Tag Archives: The Guardian

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.

Exhibit B in Santiago de Chile

17 Jan
A Place in the Sun, from Brett Bailey’s “Exhibit B”. This installation was based on an account of a French colonial officer who kept black women chained to his bed, exchanging food for sexual services.

From Brett Bailey’s “Exhibit B”. This installation was based on an account of a French colonial officer who kept black women chained to his bed, exchanging food for sexual services.


Continuing my readings of Alastair Reid, while travelling in Chile, I find the following: “The fictions we make are ways of ordering and dominating the disorders of reality, even though they in no way change it. The ‘truth’ of a fiction is less important than its effectiveness; and since reality is shifting and changing, our fictions must constantly be revised.”

‘Fictions’ here has the broadest meaning possible, and should not be confined to those things that are written down and sold in the Fiction Section. Fictions, following Borges, are anything – a story, an explanation, a plan, a theory, a dogma – that gives a certain shape to reality. A piece of theatre, for example.

Arriving in Santiago from the south of Chile yesterday evening, I was invited by friends to attend a performance of Exhibit B, showing as part of the Santiago a Mil theatre festival. Exhibit B is a theatre installation that replicates the grotesque phenomenon of the human zoo during the 19th Century, in which Africans were put on display like circus freaks “for the titillation of European and American audiences under the guise of ‘ethnological enlightenment.’” The show created something of an outrage when performed at the Edinburgh Festival last year. There were complaints that the actors were being to subjected to a similar form of exploitation as the people whose lives they were reproducing, and its run at the Barbican in London was cancelled, on the grounds – according to the sociologist and activist Kehinde Andrews, writing in The Guardian “that it reinforces, rather than challenges the racism it stands as a commentary on.”

Holding the performance in the baroque and excessive setting of the nineteenth century Cousiño Palace in central Santiago was a stroke of genius. The Cousiño Goyenechea family owned coal and silver mines, as well as the Cousiño-Macul Vineyards. The nouveau riche glitz of the palace set off by classical music, provided a sinister but peculiarly fitting locale.

The experience of Exhibit B was painful, as I expected it to be, and my emotions as I walked slowly round the exhibits were complex, and included a degree of shame in experiencing discomfort of any kind, given the extremes of discomfort, abuse and torture suffered by the subjects whose pained existences were being recreated by the actors. I was confused, as I was doubtless meant to be: should I make eye contact with the exhibits, for instance? Would I not be replicating the white man’s gaze that the performance so vehemently questions? The actors weren’t avoiding my gaze, that was for sure, and even on occasion followed my passage across the space in front of them, especially the replica of the man adopted by some Austrian prince in the 18th century who, when he died, had been skinned and stuffed (and blanched) and put out on display for visitors to admire.

My confusion – and the residual sense of shame which I had no power to resist – was exacerbated by a string of questions to which I had no answers. I think the most powerful message to come from this important work is that the objectification and exploitation of society’s others – and our continuing projection of otherness onto immigrants and asylum seekers – continues and will continue. We cannot change the past, but we can at least help shape the future. That is why I cannot support the position taken by the protesters who forced the closure of the Barbican show. A discussion between one of the black performers, Stella Odunlami, and Kehane Andrews (who was active in getting the show shut down, despite never having seen it) provides valuable arguments on both sides. Essentially though, I feel that censorship cannot be justified simply because a work of art chooses a difficult subject and questions reality in a way that some might find offensive.

By the criteria presented at the start of this post, that the fictions we make are ways of ordering and dominating the disorders of reality, even though they in no way change it, and that the ‘truth’ of a fiction is less important than its effectiveness, I can only say that in the case of Exhibit B, its effectiveness was not in doubt. It was both effective and a deeply moving testament to human cruelty and human suffering. As the performer Stella Odunlami writes in response to Kehane Andrews : “my fellow performers and I chose to be part of a production that exposed racism then and now. We have had to defend our decision to exercise our freedom of creativity to those who call us puppets. It is not your job to decide what is or isn’t good for me; I am capable of doing so for myself.” Brett Bailey’s own defence of the work can be found here.

At the very end, when we were standing around in the courtyard about to leave, I caught sight of the actors smoking and chatting by the side entrance of the palace. I was relieved that the company included the taxidermically conserved dead man whose gaze I had failed to meet. It was as if, with the actors out of role, no longer being the people they represented in fiction, their humanity had been restored to them, and with theirs, my own.




Will Self and the ghouls of literature

5 May


Like most people with an interest in the subject, I read Will Self’s article in last Saturday’s Guardian on the Death of the Novel  with a strong sense of déja vu. The novel has ‘died’ so many times already it must be truly sick and tired of being dead. Following the Washington Post’s recent revelation that poetry is dead also, should we be concerned?

Readers of Blanco’s Blog will be familiar with the writer’s various tussles with the novel, not simply the discomfort imposed on the reader by having to wade through so much baggy stuff in order to consume the kernel, so to speak – if there is one – but also the demands made on the author in struggling to keep the damn thing fresh and alive, when it should just lie down and die.

Will Self’s argument, fluently expressed – although, as usual, not only hyperbolic, but perhaps a tad Thesaurus-retentive (e.g. Most of it is at once Panglossian and melioristic) – moves towards its expected conclusion with unerring certitude: the novel is dead; long live the novel:

The form should have been laid to rest at about the time of Finnegans Wake, but in fact it has continued to stalk the corridors of our minds for a further three-quarters of a century. Many fine novels have been written during this period, but I would contend that these were, taking the long view, zombie novels, instances of an undead art form that yet wouldn’t lie down.

Insistence on the death of the novel (never mind of its author) was once answered quite superbly by a character in Don Delillo’s The Names (my favourite of his), who expresses the idea of the novel’s zombiehood thus, and I cannot think of a greater or more delicious challenge to any would-be novelist:

“If were a writer,” Owen said, “how I would enjoy being told the novel is dead. How liberating, to work in the margins, outside a central perception. You are the ghoul of literature. Lovely.”





According to . . .

18 Apr


According to

Tiffany Atkinson.


Once, about the time you start to notice trees

and he found out his wife was not his wife

in any sense but name, Elijah took the dog,

two apples from the sideboard, and went out.


Not long afterwards, he came upon an old friend

bent beneath the bonnet of his car, cursing

every sprocket of combustion engines. What

do you suppose the point is? asked Elijah.


And the friend replied, I have to be there.

Throw your spanners down and come with me,

Elijah said. And so the friend did. And his name

was Tomos, after whom he never thought to ask.


And Elijah was amazed. Next there was a daughter

which, close up, they didn’t know. But Tomos said

she looked a lot like his girl would’ve had she lived.

He split one apple threeways, and the girl laughed.


And her laugh was as a pocketful of loose change,

as the moment when you down your pint and dance.

Her name was Manon. She was heading to the clinic.

Then she got her mobile phone out. Mam? she said.


So from there they went north, telling stories. Till

they came upon a farmer, bitter drunk, for all his fields

had failed. They listened, picking fruit seeds from their teeth,

and where those fell sprang cider-presses, booming.


Soon a crowd came out to see what had been happening.

I killed a man, said one man, looking thin. Shit happens,

said Elijah. Sell your house, give all the money to his folks

and walk with us. The man did. He gave nobody his name.


Meanwhile the crowds grew till there wasn’t room

to slide a slice of toast between them. Tomos asked,

what’s this about then? And Elijah said, just as you

left your hurtful car to walk with me, so this lot feel.


Look at the rhododendrons! They don’t give a toss

about the funding cuts, the polar bears. They do

their own thing. Throw your keys into that hedge,

ignore the cameras. Be your own true kicking self.


So Tomos did. He was a simple man, and able

to draw truth like tears from anyone. Elijah said,

you know the way that pressure-regulating valves

secure the rear-brake lines for heavy braking?


Tomos nodded. Well, Elijah said, you see, that’s you.

At this the grief beat out like crows, and Tomos felt

a hatching, in the space, of light. Elijah felt it too. And

where they left a third, unheard-of apple, grew a hamlet,


grew a village, grew a town, where people started over hope

fuller than all the Born Again Virgins of America.

These are the words of Manon, set down with the baby

on her knee. Elijah Tomos, he’ll be. All this happened.



From Catulla, Bloodaxe, 2011. For a review of this book, click here.






2 Mar

Whenever I mention the brother, who is an actual person, and not a figment of my deranged speculation, I am reminded of Myles Na gCopaleen (aka Flann O’Brien, aka Brian O’Nolan) and his famous column in The Irish Times, which occasionally featured a character known as ‘the brother’. This character is used as a foil, or a useful source of handy sayings. He is the source of the timeless phrase ‘The brother cannot look at an egg’, for some reason one of my favourite sayings of all time, and one which I repeat to myself as a mantra in times of trouble, and sometimes intone out loud, to the bewilderment of my breakfast companions.

Anyhow, the brother – who is evidently, and I must say, gratifyingly, a keen reader of Blanco’s Blog – sends me two quotations from the ‘Wit and Wisdom’ column of The Week. How nicely synchronous of them to find stuff directly related to my posts of 24th and 27th February. The first quote is particularly gratifying, coming as it does from one of my favourite living writers.

“I’ve been fortunate that all the bad reviews I’ve had have been written by idiots. Isn’t it weird how it works out like that?”  (Geoff Dyer in The Guardian)

“The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads. That sucks.” (Mathematician Jeff Hammerbacher in The Daily Telegraph)






11 Aug


The Rant is in three parts:

Firstly: in Spain, the reporting of the riots in England has uniformly emphasised the racial nature of the disturbances. I am not in a position to comment objectively, having only read the reports in The Guardian online and the BBC, in neither of which race has been presented as a dominant theme.

However, yesterday in El Mundo  – the Guardian’s sister paper in Spain – I read:

‘Fortunately, in Spain, the social tensions that have erupted in the United Kingdom and France are absent, probably because the underlying racial component in those countries does not exist in our country.’ This is tantamount to saying there is no racism in Spain, which is clearly nonsense, as any social study taken over the past twenty years will prove. Spain is rife with insidious as well as overt racism. Anyone who thinks otherwise is a cretin, or else in denial.



Second: following enthusiastic reports on Facebook, I bought a DVD of the Korean film Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter . . . and Spring before coming on holiday. Actually, I should add that the FB discussion of the film was unanimously approving, emphasizing said film’s transcendent qualities etc. and, not an irrelevance, all the discussants were women. We watched the film the night before last. It goes like this (look away if you don’t want to know what happens): A monk lives with a small boy, his apprentice. The apprentice tortures animals so the monk tortures the boy in order to make him learn about karma. The boy grows to early manhood. A young woman and her mother turn up at the hermitage (set idyllically in the centre of a lake), hoping to find a cure for the girl’s mysterious malady. We know at once what is going to happen: it is in the eyes of the young man and the young woman. I say to Mrs Blanco – unnecessarily, I admit – that the novice monk will shag the girl and she will get better. It was hardly insightful. So, he takes her to his favourite pool (the one in which he tortured animals as a child) and they do it up against a rock, with requisite although not excessive vigour. Miraculously, the young woman is cured.

The young monk can no longer stay with his master. He longs to marry the young woman and live with her in the real world, where they can do what they did in the rock-pool all day long, without having to break off for spiritual exercises. ‘Desire leads to attachment and attachment leads to murder’ says the old geezer, or something similar. But the young man’s mind is made up. He follows his girlfriend out into the real world (Summer). The years pass. The old man is sweeping out his hermitage when he comes across a scrap of newspaper. How did the newspaper get there? No matter, but it does beg a few questions: ‘Man in his thirties murders wife and flees’. Sure enough, his protégé turns up, on the run, looking much the worse for wear, and sporting a scoundrel’s moustache. He weeps and weeps and tells the old geezer that his wife was unfaithful and loved another man, the hussy. The police are in hot pursuit, and arrive at the sanctuary in the lake. The old man hands the murderer over to the police, but first insists that he carry out some penitence, which involves inscribing a very long mantra on the floor overnight. Then, in the morning, off he goes to prison. Next season however he is back, looking not much older (murdering a woman is obviously not a major offence in Korea). In the meantime the old geezer has incinerated himself, so the young geezer becomes the new old geezer, in fact in the film he is replaced by the same actor. You get the picture; eternal return et cetera. Then in ‘Winter’ a woman turns up, her head entirely covered in a cloth, and deposits a baby with the monk, before falling through a hole in the ice on her way back across the lake from the hermitage and conveniently drowning. In the final sequence, the second ‘Spring’, the new little boy is growing up to be as much of a brat as the first one, and we see him setting off to torture a few frogs. And so it goes.

‘This is one of the very few films which has a real spiritual dimension; it bears that dimension lightly, and persuasively transmits a Buddhist conviction that time, age and youth are an illusion. A charming and rewarding film” writes Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian. “A charming and rewarding film . . . delightful, meditative, serene and gripping” trills another Guardian review; “A work of transporting beauty”, says The Times; “Thoroughly enjoyable and magical” goes the Sunday Mirror.

What a pile of dross. Why do we continue to be sold this kind of Art Film as though it were ‘spiritually uplifting’, when it is simply medieval, repressive, misogynist tripe of the kind that religious fundamentalists have been flogging forever and are flogging still? We hang onto a bizarre fantasy in the West that Buddhism is exempt from this kind of attitudinizing. Moreover, the film is neatly packaged, beautifully shot – and because it is ‘exotic’ everything else – content, dialogue, moral compass, is excluded from judgement.

As far as I could tell the moral of the story is threefold:

1) female illness can normally be cured by male sexuality (aka: a ‘proper seeing to’)

2) men who wish to follow a ‘spiritual path’ will only ever meet with trouble and strife from women, so it is much healthier for the men concerned if the women are a) murdered, or b) fall into holes in the ice.

3) all these things can happen without any qualms so long as they take place in an exotic setting, reflect ‘local’ religious or cultural values and have an ‘uplifting’ or ‘spiritual’ message, and are thereby exempted from the critical criteria we would normally apply to any home-grown cultural artefact.

Third: In August the dogs in this village bark most of the day, and all night. Normally I am oblivious to this, but last night I was not. Last night it drove me to distraction, and eventually, to sleeplessness. It begins as a single, righteous statement of self-assertion on the part of some bonzo, but within seconds he is contested by another, who thinks he can bark louder than the first. A third joins in, invariably some yappy specimen who cannot really compete with the first at all, but has half a mind to follow on the heels of the second woofer . . . and so it goes in a spasmodic but inevitable crescendo. Before long there is total bloody cacophony as terrace after terrace explodes in a fury of barking, and I get up, scribble down something on a notepad which in the morning will be unintelligible, take two tramadol, or two diazepam, or two of whatever is going, and return to bed. Or else just sit on the roof, as I did last night, and watch the waxing moon.





Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,887 other followers