“I went into the street with the cup in my hand. A slight feeling of unease arose within me at seeing it out here, the cup belonged indoors, not outdoors; outdoors, there was something naked and exposed about it, and as I cross the street I decided to buy a coffee at the 7-Eleven the following morning, and use their cup, made of cardboard, designed for outdoor use, from then on.”We get seemingly meaningless details like the passage above. Bits of thoughts and actions of My Struggle author Karl Ove Knausgaard come in seemingly random detail, or is it random? How does one figure this out and pin it down? Is this the masterpiece some say or a loose rambling with occasional bits of interest? Is this a lazy self-indulgent soap opera, or has he found a way to illuminate the depth of humanity through his intense, intimate autobiographical novel?
[An aside: As an Alaskan, it’s comfortable to be in Knausgaard’s Swedish environment of winter snow and dark, summer lush and endless light, all the more so because the northern latitudes are such a rare fictional setting.]
The passage above does go somewhere. With his coffee in hand he describes the details he sees from his new office in suburban Stockholm, then pulls back to put those details into the perspective of the perpetual ebb and flow of people in the city.
“On the school playground that lay squashed between two blocks of flats twenty meters up from my office the shouts of children suddenly fell quiet, it was only now that I noticed. The bell had rung. The sounds here were new and unfamiliar to me, the same was true of the rhythm in which they surfaced, but I would soon get used to them, to such an extent that they would fade into the background again. You know too little and it doesn’t exist. You know too much and it doesn’t exist. Writing is drawing the essence of what we know out of the shadows. That is what writing is about. Not what happens there, not what actions are played out there, but the there itself. There, that is writing’s location and aim. But how to get there?” [Emphasis added.]
The writer is asking himself these questions as he observes the waves of people and vehicles flowing in and out of the streets and offices and restaurants and schools and shops as the sun itself shifts its rays from one side to the other.
“So strictly regulated and demarcated was life here that it could be understood both geometrically and biologically. It was hard to believe that this could be related to the teeming, wild, and chaotic conditions of other species, such as the excessive agglomerations of tadpoles or fish spawn or insect eggs where life seemed to swarm up from an inexhaustible well. But it was. Chaos and unpredictability represent both the conditions of life and its decline, one impossible without the other, and even though almost all our efforts are directed toward keeping decline at bay, it does not take more than one brief moment of resignation to be thrust into its light, and not, as now, in shadow. Chaos is a kind of gravity, and the rhythm you can sense in history, of the rise and fall of civilizations, is perhaps caused by this. It is remarkable that the extremes resemble each other, in one sense at any rate, for in both immense chaos and a strictly regulated, demarcated world the individual is nothing, life is everything. . . “I immediately thought about how we have people today ready to abandon regulated and demarcated life and throw us into chaos. Most Americans have never experienced a government failure - when things fall apart into chaos. It's happening in different parts of the world all the time, right now for people in Syria, where the carefully constructed order has collapsed and people are dying and fleeing.
And the best writing draws out the essence out of the shadows, but for most it's hard to tell which essence is the true essence.
I suspect we today, as probably always, are divided into people who only see events at face value and those who see events as part of a larger pattern. And how many different patterns do the pattern seers see? [And, of course, all such dichotomies ignore that most such characteristics lie on a continuum. They aren't either/or. And that people are complex, seeing patterns in some cases but not others, at some times, but not others.]
I'm only on page 200 of the first book of this six volume set, so who knows where it will go? It was a huge hit in Norway (he's Norwegian, but lives in Sweden).