Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Monday, 4 January 2010

One Year Old Review

I thought I would republish this as Knausgaard, by all accounts, has taken the literary world over in Norway right now, with the publication, in six parts, of his latest novel Min Kamp. The whole enterprise sounds unique, huge in size, and very, very interesting.

Also I talk about Zadie Smith's review essay Two Paths for the Novel which is included in her new book, Changing My Mind, reviews of which I have been reading recently.

A Time To Every Purpose Under Heaven

Karl O Knausgaard

Portobello Books


So the debate is on. Or rather, it continues. Zadie Smith (of all people I’m tempted to say) has waded into the session of soul-searching going on over the future of the Anglophone novel. For the last eight years, thanks mostly to the Internet and the astounding uniformity of the ‘marketable’, bland books commercial, regressive and lazy book publishers have forced on everyone, an intellectually hardened, avant-garde yearning milieu have developed. International, well-connected, non-commercial. And I’m not talking here about Dave Mc Sweeney’s Eggers. Zadie Smith is late to the debate, in the New York Review of Books review-essay on Joseph O Neill’s Netherland and Tom McCarthy’s Remainder she very eloquently and intelligently, it must be said, brought to the stall of the establishment sentiments long aired on countless websites such as or As Smith carefully pointed out, for the Anglophone novel, ‘These aren’t particularly healthy times. A breed of lyrical Realism has had the freedom of the highway for some time now, with most other exits blocked.’[1] Well, turn-offs are open, Remainder has caused tail backs (it is the undisputed champion of the so-called Offbeat Generation, revelling in concrete literariness and avant-gardism), and Smith, well-used to the highway route of the conservative novel-writing tradition whose survival she admits to ‘cautiously’ hoping in, has merely turned off late, beeping her horn loudly at the rear. But at least she’s noticed. And at least she’s had the temerity to bring it to James Wood and company[2].


But, this is not a review of a review: it is a review of the Norwegian author Karl O. Knausgaard’s novel A Time To Every Purpose Under Heaven. It represents another, much more clearly signposted exit we all know well: translated foreign fiction. If Remainder does anything (and Smith did well to point this out) it highlights the easily won gains of taking non-Anglophone literary traditions seriously. But while McCarthy managed to write a French novel in English, Smith can’t even get her Robbe-Grillet right, she considers Flaubert to be somehow diametrically opposed to the New Novel! Robbe-Grillet considered the vogue for Flaubert a ‘triumph of my own views.’ It’s there in his Paris Review interview. In English. World literature is more nuanced than university modules would lead you to believe, or indeed, it would seem, the venerable pages of the New York Review of Books. Reading Knausgaard’s large, ambitious (I’m going to use that word a lot) novel I could hear the detractors immediately: far off, small, insignificant, reviewers in the Anglophone world who were going to scratch their heads, yawn rudely, and complain about the seriousness of Knausgaard’s novel, the unbridled ambition that drives this novel to a self satisfied righteousness, a grab at totality that demands the humility-liking, literary fiction with a good-plot-and-good-relatable-character type of reviewer to detract from its achievements. There are imperfections of course, but it’s telling what critics have to date pointed out as their points of dissatisfaction in the UK reviews.


This is a review of a novel, on the front cover of which is a picture taken from the 14th century fresco ‘The Dream of Joachim’ by Giotto di Bondone; it says beside a big angel that it is A Novel of The Nature of Angels and The Ways of Man. This all seems a bit boring and pedantic. The first page takes us to 1551, to Ardo, ‘a small mountain town in the far north of Italy’ and introduces us to the hero of the novel, Antinous Bellori. We’re presently told that we mustn’t turn our attention to the ‘inner’ world of our hero to understand him. ‘Even if the events and relationships of his life were to correspond exactly with a life in our own time, one that we understand and recognise, we would still come no closer to him.’ Zadie Smith and Joseph O Neill would be in trouble here. ‘Antinous was, first and foremost, of his time, and to understand who he was, that is what must be mapped.’  Knausgaard, still on the first page, draws our attention to the legacy of Freud whose ‘confusing of culture with nature, combined with his equally fatal insistence on the external event’s inner consequences’ has messed us all up, and nobody more so than our novelists. This novel’s over 500 pages are an effort in reconfiguring of what we normally expect a novel to deliver us: we are subjected to a treatise on the nature of angels in much the same manner as a readership of 16th century would expect and with which they would feel at home.


We’re well off the highway now, we’re lost down a turn-off with no signpost. A novel of ideas. A Novel On The Nature of Angels. A historical novel that’s thrown off the lyrical Realism whose survival Zadie Smith so cautiously hopes in; a period novel that adopts the dress of the day and goes about its imaginative business as it feels it must. I have a lot of hesitant feelings toward historical novels, I think writing a story set in the past in the garb of the present is, well, lazy and unprofitable, for both reader and writer. Colm Toibin, managed, with some success, to write in the time and character he plucked out of the defenceless ‘in-the-long-ago’ and managed to write about Henry James qua Henry James. There are other examples, and for all my reckoning (I haven’t read much 16th century treatises or even the Bible for that matter, young Irish ‘Catholic’ that I am) Knausgaard has managed to pull off the latest such literary transposition.


If Tom McCarthy’s Remainder has been read by many as so much 20th century French philosophy and Anglo-Saxon literary theory played out and repeated – re-enacted I should say– in a novel, than A Time To Every Purpose Under Heaven is, say Thomas Aquinas, William of Ockham or even Saint Augustine summed up in a sumptuous retelling of all those stories from the Bible where angels make an appearance. It uses the fictional work by the fictional Bellori, On the Nature of Angels, as its bedrock in the book’s warped and altered biblical exegesis.


While Knausgaard suffers from the threat theoretical longueurs pose to his readers’ ability to enjoy themselves, I think, ultimately the sustained gaze he levels at his subjects, at his stories’ implications, will impress. We move from the first encounter with Bellori as an eleven year old stumbling across a couple of fearsome yet forlorn looking angels, to a miraculous re-envisioning of Cain and Abel. The sheer length of this particular fable (this seems like the most fitting word) is an example of what the Norwegian is doing. A commonplace story, one of the most primal tales we have, Cain killing his brother Abel, is given a telling that would seem to want to trick the reader into believing it is of the tale’s time: its insistence on Cain’s clumsy loneliness, Abel’s pugnacious all-roundedness, the cold aloof father constantly looking down on his eldest son Cain in favour of the more charming Abel. Something strange, in short, is going on here, and I think any reader with a love of stories, of authors who write so well they disappear into the texture of their character’s lives, will appreciate Knausgaard’s ‘longueurs’, will go with him on his long, round about engagements from sentence to paragraph to whole sections of this big book. Those fond of David Mitchell will be at home with Knausgaard.


There is no Freud brought in, that’s one of the rules of the book: this is Old Testament landscape, and I read it as convincing and, I imagine, more fun then the source text.


In the beginning was the word, the sacred Logos, but the word of God, we are reminded, was of no help to the victims of God’s great flood:


The reason no-one spoke was not due solely to weariness or fear, but also because by being silent they minimised themselves, made themselves less exposed, more like the forces that presently ravaged their world. The cellar was one hiding place, silence another. If one of them had broken it, the act of speaking, no matter whether it was nervous, despairing or encouraging, would have been demoralising, for there was demonstrated their vulnerability and helplessness in all their horror: the only thing they had that was their own, that was human, was words. Words made them what they were, and what are words when it comes to the crunch|? What help are words when things really get tough?

None at all?


We are constantly given man’s point of view. God – and his angels – are just a distraction really, the source for the ideas the characters group around often bringing them hardship and strife. Noah is portrayed as an albino-type child, photophobic and who grows up indoors, a scientist by night, a naturalist occupied by the make-up of the world. A world Knausgaard feels free to portray as he wishes seeing as the Great Flood completely obliterated it. Leaving us no trace of this sinful world (they have guns for instance, in this doomed terra obliterato). I would say to take or leave Noah’s bland thoughts on fire: they’re forced and not a little boring.


And while it isn’t to be read as Freudian, we are given lots of chances to read it as just that. Cain and Abel are tied up in a cold family that favours one son over the other; the tortured, often poignant inner world of the likeable Cain are mapped out carefully. This story lays out the ‘psychology’ of man’s first fracticide with precision. Noah’s childhood family is headed by a proud, prosperous patriarch named Lamech who ‘could go an entire day without saying a thing, and then suddenly sling out a sentence or two about whatever he was thinking, which his children, if they happened to be nearby just then, found almost sinister.’ It is testament to the imaginative breadth of this novel that the author can playfully lull the reader to enjoy so many strands of thought and narrative turns and on so many levels, without little heavy handedness. And without resorting to the tried and tested Freudian-Balzacian formulas of inner characterisation.


Translated fiction like this offers a turn off from the dominant highway of current English novels because it offers new takes on the novel that don’t feel new: this novel is comfortable within its own skin, it is fresh. This composure needs to be kept in mind when taking an axe to lyrical Realism. But it’s not a perfect road to follow if rejuvenation of the Anglophone novel is what you’re after: it is, after all, fraught with problems. James Anderson has provided a very fine translation, well-levelled and holding its pitch. Portobello Books are to be commended also for taking on such a distinctly challenging novel. But, without taking away too much of the singular experience of reading this novel cover-to-cover, one had to lament that they started here, with Knausgaard’s second novel. This novelist obviously has an extremely ambitious vision for his work, and this novel offers but a tantalising, somewhat enigmatic instalment of it. In terms of important European novels of this decade, Knausgaard’s first three novels will undoubtedly go down as a seminal roman-fleuve; let’s just hope Portobello Books will deliver us the other two books.


What I’m talking about is the Coda of the book – it ties us in with a bigger story Knausgaard would seem to be telling over the course of three books centring around a character called Henrik Vankel. Out of Old Testament concerns and into late 20th century neuroses we would seem, for the last 80 pages, to be back in the world of Freud. All the old anxieties. The anxiety Heidegger believed we have to pay for our spiritual freedom, our physical abandon in a savage environment. What Zadie Smith tried to put down in her review of Netherland by O Neill as that seemingly ‘too perfect’ expression of these old anxieties of our day and age (and literature!), are set against, in the last 80 pages of the book, a world set of free of Freud, of Balzac, that world were man met the divine in the form of angels, and ultimately suffered for it. It’s a telling contrast (a wound you could call it, a wound in the novel which the reader feels acutely) and intriguing in the possibilities it suggest. Now you just have to go and read all 518 pages to intimate what those possibilities may be.



[2] I completely agree with one of the more acute observations of this whole debacle, via Mark Twaite and readysteadybook: Anthony Cummins sums up what is going on behind the line of Smith’s camp, mainly self promotion for her forthcoming non-fiction book 'Changing My Mind'.