• The Invigorating Minutiae Of Karl Ove Knausgaard

    My Struggle

    If there’s a maxim that all politics is local, perhaps there should be a similar one that all literature’s in the small details of life, or something like that. If so, the novels of Karl Ove Knausgaard are the standard by which we measure successful literary endeavor.

    Writing in the New Yorker, critic James Wood said of reading Volume Two of Knausgaard’s, My Struggle that “even when I was bored I was interested”. This hits the nail head about as efficiently as one could ever hope to when approximating the oddly addictive allure of the Norwegian author’s autobiographical novels.

    The third translated volume of My Struggle is due to be available this May, though there are said to be three additional volumes to go, so far. The slab of autobiographical time this impressive work is designed to incorporate naturally has provoked comparisons to Proust, though for me the comparison stops at the scope and the scale of ambition.

    While Proust may turn his recollections over in his hands as though lovingly admiring a precious jewel, Knausgaard flays them open and mercilessly dissects them. If in À la Recherche du Temps Perdu (In Search of Lost Time the favored translation now apparently rather than the stalwart Remembrance of Things Past) Proust is compiling a treasury of moments in time, setting down beautifully teased out and woven together memories, Knausgaard seems to be expelling the contents of an encyclopedic repository of memories persistently dogging him, in a kind of deliberate, unstoppable, nondramatic catharsis. For my money (a cheap currency, admittedly) to make such a presentation compelling may be the more difficult task of the two.

    How Knausgaard galvanizes a reader, creates narrative tension even…and he actually does, from the unfolding of microscopic dailiness is indicative of the rarity and power of the man’s gift. You sure as hell can’t teach this. Nor can one overstate the scale of humiliation and failure for any inclined to imitate.

    Normally not one for either unsparing naturalism or family drama, in this case it must only be that these are the recollections of the grown, accomplished Karl Ove that makes them interesting to me, and that the novels serve as aperture through which to observe what is idiosyncratic in the living of Scandinavian lives, even as the world, and the stories grow more homogenous.

    While perhaps some of the family dynamics and coming of age episodes are universal enough, there is much here that is still askew in what is related of the growing up years. As for the recounting of more recent slices of adult life, there is no question that for me at least, Knausgaard’s depictions of daily middle-class bohemian life are more than resonant, and likely would be not only for those who write, but for the kind of person for whom reading or music or cinema are as central as chewing food, where by some mixture of necessity and choice, one finds oneself suspended somewhere between the bourgeois and the wild and the scruffy, certainly closer to the former once the kids appear.

    Beyond the daily dilemmas of how the life of the mind and imagination coexists with the ordinary and mundane, arguably a key to why the putatively autobiographical is as consuming as it is for readers is that self-scrutiny is something Knausgaard undertakes with near brutality, a disregard for consequences, for himself and others that is either the riskiest lack of inhibition or a valiant overcoming of it. He drops these moments of unvarnished self-accounting in with the least of fanfare, rolled up in the rest of the quotidian flow as it rumbles along. But these bracing interludes may be as much the reason as any other why all of it works together so well, and creates such sustainable gravitational pull on the reader.

    He is bluntest and clearest when it comes to conveying that the most important thing in life to him is the writing he does, and that it always will be so, wives, children, finances, repute and all else forever secondary, presenting it almost as coldly as scientific fact, though with recognition that such a thing can seem alarming, even to him.

    While no small number of artists have lived this way, and said as much, usually it is accompanied with some sort of grandiosity toward the work itself, its relevance, its stature, its legacy, whereas Knausgaard simply intends to write, speaks of it as a constant endeavor fundamental to his being, apart from virtually all else .This is much less common. And in fact, he could be lying. However I do not think he is. Too much else here is the opposite of any sort of self-burnishing or backhanded or sideways self-appraisal of the flattering sort to suggest he is inclined, even in the slightest to elevate himself as a person or artist.

    For all the remembrance of things past laid out so voluminously and in such minute detail, there are times when Knausgaard steps away from the recollection to simply observe, assess, confess or analyze, such astounding nuggets striking as though they have plummeted to the page from the Asteroid Belt. When they hit, they seem so completely perfect, so succinctly and comprehensively astute, one is as much awed as satisfied by their relatability or elucidation or encapsulation, marvels of observational precision. In fact, they are such that I have said to myself after encountering one that the four or five hundred page volume would have been worth the read if only for the single paragraph.

    Of course, he is both winking at us and being authentic at the same time with his title, My Struggle. And as release of the latest volume approaches, it is a struggle to which, without ambivalence I cannot wait to return

  • Night Of The Living Philistines: Money Making, Envy And You

    robot businessman

    Arthur C. Brooks confides to us in a New York Times Op-Ed piece that he is worried about what he calls, our “national shift toward envy.” Pity the sleepless nights the man has endured on our behalf, coming to grips with this ‘toxic’ plague poisoning the very air we breathe, and praise his sacrifice.

    A not-as subtle-as-it-thinks-it-is obfuscation favored by many on the right these days as Americans increasingly take notice of things like income and wealth disparity, stagnant wages, inflated CEO pay, bought government, and a general slouching toward oligarchy, is to brand the fruits of this enhanced perceptiveness as “envy”. Are you feeling ashamed of yourself yet?

    Brooks says, “…we must recognize that fomenting bitterness over income differences may be powerful politics, but it injures our nation. We need aspirational leaders willing to do the hard work of uniting Americans around an optimistic vision in which anyone can earn his or her success. This will never happen when we vilify the rich or give up on the poor.”

    Slippery as a snail, Brooks equates discernment of wealth disparity and unfairness with vilification of the rich. Isn’t this a rather stale defense of a louche status quo at this late date?

    Holding forth in a tone somewhere between a kinder, gentler Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI with a human face Brooks instructs us, In 2008, Gallup asked a large sample of Americans whether they were “angry that others have more than they deserve.” People who strongly disagreed with that statement — who were not envious, in other words — were almost five times more likely to say they were “very happy” about their lives than people who strongly agreed. “

    This call to passivity in the face of exploitation in the name of happiness strikes one as unusually odoriferous self-help advice.

    Okay, I admit it, shoving that large, inanimate object up into my rectum makes me a little angry. Excuse me. Must remember to chill.

    Brooks notifies us that, According to data from the General Social Survey, the percentage of Americans who feel strongly that “government ought to reduce the income differences between the rich and the poor” is at its highest since the 1970s.”

    The kindest explanation (I don’t want to sound angry) is that it slipped his mind entirely to mention that employers could pay a fairer wage, and buck the trend of bottom of the barrel wages for those at the lower end of the pay scale, and sky’s the limit windfalls for those at the top.

    Brooks’ disingenuousness, or perhaps it’s only genteel stoicism, extends to a forgetfulness of the current war by Republicans against the unions, indeed, the very concept of upward pressure on wages seems to escape him entirely. Unions of course are the best mechanism we have for applying pressure in the upward direction, and their demise has been strongly contributory to the currently ballooned pay divide. The other mechanism for pressing wages upward is the minimum wage laws.

    Perhaps Brooks’ oversight here is only an expression of noblesse oblige, sparing us his tuneless rendition of that mythological chestnut he surely would have been required to pass along, that raising the minimum wage must produce a jobocalypse.

    Most warblers of the Ballad of the One-Percent improvise with some variation on the theme that those who live on the minimum wage must work harder, educate themselves, do whatever it takes to get them out of the jobs they’re in. Wouldn’t you just know it’s their fault?

    Indeed, this value system applies not only to the minimum wage worker but across the employment spectrum. Let’s stipulate that sales clerks, fire fighters, teachers, nurses, piano players, bartenders, sous chefs aren’t climbing over people’s backs to get to the top of the economic chain. Maybe they actually like what they’re doing you know? We can’t reward them for providing services we depend upon or enjoy, with decent compensation, good quality of life and longevity in the jobs they like, or even love doing?

    We have reached the point in our politics, where it is left to progressives alone to extol the dignity of work. At a time when the tony set threatens not to work as hard, if at all, unless tax rates, loopholes and subsidies are just to their liking, only liberals remain in support of the work ethic.

    Smoothies like Brooks no longer bother even to acknowledge that a balancing of capital and labor is beneficial, if not essential, and that the degree to which the balance currently is out of whack in favor of capital could rightly be described as fully capsized. Lincoln described what he called, the “effort to place capital on an equal footing with, if not above, labor in the structure of government.” He says, “It is assumed that labor is available only in connection with capital; that nobody labors unless somebody else, owning capital, somehow by the use of it induces him to labor.” And finally, “Labor is prior to and independent of capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not existed.”

    Of course, I guess you could make the claim this isn’t a fair and balanced view. Lincoln retained the clear bias of a rail-splitter.

    Perhaps worse than anything, the pervasive libertarian/conservative perversion of capitalism in favor these days, foists a materialism as gray and grim and philistine as any communism ever could.

    All value is judged by its “market” value. Money is what matters. If it doesn’t command a high monetary payoff who the hell needs it? What’s its value then? Is there room in this sterile culture for work that flows from kindness or pure creativity, which produces beauty or provides solace? Is the message here that our values dictate a choice between pursuit of wealth and material degradation, for these are the only two choices the current Austrian School regime can offer?

    Perhaps tired from having such weighty thoughts as he does, Brooks never gets around to trundling out the nostrum that everyone in America dreams of, and can in fact become a millionaire. As a trope designed to encourage kid glove handling of American wealth and its aggregators, or to encourage that we abide sans effective reform or social and economic course correction, this one definitely is walking on creaky knees. Of course, whatever rationales Brooks or those he protects use to fill their moats is fine by me.

    The good news is that few any longer swallow this hooey with much credulity, for to do so would indeed be naïve, if not childish. Perhaps it’s just quintessentially American, the older European and Scandinavian societies for instance with their long history of aristocracy and strict class stratification accepting the wisdom, in fact the requirement of social and economic policies intended to account for, address and mitigate great inequality.

    In any case, I’m not much of a role model. I haven’t exactly made a million bucks writing this blog. Or to be precise, even one.

    Oh well, onward and upward.

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