Sunday, August 3, 2014

My struggle begins...

to read the first page.



We Altadenish have at least two things in common -- we're well-read, and we're cheap. Which means, among other things, when a book gets chatted up by The Paris Review, The Economist, The New Yorker, and so forth, we all race to the local library website and stake our claim. Me first! Me first!

Problem is, when it comes to cutting-edge fiction and non-fiction, Altadena Library orders just one single copy. That's because the library isn't funded by the fed or the state, it's funded by we, the people -- the citizens of my little town -- we, the cheap people.

So I've waited more than two months for My Struggle, by Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard, a book which has captivated, even obsessed, much of the western world, literarily-speaking, including, I assume, whoever in Altadena butted ahead of me in the website waiting line. But now I finally have Volume 1 (there are 6) in my hot little hand.

The book has been compared favorably to some of the greatest works in literature -- works by Joyce, Proust, Faulkner, Rilke.

So what's stopping me; why haven't I cracked the cover? I'm daunted. Even a little scared. Look at that photograph. It's the face of a man who has seen it all. It's Klaus Kinski trapped in another Werner Herzog nightmare. Kinski may have died two decades ago, but it's Kinski all right, roused from the Big Sleep, risen from the dusty grave, and socked with the mother of all hangovers.

What fresh hell awaits?

I'll summon the courage to read My Struggle, of course. Partly because there hasn't been a great Norwegian author since Knut Hamsun (another party-animal),

And partly because I trust LA Times book critic David Ulin. Ulin loves the book, or at least, the first two volumes of the book. Ulin is humorous, plain-spoken and honest, even about himself. He admits he can't finish Proust. (It is my personal belief that no one ever has. We just make it to the madeleine passage and call it a day. Publishers know this, and no longer bother printing the entire novel. If you flip to the middle of Remembrance of Things Past, you'll find pages 500 to 1000 are filled with nothing but ads from an old Sears catalog.)

I'm not saying Ulin writes for the great unwashed. No doubt he's popular with the fully washed. But his light touch also appeals to the partially washed, people like me.

As I understand it, My Struggle has no traditional plot, as in ye olde beginning-middle-end/climax/dramatic arc. It's not a story of a story, but the story of a self. Or the story we tell ourselves, how we organize, perceive life's mostly random events. Who we are depends on who we tell ourselves we are. And going forward, who we choose to be -- either because of or in spite of what Camus calls "the benign indifference of the universe."

(Do you think it's presumptuous that I comment on a major theme without having read the first sentence?)

In any case, My Struggle is probably not everyone's cup of aquavit. But I'm plot-neutral or a plot-agnostic; for me, it's all about voice and character. When I read a book, the great payoff isn't knowing who killed Colonel Mustard or how he died. I just want, am always in search of, some fresh clue as to how we live.

Here's Knausgaard on Knausgaard: Over recent years, I had increasingly lost faith in literature. The only genres I saw value in, which still conferred meaning, were diaries and essays, the type of literature that did not deal with narrative, that were not about anything, but just consisted of a voice, the voice of your own personality, a life, a face, a gaze you could meet. What is a work of art if not the gaze of another person? Not directed above us, nor beneath us, but at the same height as our own gaze. Art cannot be experienced collectively, nothing can, art is something you are alone with. You meet its gaze alone.

Here's Ulin on Knausgaard: What we are getting, in other words, is not an epic life but one that, like every other life, is utterly ordinary — and yet, that is where its epic stature resides.

41 comments:

  1. Does he have any thoughts on the meaning of life, the universe, and everything vis-à-vis the pursuit of canning spiced pears? It's very important.

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  2. I've thought about reading this, but I'll wait to see if you make it back alive.

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  3. What I find daunting is the length. Six volumes? He should struggle to find an editor.

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  4. I did the exact same thing with Proust - struggled toward the Madeline passage, considered it a victory to get that far, and called it quits.

    Let us know how Your Struggle goes.

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  5. I'll be interested to know what you think. Sounds a bit too daunting for me.

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  6. If, while using the calculator, the answer is 42, the words "The answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything" appear. Or, if the input was 1+1, the calculator would say, "That's too easy." --from the operation manual of the AlphaSmart 3000 (What I am not reading)

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  7. Enough aquavit and it could be mine, too.
    Another great unread is Don Quixote. Know when the tilting at windmills scene happens? You got it-- very early on.

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  8. Ah, Dianne, 42 was the room number of my class. It was the answer....Cloud

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  9. Des, don't you always know. Yes, it's all about the picaresque. And if the first leg of this journey fails to pack humor, I'll be paging the Sherpas to carry me out.

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  10. This is going to be too weighty for my gnat-like attention span, but I love that quote: What is a work of art if not the gaze of another person? Not directed above us, nor beneath us, but at the same height as our own gaze. And when I want to check out some vintage Sears, I'll know where to go. {Snort. It's been way too long since I last read your posts, KB.}

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  11. I like that when you read you are in search of some fresh clue as to how we live. I've not been able to put it that succinctly, but that's the insight I want when I read. Good luck with this current venture ~ every read starts with a single page.

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  12. I had never read any book of this author before but your words does sound very interesting. Thanks for that. I found in the bookstore online two tittle translated in Portuguese,
    My Strugle Book 1 and 2.
    I read on newspaper that Karl Ove Knausgård prepares for September a book about the World Cup, still untitled.

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  13. Hi Shell. Yes, I'm very fond of that quote, too.

    Sharon, I started!

    Sonia, I'm not surprised. So far, only the first three volumes have been translated into English.

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  14. I still have not gotten through Will Durant's 11 volume history of the world. I can't start on 6 volumes of the meaning of everything until I do. I should probably be penciled in on the library's list for, oh, maybe 2037? That should give me enough time to finish the last 9-1/2 of Durant's volumes?

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  15. Partially Washed Alta NeighborAugust 4, 2014 at 1:04 PM

    I'll wait to hear what you think before I get in line. BTW, we're not cheap, just really, really frugal.

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  16. I look forward to your review. Local NYC blogs say it validates the need to do nothing. Nothing!

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  17. Fine. You all stay at base camp and toast marshmallows. I've hiked to page 20, and it's good.

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  18. Having just finished a dense environmental history titled Guano [I am not kidding], I am decidedly not ready for this, though I may have touted it in a personal e-mail. No, I will cut to the aquavit. Lykke til, jente.

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  19. Even when we read English, English only, I think every book contains or holds or uses its own unique language. The more books we read, the more languages we learn. Because ett språk er aldri nok.

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  20. Doris, I've heard of "Guano." It was well reviewed.

    Karin, I'll be eager to read your review once you've finished. I won't read this one, though, no matter what. I have yet to read the full set of Churchill's "History of the English Speaking Peoples" that's been on my shelf for I don't know how long. I read part of it. Good. May get back to it one of these days.

    But I like recreational reading, too, and I don't mind admitting some of it's a guilty pleasure.

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  21. Love the Ulin quote at the end.
    Oh, go ahead. Push off. Crack the cover! I'll see you on the otherside. His photo daunting... serial killer?

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  22. I haven't read any of Hamsun's stuff, but as a way-too-passionate admirer of Sigrid Undset, I'm sad that you nominate him over her as the last great Norwegian writer. Yes, she died before he did, but she was born later and her Nobel Prize was awarded several years after his, and she is beyond awesome.

    By the way, I wonder how the German translators have chosen to title Knausgaard's book(s). Mein Kampf has already been taken, I believe.

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  23. This is a captivating review, especially when one realizes itsg its author has not read the book(s). Reminiscent of Sherwood Anderson's deal with the then unpublished William Faulkner. "I'll find a publisher for your book on the condition I don't have to read it."

    Of course all this (irony) only adds to your delightful writing, Karin.

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  24. Oh, good! Petrea's with me on having an ambitious and yet surprisingly not completed reading agenda. You keep hiking through this one. I'm bringing more marshmallows for the rest of us. We will cheer Your Struggle.

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  25. That's ok, P, I'll never read Churchill.

    Liz, given that we call the original Mein Kampf "Mein Kampf" over here, possibly the German's leave the title in Norwegian, Min Kamp. Some Germans visit this joint, so maybe the'll let us know. (Do you recommend Undset's childhood memoir?)

    Thank you very much, Lincoln of Jerome. As a lit major, I have a certain amount of experience writing about books I never read.

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  26. Marjie, you think you can get away with marshmallows? From you, I want a cake

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  27. Have to laugh at your description of Klause Kinski and Werner Herzog. Did you ever watch "My Best Friend" That is some funny sh_t. Make sure you die last - if you want the last word.

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  28. btw - I took your mention of Marilynne Robinson to heart and checked out 'House Keeping.'

    Glad you mentioned it - glad I checked it out.

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  29. Often it takes time to savor something wonderful.

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  30. Good thing you don't live in Altadena, PA, because I checked out Housekeeping last week and they only had, yes, one copy.

    (And I did see that doc. Oh, those crazy Germans. Somewhere around here I wrote about a hit and run with Fassbinder.)

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  31. How true your comment about languages is! One is never enough,even within one language, and unlike that next drink, the addiction brings joy.

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  32. Hi, Karin... The memoir (Happy Times in Norway, I believe) is skippable, in my opinion, unless you have some sentimental connection to the old country, which I understand you may. And I honestly never did and never will make it through her Catherine of Sienna hagiography. I tried, but no... But her fiction....omg! I've worn some of the books out from re-readings and had to replace them more than once.

    All of that aside, I ordered the first volume of Struggle from Amazon this morning. It sounds like my kinda thing. Thanks for the nudge.

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  33. You leave me in the dust literarily...

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  34. And yet, Chieftess, your comment is pithy and brilliant.

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  35. "If you flip to the middle of Remembrance of Things Past, you'll find pages 500 to 1000 are filled with nothing but ads from an old Sears catalog." Love it!

    Why is it that way . . . why is the burden put on us, the readers, to read the unreadable?

    By the way, I read today that Marni Nixon is from Altadena.

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  36. I'll be interested to hear your take on it, after you've screwed up your courage and read it. ;o)

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  37. I don't know how I got in the habit of reading multiple books at one time. But there we are, or there I am -- My Struggle, Gilead, Pigs Have Wings, The Fever, and Betsy Was a Junior. Clearly, I'll have to part with some brass, buy My Struggle, because no way can I finish it in three weeks.

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  38. Just what I need, a distraction from my own unremarkable existence.

    I'm going to go now and watch mud dry.

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  39. The voice, the gaze, the face better be damned enchanting if it's to hold people for six volumes. I agree with that principle, but it sounds like thousands of pages of dense lyric poems. I love (good) lyric poems, but.

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  40. I think I'll just stare at that "damned enchanting" face (thanks Banjo!) and watch Monty Python's "The Meaning of Life" for the best of both worlds.

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