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.