László Krasznahorkai’s Seiobo There Below has been hailed as a book about the sacred. For the fictional artists described in the collection, transcendence comes through the act of creation. In one story, a Japanese theatre master takes the stage and feels the goddess Seiobo coursing through him. In another, a maskmaker’s chisel moves nearly of its own accord, fashioning a series of wooden faces that are almost alive. But Krasznahorkai also turns his attention to another genre of protagonists: average people who encounter the sacred, completely unequipped to contend with its impact. While the book’s artists find transcendence, other protagonists experience utter bewilderment — and their crisis is the focal point of the 17 stories in Seiobo There Below.
Seiobo translator Ottilie Mulzet notes in her interview with Krasznahorkai that he addresses what has effectively become taboo: “The question of ‘sacred’ in a world which has no need for it anymore.” The Hungarian author’s works are known for their promise of higher meaning and their tendency to approach, but never quite reach, resolution. Krasznahorkai’s previous titles in English (War & War, The Melancholy of Resistance, and Satantango) earned critical recognition from Susan Sontag and James Wood for their strange, apocalyptic impression. Rife with peculiar characters and sealed into sophisticated structures (Satantango adopts the form of the tango dance, while Seiobo There Below, though billed as a novel, presents distinct stories numbered by the Fibonacci sequence), Krasznahorkai’s fiction makes contact with the otherworldly.
But the stakes are higher in Seiobo There Below. For one, the global nature of the collection is a marked departure from Krasznahorkai’s former English-language releases. The novels that earned him his reputation in America were texts with deeply Hungarian roots. The Melancholy of Resistance and Satantango were both set in crumbling Hungarian villages; War & War featured a Hungarian protagonist newly moved to New York City. Seiobo, in contrast, spans locations from Kyoto to Persia and Perugia. Its narrative voices are equally diverse; we hear from a nascent murderer, a fanatic lecturer on Baroque music, a Parisian museum keeper in love with the Venus de Milo. Moving beyond localized meaning, the stories challenge us to examine the psychology of our moment, a time in which our inability to understand the sacred paralyzes us in its presence.
This bewilderment manifests itself in several narratives of Western European travelers knocked spiritually unconscious by the impact of sacred art. In “Christo Morto,” a traveler is drawn into Venice’s Scuola de la Roca to revisit a painting of Christ he had seen 11 years prior. He witnesses the image of Christ opening his eyes and is frozen by disbelief:
BUT HE IS OPENING HIS EYES, he registered within himself; then again he tried to muster the courage to fix his gaze onto the two eyes of Christ, BUT HOW DARK are these eyes, it was spine-chilling, as although NOW THEY REALLY WERE ALMOST COMPLETELY OPEN, you could hardly see the pupils, and nothing in the white of the eyes, it was completely clouded, a dark obscurity lay in these eyes…and here is Christ REALLY AND TRULY
The capitalization, the quick cadence of thoughts, the terror in beholding the eyes: this man’s franticness is palpable in the text. Bewildered, he sits and stares, then decides to turn away from the painting and leave the Scuola in hopes of dismissing such terrible thoughts. But the last line of the story — “For him there would never be any exit from this building, not ever” — reveals the inescapability of his new, disoriented state.
The next story, “Acropolis,” reiterates this feeling of bewilderment. The protagonist of the tale journeys to Athens fulfill his lifelong wish of visiting the ancient site. He arrives at the site only to find the limestone so bright that his eyes ache and tear. Unable to bear its radiance, he stops his ascent in pain and bitterness, asking himself why no travel guide, no art historical account, had warned him about the blinding light. His bewilderment grows from the expectation that he could have foreseen, let alone overcome, this trial. How could he have known the luminosity of this place?
Not all characters in Seiobo There Below reveal such blatant bewilderment. Several try to understand the sacred by cycling through methods tried and true: scholarly intercourse, scientific inquiry, mathematical analysis. Ironically, the characters who pursue answers down these clear pathways are among the most disconnected. At intervals throughout “Christo Morto,” for instance, we learn about an art historian who had tried to restore the Scuola’s painting of Christ. She brings the painting to a chemical restoration workshop in hopes of discovering the original artist, a mystery over which the board of San Rocco holds its breath. When the chemical restorer X-rays the image and examines the gesso, he finds an underwhelming signature. The painting is left half-forgotten in a small corner display. The art historian is so focused on the work’s scholarly evaluation that she misses the essence of the painting.
This intellectually fueled oblivion percolates through the stories. When a European scholar tries to study the rebuilding of Japan’s Ise Shrine, she misunderstands the tradition to such a point that she obscures the rite’s actual meaning. When a group of travelers camps out in the Carpathians to foster creativity, they grow so preoccupied with their routine that the true artist among them — an elusive man who carves an enormous earthen sculpture — becomes a spectacle.
As one bewilderment follows another, the repetitions themselves start to hold higher meaning. The arrangement of narratives into the Fibonacci sequence is no coincidence. Like the mathematical series, the stories in Seiobo There Below evoke a spiral, both recursive and unexplainable. Plots reoccur, protagonists resemble each other, and narrators repeat phrases as they circle around the topic at hand, always one inch short of final revelation. As one narrator remarks, “Not to know something is a complicated process, the story of which takes place beneath the shadow of the truth.” This is the philosophy of Seiobo There Below. László Kraznahorkai has given us a work that shimmers under a prism of hidden meanings. Our task is to connect the dots, experience the mystery of the text, and embrace moments of bewilderment with patience, openness, and preparation for a deeply meaningful encounter.
Having recently regained dry land after four weeks adrift in the first thousand pages of Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard’s pelagic six-volume My Struggle (only to find myself confronted with a note-strewn desk and two large books bristling with the polychromic sticky tabs it now occurs to me I might have wanted to devise a reasonably consistent system for deploying), I’m troubled by the sense that if there’s ever been a literary project best left to speak for itself, My Struggle might be it. It’s also likely that the many liberties its author takes — with conventional narrative structure, with any readily discernible logic dictating some passages’ tortuous paths of thought, with grammatical norms, and even with the ordinarily sacrosanct writer’s mandate to eschew cliché — have overwhelmed the sector of my brain that transacts in sentences, paragraphs, rhetorical touch, and so forth, to the extent that I’m in for my own considerable struggle here as I try to transform the notes I scribbled down with seeming indiscrimination in several different notebooks, Book 2’s margins, on Post-its and the back of a gas bill that it looks like still needs to be paid into an orderly account of what it’s like to read Knausgaard. Nevertheless, some thoughts:
The first thing I should emphasize is that I found myself consumed by My Struggle, swallowed whole in a way that recalled for me the experience of reading similarly mammoth works like Moby-Dick, JR, Crime and Punishment, The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, 2666 — Big Books that temporarily assume an autocrat’s control over their readers’ inner lives. And then since my ostensible focus here is Book Two: A Man in Love, I should also single out for praise this second volume while conceding that it’s in many ways merely an amplification of the first, and that this is both a merit and demerit. Which is to say that if you found yourself unable to put Book One down even during some of its most water-treadingly indulgent-seeming passages of plotless drift precisely because you were compelled by the minutiae of Knausgaard’s “struggle,” then you will find a lot to keep you reading through A Man In Love’s near-600 pages. If, on the other hand, you found the former book frequently irritating, disagreed with its author’s aggressive indifference to poetic niceties; if you considered it an unconscionably navel-gazing sprawl, the dull and the mundane speciously elevated to metaphysical heights the actual text rarely managed to reach…you may not make it through Book Two.
I’m in the former camp: read both books hungrily and find myself already missing Knausgaard just a few days after turning A Man in Love’s last page, searching the Web for inexpensive crash courses in Norwegian, mostly just wishing Volume Three were available in English now. (At roughly five hundred pages per installment, the last four are presumably intruding nightly on heroic translator Don Bartlett’s sleep). Some readers will be put off by the prospect of a prose work of Proustian length written in sentences that lack Proust’s style, elegance, and grace; I, too, had a hard time with some of the silly all-caps interjections (“FUCK, SHIT, FUCK!”) along with the frequent, blithe lapses into rank cliché — “The time was ripe,” “It was now or never,” “She was clearly cut from the same cloth as me,” and so on. The writing is purportedly ungainly in its original Norwegian, too. And yet the coarse phrasing serves Knausgaard’s overarching purpose oddly well. While there’s very little polish at phrase-level, sentences are syntactically complex — circuitous, recursive, serpentine in the way bar-stool disquisitions on points of intense personal interest can be — and if consistently guilty of the serial-comma-splice, then also a reflection of the almost desperate speed with which Knausgaard seems determined to track every insight, notion, thought-line, argument, reflection through the labyrinthine warrens of whatever burrowing creature’s hole it’s drawn him down.
Here he is, for instance, having just returned with his nursery-school-age daughter from a classmate’s birthday party:
I returned the glass to the table and stubbed out my cigarette. There was nothing left of my feelings for those I had just spent several hours with. The whole crowd of them could have burned in hell for all I cared. This was a role in my life. When I was with other people I was bound to them, the nearness I felt was immense, the empathy great. Indeed, so great that their well-being was always more important than my own. I subordinated myself, almost to the verge of self-effacement; some uncontrollable internal mechanism caused me to put their thoughts and opinions before mine. But the moment I was alone others meant nothing to me. It wasn’t that I disliked them, or nurtured feelings of loathing for them, on the contrary, I liked most of them, and the ones I didn’t actually like I could always see some worth in, some attribute I could identify with, or at least find interesting, something that could occupy my mind for the moment. But liking them was not the same as caring about them. It was the social situation that bound me, the people within it did not. Between these two perspectives there was no halfway point. There was just the small, self-effacing one and the large, distance-creating one. And in between them was where my daily life lay. Perhaps that was why I had such a hard time living it. Everyday life, with its duties and routines, was something I endured, not a thing I enjoyed, nor something that was meaningful or that made me happy. This had nothing to do with a lack of desire to wash floors or change diapers but rather with something more fundamental: the life around me was not meaningful. I always longed to be away from it. So the life I led was not my own. I tried to make it mine, this was my struggle, because of course I wanted it, but I failed, the longing for something else undermined all my efforts.
What was the problem?
On the other hand, it would be unfair if the ratio of thought to action here left readers with the false impression that this is a 573-page book in which nothing happens. In passages that volley back and forth through time we see young Karl Ove decamp for Stockholm; sever ties with almost all of his old life in Norway, (which program includes leaving his first wife); fall in love again; remarry; fight to sustain (and then, once it’s begun to slip away, recover) the elation of those first few months of courtship as the new couple settles into everyday routine; witness his second wife Linda’s pregnancy and the subsequent birth of their first daughter; give listless interviews and lectures on his books and ambivalence towards literary fame; discourse with friends and enemies on being, art, morality — but the sections I liked best, the ones that make the books worth reading, retreat from these episodes and trek into the underground of consciousness, where Knausgaard’s unchecked and frequently volatile reflections are no longer bound by the normative limits of decent speech and behavior in respectable company.
Some of these sentences and paragraphs are long, but they operate in a way very much unlike those of some other writers one tends to class as either maximalist or longwinded, depending on one’s feelings about length in prose: Thomas Bernhard, David Foster Wallace, or László Krasznahorkai. Bernhard’s read almost like parodies of manic, rabid, raving thought — they are very much internal monologues. And while they are unhinged at times, what seems like madness is really an insane deference to logic: a logic that will pursue the necessary consequences of first premises far beyond the boundaries of bourgeois comfort, into the truth that lies beneath and must be left to lie there unlooked-at if life will be lived, if family, colleagues, social circles are to be engaged — basically, if anything is to be done.
Bernhard, like Beckett, is in this way very funny. His narrators’ better tirades follow their merciless logic to conclusions that are shocking or at least discomfiting not only because we can’t believe somebody’s saying this, but because of the disquieting sense that they might actually be true. Here is a representative passage from Concrete, in the midst of a mostly book-spanning “digression” from the narrator’s stated purpose, which is to write a definitive study of composer Mendelssohn Bartholdy:
My preparations have now been going on for years, for more than a decade, as I have said. Perhaps, it occurs to me, I ought not to have interrupted them by doing other things, perhaps I shouldn’t have begun anything on Schonberg or Reger, or even contemplated the Nietzsche sketch: all these diversions, instead of preparing me for Mendelssohn, simply took me further and further from him. […] All these attempts […] had basically been merely distractions from my main subject; moreover, they had all been failures, a fact which could only weaken my morale. It’s a good thing I destroyed them all […] But I’ve always had a sound instinct about what should be published and what should not, having always believed that publishing is senseless, if not an intellectual crime, or rather a capital offence against the intellect. […] Had I published my essay on Schonberg I shouldn’t dare to be seen in the street any longer; the same would be true if I’d published my work on Nietzsche, although that was not a complete failure. To publish anything is folly and evidence of a certain defect of character. […] And what about my work on Mendelssohn Bartholdy? […] Naturally I intend to publish it, whatever the consequences. For I actually believe that this work will be my most successful, or rather my least unsuccessful. I certainly am thinking of publishing it! But before I can publish it I have to write it, I thought, and at this thought I burst into a fit of laughter, of what I call self-laughter, to which I have become prone over the years through being constantly alone.
The reason Concrete’s narrator can’t begin the monumental work to which he has devoted this phase of his life is that he foresees, correctly, that no matter how far he manages to go it won’t be far enough. Anything he writes will fall short of his vision, and while this insight is common enough to be a cliché, it’s a cliché that the artist who aspires to make art has to disregard if he’s ever to make anything. In other words, the productive artist necessarily suppresses his integrity, proceeds as if it weren’t true that anything he ultimately brings into the world will be, beside its incorporeal Platonic vision, a disappointment. What’s simultaneously terrifying and hilarious in Bernhard is his narrators’ integrity, their refusal to compromise, to deceive themselves or allow themselves to be deceived into acceptance of the subtle deviations from the truth that are what enable us to go about our lives.
Meanwhile, Krasznahorkai’s long sentences read to me much more like speech transcribed: musings, sermons, lectures, disquisitions, diatribes, and, above all, stories. They’re less internal than Bernhard’s; even when tracing a character’s unspoken thoughts they’re more like a figure talking to himself than a lunatic frantically looping along Bernhardian nightmare theme park rides, hurtling towards madness and death. Here, the former composer who has not only retired from creative life but sealed himself off from the depressed Hungarian small town in which The Melancholy of Resistance takes place has had (while hammering nails) a Saul-of-Tarsus-style revelation:
It was indeed a sudden awakening, but, like all such awakenings, not wholly unheralded, for before he set out on his tour he had been aware only of the plainly laughable nature of his efforts, the chief of which was to prevent his left hand being battered to pieces, a piffling task to which he applied the whole might of his considerable intellect [that] […]laughable as it was, […] [intimated that] there was a deeper, more complex issue at stake, the nature of which was to allow him to master the art of banging in nails. He recalled various stages in his frantic efforts and the fact that even then […] he had suspected that any eventual resolution would not be due entirely to taking rational thought in the matter, a suspicion that had in the meantime become a certainty, for […]this apparently insignificant task had been resolved by a […] flexible attitude to permutations, the passage from ‘missing the point’ to ‘hitting the nail on the head’ so to speak, owing nothing, absolutely nothing, to concentrated logic and everything to improvisation […]
He had arrived at the decisive moment of resignation, the happy little glimmer on the head of the nail conjured nothing more or less than a mysterious, unforgettable sensation that had surprised him on his way home, that despite the apparently insufferable condition of the town, he was glad simply to be alive […]
Knausgaard, in contrast with Krasznahorkai and Bernhard, neither transposes creative-impotence-induced nerve-trauma nor conjures weirdly dialectic soliloquies. Instead, the image his prose—and even his subject—frequently calls to this reader’s mind is an author bent over his keypad, typing at very high-gear velocity:
I began to work, sat in my new office on Dalagatan writing every day while Linda was at home with Vanja and came to see me for lunch, often worried about something but also happy, she was closer to the child and what was happening than me, for I was writing what had started out as a long essay [but] slowly but surely was growing into a novel, it soon reached a point where it was everything and writing was all I did, I moved into the office, wrote day and night, sleeping an hour here and there. I was filled with an absolutely fantastic feeling, a kind of light burnt within me, not hot and consuming but cold and clear and shining. At night I took a cup of coffee with me and sat down on the bench outside the hospital to smoke, the streets around me were quiet, and I could hardly sit still, so great was my happiness. Everything was possible. Everything made sense.
Knausgaard’s purpose in My Struggle, explicit in its title, is to simultaneously depict, scrutinize and enact the process of writing the very work that narrates the story of its author writing himself through and ultimately out of his consuming need to write. It’s an impressive trick. If Bernhard’s books are often long uninhibited screeds “about” inhibited artists and writers, then Knausgaard’s first two volumes are “about” a man’s struggle to surmount the mundane impediments to his being present at his desk, feverishly cataloguing and endlessly carping about these same impediments to his being there. The most substantial narrative arc in these two volumes traces the composition of the memoir as it’s being composed — which means, since by default nearly every non-writing activity, obligation, interaction, and relationship constitutes a kind of roadblock in this composition’s path, antagonists abound:
A few weeks after the novel was finished life began as a house husband, and the plan was it would last until next spring while Linda did the last year of her training at the Dramatiska Institutet. The novel writing had taken its toll on our relationship, I slept in the office for six weeks, barely seeing Linda and our five-month-old daughter, and when at last it was over she was relieved and happy, and I owed it to her to be there, not just in the same room, physically, but also with all my attention and participation. I couldn’t do it. For several months I felt a sorrow at not being where I had been, in the cold, clear environment, and my yearning to return was stronger than my pleasure at the life we lived. The fact that the novel was doing well didn’t matter. After every good review I put a cross in the book and waited for the next, after every conversation with the agent at the publisher’s when a foreign company had shown some interest or made an offer, I put a cross in the book and waited for the next, and I wasn’t very interested when it was eventually nominated for the Nordic Council Literature Prize, for if there was one thing I had learned over the last six months it was that what all writing was about was writing.
It’s true that if this were all Knausgaard had to offer his readers, few would be inclined to indulge him for 3,000 pages (and furthermore provokes contemplation of how, for instance, a 3,000-page counter-memoir composed by Linda about her struggle to put up with her husband’s duty-shirking on the home front during their matrimony’s embryonic phase might read); but intricately textured, almost Altman-like social episodes compel a mesmeric attention that’s at times tough to account for rationally. At birthday parties, literary conferences, a christening, a funeral, in bookstores, flats, supermarkets, bars, a restless Knausgaard interacts with the whole rolling cast of people intimately or peripherally involved in his professional and private life. Much of the readerly fun to be found in these transcriptions of the interpersonal mundane inheres in the persistent dissonance between Knausgaard’s mild outward manner and the frank, often punishing perlustrations to which he subsequently subjects both his interlocutors and himself. An interview that on the surface seems to come off fairly well gets angrily dismissed as ersatz-High Culture fluff — vapid onanism Knausgaard validates by placidly agreeing to take part:
The problem is what surrounds all these authorships, the flattery that mediocre writers thrive on and, as a consequence of their false self-image, everything they are emboldened to say to the press and TV.
I know what I’m talking about. I’m one of them myself.
Oh, I could cut off my head with the bitterness and shame that I have allowed myself to be lured, not just once but time after time. If I have learned one thing over these years, which seems to me immensely important, particularly in an era such as ours, overflowing with such mediocrity, it is the following:
Don’t believe you are anybody.
Do not fucking believe you are somebody.
Because you are not. You’re just a smug, mediocre little shit.
Do not believe that you’re anything special. Do not believe that you’re worth anything, because you aren’t. You’re just a little shit.
So keep your head down and work, you little shit. Then at least, you’ll get something out of it. Shut your mouth, keep your head down, work and know that you’re not worth a shit.
I also found it difficult to part ways with many characters. Knausgaard’s daughters, in particular, benefit from the filterless, unembellished presentation, probably because small children tend to do amusing, irritating, infuriating, and endearing things. Meanwhile, his friend and confidante, Geir, an academic equipped with copious wit and opinion, gets many of the book’s most entertaining lines, but also often makes both Knausgaard and the reader pause to think. Here he is with Karl Ove, Geir first:
“I think it’s Sigurd Slembe. The time to act. To act or not to act. It’s classic Hamlet. To be an actor in your own life or a spectator.”
“And you are?”
A silence arose. Then he said:
“I’m probably a spectator, with elements of choreographed action. But I don’t really know. I think there’s a lot inside me that I can’t see. And so it doesn’t exist. And you?”
“But you’re here. And yesterday you were in Bergen.”
“Yes. But this is not the result of any decision. It was forced.”
“That’s perhaps another way of making a decision, hm? Letting whatever happens do it for you?”
“That’s strange,” he said. “The more unreflective you are, the more active you are. You know, the boxers I wrote about had an incredible presence. But that meant they weren’t spectators of themselves, so they didn’t remember anything. Not a thing! Share the moment with me here and now. That was their offer. And of course that works for them, they always have to enter the ring again, and if you’ve been given a pounding in the previous fight it’s best if you don’t remember it too well, otherwise you’ve had it. But their presence was absolutely amazing. It filled everything. Vita contemplativa or vita activa, I supposed they’re the two forms, aren’t they? It’s an old problem, of course. Besets all spectators. But not actors. It’s a typical spectator problem . . .”
Behind us, Christina stuck her head through the door.
“Would you two like some coffee?”
“Please,” I said.
Book One’s critical event — the death of Knausgaard’s father — serves as a backdrop for the real story: Knausgaard’s breakthrough decision to build the first volume of his memoir around it; similarly, the less harrowing but no less felt drama of his grudging entrée into love and domestic life anchors A Man in Love’s story of a man fighting to reconcile that love with his almost inhuman artistic designs.
No surprise that not all of the individuals who came across versions of themselves in these pages were pleased with their portrayals. (The threat of legal action on the part of certain relatives resulted in Knausgaard and his Norwegian publisher agreeing to change a few names.) But in light of Knausgaard’s overall intent, they’re probably depicted accurately — not as a Dickensian cast of characters acting out one grandly shared humanist drama but rather as figures who on occasion drop by to complicate Knausgaard’s ongoing struggle to write something great. These aren’t quite people in the ordinary sense but a near-endless series of person-shaped impressions — shadows flitting across the beam of the author’s incandescently projected vision. If anyone is conscious of just how cold this frequently can make him seem, it’s certainly Knausgaard himself, who throughout both volumes lapses into long handwringing fits of self-loathing and -condemnation, agonized by his sense that he’s letting down everyone he ought to love.
I call this sometimes-sociopathic-seeming tendency to reduce in their representation real people to sources of personal annoyance “accurate” because, with astounding single-mindedness (or monomania, if you prefer), Knausgaard conceives of and then executes the writing project that both consumes him and sequesters him from life. He’s Ahab, only with the final volume’s publication — which reportedly concludes with whatever the Norwegian is for “I am no longer an author” — he’s gone and caught the whale.
One interpretation of a literary quest to kill its own author might be that it’s perverse: in seeking to extinguish the artistic impulse, the author aims to annihilate not only the ambition that has driven him throughout his adult life, but an identity built up and burnished over decades. If Knausgaard is no longer an author, what is he? What will he be?
And then, from a career-lensed perspective, killing the whale is suicide. I’ve often wondered whether Wallace unintentionally terminated the novelist in himself with Infinite Jest; certainly the title of his final short-fiction collection, as well as that volume’s persistently bleak takes on the value of an individual’s drive to achieve anything, suggests a despair of ever returning from the wasteland that a book of near precedent-less critical approbation can exile its author to: after you’ve done it, what are you supposed to do? Just as Joyce could not in the ‘30s send Bloom off on another Dublin tour, so Wallace’s next novel couldn’t be I.J. Redux.
On the other hand, few, if any, authors aspiring to compose literary art that I know of start out with the intent to make anything less than what they privately conceive of as an as-yet-unshaped, but inchoate and most importantly possible Perfect Book. This is the reason they decide to write. Reality — in the form of family life, financial circumstance, the tundra of the market, self-assurance eroded by critique or, probably worse, indifference, failure, doubt, exhaustion, time — eventually intervenes. Very few people, whether they would admit as much or not, particularly in the first inferno of ambitious burn, are willing to go down with the whale. Poverty, obscurity, irrelevance, low social standing, and so forth all seem more romantic, less intolerable, more like the plot of some young person’s adventure tale, less like the despondence-inducing signatures of failure and a wasted life at eighteen than they do when you find yourself approaching middle age.
In William Gaddis’s JR, another massive meditation on ambition, art, and time, an aging, alcoholic, seemingly doomed writer is perpetually haunted by visions of windows closing, chances slipping away or already long lost to time. Since finishing my own first book, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to chart a course forward, or at least get started on some sort of new project, but have been mostly stymied by a sense that I’m just not sure what I really want to do next. I’m so much more alert to the discouraging reality that no matter what I wind up doing, committing to that work will entail an implicit decision not to try my hand at any number of other things. Granting that this might not strike your average global citizen as an existential concern on the order of the triumph of Capital, rising sea, and inequality levels, to say nothing of the looming rise of the machines, it matters to me — because I only get the handful of decades I’ve already blown through a few of, and the passage of time doesn’t seem to be bringing with it a corresponding surge in my vitality, so that the issue isn’t only that I can’t decide what kind of book I’d like to write, don’t even know how I’d like to write, I’m sick of my own sentences these days, and then I don’t know whether I should focus mainly on telling a story of sorts, and if so do I have any stories worth telling, and in this era of scattered insular intellectual and aesthetic camps, what kind of reader do I want to engage, and most of all what kind of work can I see myself committing to for the however many years it will take to complete — I can’t imagine even starting something new unless the need to carry it home takes hold of me with such force that I can’t not be working on it….
And the maybe-obvious Knausgaard link here is with the man’s sheer desperation — a desperation to emerge from all of this: the torpor, muddled thinking, indecision, and self-loathing; terror of more windows closing, fear of failure, envy, ambition so smothering it chokes off all but the most frantic exertions of will to open up the word-processing program and for Christ’s sakes just begin, the solipsism I recognized too well and have only really ever slipped free from, somewhat paradoxically, when hard at work, when the gaze is abruptly turned outward, and I’m able to see people again, see with them — perceive, if only fleetingly, that each has her own struggle, just as I do mine…in other words break out of the self’s airless solitary confinement: creative immersion as a kind of efflorescent opening out to the world at large.
My Struggle provides the reader with a portrait of an artist whose sometimes-quixotic-seeming-endeavor to narrate his struggles with life and art in their entirety consumes, possesses, captivates him, in that last verb’s literal sense, and thereby sets him free. When Knausgaard tells his wife he must leave her at home to care for their recently born daughter, must write; when he won’t compromise even after she threatens to leave him, take the kid with her, then does; and when he furthermore dispenses with every last aesthetic consideration aside from this scribomaniacal need to write, he is both chronicling and dramatizing his own refusal to abandon the pursuit…and it’s this monstrously intact integrity with which he undertakes and then completes his masterwork that answers any question about the madness of a project that, like a rocket fired straight up into the sky, takes aim at its creator and terminates in the obliteration of his authorship, his hunger to create. It’s Knausgaard’s consummation, a triumph that emancipates the husband, father, son, and friend: the author is dead, leaving what’s left of the man free to walk away from his leviathan — preserved forever now in art’s time-cheating formaldehyde — freed from the echo chamber of thwarted intent, in order to emerge, maybe for the first time, into life.
I can no longer remember the precise distinction between the uncertainty principle and the observer principle, but one way or another, I’ve started to detect a feedback loop involving the Year in Reading series and the reading life it purports to document. When I dashed off my first entry, in 2005 (can that be right?), it was purely in the spirit of a report. But by 2012, even in January, February, and March, I found myself picking up a given book and asking: Is this a contender for the series? Is there any chance this is going to be the best thing I read this year? And if not, back onto the shelves it went.
As a consequence, of the 50-odd books I finished this year, at least half ended up being terrific. And the arbitrary cap I set for myself annually (Okay, I’m going to stick to writing about eight books. Fine, a dozen. Fifteen.) has proven harder than ever to enforce. I haven’t bothered to count the number of titles below, because, frankly, I just don’t want to know how far over my own limit I am. Let me just say, by way of apology, that this was a really, really good year in reading.
Probably my favorite thing I read was part one of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle — which bodes well, because five more volumes are on their way into English. Knausgaard’s been described as a Nordic Proust, and that more or less captures the book’s scope and its candid thefts from the author’s own life. It’s not a perfect comparison, of course; the suburban Norway where Knausgaard came of age in the ’80s can’t touch the Faubourg St.-Germain for social complexity, nor is Knausgaard’s prose — even in Don Bartlett’s lucid translation — as refined as Proust’s. But both authors, in vivisecting their own consciousness, alter the reader’s. A key word in My Struggle is “presence,” and after reading a few pages of Knausgaard’s descriptions of snow and soap, corpses and copses, you look up and find your own world pressing its presence urgently upon you, a messenger with an envelope you’ll never quite manage to unseal.
But then, it’s hard to give the laurels to Knausgaard, because this was also the year I read László Krasznahorkai’s The Melancholy of Resistance and Clarice Lispector’s Near to the Wild Heart. I’d started the former several times over the years, only to put it down again. (I blame the absence of paragraph breaks.) But I finished it this summer over four long nights, preparing to interview the author, and found it to be one of the great novels of the last quarter-century — like a MittelEuropean Moby-Dick. Near to the Wild Heart, meanwhile, is a Portuguese Mrs. Dalloway, as written by Peter Handke. I’m still not exactly sure what all happens to Lispector’s semi-feral heroine, but the writing is just exquisite. It kills me that Lispector was in her early 20s when she wrote this…and that it took me so long to discover her. She’s one of those writers who changes dramatically from book to book, but I look forward to reading everything of hers I can get my hands on. If you want to give her a try, start with this Modernist masterpiece.
Speaking of Modernist masterpieces…the Microscripts of Robert Walser are now out in paperback. I’m crazy about Walser’s early novel Jakob von Gunten, but have struggled with his short stories (many of which would today be called “short shorts”). All those quicksilver shifts of tone and intellect, compressed into the small space of a paragraph or two; all those discrete paragraphs, jam-packed together in a 4 x 8 inch book like roommates in a railroad apartment. The gorgeous new edition of the Microscripts, by contrast, surrounds each text with white space, and pairs it with a facsimile of its original, which somehow gives Walser’s sentences room to breathe…and to beguile. I was similarly entranced by Andrey Bely’s 1916 opus Petersburg back in the winter. I always read something Russian when it’s snowing, and I picked this up thinking to polish it off in a couple of weeks. Instead, it took me a couple of months. Bely’s symbolist prose, in many respects, is probably untranslatable, and his atmospherics are so relentless that the plot keeps disappearing behind them. But somehow, that comes to seem like the book’s whole point: to distill and bottle the phantasmagoric atmosphere of its titular city.
Another classic I loved this year was William Faulkner’s Sanctuary. Critics tend to treat this one as a disreputable entry in the Yoknapatawpha oeuvre…a liquored-up uncle trying to crash a party already full of liquored-up uncles. But one of the book’s supreme pleasures is seeing Faulkner turn his mature method (and he never wrote better than he did in 1929, ’30, ’31) to the kind of luridly pulpy material that would later surround him in Hollywood. Temple Drake, the kidnapped and forcibly debauched coed at the heart of the novel, is no one’s idea of a feminist icon. But she’s a flesh-and-blood character, and when she quakes in terror, we do, too.
…And is it too early to start filing Roberto Bolaño under “classics?” The well of posthumous Bolaño fiction has finally, I gather, run dry, and I expected to resent late trickles like The Secret of Evil. Instead, I found myself totally delighted, as ever, by this writer’s sui generis sensibility. A 15-page synopsis of a zombie movie, or of a dream about a zombie movie? Yes, please — provided Bolaño’s doing the dreaming.
This was a good year for new fiction, too. I was really taken with Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Halftime Walk, not least because it’s about damn time somebody wrote a novel about the Iraq War. Kevin Powers and David Abrams would soon join Fountain on the G.W.O.T. bookshelf. Unlike them, though, Fountain has never served in the armed forces and so it’s an act of ethical daring for him to imagine himself into the head of Specialist Billy Lynn, the book’s hero. Equally ballsy, I think, is the book’s formal dare: with one exception, it’s written in a relentlessly forward-moving present tense. I usually find this sort of thing to be a cop-out, as if the writer couldn’t be bothered to find a form other than Transcribed Screenplay, but Fountain treats realtime as a challenge, rather than an excuse. And he pulls it off. In short, he’s one of our best and bravest writers.
So is Zadie Smith. Critics seemed to chafe at the avant-garde ambitions of her new novel, NW. But I’m not sure those ambitions would have registered as such, had her essay, “Two Paths for the Novel,” much ballyhooed in 2008, not seemed to presage an avant-garde turn. It’s equally easy to make the case for NW as a novel of psychological realism. Its formal experimentation is light, easy to follow, and really pretty old-school (see: Mallarmé, Joyce). More unsettling, and more sneakily experimental, is the book’s approach to character. Smith’s protagonists, Leah, Natalie, and Felix, are incomplete, metamorphic, works in progress (as is their author). And it freaks them out. The book’s temperament, then, is anxious, pained, repressed – an obverse to the ebullience of White Teeth. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a step forward.
I also got around to some older contemporary lit this year. Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead had been on my list since our Best of the Millennium project, and I now understand why so many people voted for it. The explicitly religious subject matter — the novel comprises the letters of an elderly priest — may put some readers off, but Robinson’s eloquent embrace of faith doesn’t banish doubt and mystery; it foregrounds them. Or as her narrator puts it:
I have wandered to the limits of my understanding any number of times, out into that desolation, that Horeb, that Kansas, and I’ve scared myself, too, a good many times, leaving all landmarks behind me, or so it seemed. And it has been among the true pleasures of my life.
Salvation is nowhere to be found in Slow Fade, Rudolph Wurlitzer’s early-80s novel of the movie business. Neither, come to think of it, is pleasure…unless it’s the pleasure of Wurlitzer’s bone-clean prose. But Slow Fade struck me nonetheless as a great introduction to this neglected writer. And speaking of neglected: what ever happened to Mark Costello? Okay, fine, there are at least two Mark Costellos; I mean the one who was David Foster Wallace’s college roommate. His secret service sendup, Big If, was nominated for a National Book Award in 2002, and though it isn’t exactly a complete novel — it’s missing an ending, and rarely even descends into scene– Costello’s one of the funniest and brightest turners of phrase this side of…well, this side of Wallace. His long riff on the novel’s eponymous video game is like an existentialist parable rewritten by George Saunders, and is on its own worth the price of admission. I want a new Costello novel, and I want it now.
But real art takes as long as it takes, and half the time we’re not ready to recognize it when it comes. That’s one of the lessons of the best work of nonfiction I read this year, Lawrence Weschler’s Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees, a biography of the artist Robert Irwin. I’ve read a lot of Weschler, but this book, his first, may be his best. And whether your particular field of endeavor is painting or writing or delivering the mail, Irwin’s story will teach you to see it in a new way. On the journalism side, I was also vastly impressed by Dave Cullen’s Columbine, notwithstanding his misinformed blurb for the Anthony Shadid book (“If Marquez [sic] had explored nonfiction…” Um…). Here, the attraction’s not so much the writing but the reporting, the way Cullen extends journalistic objectivity to both victims and killers. The back half of the book feels like a long, vivid nightmare, but one returns to sanity with the same feeling Weschler and Irwin keep urging on us: the wonder that there is anything at all.
I’d also recommend Michael Gorra’s Portrait of a Novel, about Henry James. Like Janet Malcolm’s little books on Chekhov and Gertrude Stein, it’s an approachable blend of biography, criticism, and travelogue. Its charms will be less considerable, and its insights less penetrating, to anyone who hasn’t read Portrait of a Lady, to which Gorra’s book is keyed. But for readers looking to spend more time with the Master, or just to see what the fuss is about, Gorra’s book is the equivalent of a good undergraduate seminar. And you know who else is a good critic? Jonathan Lethem. While his novels get much of the attention, Lethem’s been steadily carving out a niche for himself as a polymorphous culture freak. His 2011 collection The Ecstasy of Influence doesn’t spare us his squibs and blog posts (and commentary on those squibs and blog posts), and for that reason I was prepared to hate it. Weirdly, though, it works, adding up to a warts-and-all portrait of the artist. And if you like your essays more polished, check out the long James Brown profile two-thirds of the way through.
Finally, a confession: I did something crazy this year. I blew half of a freelancing check on the complete, seven-volume edition of William T. Vollmann’s 3,000 page essay on violence, Rising Up and Rising Down. (What can I say? It was either that or diapers for my children.) I remain deeply conflicted about my fascination with Vollmann. I know there’s an obvious case to be made that he’s not a good writer. I also think he might be a great one. To my surprise, given its length, RURD is one of his more carefully crafted books. In its learned monomania, it reminds me of Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy. To a contemporary audience, its style of argumentation may feel bizarre; I keep thinking of an archaeologist sitting at a table, sweeping a pile of sand from one hand to the other, waiting for artifacts to emerge in the middle. But when Vollmann arrives, after many divagations, at a point, you don’t feel like you understand; you feel like you’ve lived it. (For this reason, I cannot imagine the 700-page abridged version making any sense at all.) And if Violence seems like too broad a subject, consider this: it’s a head-fake. The essay’s really about Everything.
Or so it seems to me at present; I’m only two volumes in. RURD is destined, probably, to join The Book of Disquiet and The Arcades Project and The Making of Americans as one of those books I read and read and never finish. But I’m grateful to the weird pressure of A Year in Reading for giving me the impetus to start.
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