Gary Percesepe ~ An Interview with Roxana Robinson

Our Struggle: On the Experience of Reading Karl Ove Knaussgaard

I read Book One of Karl Ove Knausgaard epic nov­el My Struggle in 2014, and was instant­ly hooked. In sub­se­quent years I read books two through five, and wait­ed for the English trans­la­tion of Book Six to appear. I got my copy in late 2018, and took it to Switzerland with me, where I read it over the Christmas Break and into the new year. At 1157 pages, read­ing Book Six seemed an epic chal­lenge; the six vol­umes com­bined total over 3,600 pages. Not quite Proust, but in the ter­ri­to­ry. Reading is a soli­tary act. When I final­ly fin­ished read­ing Book Six, five years after I had begun, I longed for some­one to talk to about the expe­ri­ence. Luckily, my friend Roxana Robinson had fin­ished read­ing Book Six around the same time as me. Roxana is a won­der­ful writer. Her new nov­el, Dawson’s Fall, imag­ines the lives of her great-grand­par­ents in an unre­pen­tant South two decades after the end of the Civil War.

 

GP: Roxana, one week out, what is your take­away from the expe­ri­ence of read­ing My Struggle?

RR: Hmm – I think that ques­tion is too big. The thing about the work is that it tries to encom­pass every­thing, so it’s daunt­ing to try to respond in a way that also encom­pass­es every­thing. Can we choose a nar­row­er approach?

 

GP: Last week on Facebook you wrote that you were com­plete­ly engaged by the nar­ra­tive, the char­ac­ters, and the author’s inten­tion, which you under­stand as, “the strug­gle to inte­grate the inner life and the out­er life, the intan­gi­ble and the real, in a way that deliv­ers the total­i­ty of lived expe­ri­ence.”  You illus­trat­ed your mean­ing by describ­ing what almost every­one who com­ments on My Struggle has observed–its relent­less and obses­sive atten­tion to the details of aver­age ordi­nary life, page after page of doing the laun­dry, get­ting the kids to school, mak­ing din­ner. Why does the quo­tid­i­an fas­ci­nate us so much, and how does gen­der enter into this? If a woman writer spent this amount of time and effort describ­ing going down to the base­ment to do the laun­dry or prepar­ing din­ner in the kitchen, would the read­ing pub­lic be as inter­est­ed, do you think? Would we be describ­ing it, as you did in your post, as, “huge­ly authen­tic, dri­ven, deter­mined, brave and com­pas­sion­ate?” Meg Wolitzer gave voice to this line of crit­i­cism a few years back in a much-dis­cussed arti­cle in the New York Times titled, “The Second Shelf: On the Rules of Literary Fiction for Men and Women.”  If My Struggle had been writ­ten by a woman and had piles of laun­dry on the cov­er, would it have been rel­e­gat­ed to what Wolitzer calls “Women’s Fiction”—“that close-quar­tered low­er shelf where books empha­siz­ing rela­tion­ships and the inte­ri­or lives of women are often rel­e­gat­ed?” Is it the excur­sions into philo­soph­i­cal the­o­ry and lit­er­ary crit­i­cism that shield Knausgaard from this fate, and is this what you mean by the “inte­gra­tion of the inner and out­er life?”

RR: I think My Struggle is the chron­i­cle of Knausgaard’s effort to inte­grate the two anti­thet­i­cal parts of his life, the inte­ri­or and the exte­ri­or. He shows us what each is like, giv­ing even-hand­ed atten­tion to the world of the body and the world of the mind. He offers detailed descrip­tions of the phys­i­cal life, telling us just how the rain hits the win­dow, just how the laun­dry room looks and smells. These descrip­tions offer an odd mix of inti­ma­cy and dis­tance: the author’s deep atten­tive­ness to quo­tid­i­an facts gives them val­ue, and they sug­gest a kind of ten­der aware­ness of the way our lives are spent. We might feel a sense of recog­ni­tion, a shared aware­ness of our human con­nec­tion. Yet Knausgaard’s tone is lev­el and detached, imper­son­al. It denies inti­ma­cy. Rarely does he tell us how he feels about the room, or the land­scape, or the weath­er.

He’s up to some­thing besides an easy col­le­gial­i­ty. He imbues this mun­dane infor­ma­tion with impor­tance, not only through his atten­tive­ness but also through his lit­er­ary style. The pre­ci­sion of his detail, and the slow, con­trolled, mea­sured pace of the nar­ra­tive is famil­iar from detec­tive sto­ries and thrillers, to say noth­ing of Henry James. The delib­er­ate slow­ness and the care­ful focus cre­ate a kind of sus­pense. Why is he ascrib­ing such impor­tance to this scene, these details? We exam­ine them for clues. We expect a mur­der, or a love sto­ry, though, con­fus­ing­ly, we don’t get either. Knausgaard is doing some­thing dif­fer­ent.

In the ear­ly scenes, as he describes the process of clean­ing his grand­par­ents’ house at the begin­ning of the series, he deliv­ers infor­ma­tion in a neu­tral tone. The appalling con­di­tions of the rooms, the filth and dis­or­der, the emp­ty bot­tles and ruined fur­ni­ture, are all described with­out emo­tion or expla­na­tion. The actu­al­i­ty of this rav­aged world bears down on us through our own absorp­tion of its phys­i­cal pres­ence. He doesn’t tell us what the bot­tles and the filth mean, or how they might affect him. We come to under­stand that through our read­ing of these phys­i­cal clues. The con­trolled slow­ness of the pace, the metic­u­lous obser­va­tion of detail deliv­er a dev­as­tat­ing mes­sage.

What Knausgaard is doing seems new to me, in his com­mit­ment to giv­ing equal val­ue to the two halves of our lives. Many writ­ers have cho­sen one of these halves, but few who insist on their absolute entwin­ing. Those who focus on the phys­i­cal and the mun­dane rarely focus on the intel­lec­tu­al side, and vice ver­sa. The intel­lec­tu­als have rarely shown such inter­est in the life of phys­i­cal details.

Writing itself has its own eso­teric tra­di­tion: the ear­li­est writ­ers were few, and they used their skill on only the most sig­nif­i­cant sub­jects: the spir­i­tu­al life, God, the soul. Those ear­ly sub­jects were those that were the most holy, the most abstract, the most intel­lec­tu­al. The most sep­a­rate from the body. As lit­er­a­cy became more wide­spread, sub­ject mat­ter became more diverse. Nowadays you can write about any­thing – but we’re still aware of a hier­ar­chy of sub­jects. We know that the intel­lec­tu­al is the most ele­vat­ed sphere of inter­est. We give that more respect than the phys­i­cal – but, inter­est­ing­ly, Knausgaard does not. He gives equal atten­tion to those hours in which we are sim­ply doing chores and tend­ing to our bod­ies that he does to his obser­va­tions on Heidegger, or on read­ing the diaries of a Polish poet. Knausgaard demands that we acknowl­edge that the life of the body is as sig­nif­i­cant and as pro­found as the life of the mind. He denies the idea of hier­ar­chy. He demands that we accept all parts of our lives as equals. He insists on a kind of whole­ness, he declares that there is a great rich­ness to expe­ri­ence that can only be absorbed in its entire­ty.

It’s this inte­gra­tion that I find so inter­est­ing, because most oth­er writ­ers choose one part or the oth­er. As to gen­der — many women writ­ers have focused on the phys­i­cal aspects of their domes­tic lives – gro­ceries, laun­dry – but most of them imbue these descrip­tions with feel­ings. Knausgaard refus­es to do this. And not many women writ­ers have inte­grat­ed the quo­tid­i­an life with such an exi­gent and pro­found intel­lec­tu­al life. These are gen­er­al­iza­tions, and I don’t mean that women writ­ers don’t write about the intel­lec­tu­al life, of course they do. Many have writ­ten with ener­gy and bril­liance about the intel­lec­tu­al life – but from either gen­der I think it’s rare to find Knausgaard’s inte­gra­tion of the two. The con­join­ing is both con­fus­ing and exhil­a­rat­ing.

 

GP: I’m also curi­ous what you think about Knausgaard writ­ing My Struggle as a nov­el rather than a mem­oir, which he seems to regard as a “weak form.” If he wrote it as a nov­el in order to avoid hav­ing to deal with the pos­si­bil­i­ty of giv­ing offense to real peo­ple in his life (a con­stant source of ten­sion for mem­oir writ­ers), he sure­ly didn’t suc­ceed. Holy hell broke out in his fam­i­ly, with his uncle threat­en­ing to sue and expose him as a liar, and his wife Linda crushed when she learns, in read­ing the book, that her hus­band had been unfaith­ful to her. Calamity ensues.

RR: I think he means that a mem­oir is held hostage to mem­o­ry, and to the mem­o­ries of oth­er peo­ple, and a nov­el is entire­ly under the con­trol of the writer. In the last book of My Struggle, he wres­tles with the chaos he has cre­at­ed through his ear­ly can­dor, or utter lack of con­sid­er­a­tion. But part of the pur­pose of the book is his need to set­tle for him­self the ques­tion of his rela­tion­ship to his father. He can’t do that if he is bound by the rules of cour­tesy or con­sid­er­a­tion – it requires a great can­did reck­on­ing, hon­esty and exac­ti­tude. I was enthralled by his long dis­qui­si­tion on the idea of the name, on what it means to have one, what it sig­ni­fies to be called by one, how, before names, there was noth­ing, how names call things into being. And I real­ized that before that final book we had nev­er known his father’s name. He was called Dad. Then I under­stood that it must have been with­held at the request of his uncle, who had chal­lenged every­thing about Knausgaard’s ini­tial book, his own mem­o­ry of and rela­tion­ship to his own father. Knausgaard ques­tioned these things him­self, won­der­ing if he had com­mit­ted some kind of fraud, or mock­ery, or attack, which is some­thing all writ­ers who draw on their own lives for mate­r­i­al must expe­ri­ence. But now, final­ly, at the end of this great exam­i­na­tion of his own inner and out­er lives, and his own reck­on­ing with his father, Knausgaard comes to the place in which he choos­es at last to claim his sto­ry, believe in him­self, reaf­firm his own under­stand­ing of his place in the world and use that name. It is like a great chord being played, echo­ing through the land­scape, fol­lowed by silence.

 

GP: It’s unclear to me how an auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal nov­el is any less hostage to mem­o­ry than a mem­oir. Both engage in the dialec­tic of nar­ra­tive and time; both are pre­oc­cu­pied with a hermeneu­tic of the self; both are sub­ject to what Ricoeur calls “the hermeneu­tics of sus­pi­cion.” Both are like­ly to get you in trou­ble with loved ones, rel­a­tives, and friends when you elect to write about them, no mat­ter how well you try to mask it. Knausgaard’s wife, Linda (they are now divorced) said of him, “I mar­ried the world’s most indis­crete man.”

RR: But none of those things is about being hostage to mem­o­ry. The premise of a mem­oir is that it is true; a nov­el is shaped and cre­at­ed by the writer; s/he is in charge of the “facts” in it. Whether or not you get in trou­ble with your friends and fam­i­ly is anoth­er mat­ter. It can hap­pen with either. My point is that the writer has more auton­o­my in the nov­el. (And it’s dis­creet, not dis­crete. He is not at all dis­crete!)

 

GP: What do you take to be the strug­gle in My Struggle? And speak­ing of names, why do you think Knausgaard set­tled on the noto­ri­ous­ly mimet­ic title (Min Kamp in Norwegian)? He tells us else­where that he orig­i­nal­ly intend­ed to title the nov­el The Dog—a self-ref­er­en­tial mock­ing of his canine ten­den­cy to always try to please.

RR: As I said ear­li­er, I think the strug­gle is his attempt to inte­grate the inte­ri­or and the exte­ri­or life. As to the title, he feels some deep con­nec­tion to Hitler’s book, as he shows in the long pas­sages about it. I was fas­ci­nat­ed to learn that it’s banned in Norway. It rais­es the para­dox­i­cal nature of cen­sor­ship, how ban­ning some­thing – as the Nazi Party has been banned in Germany, and hate speech has been banned here – a soci­ety demon­strates its most force­ful beliefs about harm­ful ideas and words. What about Charlie Hebdo’s dis­gust­ing car­toons show­ing the Prophet with a baguette stuck into his pos­te­ri­or? Is that hate speech? It is cer­tain­ly con­tempt-speech, and why wouldn’t it arouse fury on the part of believ­ers? So, ban­ning Mein Kampfby Norway would show how grave­ly the coun­try took the threat of Nazism, and why not? But it would also con­fer on the book the thrilling fas­ci­na­tion of the for­bid­den. Both those things, I think, play a part in Knausgaard’s response to it.

 

GP: You men­tioned Heidegger ear­li­er. In the Facebook that I men­tioned ear­li­er, you revealed that you skipped this sec­tion? Why is that? Is it because you find Heidegger appalling, giv­en his sup­port for Hitler (he nev­er dis­avowed it, until his dying day)? In the four hun­dred-page excur­sus into Hitler, there are whole sec­tions of Mein Kamph quot­ed ver­ba­tim. Is read­ing Heidegger some­how worse than read­ing Hitler?

RR: I skipped the Heidegger sec­tion because I’m not inter­est­ed in phi­los­o­phy. I know this reveals a woe­ful lack of intel­lect, but I find it exas­per­at­ing. It’s entire­ly the­o­ret­i­cal and abstract. It doesn’t allow for emo­tion­al engage­ment, and though I’m sure it has mer­it, it’s some­thing I enjoy explor­ing.

 

GP: I’m tempt­ed to ask whether you’ve read the dia­logues of Plato, then, which are full of whim­sy and word­play, poet­ic as much as philosophical—or Kierkegaard, or Nietzsche. Knausgaard him­self has writ­ten of the many ways he has been influ­enced by the philoso­phers he stud­ied in the 1980s; he names Foucault as a deep influ­ence, Derrida, Deleuze. But what I real­ly want to ask is whether you’ve seen the movie “The Bookshop,” with the delight­ful Emily Mortimer in the role of a wid­ow, Florence Green, who upon the death of her hus­band decides to open a book­store, despite local oppo­si­tion. The movie opens with a friend of Florence Green, remem­ber­ing her: “She told me once, when we read a sto­ry, we inhab­it it. The cov­ers of the book are like a roof and four walls. A house. She, more than any­thing else in the world loved the moment when we fin­ish the book, and the sto­ry keeps play­ing like the most vivid dream your head. And after that she loved tak­ing long walks, to clear her mind of all the emo­tions and feel­ings the book had start­ed with­in her.” So, I am won­der­ing, has any of this hap­pened to you with My Struggle? Is this nov­el like­ly to play inside your head for years to come? Or maybe I should ask, was this a house that was built for you that you will miss inhab­it­ing?

RR: (laugh­ing) I know I should read Plato and Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. It’s not that I think they are dull or unimag­i­na­tive or val­ue­less. I’m sure they’re full of clev­er­ness, and whim­sy, word­play and brains. It’s just that they don’t tell a human sto­ry, a nar­ra­tive about peo­ple who engage with each oth­er. Philosophy is all the­o­ry and no emo­tion­al engage­ment. And it’s emo­tion that evokes com­pas­sion, not intel­lec­tu­al the­o­ry, no mat­ter how thought­ful or pro­found. So, while I know I should read it, I keep putting it off, as we all do when we are giv­en two choic­es: one of doing some­thing you want to do right now, and the oth­er of doing some­thing you want to do lat­er.

As to “The Bookshop,” I have seen it (and read the book). I like her response, but mine is a lit­tle dif­fer­ent. Rather than the moment when the book ends, when I can think about it, I pre­fer the time halfway or two-thirds of the way through, when I am com­plete­ly absorbed by the text, and rel­ish the fact that I still have more time with it ahead. If I real­ly love a book, when it ends I am bereft. I walk around yearn­ing to con­tin­ue liv­ing with the char­ac­ters, miss­ing them and their hous­es and land­scapes and chil­dren and anx­i­eties and prin­ci­ples and loves. Once I went to Sicily with my hus­band. I had tried twice before to read “The Leopard,” but each time I had been unable to get past chap­ter two. For some rea­son it seemed dull and old and stagey. But this time I read it in the land­scape of the nov­el. We drove up into the hills, and I looked over the fields and thought of the Leopard’s fam­i­ly hold­ings. We went through church­es and cathe­drals and I thought of their fam­i­ly mass­es, and of the old aunts and their pathet­ic col­lec­tion of holy relics. We end­ed our trip in the great fad­ed hotel in Palermo, which he describes in the book. I fin­ished it at break­fast, in our room, with its high ceil­ings and ter­raz­zo floors, the cracked plas­ter walls, the tall win­dows, the Sicilian morn­ing out­side. When I fin­ished the book I was shat­tered at los­ing that world. It was ter­ri­ble to close the cov­er on it. When I did I turned it over and opened it again to page one, and I read the whole book through all over again.

So, no, fin­ish­ing a book is not my favorite moment.

But, yes, I absolute­ly lived inside My Struggle. I so admired the way Knausgaard gave us his days, moment by moment, and I rev­eled at being able to plunge into his life. I stayed there for hours and hours at a time. I loved all of these books, most­ly for the way he told the fam­i­ly sto­ry. I admired him for telling this sto­ry, which was so com­pli­cat­ed, and so dan­ger­ous for him to tell. By this I mean that his rela­tion­ship with his father was a fright­en­ing one, and it would be hard to set it down. I admired his account of his mar­riage, and his rela­tion­ship with Linda. There is some­thing I find very mov­ing about his deter­mi­na­tion to set down the truth, in all its banal­i­ty, its par­tic­u­lar­i­ty, its shame­ful­ness and courage. And then I am a big fan of big, expan­sive books. I love Buddenbrooks, and Return of the Native, and Anna Karenina. The Leopard. I’m also an insom­ni­ac, so the big book is my friend. I’ve just start­ed re-read­ing A Dance to the Music of Time.

 

GP: One of the things I first noticed about you in your Facebook posts (which is how I came to know you, vir­tu­al­ly, before we met in per­son in Manhattan) was that you teach a course that focus­es on the theme of com­pas­sion in the nov­el. The course, which I believe you teach on a reg­u­lar basis, fea­tures two of my favorite nov­els, Anna Karenina and Emma Bovary. I want to ask: Do you find My Struggle to be a nov­el filled with com­pas­sion, and Knausgaard a com­pas­sion­ate writer? And why is com­pas­sion an impor­tant trait in a nov­el, or a writer?

RR:  I’ve writ­ten a lot about com­pas­sion, and why I think it’s essen­tial to the great nov­el, so I won’t expand on it much here, except to say that it’s the por­tal through which we enter into anoth­er person’s life, his heart, his soul.

And yes, do I find Knausgaard com­pas­sion­ate. He is scrupu­lous in his ren­der­ing of oth­er peo­ple, both gen­er­ous and pre­cise, and he is uncom­pro­mis­ing in his ren­der­ings of him­self. He tells his worst char­ac­ter­is­tics and reveals his worst flaws qui­et­ly, as though in con­fes­sion – with­out boast­ing, with­out self-indul­gence, and dri­ven by a sense of oblig­a­tion to the truth. It is this can­dor that evokes the reader’s com­pas­sion. And because he doesn’t spare him­self, and because he loves oth­er peo­ple – his moth­er, his broth­er, even his father – we enter into the inti­mate space of his heart, that place reserved for emo­tion­al con­nec­tion. He evokes our com­pas­sion through his stead­fast nar­ra­tion of his own mis­takes, his seri­ous errors and shame­ful cru­el­ties, as well as through his good inten­tions as a son, broth­er, boyfriend and father. He is close­ly bond­ed to this small cir­cle of peo­ple, he is com­mit­ted to cre­at­ing the strongest kinds of link to them. He bun­gles the attempt over and over, then strug­gles on again. Which is the point, and has always been the point of a nov­el: it’s the strug­gle onward, ever since Pilgrim’s Progress, or Ulysses. Because Knausgaard almost does away with the idea of plot, he can focus on the strug­gle. Which means we can see our own lives in his nar­ra­tive – the shape­less­ness of each day, the way it is made up of one thing after anoth­er, iron­ing the table­cloth, chang­ing the nap­pies, watch­ing the cars and peo­ple on the street. I find his atten­tion to the diur­nal utter­ly fas­ci­nat­ing. As Updike says of him­self, he is “giv­ing the mun­dane its beau­ti­ful due.” The mun­dane is where we spend our lives, and, instead of ris­ing to the high roman­tic crags of hero­ism, Knausgaard faces each unre­lent­ing moment of the day. It’s that uncom­pro­mis­ing gaze that I find so com­pelling, the expo­sure he is will­ing to make of him­self, and of how life real­ly is.

~

Roxana Robinson is the author of ten books — six nov­els, three col­lec­tions of short sto­ries, and the biog­ra­phy of Georgia O’Keeffe. Four of these were cho­sen as New York Times Notable Books, two as New York Times Editors’ Choices.

Her fic­tion has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Harper’s, Best American Short Stories, Tin House   and else­where. Her work has been wide­ly anthol­o­gized and broad­cast on NPR. Her books have been pub­lished in England, France, Germany, Holland and Spain. Robinson is a schol­ar of American paint­ings and an envi­ron­men­tal­ist, and her essays, crit­i­cism and Op-Eds have appeared in The New York Times, The International Herald Tribune, The Chicago Tribune, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Washington Post, Bookforum, The Nation and else­where. She has twice been a final­ist for the Balakian Award for Criticism from the NBCC.

Her nov­el, Cost, won the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance Fiction Award for 2008, and it was list­ed as one of the Best Books of the Year by the Chicago Tribune, Library Journal, The Seattle Times and The Wall Street Journal.It was named one of the Five Best Fiction Books of the Year by The Washington Post.

Her nov­el,Sparta, won the Maine Fiction Award, the James Webb Award from the USMCHF, was named one of the Ten Best Books of the Year by the BBC, and was short-list­ed for the Dublin Impac Award.

Roxana Robinson has received fel­low­ships from the NEA, the MacDowell Colony and the Guggenheim Foundation, and she was named a Literary Lion by the New York Public Library. Robinson has served on the Boards of PEN and the Authors Guild, and was the pres­i­dent of the Authors Guild from 2013–2017. In 2019 she received the Barnes and Noble “Writers for Writers Award,” giv­en by Poets and Writers.

 

Gary Percesepe is the author of sev­en books, includ­ing Itch (Pure Slush Press, 2014) a col­lec­tion of flash fic­tion, Falling (Pure Slush Press, 2014), a poet­ry col­lec­tion, and What May Have Been: Letters of Jackson Pollock and Dori G (Cervena Brava Press, 2010), an epis­to­lary nov­el co-authored with Susan Tepper. He is Associate Editor at New World Writing (for­mer­ly Mississippi Review), a for­mer assis­tant fic­tion edi­tor at Antioch Review, and a Contributor at The Nervous Breakdown. His fic­tion, poet­ry, essays, reviews, and inter­views have appeared in Story Quarterly, N + 1, Salon, Mississippi Review, The Millions, Brevity, PANK, Westchester Review, Antioch Review, Wigleaf, Camera Obscura, Solstice, Atticus Review, Bull, New World Writing, and oth­er places. He teach­es phi­los­o­phy at Fordham University in the Bronx.