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Book 4



So it begins. Good so far.

The Strange Beauty of Book 4

USA - Art - Karl Ove Knausgaard

Elaine Blair has a worthwhile essay on My Struggle in the current NYRB. The essay covers some topics that I haven’t really seen a ton of attention given to so far in the writing about My Struggle, mostly to do with the way the books process time and Knausgaard’s love of portraying minutia in them.

Much as there is to praise about Blair’s essay, one thing that I do find a little unsettling here (and Blair is definitely not alone in this) is how she willfully transforms Knausgaard’s weaknesses into strengths:

And then there is the beauty of Book Three itself. In the earlier volumes, Knausgaard’s insistence that we witness all the steps the narrator takes to cook his dinner, from turning on the oven to forking the finished product onto his plate, sometimes seemed an irritating exercise in literary estrangement. But the young Karl Ove’s attention to his dinner is in perfect keeping with the child’s perspective, in which details of such daily events are a real source of interest and the focus of attention. It’s as though we were finally let in on the secret referent of Knausgaard’s style.

Book Four is another long plunge into the past, this time into adolescence. It is distinctly unbeautiful, the most sloppily joined and repetitive of the volumes so far, but its repetitions have a darkly comic energy that is unique to Book Four.

I suppose that for Book Three there is something to this argument, but as to Book Four, Knausgaard has been pretty forthcoming in saying that it’s beneath his talents (and many critics have agreed). You don’t have to look hard to find interviews where he has said that it was essentially hackwork that he can’t bear to read any longer. Of course, we can take these comments with a grain of salt (Knausgaard is media-savvy, and we should always be wary of letting the author comment on his/her own work), but Blair very willfully turns even these remarks to his benefit:

This is one of few intrusions that the forty-year-old Karl Ove makes in Book Four. As is often the case in My Struggle, Karl Ove’s reflection seems inadequate or even contradictory to what we’ve just experienced with him. The narrator’s companionable intelligence is one of the great pleasures of My Struggle. Yet almost none of that intelligence is gathered into concentrated thought. Knausgaard has described the style of the narration as “infantile,” “idiotic,” and “not to my standard”—meaning that a lot of the writing is underworked, and that the narrator engages only in as much intellection as he really would have in the moment. Knausgaard has said that he could only let himself go and capture the feeling of the flow of his life if he did not closely edit and revise the manuscript. The result is a book that doesn’t think in the way that we expect novels to, which can be hard to get used to. You wait for some sort of deeper consideration of what’s happening, and it may come but more likely it will not—the book, like the life, keeps moving.

I suppose this is plausible. I’m open-minded to this sort of thinking. But I would say that it’s at least as equally plausible that Book Four just isn’t very good, that is was hastily written, not well-edited, and let go as it was to satisfy a ridiculous publishing schedule Knausgaard had put him self upon during a time of enormous stress and pressure.

In all honesty, I enjoyed reading Book Four, but I thought Books One and Two were vastly superior as works of literature. I took Four for what it was: the middle portion of an immense novel. Which is to say, considering it in context I think you can make an argument for it, and you can be more forgiving with its weaknesses that you would if you were reading it on its own. But you still have to be honest that its shortcomings are, well, shortcomings.

I’m fascinated by critics like Blair who will create rationales to explain how these shortcomings are actually strengths (and in other interviews Knausgaard has been a willing participant in this, just as much as he has willingly antagonized Book Four). But, it’s my opinion that, ultimately, these critics are fooling themselves and have gotten a little too caught up in this phenomenon that has taken our little literary world by storm. I could well be wrong about that (time will tell), but I think critics would be better off if they showed a little more skepticism about My Struggle. Yes, it is a major literary work with much interest to it and many strengths. But there is no need for all of the six books that compose this work to be equally good, and we can admit it as a worthy, interesting work of literature while still acknowledging some serious flaws.

Krasznahorkai and Dostoevsky


Many years ago I read a lot of Dostoevsky—the books I chose to read were what you would call his “greatest hits,” i.e., Notes from Underground, Crime and Punishment, and The Brothers Karamazov. I read these books so long ago that now it’s almost as if I didn’t read them at all. I’m such a completely different reader and thinker that I feel like I’d need to experience them again to really claim that they are part of the reading I do these days.

But anyway, the point is that my experience with Dostoevsky is ancient, and for a long time I held off reading any more of him (perhaps unduly influenced by Nabokov’s heavy scorn). So I think it’s noteworthy that I recently came back to him. I was curious to see what sorts of impressions he would make on me now, and I was also interested to read something completely different from what I had been reading. (I think a massive 19th-century Russian novel is going to be pretty different from whatever you happen to be reading at the moment.)

The book of Dostoevsky’s I chose was Demons. I wanted something sizable that would live with me for a while, and I didn’t want to re-read something of his I’d already read. So my choices were pretty much either that or The Idiot.

I chose Demons because it seemed to better suit my mood at the time, and also because a couple of years ago I had seen Tom Stoppard’s Coast of Utopia trilogy, which is very much like Demons in some significant ways. The Coast of Utopia may be the very best work Stoppard has ever done. It’s all about the Russian revolutionary class in the mid-19th century—that is, about their rampant Francophilism, the many competing political doctrines that no one can really settle on (not least of which because no one really knows what they mean in practice), the Tsarist repression, etc, etc. It’s kind of Stoppard’s master statement on idealism in politics and the human quest for a more perfect society. It’s an extraordinarily compelling work, that rare piece of literature that seems to have equal amounts of insight into the personal and the historical (and their intersections). (And the main character of the first play in the trilogy is a literary critic. So how could I not be taken?)

Demons covers similar territory—that is, revolutionary politics, idealism, human attempts to build a better social order, etc—and I was interested to see how Dostoevsky’s depiction of the revolutionary political class in Russia at the time compared with Stoppard’s. Obviously, there are some big differences here: Dostoevsky was writing contemporaneously with these developments, whereas with Stoppard it was all well over a century in the past. Dostoevsky was a Russian, whereas Stoppard is an Englishman of East European extraction. And Dostoevsky wrote novels, whereas Stoppard is a playwright.

Demons did prove to be an interesting counterpoint to The Coast of Utopia, but that’s ot what I would like to talk about here. For what I did not anticipate with Demons was how much it would reference another beloved contemporary author: Laszlo Krasznahorkai. With hindsight, this realization is not much of a surprise: Dostoevsky is always interested by the ways in which (and reasons why) the baser instincts of humans are allowed to be released into action, and he also is interested in the social systems of control that attempt to keep those base instincts in check. This is, of course, precisely what we find in books like Satantango, The Melancholy of Resistance, and War & War, which give us exacting accounts of how human order gives way to chaos and disaster. And, unsurprisingly, if you look at interviews with Krasznahorkai, you will find him listing Dostoevsky as an influence. Jonathon Sturgeon also perceptively referenced Demons in his review of Seiobo There Below.

In many ways, Demons feels very much like a book Krasznahorkai might have written. It is all about an incident in a provincial town in Russia, where the prevailing order gives way to social chaos, which then enables arson and murder. At first, the sizable book (nearly 700 pages in my edition) seems to be a shaggy tale, darting about here and there for no clear reason. It’s only after a couple hundred pages that you begin to see that Dostoevsky is carefully introducing us to several of the key nodes crucial to maintaining order in the fabric of society in the town. He is also introducing us to the individuals who will eventually become responsible for tearing down that order. Dostoevsky is sensitive to what motivates everyone to act as they do, what are their prevailing interests, what codes they live by, what ideas influence them, what people they are susceptible to. All of this is in service to showing exactly how order is maintained, and then showing how it can be made fragile and eventually fall apart. The action of the book climaxes about 500 pages in, where the provincial power brokers are subjected to unimaginable indignities by the townspeople, which then opens the door for escalation, which eventually leads to chaos and destruction.

I don’t want to muck through the parallels here with Krasznahorkai in painful detail, but I think it’s safe to say that if you are familiar with his work, you should be able to note some of these parallels based on the short description I’ve provided. I find Demons a fascinating counterpoint because of course so much is different: Krasznahorkai is working in a communist (or even post-communist) environment, whereas Dostoevsky is pre; the two writers have very different approaches as regards characterization, structuring, the level of allegory they will tolerate, their stances on the role played by spirituality, and of course their ultimate interpretations of what this all means and how it is possible. And then, not least of all is the very different approach of each writer to the sentence and the paragraph.

Quarterly Conversation Issue 40

Live. Here’s your TOC:


Bloomsbury in Buenos Aires

Bloomsbury in Buenos Aires

Based on the two-volume Cuentos completos published by Emecé in 2000, Balderston’s NYRB Classics edition, Thus Were Their Faces, selects from each of the seven volumes of stories that Ocampo published in her lifetime. Two-thirds of the stories—twenty-eight out of forty-two—are drawn from two collections published in 1959 and 1961 respectively. The early fiction is somewhat under-represented. Ocampo’s first collection, Viaje olvidado (1937; “Forgotten Journey”), the only book of stories she published prior to marrying Bioy (though she was probably already living with him when she wrote many of the stories), is both more female and more feminist than the work she produced after she had co-edited the anthology of fantastic literature.


The Daring Young Women on the Flying Trapeze

The Daring Young Women on the Flying Trapeze

Sphinx is a typical love story only in the way that it’s the tale of two people who have fallen in love, and things don’t go smoothly. Beyond that, there is something drastically different going on here. I’m afraid I’ll have to let the cat out of the bag: as reader, you have no idea of the gender of either half of this romantic equation. This information is artfully withheld by the author (and again in English by the translator, Emma Ramadan). While explaining the constraint at play is necessary to us for the purposes of this review, I’ll refrain from a full-out spoiler by not unveiling the final solution to the enigma. In Sphinx, which is told in the first-person, there are two principal characters. I, the genderless “me” of the narrator, and the object of this person’s desire, A***.


On Trying to Write About Tomas Tranströmer

On Trying to Write About Tomas Tranströmer

“I’ve been there,” says a crooked, camphor-scented woman seated next to me on the bus from Manhattan to Philadelphia (“The bus negotiates the winter night”†); her voice has an odd pitch to it, part Cockney, part eastern seaboard. She nods her head toward the cover of the book I’m holding. “I see it sometimes in dreams,” she goes on, “but I would never, ever return to it willingly.” It was Tomas Tranströmer’s The Deleted World. The Nobel laureate has said that his poems are “meeting places”: I meet Alice, then, on a two-hour bus journey, during which she recounts her own deleted world.


Death in Ishiguro

Death in Ishiguro

The final reckoning we make is with our memories. One we have navigated every test life has given us, and all that lies on our horizon is eternity, at this point we must square with what we have wrought in our years. This is the scythe that comes to cut us down when all else in life is done. The tale of that judgment is what Ishiguro gives us. It is the story of that scythe, a lifetime in the making, arcing through those deeds long past to see if it can strike us down.



In Translation

“Piñata” by Daniel Saldaña París

“Piñata” by Daniel Saldaña París

Alicia didn’t go in for moderation, and was even excessive in many ways, but she was just what I needed at that time, the only relationship that could give me back some form of enthusiasm for Madrid and so postpone my return to Mexico, which I’d been announcing to family and friends during the last months, fed up as I was with my solitude and, more specifically, my single state.




Life Embitters by Josep Pla

Life Embitters by Josep Pla

Published in Issue 40 Life Embitters by Josep Pla (trans. Peter Bush). $20.00, 600 pp. Archipelago Books. Life Embitters by Josep Pla (1897-1981) is a collection of stories containing landscape descriptions, sociological judgments of the behavior of his fellow Catalans, and ventures into the mores of England, France, and Germany. Aside from Pla’s Preface, there […]


A Brief History of Portable Literature by Enrique Vila-Matas

A Brief History of Portable Literature by Enrique Vila-Matas

The art movement was one of the early twentieth century’s great revelations. In conditions of war and economic collapse, of revolution and social engineering, artists and writers increasingly banded together under common manifestos to promote an aesthetic agenda. The romantic image of the lone creator, progressing an artistic craft out of a singular style, gave way to the collective. Of course, more personalities also meant more confusion, especially where Tristan Tzara’s and Breton’s camps were concerned. As –ism piled upon –ism, it became increasingly difficult to keep everything straight: What are the rules? Is anyone in charge? Who’s a member? And are they sexually available? Indeed, there’s an aspect of the Rabelaisian carnival at the center of the early manifesto era; the exchange of ideas, urges, and bodies unifies the collective, making it whole and self-aware through pleasure, pain, and laughter. For Enrique Vila-Matas, somewhere in the tangled network of Futurism, Dada, Surrealism, and their attendant bodies is A Brief History of Portable Literature.


Fairy Tales by Robert Walser

Fairy Tales by Robert Walser

If it can accurately be said that Robert Walser is a writer enamored of restriction, one would do well to remember that in his works distillation becomes a form of literary grace. That irreducibility is part and parcel of Fairy Tales, a collection of dramolettes in which Walser’s trademark irony and delightfully playful language belie a pointed deconstruction of traditional dramatic and mythic forms.


Confession of the Lioness by Mia Couto

Confession of the Lioness by Mia Couto

In 2008, the celebrated Mozambican writer Mia Couto received the kind of gift that writers pray for: a real-life experience full of danger, drama, and supernatural overtones, seemingly custom-made for a book. A biologist by profession, Couto was responsible for fifteen young environmental field officers who were sent to Mozambique’s northern province of Cabo Delgado as part of an oil company’s seismic exploration. Around that time, a series of fatal lion attacks broke out in the same area. Hunters were sent from the capital to protect the field officers, who were traveling on foot and sleeping in tents. Local people suggested there was something uncanny about the killer lions, and the hunters deduced that these dark suspicions grew from buried social conflicts.


Nowhere to Be Found by Bae Suah

Nowhere to Be Found by Bae Suah

The unnamed narrator of Bae Suah’s Nowhere to Be Found drifts through her days and the lives of people around her as if they are an out of focus background. The narrator observes her own actions, uncertain of her motivations, while she works as a temp at a university, “the kind of clerical work that anyone could have done without any special qualifications or expertise.” Her job is dreary, her education useless, her mother an alcoholic, her father absent, her older brother leaving for janitorial work in Japan; her little sister is the only hopeful member of her family. She resents all of this, dryly, wearily.



“A Sort of Masterpiece”


A quote from John Banville on the latest Georges Simenon book to make it into English, The Mahé Circle (nice cover).

The Mahé Circle is a sort of masterpiece; one says “sort of” because the book does not call itself to our attention in any purely literary way. Simenon’s uniqueness is that he created high literature in seemingly low forms. This novel, like most of the romans durs, reads like a piece of pulp fiction: it is brief, fast-paced, with an air of the slapdash that is, however, wholly deceptive. True, Simenon wrote fast, and revised little. Yet his artistry is supreme. The account in this book of old Madame Mahé’s descent into illness and death is a sublime piece of writing, as good, in its unforced and unemphatic way, as anything in Proust or even Flaubert.

The Dream of My Return


At Words Without Borders I’ve reviewed The Dream of My Return by Horacio Castellanos Moya, translated by Katherine Silver.

I think this is definitely the book of Castellanos Moya’s that looks and feels most like Senselessness, which probably many (most?) would consider his best so far. It’s not nearly as paranoid or frenzied as Senselessness (which is actually pretty cracked), and the slower boil of The Dream of My Return gives Castellanos Moya an opportunity to think about paranoia in different ways. Plus, this book is about El Salvador, not Guatemala, and it seems to follow Castellanos Moya’s personal biography much more closely.

Anyway, it was good, one of my favorite of his for certain. Have a look at the review if you’re a fan, or think you could be one.

“Nothing makes me passionate . . .”

From Alejandra Pizarnik’s journals, July 1960. She was 24 and in Paris.

Read in Music & Literature #6.


All Hail Silvina


It’s nice to see that they NYRB Classics’ editions of Silvina Ocampo’s short stories and poetry are getting some traction in the media. My own piece on Ocampo appeared last month, and here we see one on her at Electric Literature, as well as lots and lots of other places. We will also be running an excellent essay on her soon in The Quarterly Conversation.

As Ocampo’s poetry translator, Jason Weiss, puts it in the piece at Electric Literature:

Weiss commented, “By now, I think she is considered fairly important and rather unique in Argentine literature. In the past decade or so, her collected poems and collected stories have been reissued in two volumes each, plus all the unpublished work that has appeared posthumously, some half a dozen books.” He added that, in recent years, she has become more widely read, and has been the subject of numerous dissertations. “The US, or the anglophone world in general, just got the news last, as usual,” he said. Thankfully, Ocampo’s memorably disorienting fiction has aged well–or perhaps, like some of her landscapes, it exists in its own mesmerizingly timeless place.

As Weiss says, we are late to the game at this point (although, far from last, I’d say), but we are finally getting Ocampo, and I hope to see more of her hitting our language in the future. The NYRB editions of the stories and poetry are just the beginning (she published seven full volumes of each in her lifetime), and there are plenty of other assorted works, both from before she died and issued posthumously as her fame has grown in Argentina.

I would also agree with Weiss that the work has aged well. That was something I commented on at Music and Literature, how a lot of the stories in the NYRB edition seem to have anticipated many of our current obsessions and ways of understanding the world. I could see a number of her stories igniting some cinematic fires, and, in fact, her long story “The Imposter” was made into a film a while back.

For those interested in even more about Ocampo, I conducted an interview with the translator of her short fiction, Daniel Balderston. It can be listened to here.

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro


I finished Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant the other day, and immediately thereafter I looked through various reviews, as this book has been notoriously disliked by a number of high-profile critics. After judging this book for myself and seeing the objections, I generally don’t understand the critiques being lodged at Ishiguro.

Before I go any further, let me dissuade you from Joyce Carol Oates’s critique in the NYRB. I don’t think it’s a very good review, and it completely spoils the plot (there are a few important surprises in this book, and the ending in particular should not be spoiled). So I would stay away from that one, unless you’ve finished the book.

It seems that the critiques of this book fall into two main camps: first off, there is the complaint about the texture of this novel. The book takes place in Britain in the early middle ages, and Ishiguro has been faulted for not providing verisimilitude as one might expect from a work of historical/political fiction written by an author like Norman Rush. I will not deny that Ishiguro’s book is very much a fantasia (Oates references John Barth), and perhaps he is being judged by books like The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go, where the voice was highly mannered and textured in a very satisfying way, but I don’t see that this critique holds any importance for this book. I see no evidence that The Buried Giant in any way sets out to offer a true-to-life account of Britain in the early Middle Ages, and I imagine that Ishiguro (and perhaps many other readers) would see such a complaint as beside the point. The narrative voice, such as it is, is consistent throughout; it is more in the vein of fairy tale than historical novel, but this suits Ishiguro’s aims for the book (which is more about the social and the archetypal than the personal), and I found it satisfying. He is working in a much more mythic register than in other books, but this suits his aims and his themes, and I don’t see why his past successes should in any way insult his current project.

To perhaps draw one comparison, John Williams’s final novel, Augustus, is a similar pastiche, taking place in Imperial Rome. Williams makes no bones about the fact that he is using well-known historical actors purely for his own motives, freely inventing where he likes and making very little attempt to create an authentic portrait of Rome of the era. Woe be anyone who reads this book for an account of Augustus’s life. None of that kept me from finding the book utterly brilliant and captivating on its own terms, even though we are very far from the voice of Stoner.

Or in one more example, an author like Thomas Mann, who offered extraordinary localized portraits in books like Doctor Faustus and Buddenbrooks, set out to do an entirely different thing in Joseph and His Brothers. Could he have even written that book with the texture of a Faustus? I doubt it. The approach required by re-imagining the Bible freed Mann to write as he never had before, even if it was very different from what many would regard as “Thomas Mann.” I am glad he did it, just as I am glad to have some 400 pages of Felix Krull, even if that book bears much more likeness to a Wes Anderson’s depiction of the Austro-Hungarian era than a Stefan Zweig’s.

The other line of critique, which would seem to hold a little more water, is that this book is an allegory that is too highly on point. On one level, this is so obvious as to be not worth saying: the boatman is death, the titular giant is memory. The dragon Querig’s mist is the historical amnesia that allows for peaceful co-existence. Well, duh. You don’t get any points for picking up on this, and if you think this is the extent of what Ishiguro is up to in this book, you might look at it again.

James Wood in The New Yorker offers a slightly more interesting version of this critique:

On the one hand, the novel suggests that humans may have caused the arrival of the mist (presumably, as a result of warfare so terrible that it encouraged an enforced amnesia, a kind of psychological Dayton Agreement); on the other hand, all the talk about angry or ashamed deities, along with the existence of Querig the she-dragon, suggests forces beyond human control and complicity. Ishiguro seems to want it both ways, as befits the religious credulity, the Arthurian magic, of his fictional world. “Never Let Me Go” is a miraculous novel, because it is an allegory that points straight at us—at ordinary, obedient, unfree human life. “The Buried Giant” points everywhere but at us, because its fictional setting is feeble, mythically remote, generic, and pressureless; and because its allegory manages somehow to be at once too literal and too vague.

Well, first off, I do not think Ishiguro’s setting is feeble or remote, as evidenced by the fact that anyone who has read this book can immediately point out the key aspects of its environment: the mist, the dragon, the buried giant, the boatman, etc. These seem quite palpable and fixed in readers’ minds, Wood’s included.

As to pressureless, I disagree. As Wood himself notes, Ishiguro deploys these elements in such a way as to make their tension clear: Beatrice and Axl only remain in love because they have forgotten the sins of their past, but what sort of a love can this be if they cannot remember their lives together? Similarly, the Anglos and the Saxons can co-exist, but only because they cannot remember the wrongs their forefathers perpetuated on one another. What sort of a peace is this? One of the ingenious moves of this book is to project Beatrice and Axl’s version of this quandary into the grand historic Anglo/Saxon version, and vice versa, via the plot mechanics. This is perhaps where Wood finds the allegory becoming too literal and too vague, but I would say here it is reaching complexity.

This is why I cannot call this book “pressureless.” Each of the various subplots in this novel is like a string, and the more you try to pull out any individual string to examine it, the more firmly knotted together they all become. This is the thing Ishiguro has achieved, and it is a different achievement than his usual, because it encompasses multiple points of view, instead of just one (this is his first third-person novel), and implicates multiple levels at once: the historical, the personal, the allegorical, the mythic, the social.

I think the book has flaws: some of the arrangement of plot elements is a little too slack. Here Ishiguro occasionally resorts to rivets and screws to keep this box from falling apart, where he in other instances he has made it all hold tight without need of such tools. At other times Ishiguro descends from his mythic register to give us something a little more mannered and classically “Ishiguro”—brilliant as these stretches can be, they do feel out of place, darlings that might have been better drowned.

But it is an interesting and powerful read, yet another elaboration of Ishiguro’s method and core concerns into new forms and new realms of the human experience. It covers territory Ishiguro has never before touched, and it does so in interesting and valid ways. I would not hold it as his best work, but nor would I casually discard it as have some others.

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