BOOK FESTIVAL – Karl Ove Knausgaard

Karl Ove Knausgaard, Baillie Gifford Corner Lecture Theatre, Sun. 10th August, 2014.

So they were trying to re-invent themselves and their universe. Science fiction was a big help.

Rosewater said an interesting thing to Billy one time about a book that wasn’t science fiction. He said that everything there was to know about life was in The Brothers Karamazov, by Feodor Dostoevsky. “But that isn’t enough any more,” said Rosewater.
(Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse 5 (1969)).

By Mark Bolsover

Detail & Honesty. (—portraits of Knausgaard…)

In the practically sold out space of the Baillie Gifford Corner Lecture Theatre, competing to be heard against the downpour outside, Roland Gulliver introduced Karl Ove Knausgaard. Gulliver proved an affable, if somewhat nervous host, concise in his introduction, and giving ground completely to the author. As ever with the Corner Theatre, space was limited, the audience closely packed in, the sightlines particularly poor, and the lighting dim for the audience and a little over-bright on stage, which, given the rain, made it slightly difficult to both see and hear Knausgaard and Gulliver.

Knausgaard began by reading a (very brief) passage from the third volume of his My Struggle series: Boyhood Island (copies of the paperback edition are available exclusively at the Book Festival, apparently). At first a seemingly curious choice, concerned as it was with an apparently mundane and insignificant morning in his childhood, the extract was clearly intended to showcase Knausgaard’s characteristic fixation on detail as well as his relationship with his father, which forms the crux of the series.

In the sheer wealth of detail in the writing, describing minutely rising, urinating, washing, and eating breakfast, Knausgaard treats all experience equally. There is an unrelenting, unrepentant commitment to relating every detail of every experience here, that can be as uncomfortable as it is admirable and somehow charming.

And this is true of Knausgaard himself.—He has a disarming, almost accidental charm in his manner. It is clear that, even in conversation, he maintains his commitment to a thoroughgoing, candid honesty and disclosure. This leads (as it does in his writing itself) to moments of unintentional and almost shocked humour, as his commitment to honesty and integrity lead to stark, brash, unaffected and yet startling conclusions. As an example, at one point in his discussion with Gulliver, Knausgaard, reflecting on his own work, made the simple statement that he thought a ‘happy’ childhood was, in fact, worthless. This, understandably, provoked a shock of laughter from the audience, and yet it was clear that this humour was unintentional, Knausgaard responding in kind with a mild indignance, protesting his point (and the fervency of his honesty could be made out in the stark light of the Corner Theatre, showing in his furrowed, distant concentration and particularly in his eyes).

Boyhood Island formed the central focus of the brief discussion between Knausgaard and Gulliver which followed the reading. This dwelt particularly on his relationship with his father and with the extract’s relation of the young Knausgaard’s need for his father’s approbation, and fear of him.

The question arose (somewhat indirectly), of whether straightforward autobiography is indeed actually a possibility: whether it is possible to maintain the ‘joy’ and ‘terror’ of the incomprehension of an earlier, childhood, perspective without any encroaching authorial or textual self-consciousness, looking back on experience with a comprehension simply unavailable to that consciousness. Knausgaard distinguished between the nature, on the one hand, of ‘reminiscence’—to still have access down into detail,—to be able to return to or reawaken it, and, on the other, that of ‘reflection’, above and outwith reminiscence, looking down.

In the end, both he and Gulliver postulated, My Struggle (and, in particular, vol. III) is precisely the narrative of the development of ‘reflection’ (memorial and eventually artistic) and of self-awareness, which, seemingly paradoxically, must erase itself from or, rather, prevent its own entrance onto the scene in order to be able to narrate its own evolution and its own limits.

On the development of the form.

It was interesting in this regard that Knausgaard spoke about finding in writing a ‘childish’ freedom. Boyhood Island, in part, narrates the young Knausgaard’s early socialisation, and he spoke of relationships (social and romantic)—again to slightly shocked laughter from his audience—as being founded in lies and illusions, and of what he sees as people’s fear of the truth. For Knausgaard, then, socialisation represents a process of learning which lies to tell and how to suppress the truth. For him, writing represents a kind of liberation from these restraints: a certain liberty to freely articulate uncomfortable or painful truths.

Prompted by Gulliver, he talked about his narration, in the second volume of My Struggle: A Man in Love, of his loss of faith in fiction and attraction toward the ‘essay’ form.

It was here that the subject of the ‘happy’ childhood came up. Knausgaard argued that a happy childhood lacks value, and that ‘unhappiness’ is necessary to or the motive force behind (especially creative) ambition. In line with his comments on the freedom of writing vs. the restraint of (nonetheless necessary) social lies, he argued in favour of the necessity of the burden of resentment (—of shame, humiliation, regret, and so on) and the abandonment of fantasy as a refuge. Resentment here is something which must be appropriated and to which a fidelity must be maintained.

As the talk moved on to audience questions, Knausgaard was asked how precisely he had been able to maintain and was able to access his childhood memories in such detail. He responded that he had, I truth, only a small number of what he dubbed ‘iconic’ memories, which act as ‘hooks’, drawing him down (or back) into memory, and which are the able to reveal subsequent memories and detail. He is, he maintained, only able to recall the situations of his past, with particularly the detailed dialogue emerging as a kind of reasonable or common sense hypothesis of what would most likely have been said given those characters and situations.

The fidelity here, then, is to the nature of situations, relationships, and over-arching pathos. Knausgaard was clear to the point of fervency in admitting to the ‘heavily ficitionalised’ nature of My Struggle and to its inexactness, having never, he maintained, laid claim to exactness.

In response to the discussion of the disillusionment with fiction, evident in the second volume, he was asked about his artistic ‘credo’ and his abandonment of realism.

In response, he spoke in particular (perhaps with late nineteenth century fiction on mind?) of his break with plot and his anxiety that a formless text would inspire nothing but ‘boredom’ in his reader. The relationship of truth to fiction, for Knausgaard seems to demand the abandonment of plot, transforming the novel from a strict form into the fictionalised exploration of an—essentially formless—life.

Knausgaard argued that a ‘distance’ must always be maintained between the past self and the present. It is, finally, impossible, he argued, to ever write about the present ‘self’. Again seemingly paradoxically (and perhaps the relationship between quasi-autobiography and time will always open onto these paradoxes?), one must get further away in order to achieve meaningful proximity.

And he spoke, finally, in response to a question about the importance of class, time, and Norway, of the insuperable determination of creative activity by the time and place of the author: as his own subject (his past ‘self’), and at the time of writing. It is an interesting question and one which must remain open as it was sadly not broached during the event, let alone answered, of how or whether this ‘determinism’ (for want of a more accurate term) can be reconciled to the freedom Knausgaard sees at stake in (the act of) writing.

For anyone interested in Knausgaard’s writing, the event provided genuinely stirring insight into the artistic, ethical, and (quasi-)philosophical credo which underpins My Struggle, and why Knausgaard’s project has provoked so much interest. He speaks compellingly and interestingly, with his characteristic blunt, unaffected honesty, about his attempt to negotiate with time and with memory, with a demand to honesty and integrity that cannot be shirked even in the face of its inevitable and fraught coupling to fictionalisation, and, ultimately, the need to renegotiate with the mutable form of the novel, in order to explore the formless life.

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