Total Recall

By Wood, James | The New Yorker, August 13, 2012 | Go to article overview

Total Recall


Wood, James, The New Yorker


Walter Benjamin, in his great essay "The Storyteller," written in the nineteen-thirties, argues that classic storytelling is structured around death. It is the fire at which listeners warm their hands. But these days, he suggests, that hearth is cold and empty. Benjamin notes that death has disappeared from contemporary life, safely shuffled away to the hospital, the morgue, the undertaker. Instead of the news of death, there is just news--the "information" that we get so easily in newspapers. "If the art of storytelling has become rare, the dissemination of information has had a decisive share in this state of affairs," Benjamin writes. I sometimes think that the old leather couch Tolstoy kept in his study would be a good symbol of the mortal pulse that Benjamin was talking about. Tolstoy's mother had given birth to him on this couch. She died when he was nearly two years old. Most of his thirteen children--five of whom died in childhood--were born on it, too. Was it not possible that one day he might lie on that same piece of furniture, and die there? It would be hard to write in such a study while oblivious of death as a life rhythm, of life as a death cycle.

A fair amount of contemporary prose seems to have been written by people who, like Tolstoy's Ivan Ilyich, refuse to accept that they will die; there is a puerile or evasive quality in many new novels (not to mention movies), especially in America, where infinite information promises to outlive us, and dazzle down the terminality of existence. Are there serious contemporary writers who remind us of our mortality? The forty-three-year-old Norwegian novelist Karl Ove Knausgaard is certainly one. His long, intense, and vital book "My Struggle" (Archipelago; translated by Don Bartlett) is so powerfully alive to death that it sometimes seems a kind of huge, ramshackle annex to Benjamin's brief thesis.

"My Struggle" is not really a novel but the first book of a six-volume autobiography that is now notorious in Knausgaard's native country. The Hitlerian title ("Min Kamp," in Norwegian) refers not only to the usual stations of the bildungsroman but also to two fierce battles. One is with the author's father, a morose and distant schoolteacher who left the family when Knausgaard was a teen-ager, and then drank himself to death. The more pervasive struggle is with death itself, in which writing is both weapon and battlefield. Writing promises to rescue moments from the march of time, but serious writing also lays bare, examines, dramatizes--and, in this sense, seems to prolong--that death journey.

Early in "My Struggle" (which was published in Norwegian in 2009), Knausgaard introduces his immediate context: it is March, 2008, just after eight in the morning, and the Norwegian novelist sits at his desk in his Stockholm apartment, "listening to the Swedish band Dungen and thinking about what I have written." This narrator (named Karl Ove Knausgaard and, apparently, indistinguishable from the real-life author) is in his late thirties, married with three children; he has just dropped two of them off at their nursery. He refers to a previous marriage, and to "that uncontrollable, unproductive, often degrading, and ultimately destructive space where I lived for so many years." When he came to Stockholm from Norway, he spent, at first, a lot of time thinking about this troubled past, "which meant that I not only read Marcel Proust's novel A la recherche du temps perdu but virtually imbibed it." Now, however, that destructive time is hardly ever in his thoughts. He writes, "I believe the main reason for that is our children, since life with them in the here and now occupies all the space," and goes on:

For, while previously I saw time as a stretch of terrain that had to be covered, with the future as a distant prospect, hopefully a bright one, and never boring at any rate, now it is interwoven with our life here and in a totally different way. Were I to portray this with a visual image it would have to be that of a boat in a lock: life is slowly and ineluctably raised by time seeping in from all sides. …

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