Not Sleeping, Speculating: Hans Eichner’s Kahn & Engelmann

Longtime readers will know how much the stories of Central and Eastern European Jews in the years from 1880-1945 mean to me. (In addition to my posts on Holocaust-related topics, too numerous to link to here, you might look at this piece on Roth’s Radetzky March or this one on Eleanor Perényi’s More Was Lost.) Less clear might be how seduced I am by literary late bloomers, but as an inveterate late bloomer in all things I confess: it is so.

Imagine my delight, then, when I plucked from my shelves Hans Eichner’s novel Kahn & Engelmann. I’ve had this book—published in a nice-looking edition by the outstanding folks at the Canadian publisher Biblioasis—lying around for ages; I can’t even remember where I first learned of it. Not only is Kahn & Engelmann an absorbing saga of a family of Hungarian Jews who make their way to Vienna in the late 19th century and succeed in the clothing business as much as the vicissitudes of antisemitism allow them to, but it was also published when its author was 79 years old. Eichner was born in Vienna in 1921 and escaped to England after the Anschluss (that escape didn’t exempt him from being interned as an enemy alien in a camp in Australia). He taught at various Canadian universities for many years, and wrote the novel in his first language, German, in his retirement. It was about to be published in this English translation (nicely rendered by Jean M. Snook) when Eichner died in 2009 at age 87: the first copies arrived from the publisher just days after his death.

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I have the feeling no one knows this book (I’ve never heard anyone mention it). But they should! Kahn & Engelmann offers both the immersive pleasures of a 19th century family saga and the self-reflection of the modernist reaction against that kind of storytelling. Reading it, I was frequently reminded of Roth’s The Emperor’s Tomb, which offers a similar balancing act, though Eichner is more sweeping. As he mentions in an afterward, the novel is based on his own experiences, yet everything is modified: “there is little that didn’t actually happen, but also little that happened as it is reported here.”

Eichner was born in Vienna, in the predominantly Jewish district of Leopoldstadt; he was of that generation of Viennese Jews who felt particularly betrayed by Austria’s greedy embrace of Nazism. (Ruth Kluger would be another such writer, though she was ten years younger.) It is said that Eichner, who spent his career teaching German literature and philosophy, was tormented by the fact that he made his living through the language and culture of those who had tried to murder him, his family, and his people.

The novel begins with the narrator, Peter Engelmann, rummaging through a box of photographs. He alights on one of the oldest, from 1880, which shows his grandmother wearing a pair of beautiful boots made for her by the shoemaker she would soon marry against her family’s wishes. This is in Talpoca, near Lake Balaton in Hungary. Sidonie Róth persuades her mild, unambitious, but loving husband Jószef Kahn to move to Vienna; after various trials, their children become established in the garment industry, but not without many quarrels, the most consequential and long-running of which is between the narrator’s uncle Jenö (the Kahn of the title) and his father, Sandor (the Engelmann). We learn too of the narrator’s escape from Europe and a little about how he established his postwar life, which eventually leads him to Israel. Eichner does not, however, relate these stories chronologically: the logic is much more associative, even essayistic (“since the chronology of this account is any case completely confused, I’m going to leave telling about my childhood years for another time, and continue now with how it really was in 1938.”).

I read somewhere a review that rightly observed how the Holocaust hangs over the text like a terrible threat. Interestingly, though, the characters largely manage to avoid it, whether through intermarriage, emigration, or death. The reckoning with its devastation doesn’t come until later. Unfortunately, that belated recognition is the least compelling part of the book; Peter (unlike his creator) gives up his academic career as a result of a crisis over teaching the language of his culture’s oppressors, and makes Aliyah, becoming a veterinarian in Haifa, but the decision is presented hastily; indeed, the scenes of Peter as an adult are the weakest in the book, filled with tedious womanizing. Luckily, they occupy only a few pages.

In one sense, then, the novel is less dire than it might seem. (It’s not a Holocaust text by any means.) Yet in another, it is surprisingly dark. The richly textured depiction of Peter’s ancestors, especially the generation of his parents and their siblings, is larded with hostility, petty aggression, and misunderstanding, the regular bullshit of family life which, as is so often the case, is more consequential than its usual minor beginnings suggest it should be. At the heart of the novel are a series of exquisitely polite but increasingly bitter business letters between the narrator’s father and uncle, leading to the former’s suicide, an action surely modeled on Eichner’s father’s similar fate.

All of which is to say, yes, opera and Sachertorte make obligatory appearances, but the novel is more than just kitsch. Especially fascinating are its descriptions of how to make clothes into fashions, how to arrange space to get customers to buy, how to turn soiled or poorly cut outfits into pieces people are eager to wear. Without making a big deal of it, the novel makes an implicit comparison between the coaxing, dealing, and passing off of one thing as another needed to succeed in the shmatte business and the similar contortions forced upon Jews even in the openness of the last decades of the Hapsburg Empire.

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I would say the novel’s tone is best mirrored in the Jewish jokes it’s so in love with. How you get on with the novel can be predicted by how you feel about this sort of thing:

If a Jewish peasant gets chicken to eat, either he is sick, or the chicken is.

Or this, in which a rabbi and a priest are alone in a carriage:

The priest asked, “Tell me, Colleague, have you ever eaten pork?”

“To tell the truth, yes,” said the rabbi.

“Good, isn’t it?” said the priest.

“Tell me, colleague,” asked the rabbi, “have you ever slept with a girl?”

“To tell the truth, yes,” said the priest.

“Better than pork, isn’t it?” said the rabbi.

Or this, probably my favourite, about the rabbi of Tarnopol and the trip he made to Warsaw in 1782. Halfway home, he stops at an inn for lunch while the coachman Moische keeps an eye on the horses:

After a while the rabbi looked out the door, which was standing open because of the early onset of summer weather, and noticed that Moische was asleep.

“Moische, are you asleep?” called the rabbi.

“I’m not asleep, I’m speculating.”

“Moische, what are you speculating?” asked the rabbi.

“I’m speculating, if you drive a stake into the earth, where does the earth go?”

“Moische, don’t sleep, so the horses won’t be stolen.”

A while later, when the rabbi had just finished eating his borsht, he looked out the door again and saw that the coachman was doxing.

“Moische, are you asleep?”

“I’m not sleeping, I’m speculating.”

“Moische, what are you speculating?”

“I’m speculating, if you drive a stake into the earth, where does the earth go?”

“Moische, don’t sleep, so the horses won’t be stolen.”

When the rabbi was finishing up his meal with his coffee, the coachman had already shut his eyes again.

“Moische, are you asleep?”

“I’m not asleep, I’m speculating.”

“Moische, what are you speculating?”

“Rabbi, I’m speculating how we can get to Tarnopol without a horse.”

It’s all a bit Leo Rosen’s Hooray for Yiddish, but I’ve a very high tolerance for this sort of thing. If you do too, and if you want something unsung but good, something part Proust, part Roth, part Mann, then you’ll like Kahn & Engelmann as much as I did.

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I read Kahn & Engelmann as a contribution to German Literature Month. Thanks to Lizzy and Caroline for hosting for the ninth (!) year running.

The Radetzky March Readalong

Caroline and Lizzy have organized a group reading of Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March. The novel has three parts: they posed questions for each section. (Not something I’d seen done before for an online readalong. Such a good idea!) Rather than responding each week, I’ve chosen the questions that spoke to me the most and answered them in one shot.

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Welcome to the #germanlitmonth spring readalong of The Radetzky March.  What enticed you to read along with us?

Many years ago I spent part of a summer at my uncle’s vacation house, in a remote valley of northern Ticino, the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland. The house, a tiny thing of stone and wood built in the seventeenth century, was, as we’d say now, off the grid, even more so than most everything was in those days. A bakery van came by each morning, and once a week a grocery truck would come up from the main valley and stop in the little mountain villages. The villages were mostly empty then, filled with old people and some summer vacationers. I haven’t been there in decades: God only knows what they’re like now.

Along with my backpack, I had an old briefcase—I think it had been my grandfather’s—that I’d filled with books I was determined to read. Hard books: Proust, Broch, Faulkner, Malaparte. Of course, I didn’t read them all. The Broch was too hard, the Proust I didn’t get to until decades later. I did, however, read The Radetzky March. Did I like it? No idea. It left no big impression. I suspect I found it difficult. I didn’t know anything about the Hapsburg Empire then. And it’s slow. I remember the Malaparte much more vividly. Malaparte is not slow. Where Roth foresees the apocalypse, Malaparte is already in it. Which is perhaps to say that Roth is wasted on the young.

The older I get the more I’m interested in what we mean when we say we’ve read a book. If I’ve read it but can’t remember much of anything about it (a vague sense that, well, it’s about Hapsburgs, ends of empires, nostalgia), then have I really read it? I’m always caught between an insatiable drive to read everything and a wish to read books the way I read the books I teach—to have them seep into my soul, to be able to recall them fully, to have them totally at my fingertips.

When I heard about the readalong, I thought back to that summer, which, certainly with the glow of passing time, and from the position of middle-aged worries and responsibilities, stands out in a shimmer of pleasure. When I sat out in the sun on a stone terrace and read all day long, with breaks only for walks and coffees and wine in the evenings.

Here’s a chance, I thought, to pay homage to that past self, and to get a little closer to soaking up this book, assuming I still thought it warranted such close attention.

And I was curious what I would make of it now that I spend much of my time thinking about Eastern Europe (admittedly, the events twenty or thirty years later). Plus a year or two ago I read The Emperor’s Tomb, Roth’s sort-of sequel to Radetzky, and liked it very much.

That’s probably more than you wanted to know!

Which edition/translation are you using and how is it reading?

A Penguin Modern Classic, first published in 1984. (The sticker on the back says I bought it Bei Morawa and paid 4,99 for it—I don’t know in what country and with what currency.) Eva Tucker translated it, revising an earlier translation by Geoffrey Dunlop. Part of me wanted to get the Michael Hofmann translation, because he handled Emperor so beautifully, and I thought he might offer easier, less syntactically difficult reading. But in the end I didn’t mind Tucker’s revision of Dunlop. A bit formal—Tolstoy and Zola are in the background—but that suits the book, and may in fact be an accurate reflection of the original.

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How would you comment on the first few sentences? Is this an effective opening? “The Trottas were not an old family.  Their founder had been ennobled following the battle of Solferino.  He was a Slovene. The name of his village – Sipolje – was taken into his title.  Fate had singled him out for a particular deed. He subsequently did everything he could to return himself to obscurity.” (Translation: Michael Hofmann)

Compare Tucker:

The Trottas were not an old family. Their founder’s title had been conferred on him after the battle of Solferino. He was a Slovene and chose the name of his native village, Sipolje. Though fate elected him to perform an outstanding deed, he himself saw to it that his memory became obscured to posterity.

(As best I can tell, Hofmann follows Roth’s sentence length more closely; Tucker combines short sentences into longer ones by using conjunctions not present in the original.)

As to whether the opening is effective: absolutely. It gives us so much to think about.

We could start with the difference between “not an old family” and a young one, which, to me, suggests the book values continuity and tradition (interestingly, the English versions contrast Roth’s text: “Die Trottas waren ein junges Geschlecht”— I’ve no idea why Hofmann & Tucker made the change. Maybe because it would sound weird to say something like “The Trottas were a young lineage). But if we think this is going to be a story about upstarts, the next few sentences set us straight. In fact, the reference to Solferino, where French and Italian troops defeated the Austrians, already hints at failure. That’s followed by the information that the first von Trotta sought to undo the rise in station that accompanies ennoblement. Or at least, that he tried. (Tucker is more definitive than Hofmann.) Given that he’s fighting against fate, we might wonder whether this surprising attempt to fail—to avoid the spotlight, to fall in the world—will itself be a failure.

The other important element in this opening paragraph is the reference to the first von Trotta’s ethnic/national identity. Although very little will be made of that origin—none of the characters ever visit Sipolje—The Radetzky March is a book about the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and as this fact becomes more evident the early reference to a minority identity—“He was a Slovene”—seems in retrospect especially telling. And all the more so because it’s not accurate. Or not in any meaningful sense. The first von Trotta shows no connection to or interest in his Slovene-ness. We learn that in the recent past his father—a vivid and delightful bit character who, after losing an eye fighting Bosnian smugglers, has been pensioned off as a caretaker of a palace about ten miles from Vienna—would address him in Slovene, even though his son can hardly speak it. But after Trotta becomes a “von” and is elevated to the rank of Captain (he takes a bullet intended for the Emperor: Solferino was one of the last battles in which heads of state fought), his father resorts to “the ordinary harsh German of army Slavs.”

Although the von Trottas identify themselves almost to the point of pathology with the Empire, this early reference to ethnic minorities, along with later ones to class unrest, unionization efforts, and strikebreaking, points to the fissures that will undo that Empire. In the opening pages, the Captain is shown writing up his weekly inspection of his regiment’s sentries: he “scribble[s] his bold, forceful None under the heading UNUSUAL INCIDENTS, thus denying even the remotest possibility of such occurrences.” The line is telling because, most of the time, nothing much happens in the book. But even the most seemingly serene status quo doesn’t just maintain itself. And the book shows first the fraying and then the destruction of a way of life that had seemed as unchanging as the entries in the regimental logbook.

In sum: not a flashy opening, but a telling one.

BTW do any other German speakers hear Trotta and think Trottel (idiot)?

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Roth subscribed to Chekhov’s view that a writer “should not be a judge of his characters or what they say, but an impartial witness.” What is the effect of this impartiality? (I changed this question a little.)

Put differently: if the book is about decline, does it judge that decline? At times, I compared the novel to Lawrence’s The Rainbow, another modernist novel about three generations of a family. Lawrence is pretty clear that the changes that happen to the family are bad. Or, at least, he regrets the way the second and third generations are forced to come to terms with history. They lose touch with a peasant, premodern, prelapsarian timelessness. Lawrence also changes his style rather dramatically from beginning to end: from an amazing King James Biblical richness to a much flatter description of modernity. Roth, by contrast, writes about the Captain, the District Commissioner, and Carl Joseph in the same way. His style remains consistent. And I’m unconvinced he really thinks that the third generation is more decadent, less vital, more helpless than the first one.

Maybe, then, the Captain’s crusade to return to obscurity is analogous to Freud’s description of what he termed “the death drive,” by which he meant not a suicidal longing, but rather the way each organism seeks to return to the nothingness from which it came. In this regard, maybe these generations are equally modern.

What does the old servant Jacques and his death stand for?

I was moved by Jacques death, especially his insistence on working even in his last hours. Similarly moving, though less consequential, is the effect of this perverse dedication on the district administrator (the Captain’s son).

In many ways Chojnicki is the opposite of Jacques. What did you think of him?

I think he’s great. He brings energy to every scene. I suspect Roth liked him. He’s almost but not quite cynical. He knows the Empire is coming to an end: he doesn’t look forward to it (after all, he stands to lose a lot), but he doesn’t mourn it either.

He reminded me of Proust’s Charlus (less louche—maybe it’s the baldness that made me think them alike—but also the change that comes over them during the war). That late scene when the District Commissioner visits the mad Chojnicki, invalided out from the front, is pretty intense. (It’s a nice touch to turn the femme fatale Frau von Taussig into a nurse: that shift in our sense of who a character is also feels Proustian.)

Chojnicki’s fate makes me think that he and Jacques are more similar than different. Duty to the Empire does them both in.

By the way, this isn’t the same Chojnicki as in The Emperor’s Tomb, right?

Were you surprised to find the last chapter of part 2 told from the point of view of Kaiser Franz Josef? How effective did you find it?

Yes, but it worked. I’ve written about this strategy before, in one of my posts on Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate, where I quoted the bit in S/Z where Roland Barthes says realist fiction can only mention historical personages in passing, lest they risk absurdity. Maybe it is a function of how little I know about Franz Josef (merely that he lived to be very old, a doddering stand-in for his Empire: Roth doesn’t exactly disagree, but he embroiders on this outline, and I found the Emperor’s brief moments of decisiveness among his general fog quite touching), but to me he appeared as a fully realized character. And maybe Roth’s decision to include Franz Joseph’s POV is a sign that he isn’t writing a realist novel, but instead a modernist one.

There seems to be only one true and honest relationship in this novel—the friendship between district administrator von Trotta [the Captain’s son] and doctor Skowronnek. Would you agree? What did you think of their relationship?

I would. And I found it surprising and touching. Since women are basically absent from this novel—its most striking failure: the two or three female characters are clichés, and I’m unconvinced Roth is offering any kind of critique of, say, the limited possibilities for women in the Empire—intimacy must take place between men. The relationship between Von Trotta and Skowronnek’s also bridges a class barrier, making it even more telling, and unusual. I appreciated the delicacy of their regard for each other.

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What is the significance of the regimental party at Chojnicki’s country house?

The greatest scene in this great novel. So portentous and symbolic—a great storm breaks weeks of sultry, oppressive heat, throwing the party into disarray, but also egging it on to greater, more debauched heights, a hectic state that only becomes more intense when the news arrives that the heir to the throne has been shot. Half of the guests dance in drunken, ignorant abandon; the other half work themselves into nationalistic frenzies. You can see the Empire splintering; you can admire/pity/condemn the ignorance of those who waltz along the abyss.

It’s all so obvious; it shouldn’t work at all. But it does. (Like the later references to the wild geese who migrate south earlier than ever before that summer: the natural world, like the empire that pretends to be similar unchanging, is out of kilter. We get it! And yet those geese are great.) How? Why? Maybe because Roth has a way of being both ironic and sincere. Take the party scene: it’s knowing (look at the decadent empire!) but not too knowing (the emotions are big, heartfelt, I was totally captivated).

Chapter 21 takes us to the Eastern front.  What do you think about the way Roth depicts the conflict? How do you feel about the manner of Carl Joseph’s [the son of the district administrator: the third of the three von Trotta generations] death?

Pleasingly oblique. Carl Joseph is shot by a sniper while filling up water buckets for his men. The difference between this death and the near-death of his grandfather at Solferino is clear. One saves the Emperor, one dies for his men, doing a dangerous but mundane job. The novel is obvious about that difference—“Lieutenant Trotta died, not with sword in hand but with two buckets of water”—but I didn’t find that obviousness offputting or heavy-handed. (Roth is not Mann.)

The Radetzky March has been described as a nostalgic novel for a lost empire.  Is nostalgic the adjective you’d use?

It’s so tempting, but I’m suspicious. Too easy, surely. See what I wrote above about decline. Characters talk about it all the time, worry over its apparent inevitability, but the book doesn’t necessarily agree. Not that the present is better (by “present” I mean the time of WWI—by the time Roth wrote the book, that already seemed like the distant past) . Roth isn’t a liberal, or a socialist. There’s no belief in progress here. But neither is he conservative, reactionary. (Well, except maybe when Dr. Skowronnek and the District Commissioner bond over the ridiculous of that new fad, meat-eating contests. They’re not wrong, though.) He’s dispassionate, but not in that Olympian way that bugs me about Flaubert and some of Nabokov. Roth is warm, accepting, enlightened. I suspect he’s talking about himself when he says of Skowronnek: “He liked people as much as he despised them.”

What struck you the most in this novel, what do you like or dislike the most?

I dislike its lack of interest in women, as I said before.

I like its slow burn. So much of the novel consists of people doing the things they always do (the descriptions of the District Commissioner’s Sunday meals are mouth-watering, especially those cherry dumplings), and being bored and irritated but also fiercely insistent on that repetition.

And there are some lovely, lyrical passages, whether a deft turn of phrase (a man exhales to reveal “a surprisingly powerful set of teeth, pale-yellow teeth, a strong protective fence guarding his words”) or an indelible set piece. I was especially taken with the Emperor’s encounter with a Jewish delegation. Or this snippet, coming just after Chojnicki tells Trotta war has been declared:

Never, it seemed to Trotta, had nature been so peaceful. At this hour you could look straight into the sun as, visibly, it sank westward. A violent wind came to receive it, rippled the small white clouds in the sky and the wheatstalks on the ground, caressed the scarlet face of the poppies. A blue shadow drifted across the green meadows. Toward the east the little wood disappeared in deep violet. Stepaniuk’s low house, where he lived, gleamed white at the edge of the wood, its windows burnished with evening sunlight. The crickets increased their chirping. The wind carried their voices into the distance; there was silence and the fragrance of the earth.

Would you reread The Radetzky March?

Absolutely. I want to read so many other things, so I’ve no idea whether I will. Probably not anytime soon. But I’m so glad to have read it a second time, and grateful to Caroline & Lizzy for providing the incentive.

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“‘Go to hell, Arthur'”: Uwe Johnson’s Anniversaries (1)

Caroline and Lizzy are once again hosting German Literature Month, and I wanted to squeeze in at the last minute to offer a few notes on a very long German novel I started reading last week. Uwe Johnson’s Anniversaries (Jahrestage) has recently been issued in its first complete English translation by Damion Searls (whose good work with Hans Keilson, among a host of other writers, I’ve had occasion to note before).

If you follow translated literature at all, you’ve probably heard about the book; the publisher, NYRB Classics, has rightly been making a big deal about it. It’s an epic project, and I hope they’re financially rewarded for taking the risk. Anniversaries is long: about 1700 pages, and they’re not exactly easy ones. Johnson published it in four parts in the 1970s and early 80s; NYRB has combined them into two oversize (and heavy—the books are just this side of ungainly) paperback volumes that come in a slipcover box.

I’m not quite 200 pages in, so only have the barest sense of what this immense text is all about. What follows then are some disorganized and speculative first impressions.

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Anniversaries centers on Gesine Cresspahl, a German woman living in New York in 1967 with her ten-year-old daughter, Marie. It also features Gesine’s parents, her depressive mother, Lisbeth Papenbrock, and her father, an enigmatic businessman who, as far as I can tell, has no first name. Cresspahl has emigrated to England (he meets Lisbeth on what he thinks will be his last return to Germany in the late 1920s), but returns to Germany in late 1932 with his pregnant wife, who wants to be with family when the baby, Gesine, is born in March 1933. Gesine tells Marie the story of her parents, though like everything in the book the telling happens obliquely—it’s not like we ever see them sitting down to chat, the girl demanding, Mother, how did your parents meet, that sort of thing. (Actually, there’s at least once scene like that, p 109 in my edition, but thus far it’s the exception.) The book’s driving force isn’t so much psychological (what motivated Lisbeth, say, to do this or that thing?) as structural (how are the two time periods juxtaposed?).

There’s another organizing principle, too, the one that gives the book its title: Anniversaries is organized into something like diary entries, one for each day of the year from August 1967 to August 1968. I say “something like” because Johnson makes no attempt to naturalize the entries—that is, it’s not really a diary (which, after all, would mean the book would need to be called Tagebuch). There’s no sense that Gesine is recording the events of her days. Importantly, and strangely, the book shifts between third person and first person plural, with only occasional instances of first person singular. Oftentimes, the “entries” aren’t even about Gesine and Marie’s daily lives. Instead they’re about what’s happening elsewhere to other people, whether across town or around the world. Or, rather, they’re about what The New York Times has reported in its daily edition.

Whereas the juxtaposition of past and present takes the form of oscillation—and this back and forth concerns space as much as time: the first entry begins while Gesine is on vacation at the Jersey shore, which leads the narrator to reflect on the difference between that shoreline and the one in Mecklenberg-Vorpommern, on the Baltic, where Gesine was born—the accumulation of news from the Times takes the form of linearity.

Anniversaries, then, is a highly structured book. (I am surprised how non- or un-associative it is: again, this might have something to do with the preponderance of third-person narration; easier to present associative thinking in first person: I’m thinking of someone like Proust.) But it doesn’t feel tidy or airless. It is also distinctly unwelcoming. I can’t put my finger on what makes it so, I need to think about this more as I read. But I find myself reading more from admiration rather than fascination. Which isn’t to say that I don’t like it. I really do. But so far I haven’t fallen into it, and I suspect that’s because it doesn’t want me to.

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Gesine loves the Times. Like a lot. She buys it every day, she fishes it out of trashcans if she misses a day, she reads it at breakfast and in the subway and on the Saturday morning ferry rides she takes with Marie to Staten Island (Marie’s own obsession). There are some great descriptions of how to fold the paper so you can read it in a crowded subway car. In this regard, the book has reminded me how much I love reading newspapers: first the Calgary Herald (either it was much better then than now or I was a much worse reader or, more likely, both), then the Globe and Mail, and eventually, after moving to the US, the Times, which it took me a while to warm up to but I’m not sure I’ve ever felt as fully adult as when my wife and I first took out a subscription to it. We still have one, but for a few years now it’s been digital and I don’t read nearly as much of it as I used to. Buying and reading a physical newspaper feels like one of those pleasures that life strips away from you, often for no good reason, as you get older.

But I digress. I can’t figure out why Gesine loves the Times as much as she does. Is it a sign that she, like me, is making her place in the US, binding herself to its journal of record? Is it because she needs to immerse herself in the present to keep the past away? (Remember, she’s born when the Nazis take power, and so presumably her story will become more and more representative of her birth country’s terrible path through the 20th century.) Given what I said earlier, about the book’s lack of interest in psychology, I probably shouldn’t be asking this question. Motivation isn’t the thing, here. But I’m puzzled by the newspaper material; I’ll have to keep thinking about it. We hear a lot about Vietnam, of course, and race riots in various American cities. But also about local events, crimes especially, but even some bits of local colour, news about the mayor, even sports, which Gesine seems alternately bemused by and uninterested in. 1968 is an epochal year, of course, so lots more is to come: the Prague Spring, the Democratic Convention, the assassination of MLK.

At one point, the narrator describes Gesine’s prodigious but erratic memory:

She had searched her memory for the year 1937 and once again retrieved nothing but a static, disconnected fragment. This is how her mind’s storage system arbitrarily selects things for her, stored up in quantities beyond her control, only sometimes responsive to commands and intentions.

Here, I think, we’re asked to think of Gesine as a kind of newspaper. Or is it like the reader of a newspaper, dipping into this story and that? Or as a kind of yearbook or encyclopedia or better web page, but one in which the flipping of the pages, the dipping into the entries, the clicking of the links is done for rather than by her?

Just after the passage I cited, we learn that Gesine values one function of her mind in particular:

memory, not the storage but the retrieval, the return to the past, the repetition of what was: being inside it once more, setting foot there again. There is no such thing.

You can glimpse what I’m calling the book’s unwelcoming nature in the eschewal in that last sentence of any conjunction. No “but,” no “however,” no “yet,” no “alas.” An austere, abrupt (in German they might call it ruppig) statement that almost brutally reverses or refuses what came before.   `

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Abruptness doesn’t preclude lyricism, though. Every once in a while, Johnson sneaks in something lovely, like this description of autumn in New York:

The park outside our windows is now entirely lit by the October sun that pushes every color one step closer toward the unbelievable: the yellow sprinkling of leaves on the grass, the elephant skin of the bare plane trees, the bright maze of branches in the thornbushes on the upper promenade, the cold Hudson, the hazy forest mist on the other side of the river, the steely sky. Sundayness has fallen on a Sunday. It is an almost innocent picture, in which children and people strolling along live as if harmlessly. It’s an illusion, and it feels like home.

The first lines are lovely, if a bit conventional. But the sense of quiet and lassitude is so well done: “Sundayness has fallen on a Sunday,” I love that. And yet as the passage continues, it becomes as “steely” as the sky: the picture is almost innocent; the passersby live as if harmlessly. And then this: “It’s an illusion, and it feels like home.” Is that “and” a recognition that Gesine and Marie, or maybe everyone on the Upper West Side, or maybe everyone everywhere else, too, lives in illusion? Or does it mean something like “and also” or “but at the same time”? An illusion yes, but also something like home? Can you see what I mean when I say it’s hard to fall into the book? It’s always making us think so hard.

When he wants to, Johnson can paint vivid character portraits. The less important someone is, the more sharply they come into view. Here, for example, is a description of Gesine’s friend Annie Fleury, nee Annie Killainen, a Finn who once worked at the UN, then married a writer who has taken her to Vermont, where she struggles with her three children and his abuse. She can’t keep up with the housework, what with three children and

because she also has to discuss “choice passages” of Mr. Fleury’s daily labors at night, and also has to type up a clean copy of these and all the other passages during the day. She seemed happy enough while straightening up and baking, and even though we were alone, with all the children out in the dripping-wet woods, she didn’t complain, it’s just that she hardly seemed to perceive F. F. Fleury at all when he showed his face in the kitchen and she wordlessly handed him a drink, making him a new one unasked every time, five before dinner, many more throughout the meal and afterward, until he finally found his way out of his stubborn, violent silence into the argument that Annie let pass over her, without defending herself, sitting slightly hunched, with strangely squared shoulders, hands between her knees, almost happy, as though what she’d expected was finally happening.

Amazing stuff. How economically Johnson gives us a vision of a life gone wrong, though not perceived as such, a portrait of a woman so beaten down that the only pleasure she has left lies in welcoming the beating. And although the focus is on Annie, we also get a glimpse of the pathetic, raging, and dangerous husband. Who even knows if these people will ever return in the book? (This is their only appearance so far.) I think the degradation of the scene—so powerfully presented in that image of the argument, that is, the screed, of a man battering a woman like a storm surge—is only heightened by the brief eruption into this dismal litany by that beautiful description of the children “out in the dripping-wet woods.” (Good with the compound adjectives, our Johnson.)

Almost as compelling is Johnson’s portrayal of Marie. She’s almost too good to be true, spunky and wise, a street-smart immigrant child who at first refuses to accept her new home but eventually identifies with it so fully she becomes afraid of the pull the old country might have on her mother. A bit precocious, Marie could at her most sprightly be a child from a Jonathan Safran Foer novel or, more tolerably, a Wes Anderson movie. But so far, so good. It’s clear Johnson adores her, but he hasn’t made her adorable, if you know what I mean. She has too much dignity for that. Here’s a nice moment on the ferry:

A Japanese gentleman had asked Marie for help, pressing his camera into her hand with extraordinarily fulsome apologies, and she had positioned him and his family in front of Manhattan’s skyscrapers with expert instructions and hand gestures before flexing her knees to absorb the swaying of the ship’s deck and pressing proof of the visitors’ trip around the world into their camera. As she disembarked over the gangway and up the stairs and down the ramp alongside the ferry building, she answered the tourists’ friendly looks three times, not with a smile but with a slight bow suggested from her shoulders and recognition in her eyes. – Welcome a stranger: I said in English, and even though she obviously recognized the quote from the Transit Authority’s buses, she replied, almost in earnest, almost excited: — That’s right Gesine. Welcome a stranger.

Where Marie is almost sage-like (look at her, practically quoting the Torah, practically responding to foreigners in their own idiom—that near, slight bow) and unperturbable (she absorbs more than just the swaying of the ferry in this book), her mother is at once more enigmatic and more erratic. I don’t have a handle on her yet. I’ll finish this post with the moment that has troubled me the most so far. It’s from the entry for September 12, 1967, which offers an unusually self-contained narrative.

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Gesine, who works at a bank, doing something we either don’t know about or that I have forgotten, has been asked to meet her boss at JFK to translate a letter he is bringing with him from overseas. She is taken there in the boss’s car, which is driven by his African-American chauffeur, Arthur. Arthur is distant and formal, rejecting her efforts to have him call her by her first name. He keeps the panel between the front and rear of the car up; Gesine “feels sealed, shipped, and delivered like a package for someone.” But when the boss arrives, Arthur is transformed. The two are matey, not equals but open and casual with each other. The panel between front and back stays down. Then we get this:

—And how did you and she get along? the boss asks, tossing his head towards Mrs. Crespahl. – She was fine: Arthur says, and Mrs. Crespahl catches his eye in the rearview mirror for a moment. He doesn’t wink at her, just gives her a tiny, reassuring widening of the eyelids.

I might have known that the boss would put his arm around your shoulders, hold the door for you, let you choose where to sit. Gesine, or whatever your name is.

All right, Arthur. And, go to hell, Arthur.

So many unexpected reversals here! We’re denied the possible moment of solidarity between the African American man and the immigrant woman, one who perhaps fancies herself free of American prejudice, or eager to show herself as such: he doesn’t wink. But he does offer that reassuring widening of the eyelid, an interpretation we are inclined to trust, especially if we think it comes more from an omniscient narrator than Gesine. Surprising, then, that what Arthur is thinking is anything but warm towards Gesine, anything but reassuring. And even more surprising, and disquieting, that Gesine responds with such hostility. Of course, we only have Gesine’s imagining of Arthur’s thoughts to go on. What makes her think that’s what he’s thinking? I find her hostility disproportionate in response to his—but why do I think that? Maybe the point here is that in relation to white men, who get to set the terms of how the world works, there’s no room for solidarity between those they are able to play off each other, those who need the validation of the dominant group much more than they need to look out for each other. I don’t know. I don’t know what to make of Gesine, here or elsewhere.

*

As soon as I learned this translation of Anniversaries was forthcoming I knew I had to have it. But that I have actually started reading it, so soon after its arrival (most books sit in my house for years before being read, if in fact they even are), I owe largely to Scott from seraillon. We were emailing a few weeks ago, and he was enthusing about its brilliance. At that point he was as far in as I am now (he’s probably almost finished by now!), and he said something that whetted my appetite:

What Johnson does with each day of his year of daily entries is of astonishing diversity and imagination. And some of it is really awe-inspiring, the kind of writing that just leaves me holding the book and wondering “How did he do that?” There’s a collage/montage quality, but as though of overlapping translucent motifs that gain depth and form as they accumulate.

Like all of Scott’s descriptions, this is beautiful and smart. It inspires me to make my own responses to the book equally nuanced and articulate. Check back in over the coming weeks as I report on my changing and, with luck, deepening impressions of this steely masterpiece.

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“So we are both bereaved!” Olivia Manning’s Levant Trilogy

The most powerful and consequential scene in Olivia Manning’s Levant Trilogy (1977-80) occurs early in the first volume, The Danger Tree. A young Englishwoman, Harriet Pringle, is the primary observer of the scene. Manning detailed Harriet’s experiences in Romania and Greece with her feckless husband, Guy, a teacher attached to the British Council, in three wonderful novels published in the 1960s as the Balkan Trilogy. At the end of those books, Harriet and Guy, on the run from fascism, had been pushed from Bucharest to Athens and, finally, across the Mediterranean in two ancient, creaky, and overcrowded ships to safety in Egypt.

Manning couldn’t let go of her characters (another way to say this is that she couldn’t keep from revisiting her own life, since Harriet and Guy are modeled on Manning herself and her husband, Reggie, and their wartime experiences). In the last years of her life, she took up their story again, adding a new character, Simon Boulderstone, to the mix. In the opening chapter Simon, a twenty-year-old recruit freshly arrived in Egypt to fight Rommel’s army, gets separated from his regiment and falls in with Harriet and her circle of fellow refugees.

Cairo, Manning explains, “had become the clearinghouse of Eastern Europe”:

Kings and princes, heads of state, their followers and hangers-on, free governments with all their officials, everyone who saw himself committed to the allied cause, had come to live here off the charity of the British government. Hotels, restaurants and cafes were loud with the squabbles, rivalries, scandals, exhibitions of importance and hurt feelings that occupied the refugees while they waited for the war to end and the old order to return.

Except it might not. Things in Cairo are tense. The Germans aren’t far away, though no one knows for sure where exactly. The darkest rumours suggest they’ll take the city in a matter of days. Many exiles have chosen to leave for points east. The Egyptians, by contrast, are sanguine, even welcoming the possibility of German takeover, so much resentment is there of the British. The Anglo-Egyptians, by contrast, are incensed. One of them, Sir Clifford, an agent for an oil company, explains, with unpleasant distaste, “The gypo porters are having a high old time at the station. I was there yesterday, saw them chucking the luggage about, roaring with laughter, bawling, “Hitler come.’”

In the midst this turmoil, Clifford leads a group that includes Simon and Harriet on an excursion to the Fayoum, an oasis region about sixty miles from the city. The self-proclaimed Egyptologist leads the motley and mostly listless group through various tombs and a fly-ridden picnic in the heat of the day. Towards evening, they pass the home of Sir Desmond and Angela Hooper, and, despite the group’s protestations, Clifford decides to drop in to see if the couple has heard any news.

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As the group waits awkwardly in a living room “as large as a ballroom” they hear a car shrieking on the drive and a terrible commotion in the hall. A woman runs into the room, calling for Sir Desmond, “her distracted appearance made more wild by her disarranged black hair and the torn, paint-covered overalls that protected her dress.” This is Lady Hooper, returned from a sketching session that ends abruptly after a terrible accident.

Behind her, two servants carry in “the inert body of a boy”:

He lay prone and motionless, a thin, small boy of eight or nine with the same delicate features as his mother: only something had happened to them. One eye was missing. There was a hole in the left cheek that extended into the torn wound which had been his mouth. Blood had poured down his chin and was caked on the collar of his open-necked shirt. The other eye, which was open, was lackluster and blind like the eye of a dead rabbit.

Manning conveys horror through simple repetition, as if her language were shocked by what it had to describe. “Eye,” for example, is repeated three times, twice in a single sentence, which includes a meagre yet highly effective simile (the boy’s open eye is blind like the eye of a dead rabbit’s—an eye is like an eye). The idea of a hole or orifice is similarly repeated. There are the eyes and the mouth, of course, and the terrible opening in what had been the cheek. But there is also a painful contrast between these unnatural openings and the ordinary one of the “open-necked shirt.”

The Hoopers’ child—as best I can tell, he is never named—had picked up an explosive hidden in the sand while playing in the desert. The guests are horrified and fascinated by the scene. Sir Desmond and Angela react with stoic calm, but they are clearly in shock. They decide the boy should have something to eat, “a little nourishment, light and easy to swallow.”

A servant brings a bowl of gruel and Sir Desmond, “bending tenderly over the boy,” attempts to feed him:

The mouth was too clogged with congealed blood to permit entry so the father poured a spoonful of gruel into the hole in the cheek. The gruel poured out again. This happened three times before Sir Desmond gave up and, gathering the child in his arms, said, ‘He wants to sleep. I’ll take him to his room.’

I’d actually read The Danger Tree before, right after I devoured The Balkan Trilogy. Returning to it now, almost ten years later, I’d forgotten most of it, except this utterly indelible scene. The parents’ decision is so insane, so deluded—the boy is clearly dead, obviously beyond any “wants”—and yet so understandable. The matter-of-factness of the telling (that terrible sentence, “The gruel poured out again”) lends dignity to the disbelieving parents.

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In one way, the child’s death is a minor event. It doesn’t involve Harriet, Guy, or Simon directly; it has no direct connection to the war (though that’s presumably why live explosives are lying around). Simon, once he finally makes his way to the Front, has even forgotten all about it until a Signals man warns him about minefields and other booby traps: he broods on the information “until suddenly, like a returning dream, he remembered the dead boy in the Fayoum house.” Everything about the day has become distant, the people “beings of an unreal world.” Yet he muses on the moment; similarly, this minor moment echoes and ricochets across the books’ 500 pages. Like Simon, Manning keeps coming back to the boy’s death. In particular, she develops the character of his mother, Angela Hooper. In the death scene, she is a cipher: partly desperate, partly clueless. Later, she becomes a joke among the Cairo expatriates (Clifford, nasty little snake, dines out on the story for months; soon everyone knows it). Angela moves to Cairo, where, having separated from her husband and abandoned her previous life as an artist, mother, and hostess, she is a Brett Ashley figure who drinks too much and doesn’t seem to care about anything, so traumatized is she by the past.

Yet as the trilogy continues, Angela becomes increasingly complex. Her relationship with an alcoholic poet, Bill Castlebar, reveals itself not to have been the tawdry joke everyone initially took it to be but a sustaining, if not sustained, quasi-marriage of equals. She becomes especially important to Harriet, who gains in her something she has never had before: a friend of her own. Previously Harriet has always had to make do with her husband’s numerous hangers-on. (Guy attracts almost everyone he meets, men anyway, because he seems to take such interest in them, and he does, but only insofar as they are a problem for him to solve or a vessel for him to fill with knowledge or advice; besides, he is chronically over-committed, probably as a way to keep real intimacy, real friendships, at bay, and so he carelessly foists everyone who clamours for a slice of his attention on to his wife. She doesn’t want to look after them and they don’t want to be looked after by her.) When Angela first re-encounters her, Harriet is sure the bereaved woman won’t remember their first meeting. But she does:

‘I brought in my boy and the room was full of people. He was a beautiful boy, wasn’t he? His body was untouched—there was only that wound in his head. A piece of metal had gone into the brain and killed him. He was almost perfect, a small, perfect body, yet he was dead. We couldn’t believe it, but next day of course… We had to bury him.’

Harriet isn’t ready for this confidence, misreading it as some combination of delusion (and what does that ellipsis signify?) and over-sharing: “wishing this would end,” she redirects the conversation. Harriet is our hero, but as we see here she’s not always sympathetic. Her ability to see through other people’s bullshit is refreshing (she sees through Guy’s, but won’t leave him: frustrating!), but she can brusque—sometimes that makes us cheer, as when she admits she is “never unwilling to disquiet” a man who had once left Guy in the lurch, but sometimes that makes us wonder, as when she dismisses a man’s anxiety about whether he will ever be able to take up his career again once the way is over (he is an actor, and fears his moment has passed) by heartlessly replying, “We’re all displaced persons these days.”

Most of the time, though, Harrier is sensitive and perceptive. There’s nothing Proustian about Manning’s style or approach or concerns, but over the course of these novels she does something I’ve only seen in Proust: she reveals characters to each other over an extended period of time, so that by the end they only barely resemble our initial sense of them. Just as Marcel comes to see Charlus entirely differently over the course of the lifetime described by his book, so too Harriet finds entirely unpredictable depths to Angela. The same is true of Castelbar. At first, he seems merely an unpleasant, no longer young man on the make, who has attached himself to Angela because she is rich and will buy all his drinks and even, rather unaccountably, even to himself, wants to screw him. But the relationship is for real. And we learn, with Harriet, how kind he is, and Harriet, at any rate (with luck we already know this, but we can never be reminded too often), learns how important kindness is in the people we love—and how little of it she gets from Guy:

He was kind, and not only to Angela. He carried his kindness over to Harriet so she, an admirer of wit, intelligence, and looks in a man, was beginning to realize that kindness, if you had the luck to find it, was an even more desirable quality.

Harriet even comes to see the actor, a man named Aidan Pratt, the one whose worries about his career she had dismissed, in a completely other light, such that he demands her sympathy. He tells her the story of his war, which consists of two traumas: one, referenced only obliquely and never developed, concerns the death of a lover; the other concerns his experiences as a conchie, a conscientious objector, early in the war. He was put to work on a liner transporting orphans to Canada, but the boat was torpedoed by the Germans and he the only survivor, having spent days adrift in the ocean in a life-raft full of children he was unable to save, an experience that did away with his pacifism.

Over and over, Manning gives us glimpses into the extraordinary yet commonplace terrors faced by people at war. Flipping again through Deirdre David’s workmanlike but comprehensive recent biography of Manning, I’m reminded that many of the Levant Trilogy’s first readers liked the Simon sections of the book best. They were impressed with Manning’s ability to describe the confusion and terror of desert tank warfare. I suspect sexism played a part in this response—the books were most valued when Manning proved able to move past her own experiences to depict the male experience of fighting. I think these scenes are good, too, but, as I’ve suggested, they’re not what most interests me. Besides, I think the distinction between what happens at and behind the Front misses Manning’s point. These worlds are connected by a shared experience of loss and trauma, as Simon himself recognizes when, having learned that his brother has died, he is given a week’s leave in Cairo, where he meets Angela again. She remembers him immediately, even apologizing for what the scene with her son must have looked like to an observer:

‘We didn’t know he was dead, you know: or perhaps we couldn’t bear to know. It must have been upsetting for you. I’m sorry.’

In what could be a motto for the books, Angela observes that she and Simon now share the most profound and inescapable experience, of loss: “So we are both bereaved!”

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Olivia Manning, self-portrait c. 1930

I could say a lot more about these books, but this post is long enough. I’ll end by listing a few other favourite moments. Harriet is given the chance at a new life when, having almost died from amoebic dysentery, she finds a place on a ship taking women and children back to England. At the last moment, though, she decides not to get on the boat, a lucky thing too, since it is sunk shortly after entering the Indian ocean. Guy and everyone in Cairo think she is dead (some sections of the last volume are focalized through Guy; it is interesting that this doesn’t make us sympathize with him any more), whereas Harriet has no idea what has happened to the boat. Blissfully unaware, she sets out on an adventure, first to Damascus and then Palestine. These sections are fascinating, but underdeveloped. (Perhaps Manning thought she had mined her experiences in Jerusalem sufficiently in my favourite of her novels, School for Love.) More than the novel’s travelogue of the Levant, what stays with me are its arresting observations (watching a porter manage piles of luggage, Harriet “saw that from bearing so much eight, his feet had become almost circular and appeared to have toes all round”), vivid characterization, even of minor roles (who can forget Lister, who in his cups always returns to memories of his childhood nurse, who used to pull down his underwear and beat him with a hairbrush: “Bristle side. Used to pull down little kickers and beat little bum. Poor little bum!”), and striking, often violent scenes, whether of a bar in Tiberias destroyed by violent, maudlin, drunken Australian soldiers on leave, of a collapsed house after an air-raid in Cairo, where, for days afterward, survivors can be heard wailing to be released, though no one will do anything about it, or of a miserable polar bear in the sweltering Cairo zoo, with which Harriet tries to bond “through the medium of her intense pity.” She tells the bear, “’If I could do anything for you, I would do it with my whole heart. But the world is against us. All I can do, is go away.’”

Harriet’s rather despairing conclusion isn’t quite the book’s. People do care for each other, though it almost always ends badly (they get blown up, they take another lover, they get sick and die). (Maybe the only exceptions are a pair of lesbian ambulance drivers–I wanted a whole book about them–though it’s unclear whether their relationship can survive the war.) Nor is it clear that going away is as practicable a solution as Harriet here seems to think. After all, she is returned to Guy, and, in a way to life, having been presumed dead. Fittingly, this reunion is more moving to the people watching it than to the novel itself. Harriet and Guy are delighted to be together again, but Harriet, at least, now has no illusions that she will ever come first with her husband. Her tart observation that marriage is “knowing too much about each other” is fitting for novels in which the most profound togetherness comes only through loss.

I read these books alongside Scott of the blog seraillon. Please read his excellent essay.

Hey, Jude

A Little Life—Hanya Yanagihara (2015)

The first time I lived amongst people who loved to read was after I graduated from high school. Through circumstances too long to get into here I managed to get a job in the shipping department of a bookstore in Switzerland. I loved listening to the other booksellers talk about what they were reading. One of the things I learned is that a community of readers only arises from solitude. I remember one of my co-workers telling me about a book she was so absorbed in—it was by that titan of Swiss literature, Ken Follett—she didn’t want to do anything else but read. “We had friends over for dinner,” she told me ruefully, “and the whole time I just wanted them to leave so I could get back to my book.” No one had ever expressed this sentiment to me so baldly and of course I was so young with so few obligations that I could pretty much do whatever I wanted when it came to reading or anything else for that matter, yet even so I recognized with a throb of immediate familiarity that feeling of impatience with the rest of the world, that desire to return to another world, the one of the book in which I was so immersed.

Even then I knew this sort of immersion was rare, most reading experiences, even good ones, being more quotidian, more desultory, more broken into by the exigencies of the day, but I couldn’t guess how rare it would become, as my time became less my own and my attention span seemed to shrivel. (Lately I find myself setting aside whatever I’m reading to check my email, again, or twitter, again, or the hockey score, again.)

How wonderful then—how marvelous a tonic at the end of a difficult semester—to have spent the better part of the last week lost in Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life. I sped through its 700+ pages in satisfying 100-150 page chunks, and when I wasn’t reading it I was thinking about it, anticipating when I could get back to it, wondering not so much what would happen next as what its characters were doing, as if they were living beings going about their business. It’s not so much that I confused them with real people, but rather they had for me a kind of autonomous life more interesting to me than that of the people in my real life.

I can imagine someone calling A Little Life old-fashioned: with its emphasis on character, shifting third person narration, and clearly observed East Coast locations it could be seen as a literary analogue to the art of one of its characters, JB, a “classicist” figurative painter who feels himself to be fighting a rearguard action against performance and other non-figurative arts. But A Little Life isn’t defensive, and I’m not sure it’s old-fashioned. Admittedly, it doesn’t feel especially of its moment, the way books by, say, Ben Lerner or Teju Cole or Karl Ove Knausgaard do. (This means it is unlikely to date as badly as they surely will.) What struck me in reading A Little Life was how little it reminded me of anything else I’d read, which might be because its artistic touchstones are visual: painting, photography, film, architecture. Every so often I’d think of Proust, both for the book’s anatomizing of the vicissitudes of relationships—their shifts, both sudden and gradual, their reversals, their persistence, the way they loom out from the practicalities of everyday life even when they occupy less of our attention than those mundane matters—and for the uncertainty about when its events happen and even about the age of its characters, although the book becomes much clearer about that as it goes along.

But old-fashioned or of the moment or Proustian or something else entirely, A Little Life certainly is a melodramatic and sentimental book, filled with dramatic events. The words the characters most often say to each other are “I’m sorry” and the thing they do more than anything else is cry, or defiantly not cry, or wish they could cry. I can’t talk about this book without talking about some of these events, so if spoilers bother you as much as they do me (though the book isn’t particularly driven by plot) then you might want to stop here.


A Little Life follows four young men from the time they meet in college into early middle age. Even though one of them thinks only two are really ambitious, filled with what he calls “that grim, trudging determination… that gave them that slightly faraway look in their eyes that always made him think a fraction of them was already living in some imagined future,” in fact each becomes successful in his chosen field. JB, spoiled, petulant, irrepressible, becomes a painter. Malcolm, unsure, self-doubting, refined, rich, becomes an architect. Willem, kind, even-keeled, sensitive, a bit plodding or, at least, keen to think of himself that way, becomes an actor, even, to the surprise of everyone, a very famous one. And finally Jude, the center of the book, brilliant, secretive, haunted, filled with self-loathing, emotionally damaged, becomes a feared litigator.

JB and Malcolm are more or less wealthy New Yorkers (Malcolm more, JB less). Malcolm feels guilty about the advantages given to him by his very wealthy, very cultured, mixed-race family, while JB is cosseted by the many women in his extended Haitian family. Willem’s parents emigrated from Norway to be ranchers in Wyoming; at college he feels himself to be “a sort of unofficial poor-white-rural-dweller-oddity affirmative-action representative.” And Jude—no one knows where he comes from, how he made it to college in Boston. All he’ll say is that his parents died when he was small and that he was injured in a car accident which is why he limps and struggles to climb stairs and is sometimes laid out with mysterious, debilitating pain. His injuries lead him to Andy, a medical student who becomes his doctor, almost his personal physician, the only person who knows even part of what happened to Jude in his past.

Eventually, we learn Jude’s back-story. Abandoned by his parents when he was only an infant, he grows up in a monastery. This is no idyll. The monks educate the boy, who is an excellent pupil, but they also punish and abuse him, abuse that takes on even more sinister and sexual form when the one person who seems to care for him, the gentle gardener Brother Luke, spirits him away from the monastery and into a fugitive life on the run, through innumerable motel rooms and always in disguise, a life paid for by Luke’s prostituting the boy out to hundreds of men. As if this weren’t terrible enough, he compounds that abuse by also forcing the boy to have sex with him as a sign of what he insists is their love for each other. The physical, mental and sexual abuse continues at the orphanage Jude is sent to after Luke is finally caught. Managing to escape the orphanage, Jude manages to make his way half-way across the country, hitching rides with truckers who, more often than not, rape him as well. Eventually he is found, delirious with fever from a venereal disease, he is found by a psychiatrist, the sinister Dr. Traylor, who locks him in his basement, and waits until a round of antibiotics has run its course before abusing the boy himself. Traylor eventually “frees” Jude but only to hurt him one final horrible time: he runs over him in his car. Jude is found and taken to hospital, where the now fifteen-year-old meets the first good person in his life, his therapist Anna, but in keeping with the book’s punishing attitude, she dies of cancer, though not before helping him apply to college.

Writing this out, I almost want to laugh, it’s so over the top. But the book doesn’t play it for laughs. (A Little Life has many virtues, but humour is not one of them.) There’s a scene where Jude, on the run with Luke, sees some boys playing little league ball, their mothers waiting for the with slices of orange, and knows his life will never be like that, never be normal—it could be a kind of rewriting of Lolita from the child’s perspective, a version of that famous scene in which Humbert Humbert , with grotesque self-satisfaction but also real pathos, hears some children singing and knows Lolita’s voice will never be among their concord. But although A Little Life doles out Jude’s past in extended flashbacks, what it really cares about is the long aftermath of that terrible time. What kind of an adult could a person with no childhood be? In this way, the book always steers just shy of sadism. It punishes Jude, and it punishes us for our investment in Jude—an investment it works hard to create by making him such a complex and fascinating character—but it doesn’t manipulate just for the sake of manipulation. Its manipulation serves a number of ends—for example, by asking us whether knowing everything about someone is to condone or accept them.

The novel enacts this dilemma as part of its investigation of friendship. Arriving at college, Jude is immediately befriended by JB, Malcolm, and Willem, much to his amazement, and joy, and terror (he thinks he doesn’t deserve it, is sure the others have made a mistake about him). The bond between the four—some of which has to do with supporting each other in their desire to make it, and some of which has to do with forming a circle of protection around whatever horrors Jude has experienced: horrors that they know are present even though they don’t know what they are—continues throughout their adult lives.

For all its fascination with success and fame as particular forms of accomplishment, A Little Life is ultimately more interested in something less tangible, something that success and fame tend to work against—long lasting emotional connections between individuals. This is a novel of male friendship. Women barely factor into it: there are hardly any in the book and their perspective is never shared by the narration. Is it because Yanagihara is a woman that this decision never feels demeaning or exclusionary? Of the various implausible or fantastical elements to the novel, the one that feels most energizing to me is its ability to present its intense focus on the intimate and emotional lives of four men without any of the “bromance” anxiety about homosexuality that seems to govern so many representations of male friendship today (all that Hangover stuff). And that’s not just because some of the characters are gay. Rather it’s because the book is so queer, in the sense Eve Sedgwick gave us when she reminded us to remember that people are different and have different desires and that the straight/gay binary, which only normalized heterosexuality, couldn’t account for these seemingly simple yet enormously consequential facts. Of the central characters, JB is openly, we might almost say straightforwardly, gay. Malcolm, after some youthful hand-wringing, comes out as straight. But Jude has had sexual desire beaten out of him by the horrors of his childhood, although on the rare occasions in his adult life when he, unwillingly, has sex it is with men. And Willem prefers to sleep with women except that the person he really loves, and really desires, is Jude. The life Willem and Jude try to make together becomes the center of the book: this queer relationship, which cannot be contained by our habitual use of the term friendship, which is sexual but not, which is a gift to both men yet fraught with risk, given Jude’s past, is something that the book shows us at great length because it can’t name it and anyway naming it would reduce it. In this light, the opening page, in which Jude and Willem, fresh out of college and newly arrived in New York, try to rent an apartment that has only one closet, a closet that they realize they don’t even need, since they don’t have anything, in retrospect seems like a joke about limiting ideas of sexuality and identity.

I said earlier that I had a hard time deciding whether the book was conventional or unconventional in its structure. Now I see that this uncertainty comes from its challenge to conventional modes of intimacy that it nonetheless maintains (It is at once correct and false to say that Jude and Willem are friends. The novel wants to keep friendship as its central concept, but it also wants to expand and revise that concept. The closest analogue to what I mean in rhetoric is catachresis, a semantic “misuse” that bends or deforms a term from its habitual use.) Yanagihara mimics this catachresis in the structure of her novel. We begin by shuttling back and forth between the perspectives of the four main characters, as it develops a portrait of the group. But by and by JB and Malcolm fall by the wayside; they’re still in the book, but events aren’t narrated from their perspective any longer. Instead, Willem and, especially, Jude, and then Willem & Jude are at the center of things. I noted earlier that the book is in third person, but there are a couple of sections narrated in first person. I’m pretty sure these are limited to the perspective of Harold, a professor of Jude’s in law school who becomes so close to Jude that he and his wife eventually formally adopt Jude. (This allows Yanagihara to do for the child-parent relationship what she does at greater length with friendship: i.e. to renovate and expand it: Harold is Jude’s father, but he isn’t his father in any conventional sort—what, she asks, is the emotional tie between these two men?) Harder to figure out are shifts to present tense: I think these are used at times of particular emotional intensity, but I’m not sure—maybe someone can help me figure that out. Yanagihara’s style is neither showy nor unvarnished, nothing particularly daunting or knotted about the syntax yet with a perspicuity of word choice that befits these educated, accomplished, thoughtful characters. Every once in a while, the prose becomes more poetic, more metaphoric, but always anchored in something more plainspoken. Here, for example, is Willem thinking about his parents’ response to the death of his handicapped brother, Henning:

He wanted to scream at his parents, to hit them, to elicit from them something—some melting into grief, some loss of composure, some recognition that something large had happened, that in Henning’s death they had lost something vital and necessary to their lives. He didn’t care if they really felt this way or not: he just needed them to say it, he needed to feel that something lay beneath their impenetrable calm, that somewhere within them ran a thin stream of quick, cool water, teeming with delicate lives, minnows and grasses and tiny white flowers, all tender and easily wounded and so vulnerable you couldn’t see them without aching for them.

However unusual the images in this little aria—images we can just about believe are Willem’s: it’s only in the last clauses about the subterranean stream of water that we sense any distance between character and narrator—their subject matter, of emotion, is typical. We see here that same sense of difficulty in naming—that italicized something, those anaphoric phrases gesturing towards some evanescent thing that is tied to the more easily named forms of life in the extended metaphor by the concept of delicacy and value: things that are fragile and hurt are things we must open ourselves up to.

The book’s stylistic and formal choices, then, have everything to do with its interest in revising without fully destroying conventional forms of emotional connection or relationship. That same dynamic is at work in a philosophical and psychological register in the book’s interest in the relation between form and formlessness. It makes sense that so many of the book’s characters are creators—even Jude responds to the structure of the law, which he comes to as a way to become materially secure in a way he never was in his childhood after leaving behind his first love, mathematics. In the courtroom he is commanding and decisive, even cruel. Harold despairs of Jude’s decision to abandon his work with the public prosecutor in favour of corporate law, but the callousness or self-interested qualities he sees in Jude’s defenses of corporate malfeasance extends far beyond the law. Creation is always destructive, we see, not least of trust and human relationship, most famously in JB’s choice to paint only his friends, especially Jude, especially in moments of what to Jude is intolerable vulnerability. I think of JB’s paintings like Alex Katz’s, only without any women:

katz_round-hill

Alex Katz, “Round Hill” (1977)

In Katz’s “Round Hill” we see solitude, even vacancy in the middle of intimacy or closeness. There’s always something that threatens to destroy whatever connections we make with others. Even more paradoxically, sometimes the destructive element is the only thing that gives our lives shape, a painful contradiction we see most clearly in Jude’s self-harm, his need to cut. Perhaps this tension between form and formlessness explains why A Little Life is so long. The passing of time is essential to the making of a life. Friendships, emotional connections more generally, need repetitions and rituals in order to cohere, yet even then they are subject to so many changes, reversals, vicissitudes. Maybe that’s why there are so many parties in this book, so many birthdays, so many premieres, so many holidays—sometimes I think this book is about Thanksgiving—in its pages: the coursing of affect and sympathy between individuals is so fluid, so quicksilver, that we need these artificial touchstones if we want to have any hope of holding on to it, to turning these friable, fragile, evanescent emotions into a life, even a little one.

In this regard, the title of A Little Life can be taken as a modest claim about its accomplishments, an ironic contrast to its epic scope. A little life might be all any of us have, all any of us can aspire towards. Yet the term isn’t only (however modestly) aspirational. It also refers to falsity, artificiality, the worst aspects of performance. As far as I can tell, the only time that the titular phrase is actually used in the text is when Brother Luke instructs Jude how to act with the johns: he needs to act as though he likes it, he needs to “show a little life.” This life that we live in our vulnerable human bodies is previous because finite. But what the double meaning of the title suggests is that if life is a value it’s not because it’s synonymous with authenticity. Life is a force that manifests itself in pre-established forms: in this sense we are all actors filling a role (thus the characters’ insistence on “making it” takes the form of successfully inhabiting recognizable forms of being, not least certain careers or vocations). Acting can be enabling, as Willem’s career demonstrates. But it can also be punitive, a source of deprivation, as Jude’s enforced life as a rent boy suggests. Yet although established roles are powerful and hard to dislodge they aren’t definitively fixed. They’re open to being changed, and they are at their most powerful when they can’t yet be named, or when they deform or revise an established name (like “friendship”).

But what about those aspects of our experience that seem to force us into certain beliefs, actions, or identities? A Little Life is at its most interesting when it pits its theory of self or societal invention against the debilitating and stultifying effects of abuse and trauma. Can a damaged person change his sense of himself in relation to other people? I’ve been arguing that the novel believes that people can change each other, largely by changing the way they live and act together. But that claim has to be qualified by its investigation of people who cannot or will not change because their traumatic experiences make it almost impossible for them to do so. What, the novel asks, is the relation between physical and mental health? What does it mean to be psychologically deviant or abnormal? How can we respect the value of a person’s symptoms—the meaning, we might even say the sustenance, they give him—while still acknowledging how harmful they can be? If we love someone who is hurt or damaged, are we responsible for curing him, or making sure someone else cures him (and what would curing even mean in this context)? Or does our responsibility consist in letting him be who he is? But what if he’s someone who damages himself? How can we express love for people who hurt us? What kind of a relationship can we have with them? Does sex need to enter into every loving relationship? How can we renovate or expand our impoverished ideas about relationships? In what way is friendship a model for those new ways of being? Are there some experiences so powerful that they preclude the possibility of changing who we are?

Many of these questions were already posed a century ago by psychoanalysis, and this is yet another way in which the novel is importantly modern. Yet psychotherapy in general is given pretty short shrift in the book: Jude is terrified of it (which could be taken as an implicit acknowledgement of its power), and Willem comes to tire of it, even as he and Harold and Andy and everybody in Jude’s life urges Jude to unburden himself to a professional. Jude refuses, and it’s hard not to connect this to the fact that of the many men who harm Jude in his childhood, the worst is the psychiatrist Dr. Traylor. The characters’ opinions aren’t the same as the book’s, of course, but maybe this skepticism of the methodology that has set the very terms of the book’s premise—that the psyche of a person wounded in childhood, whether he remains wounded or not, is not just a meaningful concept but also a source of endless fascination—has to do with the desire of psychotherapy to answer these questions rather than to ask them. The book’s uncertainty about therapy is even more striking in light of its validation of traditional anatomical/physiological medicine, as incarnated in Andy’s over-the-top, devoted ministrations to Jude. No matter how inexorable the decline in Jude’s physical condition, no matter how much abuse his body suffers, thanks to these medical ministrations Jude always recovers, even when that means, as it does eventually, that his legs must be amputated.

But the novel’s understanding of the relationship between mind and body is more complicated than these opposing depictions of medical care would suggest. Jude fears that the body reflects the mind—his damaged body is a sign of his damaged mind. But that damage comes in two kinds—the harm done to him by others and the harm he does to himself, especially cutting. In the latter case, the body trumps the mind: physical pain takes him away from his problems, makes him serene and gives him the feeling of control. But in other ways the body seems to have no relation to the mind—for all his belief that he is hideous, and despite the mass of scar tissue on his back and arms, Jude is strikingly handsome. In this regard, the relation of body to mind fits with the disjunction we repeatedly find in the book between how others perceive a character and how the character perceives himself: Jude can never shake his conviction that he is fundamentally soiled and unworthy of love.

Whatever the book wants to tell us about bodies and minds is connected to the intense emotion that the book is not just depicting but also making us feel. A Little Life is relentless in its description of the terrible things that happen to Jude. It exploits our responses to them, but it doesn’t simply titillate us, or revel in the horror. But it does want us to be emotionally bruised by the things it tells us about. More than most books it elicits extreme emotional responses from us: we take joy in their success, fear with them that this success won’t last, get angry at them when their self-defeating tendencies make them unable to accept the love and attention they are offered, and feel fury when they are hurt, visceral pain and anguish at the suffering their bodies endure, and hurt when we see how quickly life and love can be taken away. The quickening of our emotional response has larger social-political ends, similar to the way the melodrama of Uncle Tom’s Cabin sought to further abolitionism, or the films of Douglas Sirk to explore the prison of women’s lives in 50s America. In Yanagihara’s case that end, I think, is the redescription or renovation of friendship as the most meaningful kind of emotional tie.


Extremes of emotion that suggest the possibility of new kinds of relationships the instantiation of which never overcomes the possibility of their failure, indeed, the failure of any relationship, the possibility of an isolation that might be enabling but which could also be terrifying—this convoluted knot of affective promise and threat seems encapsulated to me in the image on the cover of Yanagihara’s book, a Peter Hujar photo of a man with his eyes screwed shut and a hand (his own?—hard to say, though if so the posture is awkward, unnatural) touching the side of his face.

Peter Hujar, "Orgasmic Man" (1987)

Peter Hujar, “Orgasmic Man” (1987)

Although he looks anguished to me, the jacket copy tells me the photo is called “Orgasmic Man.” Of course Barthes and others made plenty of hay about the estranging, even destructive qualities of bliss, so it’s not as if those terms are necessarily contradictory. My uncertainty about this image, my changing sense of what it might mean in light of its title has an analogue in the design of the cover. In the right light, a holographic double of the title and author’s name shimmers into life, as if in recognition of the subterranean life that courses beneath the surface of even those who are closest to us. The power of A Little Life is to be able to expose that duality so movingly, to make us immersed in the lives of these characters, to do what literature does, to let us live in a world that is not our world. Of course there are risks in that displacement. Thinking back to my Swiss co-worker, who wanted her guests gone so she could get back to her book, I see now that the greatest paradox of A Little Life is that to be immersed in this enormous, exhilarating book about what it means to relate to others is to risk being distanced, even alienated from the others in our own lives, the ones we love in whatever hesitantly articulable ways we love them.

My Struggle: Volume 1 (A Death in the Family)–Karl Ove Knausgaard (2009, 2012 English translation by Don Bartlett)

Say what you will about air travel these days, but it has for me one great virtue: it’s great for reading. In fact, planes are some of the only places I ever see anyone reading anymore. I should say, though, that since moving to Arkansas I hardly ever spend any time in public space anymore. If I lived somewhere else, somewhere where I wasn’t in the car all the time, I might find that reading hasn’t quite shriveled away entirely.

Distractions are fewer in the quasi-public space of the plane. And by “distractions” I mean phone and email. That’s all changing, alas, but for now I relish the sustained reading time I sometimes get on a long plane ride.

That deeply immersive reading experience gives me some of the same satisfactions of a long run, that same mile-eating, page-turning lope. Of course, immersive reading can happen at other times and in other places. And our life situations have everything to do with whether it does. Children sure make it hard. (Everything I’ve said about reading on planes refers to flying without children.) But when immersive reading happens, it’s quite memorable. I remember a particularly snowy January in Halifax, my Sophomore year of college, reading Absalom, Absalom! and S/Z in long bouts on my futon on the floor. (Every time I looked up it seemed to be snowing some more.) I remember reading Daniel Mendelsohn’s The Lost late, late into the night in our tiny bedroom in our tiny dormer apartment in Haverford, PA. (I love to read when everyone else is asleep). And I suspect I’ll long remember reading the last two-thirds of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s A Death in the Family on the plane back from a vacation in Iceland last month.

If I were Knausgaard, I’d tell you everything possible about that reading experience: the glimmer of seatback screens all around me, the increasingly drunk and loud elderly Icelanders in the rows just ahead of me, the delicious and laughably expensive Icelandic beer I’d just finished myself, as accompaniment to the delicious and even more laughably expensive mango curried chicken I’d purchased for dinner. I’d need to lull you into a pleasant stupor that is almost boredom, to send you into a readerly slipstream in which sentences and pages follow one another easily. Then I’d segue from this mass of material detail—often banal, often about consumption—into more abstract meditations, always based on autobiographical experience, meditations on grander concepts, the grandest in fact, the most provocative, the most important, the most open to bombast and bluster: sex, money, work, family, and death, death especially. Some of these conclusions would be a bit superficial, betraying what Knausgaard, at least the Knausgaard who narrates this text, would be the first to say is a haphazard reading of the European philosophical and literary tradition. But most of these meditations would in fact turn out to be shrewd and thought provoking, even beautiful. And you would keep turning the pages, you would completely under my spell, and you wouldn’t care about whether what I had to say was original or subtle or intellectually formidable. You would just want more.

We could compare my imagined Knausgaardian description of a place ride with the one that actually appears in his book. He gives plenty of detail, including a long paragraph, more than half a page, describing just the events of boarding the plane, walking down the jet bridge and finding his seat. But the narrator’s plane ride is different from most, different certainly from the one I took home from Iceland. It’s taken neither for pleasure nor for business. It’s taken because of death, the death in the family referred to in the book’s title, the death of the narrator’s father.

The narrator spends much of the flight weeping openly—to his shame but also, interestingly, to his delight. The lengthy descriptions of his emotional state and its discomfiting effect on his fellow passengers lead to a meditation on an unusual and fruitful topic: the things the people we know well don’t do, the activities they avoid, the predilections they express negatively. The narrator’s father never went to the barber; he cut his own hair. He never traveled by bus. He never shopped at local shops where he might have to talk to someone. He never attended any of the narrator’s soccer games—except once, and then, the narrator heartbreakingly relates, only to berate his son for missing a scoring chance, knowing neither the final score of the game nor that the narrator scored two goals, including the winner. The zig-zags of this section—from the description of minutiae to an abstraction born of them and back to the personal anecdote—are typical of the book.

 

A Death in the Family is the first volume of a six-volume autobiographical series—published to acclaim in Norway and throughout Europe, and now making its way into English translation—a series provocatively named Min Kamp. The echo of Hitler’s autobiographical screed Mein Kampf is surely deliberate, but I’m not sure to what end. Maybe that will become clearer in later volumes. Be that as it may, it is already clear that the title allows for considerable irony. Knausgaard ironizes the very of idea of comparing his comfortable bourgeois social-democratic life to Hitler and the project of National Socialism. He ironizes the very idea of being daring enough to do so, as if he were aging enfant terrible. He also ironizes Hitler, specifically his megalomania in making himself exemplary, of making (overstated) autobiographical struggles the basis for a (distorted) political world-view.

We might say that Knausgaard wants to take the idea of struggle back from Hitler. Yes, he seems to be saying, there is something embarrassing and false about calling a middle-class comfortable life a struggle, but there is something true about it too. And in reminding us that the struggle of life ends in death, Knausgaard offers us a politics based entirely in reality, and thus miles away from Hitler’s.

Here I am writing about Hitler—hardly what I’d intended. But in making this digression perhaps I’m more like Knausgaard than I’d dared hope. For the structure of his writing, at least in this volume—apparently he wrote two novels before the series; they seem, rather drearily, to be about angels and metaphysics—can seem wayward and formless. Not disorganized, but also not organized. This of course is an illusion, one that Knausgaard points to, both overtly, in his repeated fascination with what art means for contemporary artists, and obliquely, in the practicing of his craft, that is, in his struggle with form.

The result is a book that has plenty of shape despite seeming rather shapeless. I’m not entirely sure how that works, but my sense is that it has to do with the tropes I keep turning to in writing about him: immersion, hypnosis, submergence. This book casts a spell. It seems appropriate that these are all ambivalent terms, states we are drawn to but suspicious and even frightened of. I’m not sure I’d call Knausgaard a nice writer.

Just as the hypnotist needs some time to murmur soothing words to us before we go under (you are getting sleepy, very sleepy), so too does Knausgaard need time to cast his particular spell. And time, in reading, is connected to length. Page numbers translate into minutes, hours, weeks, even years of our lives. Immersion takes time, and takes time away. Something I hope to figure out as I read the rest of these volumes (the second and third are now in English with the rest to follow) is whether Knausgaard’s use of scale—of time-consuming length—is different from other writers’. After all, the premise of My Struggle is hardly original. A six volume, nearly 3000 page autobiographical novel that tells the story of how a sensitive boy became the writer of the text at hand: sound familiar? In case it doesn’t Knausgaard lards the opening volume with references to Proust. A long meditation on the persistence of things, even or especially things we’ve lost, could with only a few changes come straight from the Recherche:

The smell of short, freshly watered grass when you are sitting on a soccer field one summer afternoon after training, the long shadows of motionless trees, the screams and laughter of children swimming in the lake on the other side of the road, the sharp yet sweet taste of the energy drink XL-1. … You could still buy Slazenger tennis rackets, Tretorn balls, and Rossignol skis, Tyrolia bindings and Koflach boots. The houses where we lived were still standing, all of them. The sole difference, which is the difference between a child’s reality and an adult’s was that they were no longer laden with meaning. A pair of Le Coq soccer boots was just a pair of soccer boots. If I felt anything when I held a pair in my hands now it was only a hangover from my childhood, nothing else, nothing in itself. … The world was the same, yet it wasn’t, for its meaning had been displaced, approaching closer and closer to meaninglessness.

There is surely a socio-political dimension to this passage that regrettably I don’t know enough about to comment on usefully. (What I know about Norway comes from crime novels. Possibly not entirely reliable sources.) It does strike me, though, that the notion of permanence presented here must have something to do with Norway’s social and economic stability and prosperity. (Not everyone’s childhood memories will be so connected to sporting equipment; not every place has all its houses still standing).

But there is also a literary-historical component to the passage that I do know something about, specifically in its relation to Proust. Knausgaard is working over similar topics, especially about the relation of the past to the present. But the sentiments aren’t quite the same. Proust would agree that the adult world is no longer meaningful in the same way as the child’s. But he would emphasize the connections between the two worlds. Proust’s famous “involuntary memory”—the experience buried in things, waiting to be ambush us in chance moments of sudden recovery—isn’t Knausgaard’s interest here. Rather he is concerned, as in the passage’s final turn, with the idea of loss, disenchantment, even meaninglessness. Given later events in the book, specifically the death of the father and the meditations on mortality it provokes, I think meaninglessness here means something like the primordial inertia Freud imagines in Beyond the Pleasure Principle. But Knausgaard shares Proust’s emphasis on the experiencing subject. Proust makes clear that as long as the experiencing subject is present, the world remains meaningful. And Knausgaard implicitly agrees, since that’s what the book is—hundreds of pages of the narrator’s subject experiencing… well, the stuff of experience.

One last comparison to Proust: Knausgaard is less coy than Proust about the identity of his narrator. The shadowy Marcel (mostly he is known only as “I”) of the Recherche is replaced here with the undisguised Karl Ove. Although first person narrators—even ones that have the same name and biography as their authors—are never the same as their authors, Knausgaard makes no attempt to confuse the issue. (No dizzying Philip Roth games here.) The book could be a memoir, I suppose, but it’s clearly not, it’s clearly fictional, even though it doesn’t seem concerned to be so. I’m not sure why this is, and if anyone has any ideas I’d like to hear them.

Like Knausgaard, Karl Ove is born in the late 60s, and grows up in southwestern Norway in the 70s and 80s. His father is a teacher, his mother a nurse. Like the mother in Proust, she is the boy’s nurturing parent. The father is stern, rigid, a little frightening, abusive in an undramatic but effective way. Karl Ove is a little afraid of him but at the same time wants desperately to be recognized by him. His mother is often away for work. For a time Karl Ove lives almost by himself in his grandparents’ house. Eventually the parents divorce, the father remarries, seems transformed, open, warm, generous, but it’s all too much, his newfound conviviality is really only a function of drink. What is first confined to boozy weekends begins, in the way of all addictions, to motivate everything in the father’s life, and it’s not long before he’s a full-fledged alcoholic who, after leaving the second wife, moves into his mother’s house and steadily, sordidly drinks himself to death.

The father’s demise happens later in Karl Ove’s life, he’s already a teenager when his parents divorce. Before that, despite whatever is unusual in the family situation, Karl Ove has an ordinary middle-class Norwegian childhood: school, sports, books, girls. He has an older brother, Yngve, who won’t have much to do with Karl Ove at first and is then away at school later on, returning only to bring Karl Ove word of new music and movies, inspiring Karl Ove to take up music (there’s a funny and painful scene describing the band’s only gig, at the opening of a shopping mall, where what could only with great charity be called their DIY punk aesthetic is an ignominious failure). Later, though, Karl Ove and Yngve become much closer, especially when Karl Ove follows his older brother to university in Bergen.

The first half of the book is episodic, skipping over many things, but giving us certain scenes from Karl Ove’s childhood in detail, such as his dogged determination to buy some beer to take to a New Year’s party that he trudges miles through the snow to reach, mostly because there’s a girl there he likes, a girl who, predictably, barely knows who he is. So far, so conventional, and the least likeable parts of the book, for me, were these laddish ones, always teetering on the verge of the misogynistic.

But the book’s narrative structure makes things interesting. It doesn’t just give us the conventional Bildungsroman trajectory of sensitive soul trying to find his way in the world (will a girl love him, will he be able to create art of any kind that’s any good?). Instead it takes us always back to the scene of the writing of the book, the older Karl Ove’s daily life with wife and three small children, and the never-ending, thoroughly banal but all-encompassing and (at least to its participants) engrossing contortions of daily life in a family with working parents and small children. Knausgaard is great on the sticky overlap of love and resentment that makes up parenting. He also gives us a brief overview of the dramatic story behind this marriage—out of nowhere one day Karl Ove decides to leave his first, Norwegian wife, moves to Stockholm, and, before long, falls in love with the Swedish woman he is married to in the novel’s present. Unfortunately, neither of these women is presented in any depth. Surely there will be much more of them in the later volumes.

The first half is fine, occasionally much better than fine. The set piece with the New Year’s party is pretty great, for example, and Knausgaard is good on relentless northern winters and the miracle of their ending. But the second half is extraordinary. Karl Ove, only recently married to his first wife, has had his first novel accepted for publication. One day, when he is avoiding working on the revisions, his brother calls to say that their father has died. The brothers travel to their grandmother’s home to make arrangements for the funeral, which is where they discover the full extent of the father’s depravity in his final years. It turns out that he and his mother—their grandmother, a fleeting but appealing character in the first part of the book, a resonant and pitiable one in the second—have been living in a spiraling descent of mutual alcoholism. The last third or so of the book tells the detailed story of how the brothers, together with an uncle, prepare for the funeral—mostly by tackling the accumulated filth in the old house.

There’s so much to take in in this book, some of it a bit banal, even risible, but much of it remarkable. And actually, thinking about it now, what I find really remarkable is how the remarkable is the twin of the banal. It’s hard to quote just little bits of Knausgaard. Here’s an example from that last third or so. The narrator and his brother tackle the rooms of the grandmother’s house in turn, each grimmer than the last. Shit, vomit, piss, mold, dust, grime, decay, rust: the house is a ruin that two desperate people have drifted through for years, like sullen, separate castaways in a flimsy boat. The narrator’s task is to clean the stairway:

I filled the bucket with water, took a bottle of Klorin, a bottle of green soap and a bottle of Jif scouring cream and started on the banisters, which could not have been washed for a good five years. There were all sorts of filth between the stair-rods, disintegrated leaves, pebbles, dried-up insects, old spiderwebs. The banisters themselves were dark, in some places almost completely black, here and there, sticky. I sprayed Jif, wrung the cloth and scrubbed every centimeter thoroughly. Once a section was clean and had regained something of its old, dark golden color, I dunked another cloth in Klorin and kept scrubbing. The smell of Klorin and the sight of the blue bottle took me back to the 1970s, to be more precise, to the cupboard under the kitchen sink where the detergents were kept. Jif didn’t exist then. Ajax washing powder did though, in a cardboard container: red, white, and blue. It was a green soap. Klorin did too; the design of the blue plastic bottle with the fluted, childproof top had not changed since then. There was also a brand called OMO. And there was a packet of washing powder with a picture of a child holding the identical packet, and on that, of course, there was a picture of the same boy holding the same packet, and so on, and so on. Was it called Blenda? Whatever it was called, I often racked my brains over mise en abyme, which in principle of course was endless and also existed elsewhere, such as in the bathroom mirror by holding a mirror behind your head so that images of the mirrors were projected to and fro while going farther and farther back and becoming smaller and smaller as far as the eye could see. But what happened behind what the eye could see? Did the images carry on getting smaller and smaller?

Do you see what I mean about how a fascinating but also numbing accretion of banal details (every kind of cleaning supply, everything he does with them) becomes a more abstract meditation (here on the idea of recursion, an important idea in this book which, like Proust’s always reminds us of the process of its being made)?

It is true that I have an inordinate fondness for at least the idea of cleaning, of decay being overturned. (As a child, I thrilled to the section in Dr. Doolittle where the animals are taken to a lovingly scrubbed farm.) Maybe this sort of thing isn’t for everyone. Knausgaard tells us about every trip to the corner store for cigarettes and coke, every little detail that a more conventional narrative would skip unless it saw them as symbolic, or put them in service of some dramatic plot point. For whatever reason, though, I find this recitation riveting, maybe because Knausgaard convinces me that there is an important connection between prosaic materiality and abstract reflection.

One payoff of all this detail is that we really feel the labour of cleaning the house. (What is more boring and exhausting and time-consuming than cleaning, especially when we know things are just going to get dirty again?) Taking a break on the deck one morning, Karl Ove has a vision of the house’s rebirth, symbolized by a glamorous and joyful wake they will hold there after the funeral. He becomes obsessed with the idea, and we thrill to it, even as we also know it’s an impossible fantasy. After all, when this house is scrubbed and made inhabitable again, it is still shabby at best.

But I guess what I enjoyed most about this book was the feeling that Knausgaard ends up earning his poetic, resonant conclusions, his little arias of analysis, not least in the passage that concludes the first volume, when Karl Ove returns to the chapel where the body of his father awaits burial:

Now I saw his lifeless state. And that there was no longer any difference between what had once been my father and the table he was lying on, or the floor on which the table stood, or the wall socket beneath the window, or the cable running to the lamp beside him. For humans are merely one form among many, which the world produces over and over again, not only in everything that lives but also in everything that does not live, drawn in sand, stone, and water. And death, which I have always regarded as the greatest dimension of life, dark, compelling, was no more than a pipe that springs a leak, a branch that cracks in the wind, a jacket that slips off a clothes hanger and falls to the floor.

That last line, especially, reminds me of the “Time Passes” section in To the Lighthouse, where Virginia Woolf supplants the death of her human characters with the decay of inanimate objects. Not having the book at hand, I can’t check to see if she includes a leaky pipe, but I know she mentions ominous branches and clothes that slip off their hooks. I’m reminded, too, by the most aphoristic line here—the one that begins “For humans are merely one form among many…”—of W. G. Sebald’s invocation in The Emigrants of the dead and how they are ever returning to us.

These allusions—intended or not—suggest that My Struggle isn’t unlike anything you’ve read before. But it has a unique power nonetheless, in the way relentless description of minutiae (Knausgaard gives us not just the table but also the floor, the wall-socket, the cable, and the lamp, too) abuts abstract, high-flown (not yet sententious) commentary.

 

I can’t wait to see what Knausgaard does in the rest of the series. The next volume, I see, is about love. Where does love fit into the philosophy of evanescence expressed here? The book’s on my nightstand, ready for my next flight.