matters is DH Lawrence. He believed the novel represented the highest form of expression so far attained. The reason, he wrote, was that the novel was incapable of expressing the absolute. While science and philosophy strove to nail down the world, the novel held life open. Lawrence was a vitalist, he hailed life in everything he wrote, and the reason he favoured the novel was that he felt it was near to life. In his 1925 essay “Why the Novel Matters”, the novel seems to be more living to him than life itself.

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“To be alive, to be man alive, to be whole man alive: that is the point. And at its best, the novel, and the novel supremely, can help you. It can help you not to be dead man in life.”

To Lawrence, life was surging, erratic, uncontrollable in its constant state of flux. Everything that went against its shifting nature, everything that was bounded, defined, categorised and absolute, went against life itself. Beneath this lies a conception of nature as authentic and civilisation as inauthentic. The task of culture, then, is to penetrate the inauthentic and allow man to live authentically within it, or as Lawrence put it: to be alive.

Lawrence wasn’t alone: in the first decades of the last century, notions of the inauthentic human flourished, it was a time when our civilisation was viewed as something of a hindrance to life, something suppressive. This idea is one reason the First World War was greeted by many with glee and enthusiasm in the summer of 1914: in war, real life prevailed.

It was this same idea about authenticity and the unfeigned – the blood, the forest, the soil – that would later be absorbed by Nazism, and it was why Bertrand Russell was able to write that Lawrence’s “mystical philosophy of the ‘blood’… led straight to Auschwitz”.

In one way the idea is valid, in another not. For Lawrence’s yea! to life involved the hailing of life’s very form – open, bewildering, ever-changing, never complete – in other words, the exact opposite of Nazism’s absolutism. “We should ask for no absolutes, or absolute,” he writes. “Once and for all and for ever, let us have done with the ugly imperialism of any absolute.” The novel, he seems to mean, dismantles the absolute by virtue of its form, which is all about relationships: between people, between people and the world, and between people and language. And the further we probe into such relationships, the more relative our sense of the world becomes.

A good example of this is to be found in the work of another vitalist, a contemporary of Lawrence’s: the Norwegian Knut Hamsun. Hamsun was a Nazi, convicted of treason after the war ended, and his work has been robustly debated in Norway ever since. In 1915 Hamsun intervened in a newspaper debate concerning two young women who had given birth in secret and then killed their babies. Hamsun was appalled at the mild sentences the women were handed – five and eight months’ imprisonment. He called for the death sentence. Hang them, hang them, he wrote. Two years later he published Growth of the Soil, a novel which in part concerns a woman who kills her newborn child. This is depicted from the inside: we follow her through her days and come to understand her. The infanticide is not trivialised but intensified by making the full tragedy apparent from all sides, no longer a simple fact to trigger a simple reaction: “Hang them.”

[See also: Booker winner Shehan Karunatilaka: “You don’t know who you’re going to offend”]

This is what the novel does: it pulls any abstract conception about life, whether political, philosophical or scientific in nature, into the human sphere, where it no longer stands alone but collides with myriad impressions, thoughts, emotions and actions. This is why Dostoevsky’s novels are still so eminently readable, the relationship between abstract ideas and a chaotic, bewildering, emotionally powered reality being their very rationale; Dostoevsky’s own ideals must submit in the event that an opposing voice belongs to a more interesting character.

It’s also the reason why Lawrence’s novels aren’t nearly as good as Dostoevsky’s, for while Lawrence wanted the novel to be like life itself, the idea of life can become so powerful in his novels as to stifle what’s alive about them, life then losing its fluidity, its mutability, to solidify in the mould of thought. In this way both Lawrence’s and Hamsun’s fiction illustrates the undercurrents that run between vitalism and totalitarianism. This isn’t to say that Lawrence’s and Hamsun’s novels are totalitarian – a totalitarian novel is a contradiction in terms. The novel concerns relationships, and every relationship has an intrinsic complexity. Even such a fanatical rant as Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf is about relationships, from its opening pages about his upbringing; it’s obvious that he’s embellishing and holding back at the same time. He strives to keep this internal battle between order and chaos hidden, but it breaks out and undermines his monomaniacal tirade.

Totalitarianism is all about remoteness and control, about what’s common to us all. Anyone who’s ever been to Russia will have noticed the huge number of war monuments there, one in even the smallest village, and at the foot of them all burns a flame. They represent the grand, heroic Russian narrative of the Second World War. In recent years any utterance deemed to contradict or complicate that simple narrative has been smothered, including the work of the civil rights organisation Memorial, which sought to uncover human rights abuses under Stalin and remember their victims. This is an extreme example in a country of extremes, but all history is given to us in the narrative form, the same way as all news is given to us in the narrative form – as “story”. The role of the novel has always been to wriggle underneath these overarching narratives, to break them down, formally and thematically, to get closer to the concrete experience of reality.

Ulysses was serialised between 1918 and 1920, some years before Lawrence wrote his essay about the novel, and one would think that he would have approved of James Joyce’s total dismantling of the absolute. But Lawrence hated Ulysses, just as much as he hated Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. To him, these works occupied the novel’s deathbed:

“Is Ulysses in his cradle? Oh dear! What a grey face!… And M Proust? Alas! You can hear the death-rattle in their throats. They can hear it themselves. They are listening to it with acute interest, trying to discover whether the intervals are minor thirds or major fourths… “Did I feel a twinge in my little toe, or didn’t I?” asks every character of Mr Joyce… or M Proust.”

Joyce, Proust, Virginia Woolf and Lawrence strove to get as near to reality as possible in their novels. But while Lawrence made use of narrative to that end, for the three others, “story” was an obstacle, something that shut the novel off from reality and which therefore had to be overcome, triggering an explosion in form.

The difference in their approach has to do with distance. For Lawrence, writing fiction was about getting near to emotions. For Joyce and Woolf, it was about getting near to the moment – and in the moment there is no story, only actions and thoughts, as yet undefined. Telling a story tends to involve a greater sense of distance. What defines us – what determines what we see, believe and understand about the world – comes to us from outside, and is often organised in the narrative form. In Joyce, and in Woolf, we’re inside. We’re in the moment, and only in the moment does anything come into existence.

Another, highly pertinent and contemporary example of a book that operates in the shadowland between distance and nearness is The Orphanage by the Ukrainian writer Serhiy Zhadan. Published in Ukraine in 2017, it is about the conflict that was going on at the time, in the years prior to the recent Russian invasion, in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine where armed Russian separatists declared the region’s independence from Kyiv. However, nothing of this background is provided, the reader instead being thrown into a here-and-now in which everything takes place at eye level. The viewpoint is that of Pasha, a teacher in Donetsk who at the beginning of the novel is on his way to collect his nephew from a children’s home in a neighbouring town. What strikes the reader is how unclear everything is: who is friend and who is foe? Whose artillery is raining down? Who is fleeing? He speaks one language with some of the people he meets, a different one with others. There are no guy ropes, nothing is pegged out for us; everything is dissolved into the moments he must negotiate. A war is being described to us before it becomes story – in other words, while it’s still reality.

There’s a common conception that says that a novel is important when it deals with some significant or topical issue. But importance of theme is no indicator of whether a novel is important. In fact, it can be a problem for the novel, since important issues often go hand in hand with strong opinions, which have already been formed – and anything that’s already formed only makes life difficult for the novel. The novel is important precisely in giving voice to that which has none, to that which otherwise wouldn’t be heard. Its job is to get as near to life as to elude the opinion.

This attitude is entrenched in Claire Keegan’s Small Things Like These. It’s a novel that gives room to a man who himself takes up none, and is from a layer of society that takes up none in its culture. But most importantly it’s a novel that makes room for something inside him – and inside us all – something so sheer and eluding that he’s not even aware of it himself.

One of the best novels I’ve read that achieves this effect is The Birds by Tarjei Vesaas, first published in Norway in 1957. The main character in The Birds is Mattis, a man in his forties who lives with his sister Hege in a cottage on the shores of a lake, at the fringe of a forest. Mattis is like a child; he doesn’t function very well with other people, because he doesn’t understand their social codes. Occasionally, he’s taken on as a day labourer by one of the village farms, where invariably he does more harm than good.

The novel makes us privy to his thoughts. If the important thing about Bill Furlong in Small Things Like These is that he’s good, then the important thing about Mattis is that he’s near to life. He’s not a person who does – he’s incapable of that – he’s a person who is. And this state of being is filled to the brim with the being that is all around him – that of his sister, but also of the birds, the trees, the sky, the lake. The writer is open to the language, the language is open to Mattis, Mattis is open to life.

[See also: The Passenger: The phantom world of Cormac McCarthy]

When Mattis witnesses the flight of a woodcock, he interprets it as a sign. But, unable to communicate the meaning of the sign to anyone, Mattis starts communicating with the woodcock itself. Mattis’s great event turns out to signal the end: when the bird is shot, he loses his grip and ends up drowning in the lake.

Seen from the perspective of those around him, Mattis is not all there. But seen from within, his inner being is rich and complete, his emotional life complex, his thoughts quite comprehensible. In him, strong, opposing forces meet. While he longs to be included by the social world and its language, the novel longs towards wordless nature. While he seeks activity, the novel strives towards an actionless state of being. While he identifies with the woodcock in the belief that it will help him become included, the novel identifies him with the birds, which are outside the human realm.

The conflicts articulated in The Birds are those of an idiot, someone no one listens to or takes an interest in, but Mattis’s nature follows a different logic, one that’s continually quashed in its encounters with normality. Only a novel can support two such opposing logics at once, and only a novel can articulate our most important conflicts without locking them tight in definitions, but leaving them open to our emotions and experiences. Change comes from within: it’s where our opinions and attitudes, our conceptions of the world and ourselves reside, and it’s where the novel will always seek to go. Into the Norwegian idiot, into the Irish coal merchant, into the Ukrainian teacher. That’s the job of the novel, to go into the world and hold it open, and it’s because it can do that that it matters.

Translated by Martin Aitken. This is an edited version of the 2022 New Statesman/Goldsmiths Prize Lecture, delivered at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London on 22 October

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This article appears in the 26 Oct 2022 issue of the New Statesman, State of Disorder