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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

To read about movies and TV shows I'm watching, visit my other blog: Elliot's Watching

Friday, October 31, 2014

A novel of great beauty - The Natives of Hemso

All told August Strindberg's The Natives of Hemso is a pretty terrific little novel - with excellent and beautiful descriptive passages about life in the 19th century, and not so different today in many ways I'm sure, in an out island in the Stockholm archipelago, centered on a vain and supercilious mainlander who comes onto the island to help right the fortunes of a widow's farm, eventually marries the widow and rises in the ranks of island society, until he gets too big for himself and his fortunes implode. There are many beautiful scenes, some just single set pieces - descriptions of the landscape in winter, of the pastoral scenery; some are extended chapters such as the long chapter about the marriage, which in some ways recalls the marriage procession in Madame Bovary, a near contemporary - and in other ways is as bawdy as Chaucer or Rabelais. Toward the end the novel touches on politics, capitalism, and social class, as mainlanders come in and buy a rocky outcropping for what seems like an outrageous sum and begin to mind for feldspar, bringing riches to the island for a time but destroying the pastoral tranquility - those that are making money are willing to give up the beauty of their lives - but when the ore tends to e of too poor a quality they just abandon the island, leaving behind trash and debt. Has to call up for contemporary readers the issues today surrounding "fracking" and the sudden wealth that can bring to rural communities at the cost of the quality of life. The last chapter, involving a pursuit through through a blizzard - the snow falling like gray moths, the flakes like chicken feathers, as Strindberg memorably puts it - and later a hazardous journey across the icy straits to bring a body to the country church for burial. The novel lacks a bit in shape - reading essentially like 7 or 8 stories in sequences - a form almost unknown in Strindberg's day and now the boring staple of every graduate writing program - but more than makes up for the general drift of plot by acute observation, sharply drawn characters, real confrontations and personal crises, humor, beauty; as with all great "folk literature," Strindberg captures a way of life vanishing in his day, yet also strangely universal and present still in many settings.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

The complexity of the central character in The Natives of Hemso

After Carlsson is humiliated when he stumbles around on the pier - unlike the natives of Hemso, he's not adept around boats - and his summer crush, Ida, brusquely dismisses him, Carlsson heads back to his attic room in the farmhouse and composes a ridiculous, grammatically inept letter to Ida - a broad stroke of humor, slightly cruel. Then Carlsson angles to take a boat to Stockholm to negotiate fish prices but obviously his goal is to visit Ida and try to rekindle whatever they - or at lest he - felt they had going on during the summer on the island. Strindberg never says so but it would appear that they had nothing going on at all except in Carlsson's mind - he crudely kept her from other men, but there was never the slightest sense that she cared for him at all, and maybe was just content to be involved with nobody on the island - her life is in Stockholm. Strindberg very wisely lets Carlsson's visit to Stockholm and his final rebuff from Ida happen "off stage" - we learn about this later and indirectly, mostly by inference. Part of the genius and the strong effect of his The Natives of Hemso is that the novel takes place entirely on the island (first chapter is the arrival on the island by boat), which gives us a deeper sense of the island's pastoral remove from modern life. In a somewhat surprising twist, at the mid-point of the book Carlsson, aware that a woman like Ida is beyond his reach, far too sophisticated (even though she is a house servant, in a class sense perhaps of lower status than he is, a hired farm manager) for him - he recognizes that his employer, the widow Flod, is interested in him and he agrees to marry her - in a naked attempt to get the farm into his name. Though on one level he's a bumbling fool, he's also a schemer and conniver - at one time worked as a traveling Bible salesman, so we know the sort - a descendent of a Twain character and an antecedent of a Flannery O'Connor type. I think we have a pretty good sense of how well the marriage will work - but the question is who will be hurt the more. Carlsson is an unsympathetic character - but not a two-dimensional character, either. He's a bully and a prideful fool, but we feel for him in his awkwardness and we have to admire his skill at his work.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

One of the most beautiful scenes of rural life in literature: in The Natives of Hemso

Still surprised at the absolute beauty of some of the passages in Strindberg's The Natives of Hemso - I really didn't expect that - but with his simple, clear writing and sharp eye, his attention to detail, and most of all his evident love for the rural people and their even-then (1887) vanishing way of life, Srindberg shows another side of his artistic sensibility. The long passage about haying of the fields is a great example, absolutely beautiful and perfect account of rural life - from the mock-heroic outset, when the hayers gathered from nearby islands assemble with their scythes - the scene obviously nods to the Homeric lists of the assembled warriors before the assault on Troy - the early-morning (about 3 a.m., but it's light already) breakfast, the men walking thru the fields swinging their blades, the pretty young women behind them raking the hay into neat piles, the big dinner and dancing at the end, the young couples sneaking off the "green grass" - this anticipates Smiles of a Summer Night, and you can see why Bergman loved this novel - all excellent. This scene is as good as the harvest scene in Anna Karenina, a near-contemporary novel. The central figure in Hemso, Carlsson - who oddly is not one of the "natives" but is the stranger who came to the island to help get the farm into shape - is increasingly becoming a narcissistic boor, fighting a much weaker man for the favor of a pretty girl, the cook at the house of the family - she's from Stockholm, and tho she tolerates Carlsson's attentions for a time, she has no intention, as she says, of marrying a farmer - she's a sophisticated city girl - and leaves with hardly a farewell, making Carlsson look like a fool. As is typical of Strindberg, there's a great deal of attention, some very subtle, to class relations and distinctions: Carlsson thinks he's much better than the island farmers, and he is a better farmer - but not a better person - and when off the island he's looked down upon by other Swedes as a provincial. One thing that hasn't changed in Sweden in 150 years is the incredible neatness and orderly nature of farms - anyone who's driven through Sweden, even on the main highway, notices today the meticulous care farmers take with their land and property - the hay all neatly baled, the fields trim and angular, the houses crisply painted, usually red w/ white trim. Strindberg captures that in Hemso, and probably thought he was writing about a dying tradition, and it's nice to know he was wrong.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Another Side .... of Strindberg

To the extent that August Strindberg is known at all today it's as a dramatist of the highest emotions,very violent expression of power relations, struggles between the sexes and social classes - most famously in Miss Julie - and to an extent as well as misogynistic and experimental and avant-garde, for his day - as in The Father and particularly The Dream Play. Strindberg was the ostensible reason why I went to Sweden in the 1970s  - he was my cover story, so to speak - I went for a lot of reasons but what bought me the ticket was my plan to research and write about his works - which I did do. While I was there many Swedes encouraged me to read his one novel, The Natives of Hemso (Hemsoboran, I think in Swedish), and I pretty much said I had no or little interest in doing so: I was interested in his plays, and the novel, from all accounts, was a sweet and provincial by-way in his life. I did buy a copy somewhere along the way, however, and am after so many years reading it. First reactions: first of all, it's completely atypical of his work, sweet and pastoral and funny to a degree and even sentimental - and I can see why it means to much to Swedes as a vision of rural life in the late 19th century and as a way to save and protect one of their few international literary stars: he wasn't always violent and antisocial. Oddly, though the novel is now nearly 150 years old, it feels almost contemporary - not only because of the clear and straightforward style but mainly because Strindberg was writing about a society and culture remote and primitive even in his day, so the distance we feel from the material is not too different from the distance Strindberg's first readers felt in the 1880s. The story is a typical "stranger come to town" saga: a farming expert, Carrlsson, comes from the mainland to the island (Hemso -  o [with 2 dots] means island) to help the widow Flod put her farm, now in "rack and ruin," back into prosperity. To do so, he must face off against several potential rivals, including her son and some other hired help who resent the new boss. He also must acclimatize to island life; the story might be sharper and funnier if he were a "city slicker," but he's not - he's used to country ways and he's very peripatetic - but he's not used to life on an island, knows nothing about navigation or sailing, for example. Strindberg and the Hemso natives describe him as a "windbag"; I don't know if it's meant to be a joke, but he doesn't seem particularly loquacious, so it may be that anyone who speaks at all in the taciturn, rural Swedish society was considered to be verbose. Very sweet novel, so far, with some beautiful passages of pastoral description and tons of arcane knowledge about farming - who knew Strindberg had such a bead on this?

Monday, October 27, 2014

The Plot Unthickens: To Rise Again at Decent Hours eludes me

At the end of the day, I'm completely puzzled, or more accurately completely disappointed, in Joshua Ferris's To Rise Again at a Decent Hour - here's a writer who can be very funny, very smart, and very imaginative - some of the rants and some of scenes early on are terrific and made this novel promising from the start, and Ferris also knows how to get a good plot in motion (as evidenced in his first novel, Then We Come to the End); in Rise Again it took him a little longer to start the wheels turning - as if he were primarily interested in establishing the narrative voice and not the story line, and that's OK - as the story started it was intriguing: someone for unknown reasons is impersonating the dentist online, opening a website for his traffic, sending tweets - all with mystical-religious statements sometimes edging toward anti-Semitism. So what's this about? Who's got it in for this hapless guy, or is it some weirdly self-destructive plot he's ensnaring himself in for some reason? His relationship to Jewish people, and to religion in general, is odd from the start, so we are ready to believe he has a hidden, malicious personality secret even from himself. There are certainly echos of Conrad and even more so of Roth - the malicious impersonator of Operation Shylock, the dentist, even, of The Counterlife - but, sadly, it seemed in the last half of the novel as if Ferris is just feeling his way - as if he himself had no idea where his plot was heading - and the story line that at first seemed an intriguing and mysterious study of personality became in my view a ridiculous fantasy about a tiny surviving middle-eastern sect and some fanatics trying to rejuvenate it. Sure, there are parallels and analogies in our world - the near-extinct sect in some ways could remind readers of the Mormons in the early days - but honestly I can't imagine anyone buying into the plot as it unfolds in the last third of the book, with an extremely long or so it felt back story about a wealthy young man trying to convert to Judaism and become a rabbi but is rebuffed by the elders and about a multi-billionaire devoting his fortune to the sect revival - and why this all involves our dentist-narrator completely eluded me.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

A very funny, over the top novel, but about what?

Did look up Ulms on Wiki and unsurprisingly learned that this cult or sect is something Joshue Ferris invented for his novel To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, but on the other hand the Amelikites or however you spell that are actually in the OT - as I'd thought - I remembered reading about that incident in which the tribe decided to convert to Judaism and went through the various rituals including circumcision of the now-adult males and the Jews attacked them while the men were all laid low recovering - not the proudest moment in Jewish history, I'd say. So that part is real or at least is chronicled as such - but the idea of a small surviving sect from the tribe is Ferrris's fantasy - and I'm just not sure how to read this novel or what to expect from it. Yes, it's very funny at times and well written at all times - but are we supposed to see the narrator as a disturbed possibly delusional man who believes he's a member of this long-lost tribe, or are we to see the tribe of Ulms as real - and if so what's the point there? It's obviously a satire and a send-up, but to what end? Ferris's first novel was, like this one, exuberant and over the top and I did enjoy it pretty much - the story of a PR firm in Chicago undergo various layoffs and cutbacks and the guerrilla actions initiated by one (or several?) disgruntled employees - which in the broader sense was an attack on corporate America - but in this novel what is the aim, what is the target?

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Off the rails: Ferris's novel gets increasingly weird as it moves along

Joshua Ferris's To Rise Again at a Decent Hour gets increasingly weird, as the plot begins to focus ever more intensely on the odd messages Dr. O'Rourke, the narrator, is receiving from his avatar - whom he thinks, and we think, might be an off-the-rails dissatisfied patient: the messages tell first of an obscure tribe or sect thought to be massacred by the Jews in Biblical times, but apparently somehow somewhere still enduring at about 2,000 scattered people, the Ulms, and they believe Rourke is among them - he gets increasingly drawn into this fantasy - and there's always the hovering possibility that he is writing these messages to himself, that he's some kind of DID personality. He seeks the help of an antiquarian book dealer to learn more about the supposed Ulms, and at the point I have just reached he makes contact with an eccentric billionaire who may also believe he is an Ulm. What sets the Ulms apart is their unique theology: not precisely atheist but a religion of doubt. OK so what is Ferris up to? On one levle, it was apparent to me from the first pages that O'Rourke was unconvincing as an Irish-American (lapsed protestant, not Catholic, as I'd posted earlier) - and apparently unconvincing to Ferris as well. He seems very much like a Rothian Jewish narrator, with his interest in arcana and spirituality, as well as anti-Semitism and carnality, but he's actually it seems a Jew manque - the Ulms themselves sound like a cult within Judaism, as Judaism among all religions encourages inquiry and even doubt - but the joke is wearing thin. We'll need a good accounting as to who is sending OI'Rourke these messages - posing online as O'Rourke himself in fact - to make the destination worth the journey - although must admit there are many very striking and funny passages along the route. If we are to take the Ulms and their claimants as an actual presence within the world of this novel, your tolerance for the story will depend on how will you are to suspend a lot of disbelief and enter into Ferris's fantasy. If the Ulms are a figment of O'Rourke's imagination, there will be a lot of explaining to do in final chapters I think.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Stunt-csting short fiction in The New Yorker: Tom Hanks

In the literary magazine equivalent of stunt casting, the New Yorker this week publishes a story by Tom Hanks, yes, that Tom Hanks, called Alan Bean Plus Four, yes it's about astronauts and the NASA space program, which Hanks has been definitely interested in every since Apollo 13 - I believe he was the exec producer of a TV series on the Apollo missions - none of which means he is a writer let alone a writer of New Yorker stature, but I have to admit his story shows a real sense of humor, smart use of language, good pacing - real literary fiction chops. It's a comic fantasy about a group of 4 pals, Hanks in the lead because of his knowledge about space exploration, that decide to build a rocket and capsule and launch themselves into a single lunar orbit and return - much easier to do  these days, they figure, in that there's better technology in an iPhone than in the entire Apollo lunar capsule - and so they go ahead and do it, to comic effect. Sure, it's a lightweight piece - probably more suitable to a Shouts & Murmurs entry than the short fiction prized real estate, but it's a good read, not pretentious in the least, and makes us wonder: Would they have accepted it had it been written by, say, Joe Banks? Probably not, but that's true for a fair amount of NYer fiction and a great deal of NYer poetry for sure. Does Hanks have it in him to write more pieces, or was this a one-off? Can't say, but a lot of the humor does come from his deep knowledge of the space lingo - though he most also know a lot of Hollywood lingo, and there's endless material in that vein, so I hope he goes at it. His style reminds me a little of Woody Allen's New Yorker pieces, now sadly seldom seen. And what's next? Sean Penn on Classical Music? Dr Dre on The Dance? Kim Kardashian among Our Far-flung Correspondents?

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Is Paul O'Rourke Jewish?: To Rise Again at a Decent Hour

I don't mean this in the literal sense but I believe that the narrator of Joshua Ferris's novel To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, Dr. Paul C. O'Rourke, DDS, is Jewish: not that over the course of the novel he will have a big "reveal" and discover that he was separated at birth from his Jewish parents and raised as an Irish-Catholic, etc., but, rather, that he is a Jewish character - his entire attitude, literary heritage, intonations, set of status details, suggests a Jewish character in the Roth tradition in which Ferris is so obviously steeped - that I think Ferris went out of his way to call this character Irish-American Catholic (lapsed, avowed atheist), but it isn't quite working, the tide of the novel makes O'Rourke seem ever more Jewish: his affair, now ended, with office assistant Connie Plotz (and what about that name? a homonym there?) and his idealization of her parents and family life, just for starters, but now, as the plot such as it is slowly develops (80+ pp in), we see that the dissatisfied patient who is stalking O'Rourke by creating a fake website for his dental practice is the guy who said he was heading off to Israel and is now filling the fake website w/ OT blather about the Jewish tribes and their on-going battles with some other Mideastern tribes - stuff that no one reads or remembers, as O'Rourke correctly says - other than fanatics who has actually read 2nd Kings? First? - it's as if Ferris is creating a narrator protagonist and his double (does this explain his middle name, Conrad?) - and they're really the narrator he, Ferris, has scripted for this novel and the Jewish character whom he could have, maybe should have, written about but whom he has exiled to the margins of the plot - though maybe he will be a usurper, who knows?

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Open wide: Joshua Ferris's To Rise Again at a Decent Hour

Joshua Ferris's To Rise Again at a Decent Hour (terrible title, isn't it? - what's with the sentence and clause book titles? - even though, yes, I get it, there's a play here on resurrection brought down to the extremely secular level, as in oversleeping?) has been compared with Philip Roth's writing, and with some good reason - the long disquisitions on somewhat arcane subjects, the outrage of the narrative voice - not typical of all of Roth but you can hear the influence of Portnoy and the Zuckerman novels - except that in this case the narrator is not a Roth-like novelist but in this case a Park Avenue dentist, perhaps about 40 years old, surprisingly an Irish-American (Paul O'Rourke) originally from Maine - when in fact he sounds or seems like a Jewish NYer of older vintage. You can hear echoes of DF Wallace as well - the apotheosis of an offbeat profession, the endowing of a character who, as a character, is not especially literary, with a literary voice and judgment - imagine perhaps if Updike had written the Rabbit novels in the first person and you'll get a little sense of Ferris's style Which is not to say, based on the first 40 pages, that this is as great as Roth or Updike, but Ferris is a very funny writer, some of the rants are very well written, if dark and gruesome at times, and his dialogue - sometimes a one-sided dialog, is very sharp as well. I very much enjoyed the first night's reading but also have qualms about where this novel is headed: 40 pp or in Kindle-talk 10 percent into the book, not a lot has happened other than establishment of O'Rourke and his narrative voice: the main "event" has been the fact that someone unknown has created a website for O'Rourke's dental practice, and he wonders who this might be and wants to shut it down. Other than that, he's a character without serious relationships - a hindrance, for a novel, one might think - and with an obsession for the Boston Red Sox. Me, too - but I think baseball obsessions have become an overworked literary vein - especially if carried to the near pathological level, as in this case: nobody watches every single game of the season, in particular not a hard-working dentist. Let's hope this doesn't try to become a great American novel about baseball (Roth tried that, too, and failed). O'Rourke is not a Dostoyevskeyan underground man but a very much overground man - successful in the eyes of the world, but with a dark and misanthropic view of society. The novel will live or die based on whether this view can open up, mature, change: Roth's ranks, or Updike's of DFW's for that matter, evince a love for the world around us, a nostalgia for the past, an acute sense of family and neighborhood - not just a Jeremiad against all things modern.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Memory v experience - the conclusion of volume 2 of My Struggle

Finished volume 2 of Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle -almost impossible to summarize the achievements of this novel or series of novels or to convey the unusual qualities of KOK's insights, thinking processes, narrative strategies, honesty and courage, and compendious remembrance - but will mention a few thinks that struck me in the last pages of this volume. First, I was surprised that this volume ends, more or less, with his beginning to write honestly about himself and his life - that is, he is beginning to write some of the scenes that make up volume 1: the death of his father, early days in grade school in Norway, even portraits of his wife (are they married?) and young children. Honestly, I thought beginning to write My Struggle would be the conclusion to the whole series, that is to the as yet untranslated (into English) volume 6 - so was surprised that at the end of vol 2 he's already writing volume 1. So what will the subsequent volumes be about? One gap in his life story to date is his first marriage, to Tonje (sp?); also we know relatively little about his mother, in fact we don't know if she's still alive as he's writing, and she gets the last words in volume 2, so I would guess that will be a major subject of a later volume - a contrast w/ his loathed father, as well - and perhaps much like Proust's nearly volume-long account of the death of his grandmother. The final pages of volume 2, A Man in Love, also include his first return - with friend Geir, to give reading and lecture - to the towns and houses of his youth, w/ which we're v familiar from vol 1: he has the reaction that many people experience on return to home town: not overwhelmed w/ emotion or feeling but somehow abstracted, everything looks so small - and sometimes shabby and incommodious compared with our memories. A very striking passage of the novel, not beautiful in any conventional sense but very truthful - and after all beauty is truth, truth beauty. Recollections are often, maybe always, more powerful and poignant than experience re-created - that surely is part of the consciousness that Proust has bequeathed to all readers, and writers.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Tepid discussion last night at book group

A very tepid, low-key book group last night, perhaps because we were down to 6, or perhaps some other reason but it felt as if we didn't, as a group, have much to say, for better or worse, about Jennifer Clements's Prayers for the Stolen. JoRi noted that she could only get through about 20 pp of the novel because it affected her so deeply, and maybe that was the highest complement of the evening, however inadvertent - because she is clearly trying to create a vivid picture of the horrors of the lives of impoverished rural families in general and young women in particular in a culture ruled by drug cartels - who steal young women into slavery and terrorize the entire populace. I spoke about my sense of the cultural or anthropological background to these gangs of thieves and thugs: the clan leader having multiple wives or sex slaves, leaving the protective cadre without enough or without any women, driving them into other villages and territories to steal young women and bring them home in slavery - same as we see in tribal life in colonial America, in the desert gangs of the mideast, or on a broader scale with thugs like Sadam Hussein or Idi Amin. Polygamy consolidates power and leads to massive oppression of women as men deprived of partners in the community become roving terrorist gangs. Well, that got nobody's attention. Others generally admired the book as a social document and LR and others noted its poetic use of language, at times, but none of us particularly admired the literary qualities of the book - all agreeing that the first section was the strongest by far and that the novel suffered from over-use of creaky plot devices, coincidence, and too much telling rather than showing. A very deflating discussion, leaving me wondering whether book group has run its course - of if this was just a drift into a slow back eddy.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

A novel that should have been a documentary: Prayers for the Stolen

Book group tonight will take on Jennifer (?) Clements's Prayers for the Stolen, a book about the horrors and devastation rained on Mexico because of the drug cartels - a devastation that we could probably eliminate if we were to legalize possession of marijuana. We're not there yet, and this novel gives a harrowing account of the effect of drug wars on the lives of ordinary Mexicans. Specifically, it focuses on a young woman, named Ladydi (not exactly after the princess but as she explains it in opposition to Charles's mis-treatment of his wife - if you can buy that) living in a small town in the Guerrero province about an hour's drive from Acapulco. The novel is divided into 3 parts, and the first is by far the best and most significant: in this section we see life in the village, almost surreal as the mothers go to extraordinary lengths to protect their daughters from drug lords who steal young women and enslave them. Ladydi tells of her own narrow escape from captivity, the capture of the most beautiful girl in the village who later returns as a ruined being, and the sudden and nearly inexplicable disappearance of others from the village. It's a powerful portrait of village under seige and of the terrors and poverty, the alcoholism, the violence - all very believable and harrowing. The novel becomes less convincing and more wayward as we follow Ladydi to the house of wealthy drug dealers in Acapulco where she lives for a time, has a loving relationship with the gardener - himself on the run from the police - and eventually gets arrested when another villager says she was present during the assassination of a drug dealer and his daughter (this part really strains credibility, as it's impossible to believe a powerful drug lord could be killed on his own property by a lone gunman who drives up to the house). Part 3 - which I'm still re-reading - takes place in a Mexico City prison after Ladydi's arrest, and gives a general sense of the culture that develops among the women prisoners - who seem to bond in sisterhood, not what we would have expected. I was not at all surprised to learn that this novel developed from research and interviews Clements conducted w/ Mexican women touched by the drug trade, some or most of them prisoners. Unfortunately, I think this material is more suited for a documentary or a nonfiction article or book - some great material here that for its potency depends on our belief in its accuracy. I do believe most of it - but the plot such as it is feels jerry-rigged and the narrator and protagonist is more or less just a window that opens onto these events: we know a lot of facts about her, but we don't or at least I don't feel deeply about her, either, and the slightly upbeat ending, as I recall it, doesn't ring true. Not sure why Clements wouldn't or couldn't let the women speak for themselves instead of clothing her material in the veil of literary fiction.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

We know Karl Ove Knausgaard "better" than we know ourselves

At the end of volume 2, A Man in Love, on Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle we are essentially back at the place we started some 600 pages back: KOK is now a father of three, re-settled in the southern Swedish city of Malmo, a more placid and laid-back place than Stockholm, they've left behind the horrible neighbor who had been threatening and tormenting them, they now have 3 children, which KOK had earlier thought would be a solution to their marital and family problems, they're now out of the literary mainstream, and KOK is much more successful as a novelist, quite sought after by the press and for various workshops and so forth, his relation with his best friend, Geir, now involves long phone conversations rather than long dinners (and drinking bouts), and it's even more obvious that their careers are on different trajectories. Sadly, KOK seems no happier than earlier; atypically, he glosses over some of the trauma his family is enduring - most notably, the obviously severe depression that Linda is going through, leaving KOK to do all the child-rearing and housework as well as earning a living for the family of five. He is obviously deeply resentful - in one weird an poignant scene a group of Japanese tourists point at him and take photos, it's so odd for them to see a dad minding 3 small children - and he feels this oddity and exclusion. No doubt some of this will be material that he delves into one of the next volumes. The structure of this volume is very thoughtful and powerful - what seems almost random and meandering at first now pays back handsomely - we we come back to the young father (actually, he's 40) and family man and now, looking back across volume 2, we know of all the "struggle" that brought him to this point, midway through his life, and looking back further, to volume 1, we know that issues from childhood that have made him who he is: his "struggle" against his father and against his own alcoholism and binge drinking. By this point, I think all readers will feel that they know KOK as well as, maybe better than, they know even their closest friends - maybe better than we know ourselves! - because of his courage as a writer and narrator, his insight, his memory, which he sometimes makes light of, and his clear and sometimes poignant writing. Of course in "knowing" a literary character better than we "know" ourselves, we gain tools, resources, insights, and a vocabulary that helps us to know ourselves and others.

Friday, October 17, 2014

New Yorker takes a turn for the better - with another story by a promising author: Kristin Valez Quade

The New Yorker continues on a roll - and I have to say the magazine certainly seems to have changed its short fiction policy with a 180-degree turn - introducing new and very talented writers, mixed in with some of the best work (sometimes) by established writers - and focusing on the short story form - whereas a year or two ago it seemed that the NYer was essentially a shill for publishers, running excerpts from forthcoming novels by the most recognizable name authors. In any event, another strong story this week from a writer new to me and I suspect to most readers: Kristin Valdez Quade, with a story called Ordinary Sins, that shows a ton of promise and accomplishment: story is about a 20-something woman, pregnant w/ twins, father completely out of the picture, who is working as an aide in a church rectory of all places - so the tensions and ambiguities are right there for the taking, and Quade does a great job sketching in the very few characters: the protagonist, a sourpuss of a woman who works w/ her in the rectory office, the old and sentimental priest and a self-righteous upstart priest whom no one seems to like. The elderly priest breaks a bit w/ convention and is very sympathetic to the young woman - hate the sin, but love the sinner - he remarks, but she's actually a little repulsed by him and shamed before him. The characters are subtly drawn with nuanced and surprising relations to one another. I don't mean this as an insult to the short-story form, but I see in her work the potential for a fine novel - her careful and loving place, her interest in the development of character and subtle shifting of power relationships as the characters learn more about one another. The only flaw in the story, to me, is as Quade seems to lose control a little toward the end - building toward a pretty powerful scene of degradation but not really doing much w/ that scene and encounter once she's established it; story ends, as so many do, with an image (albeit a pretty powerful one, recalling the Pieta, in an ironic juxtaposition) that leaves the story "open" rather than closed - a fine way to end stories, as long as it doesn't become a device or a fail-safe. Where Joyce has gone, only a few can follow.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

The bookstore where I bought My Struggle appears in the novel

Karl Ove Knausgaard and friend and fellow writer Geir continue their discussion, probing each other's personality, although mainly it's Geir pushing KOK's buttons, and patience, as he tells KOK: you're a saint an idealist, you would never be unfaithful, never take great risks, never do anything you'd be ashamed of (except when drunk). KOK accepts this account of himself - but of course we, now nearly two volumes into his 6-volume epic, My Struggle, know that he is bearing tremendous burdens of guilt and shame, that even the slightest mis-step or mis-statement stays with him for a lifetime - an no doubt that writing My Struggle was, is, his attempt to reconcile these tensions in his personality. Far from being cautious, timid, and decorous, this novel shows that he's actually courageous and perhaps even reckless - bearing his soul like none other, and providing as best he can a true account of the lives, personalities, faults, flaws of everyone he knows, everyone closest to him. Geir knocks KOK a bit for his success, the envy is obvious, as he tells KOK he's in an extremely privileged and fortunate position, his opinion sought after, media attention, able to publish anything anywhere - while Geir is struggling with a book that may or may not make his reputation, but he's already 40 and the book will take him years to write. KOK in response indicates how he hates the publicity and all the posing involved - literally, posing for pictures, and more figuratively "posing" responses to inane questions - can we, can he, imagine Proust doing that? Following the long dinner with Geir, KOK gives an account of one of the media interviews, the flattery and the falsehoods, very painful, and yet most readers, if they're writers and many inevitably will be, will side a little more with Geir here: count your blessings and suck it up. KOK notices that someone's been hitting his liquor cabinet and his suspects Linda's mother, who's been watching the baby - but we have to wonder if the truth is more ominous: Could it be Linda? A small note: loved the scene when he went into Hendengrens (had to check spelling) bookstore in Stockholm and picks up a stack of books in the basement; why? - because we went to exactly this store - to the basement where there was an unbelievably great and smart collection of books in English - and that's where I bought the first volume of My Struggle, which was literally in arm's reach as I was reading - I picked it up and the sticker from the store is still on the back cover.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Fiction as a representational art - in Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle

The scene I'm in the midst of now in Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle, volume 2 (A Man in Love) may be called KOK's version of My Dinner w/ Andre - a long conversation between two old friends, both inthis case writers, one the dominant, older, more mature and outspoken (Geir, KOK's old friend from Bergen who was his Virgil introducing him to life in Stockholm, though now they each have made their way and KOK has published 2 novels and is verging on fame), the other the reflective observer. Geir really goes at KOK, in his aggressive way (he was active in boxing and wrote about that), tells KOK he's a saint and an idealist - what an earlier time would have called a Romantic, I think - KOK protests, but not too much. Reading this scene, we have a broader perspective, as the readers of KOK's next great work, and we realize that somewhere between here and the end of the six-volume series KOK will have to come to the realization that his true theme or topic is not angels come to earth in the 17th century (his 2nd book) or a modern-day Noah set in Norway (1st novel), but his own life: that the material that each writer is given is his or her own lived experience, and rather than engage in research into another century or imagine a plot, characters, a world, the greatest feat a writer can accomplish is to capture his or her own consciousness in words: writing is an imitation of a life (or an act) - as KOK notes elsewhere, music is the only pure art, not representational at all - and literature is highly representational - but the closest that fiction can come to approaching nonrepresentational, paradoxically, is to re-create in words the lived experience of the author: he is, in this case, representing nothing but actually translation experience and feeling into language.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

A pastoal interlude in My Struggle

Toward the end of volume 2 of Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle there's a "pastoral interlude," as KOK and Linda and their daughter, Vanje, go to visit Linda's mother in the countryside outside of Stockholm, in the winter - many very beautiful passages describing the stark and clear winter landscape - passages that show how well KOK can write, and how simply - nothing boisterous or self-consciously "artistic" about his writing, anywhere, just simple and clear observation; one amusing moment in the pastoral interlude is his description of getting lost (on an earlier visit) and stumbling upon a lawn party, and the country home of a relative of the PM, I think, and noting how the guests on the lawn looked so "Bergman-like." Ha! And like Bergman, KOK imbues even his most placid scenes with dark undertones of dread: as the he and wife and baby come back to the cottage they here her mother and her partner engage in some harsh exchange of words, for example. There's also, in this setion of the book, quite a bit of literary jockeying: at various points KOK meets other writers, or they invite over some other people active in the arts, and he always feels awkward both talking about his achievements and not doing so, as if that's an act of false modesty. So he tends to withdraw - or else blurt out a strongly held opinion, of which he obviously has many, and then feeling he has seriously mis-stepped (for example, a denunciation of ceasarean birth, which leads to an awkward silence - though it's never stated, we suspect that perhaps the other woman present had given birth through c-section?). Also in this section some comments from KOK on art and literature - always interested to hear what he thinks on these topics, and whom he's reading and not reading - Calvino, interestingly, and many Scandinavian writers probably not available in English, and Holderlin, and a bio of Rimbaud - but sometimes I don't quite understand his comments on literature and art - may failing, no doubt, not his.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Dark and mencacing tones threaten domestic bliss in My Struggle Vol 2

After a moment of bliss - on birth of their first child - many long days of angst, as Karl Ove Kanusgaard and later-to-be wife Linda deal with the uncertainties of child-rearing - in their case much back and forth about whether to meet each of their daughter's whims and needs or whether to have her learn to deal with frustrations - anyone who's a parent will identify with the difficulties KOK describes, sometimes just the logistics of changing clothing, keeping child occupied without giving up your entire soul, the constant decisions about the degree to which one attends to the child's needs. KOK obssesses over every aspect of his life, as readers well know, and in particular he feels like a failure in comparison with others who seem to have angelic children that cause them no trouble or trauma at all (of course maybe he's not seeing the whole picture). Anxiety continues to build over his need to write and the extent to which his paternal responsibilities interfere w/ this need: ultimately, because he believes Linda should continue w/ her school as well, they opt to send the baby, Vanje, to child care at a very early age - we have read earlier in volume 2 about the problems she encountered in child care - and they decide to have another baby, in fact he wants to have 3 children, which, again, we know he does within short order - but that doesn't actually solve any problems, it just compounds the problems in their marital relationship or else pushes them off, masks them, temporarily. We see an ominous hint of that when we learn that KOK's brother, Yngve, has suddenly left his wife at 40, as their father had done a generation before - suggesting that all this domestic peace and tranquility that KOK has striven for may blow up in a flash. There are ominous notes all around, perhaps best symbolized by or enacted through the troubled and troublesome neighbor who seems mentally deranged and obviously has it "in for" KOK and Linda - to the point of sabotaging some of their belongings, tormenting them with blasts of music at all hours, and writing to housing authorities to have them censured or expelled: the worm in the apple, the flaw in the design, the drop of poison that can ruin all.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

The best accont of childbirth ever written by a man

Is there any doubt but that Karl Ove Knausgaard's account of the birth of his first child is the best description by a male writer of the birth experience ever? He captures the pain, the mood shifts from elation to terror, the self-doubt, the reflection and prospection on life's journey, the time warp - all that goes into those frightening and beautiful days and hours - and I wonder what women who read this section will think, I'm guessing they will share in the amazement at how well he captures an experience in which he was a participant but largely an observer: as friend AF said of birth in a poem he wrote: You are the coach, but you are not in the game. But this wouldn't be My Struggle if KOK didn't make this universal experience into something deeply and painfully personal: after the birth he and Linda feel imbued with happiness, the world is before them - but it doesn't take long for things to turn south, and KOK feels increasingly isolated from others, feels the pressure to complete his second novel that seems to be going nowhere, insists on carving out time for his writing, which becomes a literally manic obsession - writing 20 hours a day to complete his novel, Linda calling him and screaming at him, threatening to leave, though this must have torn at him he persists, tells her go ahead and leave, he has to finish his novel: again, we see his "struggle" as that between his life as an observer (and chronicler) and his life as a family man and social being, between participating in the world and standing apart from the world, between fitting in and remaining unique. Eventually, he and L reconcile - and then we get another strange twist in the novel; we know that L has had bipolar disorder of some kind, been hospitalized, attempted suicide - and now we meet her father, who himself has been bipolar and seems to be a very strange, socially awkward man, very needy - he slips into their life and threatens to become a burdensome presence. In one of the oddest scenes in the novel, KOK observes the father asking Linda to sit on his lap, and he treats her like a five-year-old girl; KOK is almost ashamed to have witnessed this, and does not let L know he saw her acting the part (she is an actor, BTW). This is one of the rare moments when his directness and honesty are put aside in the interest of peace and propriety - though perhaps not for long.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

A scene in My Struggle that could be a movie or a play

I can imagine a play or movie made from various sections of Karol Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle, such as the section I read last night in Volume 2, A Man in Love: the New Year's Eve party, a group of six, KOK and his pregnant girlfriend (later wife) Linda, and two other couples, Geir, the Norwegian writer who has become his best friend during time in Stockholm and another writerly couple. KOK is now being very settled and domestic, prepares the entire dinner - lobster, mussels, champagne - and they all engage in discussion that, typically, veers off into some dangerous territory - everyone confessing to a moment of embarrassment sometime in their life - and what of course makes it funny is KOK's initial insistence that he can't recall anything, G's observation that KOK has made a career out of such memories (of course, and we're reading them - a bit of postmodern playfulness) - and we understand once again the brutal, fearless honesty of his writing. At the time described, he's working on an obscure topic, a novel set in the 17th (?) century about some people who claim to have seen angels - from hints elsewhere I'm guessing this was in fact his 2nd novel, after a rather long hiatus - not exactly writer's block but writer's frustration, nurtured by alcohol - which I think was received well; but, there must have been some moment - perhaps we will read about this in a later volume, at which he said the hell with it, no more research, no more remote settings in time and place, but I will reveal everything that I can about my own life, no matter how ordinary, and my own consciousness, as best as I can recollect and as best as I can translate into words, and let all else be damned. The harm and hurt he may have done to those closest to him is impossible to measure or fathom - but perhaps his wife and (someday) his children will appreciate his recognition of his own flaws, as well as those of others, and his genius in translating his life into fiction as few - who? Proust and who else? - have done.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Bad Bet by New Yorker: Murakami did not win the Nobel Prize

While the NYTBR goes all-in on Hilary Mantel - not just publication of the title story in her new collection spanning several pp of last week's review in what may be a unique event but this week a lengthy and intelligent cover review with not one but two NYT color photos - the New Yorker places its chips on Haruki Murakami: you have to believe their decision to publish his story Scheherazade in the current issue was a bet that he'd be awarded the Nobel this week, right? Well, that didn't pan out - and to be honest neither did this story. The New Yorker has been one of the main ways in which HM ha found an international readership, so they have some bragging rights here, but it seems to me that as his fame has risen his talent has attenuated, and this story's an example of that: about a man and a woman whose relationship is somewhat like that of the legendary Scheh. from 1k&1 nights: she comes to him twice a week, they have sex, and she tells him a story. Other writers - notably John Barth - have been drawn to this motif of template - but to make it work you need both to be faithful to the original and you need a twist: Barth had the great idea of narrating the stories from the POV of Sh's kid sister, Dunyazade or something like that, who slept at the foot of the bed. And what's key to the entire legend is that the prince was going to execute Sh - I think he wanted a new woman each night or some such nonsense - but she would tell a story and hold back on the ending, earning her another day and night of living, through her narrative talent - so you can see why writers are drawn to this motif. Murakami picks up on none of this: the stories the woman tells are bland and uninteresting. And what is their relationship; why is she there? We never know. The man never leaves his house, seems in some ways to be a man under house arrest, but this is never made clear. She visits him as a maid or nurse and seems to be having sex w/ him as part of a professional obligation - but that's not clear, either, leaving this story in among the man male fantasies of women servicing the needs of dominant men without any reciprocity and without any demands of their own; in fact, the NYer recently ran a story on that model (which in turn was "modeled" if not plagiarized from a much better story by Alice Munro). Murakami is famous for his ambiguity and allusiveness (and elusiveness as well), but that only gets you so far: the story itself needs to be strange, evocative, and just on or slightly beyond the reach of the credible. This one falls short.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Why we care about the characters in My Struggle

Can there be any more painful honesty than Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle?, which in volume 2 goes into excruciating detail about the early years of his relationship with Linda - whom we know now to be his wife and mother of his 3 children - but as we see them in the first years of their relationship we think that they might kill each other, quite literally: they are both so troubled, KOK having a very serious alcohol problem and it's not clear that he even recognizes this in the present of 2009, when he's actually writing volume 2, and Linda with some type of psychological condition, probably bi-polar, and we know that she made a semi-serious attempt to kill herself by jumping from a window. At first, as is so natural, their relationship is magical, each swooning over the other, but then things turn - leading to a big explosion when KOK suggests they might want to wait to have children and Linda slaps him hard across the face - at that point he leaves, and from there after the threat of one or the other leaving is always present in their relationship; Linda becomes especially turbulent during her pregnancy - in one of the many very funny moments in this largely dark novel - dark like a night sky brightened w/ many stars - KOK sees a pregnant woman lashing out at her husband or partner and he thinks: So I'm not alone! What makes this passage through relationship hell so smart and readable, in part, is KOK's clever narrative structure, essentially peeling off layers and moving backward through time - so that as we read of their tempestuous relationship we know, from the opening scenes of the novel, that a few years down the road they will be a boring small-city couple coping with children's parties, diaper changes, child car - and each restless and wondering is this all there is to life? And then, on a broader level, we know that KOK has transform all this diurnal material into a very evocative, challenging, and astonishing examination of life and consciousness - his role as a writer is the gravity that holds this universe together.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Why we read Karl Ove Knausgaard

If we read fiction in order to gain consciousness of the consciousness of another - and we do, among other reasons - than it's obvious why everyone should read Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle (I'm now on Volume 2, A Man in Love). Imagine a writers whose "struggle" is to recall, re-create, and write without self-censorship. screen memories, suppression, repression, or obliviation: he is completely fearless in writing about his life, and says ruthless and possibly incredibly embarassing and harmful things about himself and about others, including his wife and children. He's like Proust, no doubt his idol and ideal in many ways, but even more direct - in that Proust certainly steered clear of many topics central to his life, notably homosexuality and anti-Semitism - though conventions were very different a century ago. Knausgaard writes about everything that he can recall in his life in a massive project whose end and goal seems to be self-knowledge (and self-expression) through the examined life. He's less a philosopher than Proust was; though there are some passages of literary beauty and some passages as well of astonishing reflection, much of the series of novels, so far at least, seems to be accurate re-creation of key life events, such as his father's death and his early courtship of his 2nd wife - and sometimes of extremely diurnal events, such as a children's party - which is equally if not more revealing about his inner life: it's the daily life rather than the highlight reels that shows how we really live, I think. Sometimes, readers might wonder why this isn't a memoir - and maybe it is in some ways - but by calling it a novel and facing it as such, not only does KOK have some leeway in choice of events, manipulation of facts, re-creation of dialogue, shifting and masking of names, but he also enables the work to function in broader terms: it's not the story of a life (most memoirs are either of famous people or of ordinary people living under extraordinary conditions - this work is neither, he's typical in many ways, although an extreme in many others - his need for solitude, difficulty in connecting with others, devotion to his craft, self-destructive acts and tendencies) but the story of consciousness unfolding, of what it means to be a person: to read these novels is to understand what it is to "take stock" of a life, and makes each reader, I think, reflect on what it means to have lived a life.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Knausgaard - a difficult and odd character

As noted yesterday Karl Ove Knausgaard's A Man In Love, volume 2 of My Struggle, moves incrementally backward in narrative time, starting in the near present when KOK is a father of 3 and living in Malmo - and now, about a third of the way into the book, I'm at the point about 10 (?) years earlier when KOK has left his first wife, Tonje (sp?), and is living in Stockholm and beginning the relationship with Linda, who is to become 2nd (current) wife. A few notable elements: KOK a very odd and troubled young man, a rising novelist, living in Bergen in his native Norway, apparently married to T for I think he said 8 (or was it 6?) years, decides needs some separation and leaves for Stockholm - evidently without really telling her that he's leaving for good; looks up an old Norwegian writer friend whom he hasn't been in touch w/ for a dozen years, the friend takes him in and helps him find an apartment - difficult, in Stockholm housing conditions - and he looks up Linda, a fellow writer whom he'd met some time ago at a writers' conference and sparks flew between them but evidently nothing much more. Well we already know that KOK is a very difficult and odd character - but the abruptness with which he sheds a life and relationship and begins a new life in a new (albeit nearby) country is pretty astonishing - but it's all part of his "struggle": what we're constantly seeing in the novel is the difficulty he has in fitting in, in being close to anyone, in a world where fitting in means conformity and he is anything but a conformist, and being close to someone means giving up some of your isolation and loneliness, qualities or conditions that seem to be essential to him as a writer. As said in previous post, he's like Proust without the cork-lined room. He's also far more well-read and scholarly than he lets on - as the narrative is replete with observations about various European writers; we also notice that Scandinavian writers are a real "set" - when he moves to Stockholm he hooks up with other writers to find a flat - and they all seem to know one another and look out for one another - in ways that American writers do not or cannot. It's like a club or a set; he mentions many Swedish and Norwegian writers whom I've never heard of but I suspect most if not all are real people, properly identified. I suspect as we move backward in time across the span of this volume we'll get a better sense of what prompted him to walk out on a seemingly loving or at least amicable marriage.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Why we read Karl Ove Knausgaard's life story, My Struggle

Volume 2, A Man in Love, in Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle, moves slowly backward in time, from the near present (ca 2009, KOK having just finished writing volume 1) living in Malmo with 3 children, back to living in Stockholm with only the oldest child at about age 1, back to their first married days in Stockholm ... and no doubt further. Very interesting how KOK peels the narrative back in layers; as readers who've come this far know, he writes in extremely long segments, not particularly interested in transitions nor in back stories, the focus is very intensely in the author/narrator, also named Karl Ove Knausgaard, and you can be very deeply engaged in one of the scenes he's narrating in one period of time - say, his "break" from child care when he goes off for his hour of solitude to read Dostoyevsky in a coffee shop, loses track of the time, dreads coming home very late, buys some extremely expensive groceries - along with a self-analytic discourse about how money means nothing to him, when he's got it he spends in absurdly and then will live in near-poverty for months and not really mind - brings the groceries home and passes the "tenant from hell," on the stairwell - and from that goes back to telling about their early encounters with this woman when they first moved into the building some years back, and, bcz KOK does not dwell on transitions but just jumps into the new "layer" of time, it takes us a while to realize this was not an interruption in the narrative but a true narrative shift and now we are back a few years in the chronology, until the next shift. Why do we read so intensely and care so much about KOK? He's a difficult guy to like - very dark and misanthropic, bitter about others and about the many supposed slights he endures - in this section, he's very conscious of how he's perceived as a Norwegian - Americans can't really get this, but in my memory the Sweden's thought of Norwegians as like country hicks - maybe slightly analogous to New England prejudice against Southern drawls? - he's got a chip on his shoulder and by his own account is extremely anti-social - and yet - partly bcz of the brilliant volume 1, we know the difficulties of his family and why he protects himself against involvement with other people, afraid of being overwhelmed, perhaps, by his feelings (his tearful breakdowns at the death of his semi-estranged father, tears for what might have or should have been), and also highly ambitious and protective of his time and his sensibilities as a writer. In that way, this is a writer's book in every sense - writers can identify with his need for protection and his need for silence and his need to observe: he's Proustian without the Proustian advantages of wealth and class (albeit in better health, and probably wealthy now).

Sunday, October 5, 2014

The weirdest children's party in world literature: Volume 2 of My Struggle

After the longest and weirdest narrative account of a children's party in the history of world literature - clearly, this is meant to be and is a hilarious "take" on the long diner parties in Proust, but instead of dukes and marquis discussing J'accuse we get toddlers clinging to parents and saying "can we go home now? - Karl Ove Knausgaard describes his "struggle," essentially the heart of this six-volume series, My Struggle: his complete alienation from those around him, his sense that he is different from others and needs to be different, his intense need for solitude and isolation - and his need to reconcile these needs and drives with the counterbalancing desire for recognition, acclaim, fame, and inclusion. He wants to be "like everyone else" yet he views the world around him with suspicion and contempt. He has moments and even period in his life when he is or has been happy - his falling in love with and courtship of 2nd wife, Linda; the birth of their daughter Vanja - but these period pass and then he feels that his life is consumed with diurnal routine. He reflects on the time when he agrees to be the primary caretaker of the infant Vanja, taking her through the day to various play groups etc., and in return wife Linda had promised him an hour to himself - time he uses to go to a coffee bar and read, in this instance the dark works of Dostoyevsky; in fact, he won't go to the same coffee bar too often because he doesn't want people to see him as  a "regular" and try to initiate conversation. One of the funniest and strangest sequences - in volume 2, A Man in Love - is his taking Vanja to the Rhythm Playgroup at the Stockholm library, during which he is horrified and mortified by this what to most would be an innocuous play activity; he is also, however, very attracted to the group leader, which leads to his extensive wondering about his need or desire to "connect" - that is, just make passing eye contact - with pretty women he sees around Stockholm - what is the need for this? He's not being flirtatious or thinking about an affair? He loves his wife? - but it is a way to feel a connection with others, a recognition of his attraction, without any cost or investment or involvement. He also speculates about a world in which people are truly connected to nature and to the seasons and yearns to live in the 17th century when this was so - albeit recognizing that life then was brutal and short, there was a lot of oppression, childhood death, suffering. Some astonishingly great passages and reflections throughout this volume - interestingly, it's all in the near-present, describing his life during his 2nd marriage, in Stockholm and, later, in Malmo - no reflection (yet) on family background and childhood, which was the dominant theme in volume 1. This volume could be read independently, but it's so much richer knowing what we know about the sufferings of his youth in his seemingly ordinary but in fact quite strange - perhaps like all families - family.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

The most exquisite and painful memories since Proust: Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle Vol 2

Started volume two, A Man in Love, of Karl Ove Knausgaard's amazing six-vol series, My Struggle - even spring for the hard-back, a brick of a book but with a book like this I want to own it in reality and not "virtually." I was literally laughing out loud - which I rarely do while reading - going thru the first episode in which KOK describes his family "vacation" - it's now about 2009, he's living in Malmo w/ 2nd wife and 3 children, first volume completed (and published?), these are the children about who he disparagingly said in vol 1 that he cared for his work more than for them - he's now a more devoted dad, sort of, but does not shy away from presenting the darker side of his children's obstreperous and demanding personalities. As we know by now, he's quite the misanthrope, independent and self-reliant, a social observer more than participant - in other words, a novelist - but far more blunt and courageous than any other novelist I've read. He notes that he doesn't even understand vacations; they go off to a summer house, where he and wife squabble incessantly, then pack up and leave to stay w/ some friends who say they don't mind having kids around, ha!, and then depart for home, w/ a long stop at amusement park, one of the funniest scenes ever. Then we move back in time a bit to his and his children's difficulties in adjusting to life in Malmo - mostly centered on a b-d party - where his daughter Vanja clings and cannot mix w/ others - like her dad - who is ruthless in his description of some of the parents at the party - amazing, when you think that they will clearly recognize themselves eventually - but he's fearless. In the first 50 pp or so we are always in the near-present - nothing about his family background, detailed so exquisitely and painfully in volume 1, but I assume we will get more back story as this volume progresses; one of the running jokes is KOK's occasional observation as to how much he has forgotten, that his few memories may not actually be his most significant - if so, astounding, as his recollections are more precise than almost any writer aside from his hero, Proust. A very intriguing part of this section is his discussion of nature v nurture and his odd conclusion that turns most theories inside out: we are born different, and the process of living is a process of making us more alike - a process that he, of course, like most writers and artists, resists at the core of his being. Hints throughout about his unpolitically correct views, esp on immigration, which was and is totally transforming Sweden - not sure how this will develop, aside from keeping KOK even more on the "outside."

Friday, October 3, 2014

Story with the emotive force of a poem: Story, with Bird

Kevin Canty's story Story, with Bird is a sorrowful little piece in the current New Yorker, a very short story about a breakup of a marriage, or relationship at any rate, evidently doomed from the start, narrated by a hard-drinking, cigarette-smoking, Auden reading man looking back wistfully on the failed and broken relationship: his wife or mate, a poet, suggests they're drinking too much and they go on the wagon together but then she slips off, indicating it was his problem not hers, ha, and soon they're both drinking again, which leads to good sex but otherwise poor communications; she goes off to a wedding in California where, he later learns, she hooks up with an old beau; he's left at home reading poetry and drinking. Narrator reminds me a little of Carver - we don't know that he's working class, we know little about him except thru his narrative voice, but he seems like a Carveresque character, tough, sensitive, a little on the outside - esp in what appears to be a university town (he may also be a professor, or she may be - again, very little factual info about either). The bird is the "objective correlative" in the story: a bird gets into their house - twice, actually, possibly the same bird - and the struggle to get rid of the bird - opening windows and turning out lights so it can fly to freedom, or just whacking it with a broom - is somehow carrying a lot of symbolic weight here: freedom v destruction, the story of many a relationship, actually. The bird contrasts with a buck that appears poolside one steamy night when they have very sensual sex half in water half in air - the buck watching them mysteriously. Their relationship is somehow bordered by nature, but definitely apart from it: they struggle w/ words, with addictions, and with missed connections. Nice story, a brief glimpse retrospectively into a life - has the sorrow and suggestiveness of a poem (though I don't know if Auden would be the poet I'd most associate with this story).

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Don't know much about history: But surprised how much I like Mantel's story in NYTBR

I was not a big fan of Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall, which I found to be tedious and weirdly opaque, so didn't read the sequel - but many people loved both esp the English, awarding her a unique back-to-back Man Booker Prize - suspect she tells English history to the English to the way they like to hear it. And now she's been anointed by the NYTBR - seems to me the first time the NYTBR has run a short story (in lieu of review?) or at least at that length - hey, why even bother to review books, let's just run a piece of them and let readers figure it out for themselves. All that said: I was surprised at how much I enjoyed reading the story, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher. I have no idea whether this story is based on any actual historic events - was there a conspiracy or even attempt on her life? Not that I recall - but Mantel uses her historic and narrative skills here along with her imagination to create a very tense and tight narrative: Thatcher, in '83, is in a hospital for some minor surgery; media crowds around the area - I don't know if it's real London neighborhood or something Mantel has concocted - in typical English-lit fashion there are a thousand evocative place names strewn about - Spinner's Row, et al - but in any event: the woman narrator goes up to her 3rd-floor flat, which overlooks the hospital grounds; a guy knocks on her door - she's expecting a repair man - and she lets him in, and he coolly begins to set up a rifle and scope in the window. Interestingly and surprisingly, the woman is not frightened, and in fact she, too, despises Thatcher but not to the point of assassination. As only the English will, she ends up making him a pot of tea! The story is very tense and build right up to the facts ascertained in the title - although it leaves us hanging as the narrative shuts downright before the fatal denouement. We are left wondering: what became of the assassin? And more important: of the woman? Would the police believe she was held hostage? She is, in some ways, practically an accomplice - albeit unwillingly. Very good story with lots of questions in its wake; shows me for sure that Mantel can write a taut and tense historic narrative if she wants to, so why was Wolf Hall so mannered?

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Do you buy into We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves?

Ultimately, I think the success, for each reader, of Karen Joy Fowler's We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves depends on the degree to which you can buy into the premise: that the narrator, raised in her first five years w/ a chimp as a sibling, would hold onto those sororal feelings toward the chimp over the course of her lifetime - moreover, that her older brother and even her mother would as well. I have trouble believing in that - I think that the very early initial bonding would fade and that within a few years of birth the child would see the chimp as a pet, an amusement, something different - but not a sister. If you buy into that premise, much follows - and either way there's much to discuss and debate in this novel. The ending was much softer than I'd expected - yes, Rosemary, the narrator, did get face to face with her father, who put the family through this cruel experiment, but she forgives him, far too easily for such a bitter and alienated character as she seemed to be earlier on. And yes, there is a reunion with chimp-sister Fern, as mother and daughter together move out to S. Dakota to be near Fern in her lab for retired chimps - Fern does seem to recognize them - and they make a bit of a living writing children's books about Fern and about their unusual family. Honestly, I wanted more of a blow up - the kind of an ending that Harlow, Rosemary's wild friend, would have created. We do learn that Harlow became the partner of the estranged brother, Lowell, who is a wanted man for destruction of labs and other property - but the exciting parts of the novel are left kind of to the side, and the novel itself ends on a sweet, harmonic note. Much good material here; in my view a lot of bad narrative decisions, but a very casual and sometimes very funny narrative voice do seem to carry the day.