Karl Ove Knausgaard’s huge six volume series My Struggle concludes with a gigantic 1100 page bruiser of a book, aptly title The End. Knausgaard’s writing has been termed ‘auto-fiction’ – his books tell the story of his life, all characters are real people, but unlike a conventional biography, this is life in all its maddening, repetitive detail. I’d like to be able to compare it with minimalist music, but at least that can have some beauty. Knausgaard’s six novels are crudely written, dwell on his insecurities and are dense with endless, insignificant minutiae. He pours coffee, smokes cigarette after cigarette. He worries, makes tedious trips to the shops and the park, stares out of windows. And yet there is something else happening here. It’s as if we’re trawling through our own lives, but with an intensity of focus on all the trivia: cooking sausages, loading the dishwasher, remembering the colour and smell of children’s clothes, the feel of warm rooms in summer, of cold streets in winter. Knausgaard creates a vivid reality, he seems to have an acute visual memory, seems to hold details of moments from decades ago that the rest of us have forgotten. In this last book he attempts to rationalise his obsession with the banal: in a long digression on the power of language in the rise of the Nazis, Knausgaard rejects reaching beyond the quotidian, elevating the world to something more than it is. There is desire for what is authentic, for what matters, for the human world. This is why, he seems to be saying, I have filled five volumes with getting up, making breakfast, doing the laundry, and, in this last book, worrying what others he has written about will think of him. He has a hyper-vigilance, a tension, a constant anxiety. When it’s remembered that book one of the series describes his father’s death, stirring up Knausgaard’s hatred for the man he regards as a thug, then there is some explanation for this vigilance: since he can remember, Knausgaard was bullied and beaten by his father. Many passages recall him waiting to hear his father come home, terrified what mood he would be in. These are novels of fear, of a lifelong insecurity, and although there is love and laughter here too, there is an overwhelming sense of man battling to be free. This, then, is his struggle.
Category Archives: writing
Graham Robb’s book ‘The Ancient Paths’ so confused and entertained me, my only response was not to attempt a critical review, but to create a series of improvisations.
The book suggests that the ancient Gauls created a road network which ran across what is now modern France, a network which was subsequently obliterated by the Romans. This in itself is contentious enough, but then Robb goes on to speculate that these roads ran in the direction of the rising and setting sun at the summer and winter solstices.
He pinpoints place names that reflect the location of ancient paths, for example any ‘middle hill’ – a station that would have been used to plot the roads, so, for example, we get Mediolanum, the Roman name for Milan.
Robb also describes the Nemetons, the Druidic temples, showing how none of them are perfectly rectangular, all slightly askew. These were based on the elliptic, the sun’s apparent journey around the zodiac. Of course!
The book verges on being so speculative it is a work of rich fantasy, but no less enjoyable for all that. So, as I said, I don’t really have the time to pick apart his arguments, even in this tenth week of Lockdown, so instead composed a series of short musical pieces.
And here they are:
James Joyce’s Ulysses is often referred to as the greatest novel of all time. Published in 1922, it was a revolution in literary form. From then on a novel could no longer just represent reality, whether naturalist or realist, fiction was on the run. Character, plot, setting, these were no longer enough. The novel had to examine itself, the history of how it came to be. So Ulysses, although representing one day in the life of Dublin, a young man’s search for meaning, an older man’s search for love, it is The Odyssey, all history, all humanity’s search for sense. Joyce’s next work, and his last, Finnegans Wake, took him 14 years to complete. If Ulysses is difficult, Finnegans Wake is impossible. If Ulysses is one day in the life of Dublin, Finnegans Wake is one night. There are characters – Earwicker, the dad, Anna Livia, mum, Shaun, Shem and Issy, the children. But the book is a dream, and it is written in dream language. There is a plot, settings, themes, but these are fluid, and everything is in flux. Earwicker dreams and is plagued by guilt. He has been accused of something. He is a hill, his wife is a river, they are the landscape of Dublin. Earwicker is Howth Head, his wife the River Liffey. At its densest, when the dreamers are in their deepest sleep, almost every word is some sort of amalgam, sentences seem to abide by syntactical rules, but then they spin off into chaos. But read it aloud and patterns, rhythms, sometimes songs emerge. It is like music. Themes emerge, disappear and reemerge like a log floating down a river. This is one of my favourite passages (and I warn you, one of the easiest).
‘Well, almost any photoist worth his chemicots will tip anyone
asking him the teaser that if a negative of a horse happens to melt
enough while drying, well, what you do get is, well, a positively
grotesquely distorted macromass of all sorts of horsehappy values
and masses of meltwhile horse. Well, this freely is what
must have occurred to our missive…’
A negative of a horse, if it melts during processing will produce a horse that is distorted, a monster, but a happy one. This is, I am sure, Joyce referring to his book, his missive. It is a happy mess. And, yes, it is very funny.
There are threads of themes, like streams, that run through the book: there are courtroom scenes, inquisitions, a letter offering evidence of guilt and innocence, meanwhile a hen pecks at litter. HC Earwicker and Anna Livia Plurabelle mutate and reappear in hundreds of forms, as do their children, Shem the Penman, Shaun the Post and Issy, Chapelizod, a village within Dublin, as Isolde, and then there is Tristan and the four evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, who often mutate into prosecutors, inquisitors.
The book is long and dense, and there is rarely any breathing space. The Wake does with fiction what Picasso did with figurative art. But whereas Picasso’s vision has been absorbed into contemporary painting, the book remains a curiosity, largely unread. And it has few successors. Anthony Burgess (who wrote a shorter version of Finnegans Wake) pays homage to Joyce in his use of language in A Clockwork Orange. Russell Hoban’s wonderful Riddley Walker probably owes a great deal to Joyce. But these novels are far less impenetrable and a much easier read that Finnegans Wake. Joyce’s last book is about everything: gods, heroes, humanity, world history, Irish history. Published in 1939, the year of the outbreak of World War Two, it almost marks the end of time, of recorded history. The book is a tip, a letter, litter, ‘scribbledehobble’. The hen picks at the litter, finds a letter, or letters, and somehow, humanity sees in this chaos its guilt. HC Earwicker’s nightmare: he is all of us, Here Comes Everybody.
Every Good Friday, when I was a child, friends and I used to walk the ten miles or so to the top of Twm Barlwm, a mountain dominating the reclaimed marshlands of south Wales. In my imagination, uncorrupted by historical detail, this is where the Celts stood fast, watching over the slow encroachment of Romans stationed in the fort of Caerleon, just below. It was a mountain of war, and later, in my teens, I witnessed real battles as gangs from nearby towns fought with chains and axes, as determined as the Celts and the Romans not to give an inch. I watched these events from the safety of the ferns, and sometime later, when the gangs had gone, returned with my dog to wander along the mountain’s spine, to the strange mound at its summit. From there, under the steel grey sky, it felt as if all of the world, and the future, was spread out before me.
Arthur Machen’s Hill of Dreams is a book based on his boyhood love of Twm Barlwm, and Machen’s later work, particularly his London Adventure is a hike through the demi-monde of Edwardian London. He was a flaneur who perfected the art of wandering. He wanders London as he wandered the Welsh hills. When, in my early twenties, I followed Machen’s footsteps and moved from south Wales to west London, I worked hard at being a flaneur. I loved strolling aimlessly through the leafy suburbs, and in the city I adored the river’s muddy allure. But I didn’t get to be a seriously good at it, I was Welsh boy in Dr Martens. I didn’t have the style.
After my own decade and a half of London adventure, I moved back to Wales, this time away from the industrial south and into the central wilderness. Here I crave nothing more than to be rambling in the mountains, getting closer to the clouds, and sometimes above them.
I tend to walk with a small bunch of serious hikers. These people have all the kit, the Nordic poles, heavy duty water bottles, stainless steel thermos flasks. They study maps. Some of them have beards. They are not wanderers, they are athletes. Usually these walks take six hours or so, and often cover twenty miles. We struggle up steep slopes and spill over and down them again.
We usually start in a car park and at some point manage to find a pub, often an ancient, hidden place, a few dating back to the thirteenth century, some even earlier. I’ve come upon remote hillside churches with eerie murals, like Death wielding a shovel, or St George slaying what I supposed was a dragon but which looked more like a giant, angry sparrow. I know the twisted spine of Cwmyoy, and the tumbling, secluded magic of Llanthony and Tintern.
Most of my fellow hikers have travelled this way before, and they know the stories. Up high in the mountains I’ve seen the wreck of a Wellington bomber that lost its way in the fog; the caves where the Chartists hid their weapons as they planned revolution. There’s the poet’s chair, and the grave of a famous racehorse. There are standing stones, remnants of Iron Age forts, terraced ramparts, a hermit’s cell. I’ve looked across the plains of Herefordshire and seen the blue remembered hills of Shropshire. Look south and there’s the Severn, glinting.
I like writers who are walkers: Rosseau, Wordsworth, Machen, Bruce Chatwin, WG Sebald. Wandering has a great pedigree. In their books one phrase reappears time after time: solvitur ambulando – you can solve it by walking. After hiking all day whatever problems you have disappear, and the simple pleasures of sandwiches, or a flask of tea, with the land spinning about you, miles and miles of it, on and on, never ending, whisk all worldly cares up into the clouds, to be lost forever in the vast ancient wilderness.
n.b. this originally appeared in the Awfully Big Adventure Blog.
It’s a limbo I’m sure all writers understand. The book is finished, and has been reduced to the essence of what it should be. I’ve always thought writing, or any creative activity, is like alchemy. The alchemist takes raw materials, or base matter, and subjects it to a process of reduction until there is nothing but a purified essence. This, perhaps, is the mysterious white stone. It is everything stripped down to all that matters. I forget who said that good design is the art of knowing when you’ve reached the point where no more can be added, and nothing can be taken away. Perhaps it’s the same for writing a book. I don’t want to add any more, and I dread taking anything else away. Meanwhile I am in limbo, waiting for my agent to reveal to me what she intends to do. Will she represent it? And if so, to whom? Will she be ambitious, cautious, or will every publisher in town get to see it? So I cook boiled eggs and eat toast. I read more. I fidget.
In June I went to see my agent, Catherine, who, along with Amy Waite, a new member of staff at the agency, sat with me and made some suggestions on what to do with the new book. At the moment it’s called Octopus Crush. I hope it stays that way, but you never can tell with publishers. It’ll probably end up being called Hairy Octopus or His Dank Tentacles.
Catherine wants cuts, and I can understand why. It’s because my book is far too long. One day, perhaps, I will assemble the cuts into Octopus Crush, the Author’s Cut, but it will be rambling and have too many scenes in which nothing happens.