Monday, June 2, 2014

Almost Summer

Almost summer in New Mexico.  The winds have died down, the mornings are cool and clear, and we even had three days of afternoon showers. The temperature today was a tepid 94 F, headed to 97 F tomorrow. Not only is the polar ice melting, the mountains are turning to slush. A few days ago my friend from UPS dropped off one of my summer books, Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle, Book III.  Archipelago Books has done a beautiful job with this volume--it's an undersized hardback with creamy paper, ribbed end-pages, and a crisp clean type.  This volume begins in 1969--Karl Ove is a one-year-old--and ends when he is thirteen. As the novel/memoir opens, his family has just moved so that his father can take a position as a rural middle school teacher on an island off the coast of Norway..  The tone of the first pages is already elegiac, as if from the moment he came into this sad world Knausgaard was prepared to both long for and reject his childhood. In this way he is unlike Proust (with whom he is often and inaccurately compared), who laments "lost time" but whose art heightens and vivifies events; Knausgaard, on the other hand, sees through a glass darkly, or rather, sees darkness everywhere. Even in the early pages of volume III there are premonitions of family troubles and inevitable unhappiness.  For Karl Ove, all contentment is elusive: his father is cruel; his mother is kind but invisible, his brother and friends feel like ghosts.  He grows up an overly-sensitive, even effeminate boy; in his frequent spilling of tears, his lust for, but fear of girls, his meek surrender to the will of his peers, his chronic inner turmoil, Karl Ove seems detached from his surroundings, too passive to make a strong impression on anyone.  Here is where I think we find the essence of Knausgaard's "struggle"--not with the forces that act upon him, but with his own inability to act in pursuit of a life that suits him (I predict that in 2017, when the final volume arrives--if I'm still among the reading public--the final act of self-definition that is the "struggle" will be KOK's decision, like Proust's, to become a writer.) This is what attracts me to these books--through their evocation of a quotidian life they remind me not so much of my own struggles, but of the fact of struggle that lies at the heart of any self-conscious life.  For all the clumsiness of these books--they are at times maudlin, repetitive, and reeking with self-pity--Knausgaard is a great Romantic--perhaps the Shelley of our age.

Mid-way through My Struggle I thought of Stop-Time, the brilliant, iconic memoir that Frank Conroy published in the 1960's, the first truly raw and wholly honest memoir I'd ever read.  Compared to Conroy's youthful self, Karl Ove feels almost transparent--lacking the density and complexity of a fully-formed person.  Perhaps this ephemeral self is the product of Knausgaard's working out of the relationship between his human voice and his literary voice. Unlike Conroy, Knausgaard doesn't wholly succeed in breaking down the barriers between the artist and the person he once was. Whole pages of the book feel rote, as if written in haste, or in a trance, without concern for their artfulness.  It seems ungrateful to ask for even more details in such a long and dense book, but I often wished for a fuller sense of the inner life of the narrator--for it is in the inner life and not in the external behaviors that we come to know another person. By the end of the book Karl and his family have moved on, and the world of his childhood is lost, he tells us, forever.  It would be at this point that Proust or Joseph Roth or Isaac Bashevis Singer would commence the resurrection of this lost world, using the medium of storytelling not only to preserve specific events, but to preserve the inner world lost to time. 

Speaking of lost worlds, I'm near the end of George Prochnik's remarkable The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World, an enthralling study of Zweig's years of exile from his beloved Vienna.  Prochnik, whose own family was displaced by the rise of the Nazi Party in the 1930's, recounts the pain that the loss of Zweig's home, his library, his friends, and, most of all, his ties to the cultural world of Vienna inflicted on one of greatest and most prolific writers in the German language.  Unlike Thomas Mann or Albert Einstein (to name only two of the more famous exiles from Hitler's Germany), Zweig was never able to find happiness in the New Worlds of London, New York, or, at the end of his life, Petropolis, a small town in Brazil.  Of course even in exile Stefan and his second wife, Lotte, (that's Zweig''s first wife, Friedeike, in a 1924 photograph) found moments of happiness, made friends with other exiles, and Zweig wrote The World of Yesterday--the best book on the decline and fall of the Hapsburg Empire.  In despair at the spread of fascism to Brazil (under Vargas' "Novo Estato"), Zweig and Lotte committed suicide in Petropolis on February 23, 1942. 

Other books on my desk include Thomas Piketty's monumental Capital in the Twenty-First Century, a work of dense macroeconomics--lots of data, which is just the way economics should be--but so clearly written you'll feel as if you understand exactly what is being argued (though you might be mistaken).  And is there a more pressing topic than the one Piketty addresses--inequality in incomes and the political ramifications of this deepening rift in Western societies?  I have heard a lot of red-baiting swipes at Piketty in the blogosphere and read several in the pages of the Times.  But the truth is that Piketty is no Marxist, and that his data appear irrefutable. 

I'm also looking forward to reading Kenzaburo Oe's The Changling--published in Japan a decade ago and translated into English in 2010.  I've always enjoyed Oe's slight, deeply personal ficitions, his accounts (in particular) of life with his son.  The Changling is based on Oe's relationship with the Japanese director Juzo Itami, and, in particular, with the latter's suicide. 

Other pending books: Canti by Giacomo Leopardi in the Jonathan Galassi translation....The Collected Poems of Federico Garcia Lorca, edited by Christopher Maurer (both of these beautiful volumes are published by Farrar, Straus, Giroux; now, with Knopf gone the way of Penguin and the rest, FSG is the go-to commercial publisher of  high quality literary works).  To my shame and embarrassment, I once again failed to finish Middlemarch and have reluctantly decided to save this book for the afterlife, if books are permitted and time is as expansive as the theologians claim.  I also hope to finish Joan Richardson's biography of Wallace Stevens, Reiner Stach's final volume of his Kafka project, and Fred Kaplan's biography of my third favorite president, John Quincy Adams, all in this life--by August. If the world doesn't melt in the meantime. 

Happy reading...

George Ovitt (5/27/14)

No comments:

Post a Comment