An Evening with Karl Ove

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Anyone who has read this blog knows that I am a big fan of the books Zadie Smith described as being ‘like crack’ – the My Struggle series by Nordic publishing sensation Karl Ove Knausgaard. On 2nd March Karl Ove was interviewed by Claire Armistead at Foyles flagship store on the eve of the publication in English of volume 4 Dancing In The Dark ( trans Don Bartlett).

This volume covers the years Knausgaard spent in the far north of Norway as a secondary school teacher when aged only 18 himself. He explained that this was a challenging time in his life. The community in which he lived was very different from the one in which he had grown up. It was small, isolated and inward looking with a rough macho culture.

At that point in his life he was holding on to two realities : arrogance and shyness. You think you know everything about yourself at that age but, of course, you don’t.

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Claire Armistead asked how much of that time he actually remembered as in the book he recounts many episodes of blacking out following heavy drinking.

He conceded that there are a lot of things about that time he doesn’t remember. He was drinking a lot. When writing this volume it had been interesting for him to reflect that his first published novel, Out Of This World, concerned a young man who goes up North to teach. Essentially it was this story but it was fiction. In Dancing In The Dark he tries to say what really happened . He has found it is difficult to write the truth – perhaps by volume 6 he has managed to get it right. It is difficult to negotiate the ground between fiction and memory.

His  inner life at this time  was chaotic and he was drinking too much. He was drinking and partying with students. It was very difficult to write about this. He had feelings he was not supposed to have. He kissed a student – nothing more happened but it was very uncomfortable to write about it as a grown man. It was the chaos of being 18 years old, full of desires but with no idea of who you are.

Claire Armistead remarked that it seemed that in this volume he was obsessed with sex. Karl Ove raised an eyebrow ironically , he was 18 and he was obsessed with sex but he hadn’t had it yet! He was living in a small community of 200 people where everyone knew him and they knew exactly what he was doing, even the pupils in his class.

Did this circumscribe his ability to write about these events ? Writing a book is a zone of freedom for Knausgaard. What he means is that as he is writing he feels completely free in his thinking. This volume is a lot about shame. There is no shame in literature and he does not feel shame as he is writing. The shame comes when he has finished writing  and the work is complete.

He was careful to censor a lot of things that happened to other people. The project was very sensitive and  in fact there were lawyers reading over the drafts and forcing edits.

The person in the book is him and not a character. He tried to recreate himself at 18 but of course at 40 you know so much more.He doesn’t allow the ‘character’ to have any reflection in a mature sense. He joked that he has a sense of what it is to be 17 or 18 still but he tries to have more dignity in his life now.

He didn’t feel that he was betraying his 18 year old self in writing about him in this way. He had wanted to write a novel about his experiences at that time and was writing everyday. He just couldn’t do it. As it turned out he had to wait 25 years before he was able to write a novel about that time.

His view is that this is a very funny book. Having said that, when he was writing volume 2 he thought he was writing a tragedy – it was only after it was finished and he read it back he realised it was a comedy.

Volumes 1, 2 and 3 of My Struggle are not chronological. Volumes 3 to 6 are and the complete work is circular.

The project started because he wanted to write about his father’s death. He gave his publishers 1200 pages. From that it was decided there would be 6 volumes and it was then he constructed the arc that leads volume 6 back to volume 1. He then had to write 4 books very quickly.

Armistead asked him about the 240pp digression which appears in the book going back to his father. Knausgaard doesn’t make decisions when writing. He just follow what comes. He wanted to see all the people in his life from different angles and insights.

His father had changed profoundly at age 40. He went from being a very straight-laced , proper school teacher to becoming a kind of a hippie. He started to drink and then he became an alcoholic. It was so hard to relate to him.

After his death, he discovered that his father had left notebooks recording his feelings.The lawyers told Knausgaard he couldn’t quote directly from them. In these diaries his father recorded his struggle with drinking, he wanted to stop and couldn’t. Knausgaard had wanted to explore how and why this had happened to is Dad. He really didn’t think his father had an inner life until he read these diaries.

Armistead asked him what he thought of the English translation of My Struggle  done by Don Bartlett. He hasn’t read the translation in its entirety. He trusts Don Bartlett completely. He has read from the various volumes at literary events and his voice is completely recognisable and the atmosphere of each volume has been faithfully captured.

Had writing about his past changed him, he was asked? This project was always about writing novels. It doesn’t help you to know your faults. When you write about memory you inevitably change it. Memory isn’t fixed, it floats and evolves.

Armistead asked him about the importance he puts on looking at art. When he is writing he doesn’t read at all, he does however look at art a lot. Art is enigmatic and has no language. He discuss the importance of art to  him in volume 6.

A member of the audience asked about the storm his books had created in Norway where reportedly 10% of the population has read My Struugle. He confirmed it was a sensation  and his books had been on the front pages of the newspapers for weeks. Not since Henrik Ibsen had there been so much publicity about writing in Norway. He can only think this is because Norway is a small society and,  as members of his family had objected to their portrayal in the novels, this was regarded as a scandal.

He had thought that this kind of fuss about appearing in print was a peculiarly Scandinavian phenomenon however he recently wrote a travel piece for the New York Times.  This followed a journey he made across the States and the people who appeared in that piece made just as much fuss about their portrayal. He has discovered that people want profound things said about them not realism.

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2014….My Reading Best Bits !

Rather than compile a list of my ‘best’ books of 2014 , I thought I would write a short piece about two ‘box sets’ I have read this year and which have had a massive impact on me.

Both of them are translated fiction which is interesting as I don’t tend to read much fiction in translation. I do read a lot of Francophone fiction, which of course includes Canadian and African fiction, but I read that in the original.

One of my choices is by an enigmatic woman and the other by a man now famous for letting it all hang out so that is quite a nice balance , as it happens!

The Neopolitan Series by Elena Ferrante :trans Anne Goldstein

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These tell the story of Lena and Lila born into the Neopolitan slums just after the second world war. Three volumes are currently available in English, a fourth volume is to be published in Italian in early 2015 with , hopefully, the English translation following towards the end of the year.

Why are they so compelling ? Ferrante creates a ghetto that you can almost smell and taste, the characters fizz with life. Lila and Lila are the two central figures but many of the other characters reappear throughout the narrative , all caught in the web which pulls both women back to the neighbourhood they try to escape.

Ferrante explores the tensions and the joys of a female friendship. She also looks at the political history of Italy in the late 20th Century, still reeling from WW2, and the impact of feminist thinking on the lives of women during that time.

Ferrante herself refuses all interviews and very little is known of her personal circumstances. There has even been speculation in the Italian press that “she” is in fact a male writer. Ferrante herself remains impassive :

I believe that books, once they are written, have no need of their authors.If they have something to say, they will sooner or later find readers; if not, they won’t.

My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard : trans Don Bartlett

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In terms of self publicity, Knausgaard is about as far away from Ferrante as you can get.His six volume opus, ironically titled Min Kamp in Norwegian, has been a publishing sensation in his native country, although the writer now lives in Sweden, and throughout the world.

So far only three volumes are available in English with the fourth expected in Spring 2015.

I am going to see Knausgaard at Foyles in January 2015 and I expect I will have more to say after that ; I did, however, listen to a recording of an interview with him over the summer. In it he described how he decided that instead of taking things out when writing fiction, he wanted to see what would happen if you left it all in.The novels are all finely crafted but the minutiae of life is recorded. As well as bringing him unexpected fame, the novels have also brought Knausgaard into conflict with his family as he describes his father’s descent into alcoholism, violence, his own marital problems as well as his wife’s mental illness with an almost brutal honesty. What results is a modern day Scandi Proust.

Books 1 and 3 are very bleak, but I hadn’t expected the humour in Book 2. I defy anyone who has had small children to care for not to recognise something of themselves in those pages. Karl Ove adores his kids but describes his battle to cope with the every day grind and drudgery of life at home with small children when he is a stay-at-home parent. Eventually he conquers his own resistance and surrenders to domesticity.

What had once irked me, walking through town with a buggy, was now history, forgotten and outlandish, as I pushed a shabby buggy with three children on board around the streets, often with two or three shopping bags dangling from one hand, deep furrows carved in my brow and down my cheeks, and eyes that burned with a vacant ferocity I had long lost any contact with. I no longer bothered about the potentially feminised nature of what I did; now it was a question of getting the children to wherever we had to go, with no sit-down strikes or refusals to go any further or any other ideas they could dream up to thwart my wishes for an easy morning or afternoon.Once a crowd of Japanese tourist stopped on the other side of the street and pointed at me, as though I were the ringmaster of some circus parade or something. They pointed. There you can see a Scandinavian man! Look ,and tell your grandchildren what you saw!

There goes a Scandinavian man has become a catchphrase in our family !

Whilst Ferrante and Knausgaard have been the outstanding reads for me during 2014, I feel I must give an honourable mention to the Cazalet series by Elizabeth Jane Howard who died in January 2014.

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The books follow the lives of the Cazalet family from just after WW1 through to 1958. Martin Amis has credited Howard,his step-mother, with encouraging him to read more seriously and become a writer.

I came to EJH late , only starting the series after reading her obituaries. Whilst I think it is fair to say that some volumes are stronger than others, I was swept up in the lives of the family, their hopes, love affairs and treacheries. Much social change is recorded too and I wished I had discovered the books earlier as they were a window into the world in which my parents grew up and gave me a greater understanding of some of their anxieties. I dreaded starting All Change as I knew that would finally be the end of a fantastic journey.

Happy New Year and happy reading in 2015 !