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Knausgaard’s Struggle, or How forgetting stuff can help you remember it more honestly

1 Sep
Jarl Ove Knausgaard

Karl Ove Knausgaard

I have had Karl Ove Knausgaard’s work on my reading list for a while, particularly as some of the better critics have sung his praises (for example James Wood, writing in The New Yorker, or Boyd Tonkin, in The Independent). Now that I’ve read the first volume, dealing with his adolescence and the death of his father, I have to admit I’m a little bewildered at all the fuss. I don’t think I’ll be reading the second volume, in which he famously deconstructs his first marriage.

So much of Knausgaard’s story seems to be saying things simply to fulfil his own obsessive need to say them, to ‘record everything’. But he isn’t – thank god – ‘recording everything’; he is merely giving the spurious impression of thoroughness. I’m not convinced that much of it needs saying. It serves no purpose and is filled with tedious blather: ‘I dried my hair with the small towel’ . . . ‘I swallowed the last morsel and poured juice in my glass’. The ‘detail’ comes replete with set phrases and cliché: ‘I was as hungry as a wolf’ . . . ‘two sides of the same coin’, ‘seeing is believing’, etc. He piles on astonishingly boring reams of information, as though simply filling a page will do. Much of this book is typing, rather than writing, as though the author wanted to get the series of six volumes out as soon as possible – given his sales in Norway this might have been reasonable motivation. His work has received startling and adulatory comparisons with A la recherche du temps perdu. But Proust it ain’t.

There is some strong writing in the early pages when the author reflects on death in general and his relationship with his father (referred to throughout as a lower case ‘dad’) but the intensity of these opening pages is lost as we sink into the larger litany of the exhausting details of everyday life. Anyone who writes knows there is no such thing as ‘total honesty’: everything is, to a large degree, confection and elaboration, a weaving around or manipulation of some essential fragment of reality. There is not a writer alive who would claim to reproduce events from their own lives with a rigorous adherence to the truth because, as we all know, a writer can only ever present a version of events to the world: if you want to call that ‘corruscating truthfulness’ you’re welcome, but – as Bob Dylan once said – I don’t believe you, man.

Besides, as ‘Karl Ove’ confesses on page 387 of the Vintage edition: I usually forgot almost everything people, however close they were, said to me. This is an alarming confession, if we are being asked to consider the work as an example of corrosively truthful writing, or a “scorchingly honest, unflinchingly frank, hyperreal memoir” (The Guardian) – especially after 386 pages containing extensive tracts of dialogue with people who were ‘close’ to him. But perhaps ‘forgetting’ helps Knausgaard to remember in a more ‘honest’ way.

After a fashion, I can see this series of books as emerging from and resonating with the narcissistic tradition of Facebook and twitter, a constant attention-seeking and a wanting-to-be-noticed in a world in which everything is on display for all to see. Just as the young Karl Ove desperately needs, and fails to receive, his father’s attention. Knausgaard tells us he “wanted so much to be special” as an awkward teen who played in a heavy metal band (but dreamed of greater things, and had “the ambition to write something exceptional”).

It would be invidious to pick out one of the many examples of frankly bad writing in this first volume. Besides, I get it: I see what he’s doing with the self-consciously unedited prose style. But this thinly veiled autobiography (no, let’s stick with ‘novel’ – the old boundaries no longer count for anything) is not breaking new ground, as so many critics seem to be claiming. Apart from the strong opening and some isolated aperçus on death, it is pretty dull for the most part, with some legitimate seasoning of ‘profound thoughts’ edging their way in on occasion:

She glared at me. I swallowed the last morsel and poured juice in my glass. If there was one thing I had learned over recent months it was that everything you heard about pregnant women’s fluctuating and unpredictable moods was true.

‘Don’t you understand that this is a disaster?’ she said.

I met her gaze. Took a swig of juice.

‘Yes, yes, of course’, I said. ‘But it’ll be all right. Everything will be all right.’

And this description of rolling as fag:

I drained my drink and poured myself a fresh one, took out a Rizla, laid a line of tobacco, spread it evenly to get the best possible draught, rolled the paper a few times, pressed down the end and closed it, licked the glue, removed any shreds of tobacco, dropped them in the pouch [dropped what in the pouch?], put the somewhat skew-whiff roll-up in my mouth and lit it with Yngve’s green, semi-transparent lighter.

Does any of this matter? Who cares if the writer’s brother had a ‘green, semi-transparent lighter’? Who cares, even, what he dropped in the pouch. I cannot agree with James Wood’s assertion that “the banality is so extreme that it turns into its opposite, and becomes distinctive, curious in its radical transparency.” To my mind, the banality simply remains banal. And the writing, sloppy.

But perhaps I’m being unfair. Knausgaard clearly writes in a hurry, producing 10 to 20 pages a day, according to one account. Perhaps he should slow down a bit, do some editing even. But I guess it’s too late for that now. Or perhaps I should try again, and read him in a different way, accepting that, as Wood writes: “the writer seems not to be selecting or shaping anything, or even pausing to draw breath.” But then again, why should I? Life is short enough as it is, and I’d rather re-read Proust.

The relentlessness of his descriptions does serve a purpose, I’ll concede that: the deluge of ordinariness is meant to elicit in the reader a stronger consciousness of whatever we consider to be ‘reality’, but then again, this is all rendered with a naivety and dedication to ‘honesty’ that I find deeply suspicious. Maybe the resistance to – or outright rejection of – ironic detachment as a strategy in this writing is what I find most unsettling. For all the words, all the typing, there seems to be very little, if any, self-awareness here. And as with reality TV, I cannot quite take that world of written ‘reality’ seriously – especially when being asked to consider the ‘merciless frankness’ of an author who ‘can’t remember a single conversation’ – but who nonetheless has managed successfully to achieve that longed-for fame and specialness which he so craved as a teenager.

Neruda’s Timekeeper Revisited

4 May

Valparaiso 2

To Don Asterio Alarcón, timekeeper of Valparaíso

by Pablo Neruda

 

Valparaíso has the smell

of a crazy port,

the smell of a shadow, of a star,

of moon-scale

and fish-tail.

The heart shudders

on the harrowing stairways

of the bristling hills:

grave poverty and black eyes

dance there in the fog

and the flags of the kingdom

hang from windows:

patched sheets,

old shirts,

long undershorts

and the sea sun salutes the banners

while the white clothes wave

the sailors a poor farewell.

Sea streets, windy streets

of the hard day wrapped in air and waves,

alleys that sing upward

in a spiral like snails:

the commercial afternoon is transparent,

the sun visits the merchandise

in order to sell the warehouse smiles,

showing windows and sets of teeth,

shoes and thermometers, bottles

that hold a green night,

unreachable suits, golden clothes,

awful socks, mild cheeses,

and so I come to the point

of this ode.

There is a shop window

with its glass

and inside,

between timepieces,

the clockmaker don Asterio Alarcón.

The street boils and turns

burns and batters,

but behind the glass

the clockmaker,

the old curator of timepieces

stands immobile,

with a protruding eye,

an extravagant eye

which guesses the enigma,

the cardiac arrest of the clocks

and scrutinizes with one eye

until the obscure butterfly

of timekeeping

alights on his brow

and the hands of the clock move.

Don Asterio Alarcón is the ancient

hero of minutes

and the boat sails on the wave

measured by his hands

that add

responsibility to the minute hand,

neatness to the beat:

Don Asterio in his aquarium

watched over the sea clocks,

oiled with patience

the blue heart of the seascape.

For fifty years,

or eighteen thousand days,

the river of children and men and women

flowed by

up the shabby hills or down to the sea,

while the clockmaker,

amidst clocks,

stopped in time,

softened like a pure vessel

against the eternity of the current,

his timbers appeased,

and little by little the wise man

emerged from the artisan

working

with magnifying glass and oil

cleansed of envy, fear discarded,

fulfilled his job and destiny,

until time itself

in its fearsome passage

made a pact with him, with don Asterio,

and he awaits his hour.

So when I pass by

the frantic street,

the black river of Valparaíso,

I only hear one sound

among the sounds,

among so many clocks one only:

the exhausted, gentle, murmuring

and ancient movement

of a great pure heart:

the distinguished and humble

tick-tock of Don Asterio.

 

 

Translation by Richard Gwyn

 

 Val BBC

 

 

A Don Asterio Alarcón, cronometrista de Valparaíso

Olor a puerto loco

tiene Valparaíso,

olor a sombra, a estrella,

a escama de la luna

y a cola de pescado.

El corazón recibe escalofríos

en las desgarradoras escaleras

de los hirsutos cerros:

allí grave miseria y negros ojos

bailan en la neblina

y cuelgan las banderas

del reino en las ventanas:

las sábanas zurcidas,

las viejas camisetas,

los largos calzoncillos,

y el sol del mar saluda los emblemas

mientras la ropa blanca balancea

un pobre adiós a la marinería.

Calles del mar, del viento,

del día duro envuelto en aire y ola,

callejones que cantan hacia arriba

en espiral como las caracolas:

la tarde comercial es transparente,

el sol visita las mercaderías,

para vender sonríe el almacén

abriendo escaparate y dentadura,

zapatos y termómetros, botellas

que encierran noche verde,

trajes inalcanzables, ropa de oro,

funestos calcetines, suaves quesos,

y entonces llego al tema

de esta oda.

Hay un escaparate

con su vidrio

y adentro,

entre cronómetros,

don Asterio Alarcón, cronometrista.

La calle hierve y sigue,

arde y golpea,

pero detrás del vidrio

el relojero,

el viejo ordenador de los relojes,

está inmovilizado

con un ojo hacia afuera,

un ojo extravagante

que adivina el enigma,

el cardíaco fin de los relojes,

y escruta con un ojo

hasta que la impalpable mariposa

de la cronometría

se detiene en su frente

y se mueven las alas del reloj.

Don Asterio Alarcón es el antiguo

héroe de los minutos

y el barco va en la ola

medido por sus manos

que agregaron

responsabilidad al minutero,

pulcritud al latido:

Don Asterio en su acuario

vigiló los cronómetros del mar,

aceitó con paciencia

el corazón azul de la marina.

Durante cincuenta años,

o dieciocho mil días,

allí pasaba el río

de niños y varones y mujeres

hacia harapientos cerros o hacia el mar,

mientras el relojero,

entre relojes,

detenido en el tiempo,

se suavizó como la nave pura

contra la eternidad de la corriente,

serenó su madera,

y poco a poco el sabio

salió del artesano,

trabajando

con lupa y con aceite

limpió la envidia, descartó el temor,

cumplió su ocupación y su destino,

hasta que ahora el tiempo,

el transcurrir temible,

hizo pacto con él, con don Asterio,

y él espera su hora de reloj.

Por eso cuando paso

la trepidante calle,

el río negro de Valparaíso,

sólo escucho un sonido entre sonidos,

entre tantos relojes uno solo:

el fatigado, suave, susurrante

y antiguo movimiento

de un gran corazón puro:

el insigne y humilde

tic tac de don Asterio.

From Plenos Poderes, first published by Losada, Buenos Aires.

Fiction Fiesta 2015

15 Apr
Preview | Fiction Fiesta 2015

PREVIEW | FICTION FIESTA 2015

Fiction Fiesta started out three years ago as a conversation in a pub between myself and Nick Davidson, landlord of the now defunct Promised Land in Windsor Place, Cardiff. I was expecting a visit from two Argentinian writers, Andrés Neuman and Jorge Fondebrider, and Nick and I decided to hold a small celebration to welcome them to Wales. However, we got a little excited and ended up inviting all kinds of people, including the publishers Christopher MacLehose and Charles Boyle, and the literary editor of The Independent, Boyd Tonkin, and then a load of people from closer to home got involved. Nick got some money from the San Miguel brewery and I managed to secure some from Cardiff University and the thing was on. We followed up in 2013, with an Arts Council of Wales small festivals grant, inviting Eduardo Halfon from Guatemala and Inés Garland from Argentina to join several writers from Wales and elsewhere, and The Independent again covered the event, which attracted some attention.
My idea for Fiction Fiesta was simple: to team up writers in both the languages of Wales with writers from Latin America, and initiate a discourse between us and them, with the aim – among other things – of dismantling such notions as ‘us’ and ‘them’. The way we set out to approach this was to pay particular attention to literature in translation, and explore the whole idea of translation as a concept that to some degree governs our lives. After all, we are translating from the moment we are born: early childhood is the acute phase of translation, and of being translated. Those moments in which every gaze, every enraged instinct on the part of the infant meets with either incomprehension or else with a tentative, and then a more assured translation. As parents we are constantly engaged in acts of translation, as are friends and lovers and enemies and strangers of all variety. In literature, even without being translated into other languages, we are translating emotions and thoughts into words. ‘Reading poetry is itself a kind of translation,’ commented Andrés Neuman during a discussion at Fiction Fiesta in 2013. We are all translators, just as we are all, to some degree, writers. ff-e-flyer 2015
The novelist and essayist Ali Smith, in her preface to English PEN’s report on literary translation, Taking Flight, wrote:  ‘If we value literature at all, we know the worth of literary translation. If we want language to be as subtle and supple and layered and resonant as language can be, we know the worth and the work and the subtlety of literary translation. If we care at all about looking beyond our back yard and our own dominant narratives, we know the worth, the work, the open border, open mind, open eyes and ears of literary translation. If we belong to a culture which rates the word literary, we know the value, the scope, the touchstone, the creativity, the generosity that exist in this fusion of literary and translation.’
Engaging with the literature of another country, another culture, enables us to understand not only the world as it is now, but also the shared history that brought us here, which will be our legacy.
As Edith Grossman, the modern translator of Cervantes’ Don Quixote puts it: ‘[Translation] permits us to savor the transformation of the foreign into the familiar and for a brief time to live outside our own skins, our own preconceptions and misconceptions. It expands and deepens our world, our consciousness, in countless, indescribable ways.’
It was never our intention to put on a big festival. We always wanted Fiction Fiesta to retain a sense of intimacy that came from holding the first edition of the fiesta in the upstairs room of a local pub. And we wanted to keep a sense of celebration, of literature as something to be savoured and enjoyed, like food and drink, which the large-scale corporate festivals cannot provide. Above all, we wanted Fiction Fiesta to help develop contacts and friendships between Welsh writers and writers from Latin America, which is where a lot of my own literary interests happen to have sprung from.
I was fortunate enough to spend some time in Mexico last year on an Arts Council of Wales project, and part of my task was to familiarise myself with the wide expanse of literary culture there as well as trying – within a month – to gauge as much as I could of the wider cultural climate within that country. I came away with my head filled to bursting, but enthusiastic about the task of developing closer relationships with individual Mexican writers, of translating the poems of some, and of reading the work of many others.
This year Mexico and the UK are teaming up for two big events: the London Book Fair, running this week from Tuesday to Thursday, where Mexico is the guest nation, and at the Guadalajara Book Fair, in November, where the UK is the invited country. We thought that Cardiff should see a slice of the action, so together with the newly formed Wales PEN Cymru, and with the support of the British Council, we decided to hold a small event here with two of the Mexican writers whose work I discovered last year, and who are visiting for the Book Fair. As is the usual pattern with FF, we teamed them up with local writers – or in this instance a Welsh writer and a Scottish Poet – to see what happens.
file-page1
The event takes place on a Friday night, at the Wales Millennium Centre. In the first session, which begins at 5 pm, Owen Sheers will be in conversation with Juan Villoro, a contemporary and friend of Roberto Bolaño, and an extraordinary writer of short stories in the broad lineage of Borges, alongside Francesca Rhydderch, who achieved widespread recognition last November with her shortlisting for the BBC Short Story Award. In the second half, following a wine reception, I will be talking with Pedro Serrano along with the Scottish poet WN Herbert, and they will be reading from their work. The event takes place in the Preseli Room at WMC and entry is free of charge, with donations to Wales PEN Cymru welcome.
This year Fiction Fiesta is supported by the British Council and Cardiff University School of English, Communication and Philosophy.

This post also appears on the website of WALES ARTS REVIEW today. The new re-vamped Wales Arts Review serves as a media platform where a new generation of critics and arts lovers can meet to engage in a robust and inclusive discussion about books, theatre, film, music, the visual arts, politics, and the media.

To Reiterate

25 Jan

Lydia Davis, in inimitable style, consolidates the elements of reading, writing and travel in a short piece from her 1997 collection, Almost no Memory:

Michel Butor says that to travel is to write, because to travel is to read. This can be developed further: To write is to travel, to write is to read, to read is to write, and to read is to travel. But George Steiner says that to translate is also to read, and to translate is to write, as to write is to translate and to read is to translate. So that we may say: To translate is to travel and to travel is to translate. To translate a travel writing, for example, is to read a travel writing, to write a travel writing, to read a writing, to write a writing, and to travel. But if because you are translating you read, and because writing translate, because traveling write, because traveling read, and because translating travel; that is, if to read is to translate, and to translate is to write, to write to travel, to read to travel, to write to read, to read to write, and to travel to translate; then to write is also to write, and to read is also to read, and even more, because when you read you read, but also travel, and because traveling read, therefore read and read; and when reading also write, therefore read; and reading also translate, therefore read; therefore read, read, read and read. The same argument may be made for translating, traveling and writing.

 

 

At the bottom of all this sleeps a horse

9 Jan

horse Rojas

 

At the bottom of all this sleeps a horse

by Gonzalo Rojas (1917-2011)

 

At the bottom of all this sleeps

a white horse, an old horse

long in the ear, lacking in

brainpower, worried

by the situation, the pulse

running through him is speed: the children

mount him as if here were a ghost, mock him, and he sleeps

sleeping as he stands there in the rain, hears

everything while I sketch out these eleven

lines. He has the look of a thing crazed,

he knows that he is king.

 

 

Al fondo de esto duerme un caballo

 

Al fondo de todo esto duerme un caballo

blanco, un viejo caballo

largo de oído, estrecho de

entendederas, preocupado

por la situación, el pulso

de la velocidad es la madre que lo habita: lo montan

los niños como a un fantasma, lo escarnecen, y él duerme

durmiendo parado ahí en la lluvia, lo

oye todo mientras pinto estas once

líneas. Facha de loco, sabe

que es el rey.

 

 

From El alumbrado.

 

 

The collapsing world

4 Dec
Shaman Davi Kopenawa

Shaman Davi Kopenawa

In a recent review of The Falling Sky: Words of a Yanomami Shaman, I learn that in a creation myth of the Yanomami people, the original world – the world that was here before – was “crushed by the collapse of the sky, hurling its inhabitants into the underworld. The exposed ‘back’ of the previous sky became the forest where the Yanomami emerged.” A new sky was set up and “held in place by metal foundations set deep in the ground by the demiurge Omama. Yet the new sky is under constant assault by the forces of chaos, and Yanomami shamans work tirelessly with their spirit allies, the xapiri, to avert a new apocalypse. A diaphanous third sky already lies waiting, high above, in case the current one collapses and the world once again comes to an end.”

The fragility of the known world is a theme that emerges also in Juan José Saer’s book The Witness (see post from 30 November). The nameless cabin boy who is adopted by a tribe living on the banks of a South American river is returned to the invading Spaniards ten years after his capture. Eschewing public attention, he holes up in a Spanish monastery for several years, under the tutelage of a sagacious monk, who teaches him Latin, Greek and Hebrew. On his protector’s death, he leaves the monastery and lives as a vagrant, before eventually he joins up with a group of actors, and – to great public acclaim – tours the cities of Europe, performing a drama of his ‘life among the savages’, in which he acts himself. It is only in his old age that he settles down to write his account of those years.

And here he returns to the theme of the precariousness of the world, and all that is in it. The Indians among whom he lived all those years ago considered themselves and the world they inhabited to be coterminous. Outside they do not feel on safe ground.

“Even though they [the Indians] took for granted the non-existence of others, their own existence was in no way irrefutable . . . For them the main attribute of all things was precariousness.” This belief has a linguistic base: there is no equivalent word in their language for ‘to be’. The closest equivalent they have means ‘to seem’. “But ‘seems’ has more of a feeling of untrustworthiness than sameness. It is more a negative than a positive. It implies an objection rather than a comparison. It does not refer to a known image but rather tends to erode perception and diminish its force. The word used to designate appearance also means exteriority, a lie, an eclipse, enemy. Everything that presented itself clearly to the sense was for them formless and had a vague and sticky underside against which the darkness beat.” The people among whom our narrator lives, nevertheless, regard themselves as the custodians of this fragile and terrifyingly insubstantial world. “In their hands lay the precarious fate of all perishable life. It would take only a moment’s inattention for it all to collapse, taking them with it.”

I do not regard this attitude towards the imminent collapse of all reality to be that unreasonable. After all, those of us who grew up in the sixties came to consciousness under a not entirely dissimilar mythology of imminent extinction: in our case it was thermonuclear war. Now it is the destruction of the ozone layer and climate change. It is no surprise that environmentalists have adopted the Shaman Davi Kopenawa, co-author of The Falling Sky, as a spokesperson for those many peoples whose habitat is under constant environmental threat from loggers and miners, or from the effects of climate change. Davi Kopenawa has taken on this mantle, appearing at events worldwide on behalf of his people, and others like them. According to the New York Review article, “he finds echoes of Yanomami notions in Western environmental thought, but with an important caveat: “Since the beginning of time, Omama has been the center of what the white people call ecology…. In the forest, we human beings are the ‘ecology.’”

Spanish Gold

30 Nov

Yesterday evening in my native town, or village, as I still think of it (although it has grown since my departure to something more town-sized), I went into the corner shop that I used throughout my childhood for buying sweets –fruit salads and blackjacks (four a penny); barley sugar sticks; and best of all, those thin wormlike strands of sweet coconut-flavoured pretend tobacco, wrapped in waxy paper, called Spanish Gold –which I am certain could not be sold to children today. Old Mr J, the shopkeeper, had very bad teeth and no doubt had been on the Spanish Gold all his life. But the stuff obsessed me, and moreover fitted in perfectly with my career plans: to be a pirate, to ride wooden ships on the Spanish Main and do other exciting pirate stuff. Spanish GoldSpanish GoldSo yesterday, after the Wales-South Africa rugby match, which I have watched at his home with my elderly father, I go back to the shop for the first time in many years, to be served by a man a little younger than myself (the original Mr J’s grandson), and I am at once inside a time warp. I am six years old and using up my entire shilling allowance on sweeties. Old Mr J is leaning over me with his blackened stumps and national health specs and calling me ‘the young doctor’, while stuffing a white paper bag with teeth-rotting goodies. Driving back to Cardiff I am in a kind of self-induced trance, in which I am trying to distinguish between the things that actually happened in that (by now mythical) sweet shop, and the things that my memory has conferred upon it over the interceding years. I realise then that the shop has also entered my personal dreamscape.

And later, as so often happens, a kind of answer arises in the book that I am reading. Or else, I contrive to find a corresponding thesis in what I am reading that maps almost perfectly onto my experiences in my childhood home town.   witness1Propped up in bed on Sunday morning, reading The Witness, a novel by Juan José Saer originally published in Spanish as El Entenado, or ‘The Stepson’ – and beautifully translated by Margaret Jull Costa – I follow the hazardous experiences of the young narrator, an unnamed cabin boy on a sixteenth century Spanish expedition, who is captured by Native Americans on the River Plate. The Native Americans (or Indians, as they prefer to call themselves in Latin America), while exceptionally courteous to the cabin boy himself, are about to cook and eat his shipmates, when he experiences a moment of clarity:

I think that was the first time – aged all of fifteen – that an idea with which I am now familiar first occurred to me: namely that the memory of an event is not sufficient proof that it actually happened, just as the memory of a dream that we believe we had in the past, many years or months before the moment in which we remember it, is not sufficient proof that the dream took place in the distant past rather than the night before the day on which we recall it, or even that it occurred before the precise moment we state that it has occurred.

And how often has that happened? You dream a dream, and are certain that you have dreamed it before: or else, even as you are dreaming it, you have the sensation that you are re-dreaming a dream you had many years before? It then seems almost as if the world you enter in dreamtime is a continuum that exists with or without your participation, and when you dream you simply dip into it, witness (that word again) whatever happens to be occurring at that precise moment. But – and this is important – you remember part of the dream landscape from previous dreams, and you waken with a feeling of déjà vu that makes you feel as if you had just returned from a familiar place. Sometimes, like yesterday evening in the sweetshop, it is as if that place exists neither in reality nor in dream, but some place in between.

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