June 2015: My Reading

“…by writing about himself, Knausgaard has really written about them, that reading ‘My Struggle’ is like opening someone else’s diary and finding your own secrets.”      

                                                                       (Evan Hughes writing in The New Republic)

The Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard, born in that most seminal of years, 1968, has featured in my reading and life this month. Readers of this blog would know that his autobiographical cycle of six books, of which only four are currently translated into English, are controversially titled, Min Kampf, in Norwegian but as one would expect are not published with that title in Germany.

I read Book 3: Boyhood Island and carried straight on to Book 4: Dancing in the Dark having finished the first two books of My Struggle, which is usually described as autobiographical fiction, in 2014.  All four books make for compulsive reading and reflection about all manner of things. Funnily enough, one does not really learn much about Norway or the Norwegians. Knausgaard feels completely international. 

The passages that explore music and books are particularly interesting. I always like it when a writer reflects on what he reads or has read; I really must read Knut Hamsun’s Pan. Knausgaard is a month younger than me, so international popular and literary culture makes it easy to relate to his tastes. Who’d have guessed that an Australian band, like The Church, would loom so large in his musical tastes? I laughed aloud when he talked about a flabby Jim Kerr, from Simple Minds, refusing to play on until the fan who pinched his hat gave it back. Not very rock that. The young Knausgaard pens highly opinionated album reviews and I wish, like Nick Hornby or Brett Easton Ellis, he’d include more of this in his writing.

Reading Knausgaard must propel most readers into their own half-forgotten past. I imagine males find this particularly true of Book 3: Boyhood Island and Book 4: Dancing in the Dark revisiting those earliest years of life where memories are especially vivid and, in some cases, painful. Knausgaard manages to capture young Karl Ove’s, often gormless, viewpoints about those who people his life and himself. So often, he cannot see what is really happening or indeed, lacks self-awareness, especially of his own selfishness. When the penny drops it is often very painful. One is often led to remember the personal, salient and the somewhat less significant events too, from childhood while reading.

Knausgaard’s stated intention was to write in plain language, honest, simple and direct, without literary pretension. He captures boyhood and growing-up in an endlessly readable way. One does wonder about the translation by Don Bartlett and it is always hard to know and one tends to rely on the opinions of others as to how faithfully the work has been rendered from another language to English. I have read some criticism of Knausgaard’s tendency to sloppy writing or falling into cliché, especially in Book 3. The POV is of a young boy, so some argument could be made that it is to do with the simple characterisation or worldview but the interesting letter below suggests that the translation is sometimes limited.

 

Screen Shot 2015-06-13 at 9.07.25 pmSource: http://www.lrb.co.uk/v36/n10/ben-lerner/each-cornflake

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Here is an interview with Don Bartlett, the translator, that may interest.

It seems obvious to muse on how much, in the way of notes, diaries and stories that Knausgaard had to plunder when he commenced writing these novels. In Book Four, Karl Ove commences writing short stories while working in a school in the north of Norway and the reader recognises material from Book Three. One of the strengths of these two books is that he captures the worldview he held in these early years of life which is quite different to the adult POV of the first two books. Surely that cannot have just been memory and imagination? I’d like to know more about what Knausgaard had already written which he re-worked or found instructive, especially in understanding his own ways of seeing, at an early age. It seems to me he must have had extensive notes or journals.

I have commenced re-reading the first two books, now I know a little more about Knausgaard’s youngest years, in preparation for the publication, in English, of My Struggle: Books Five and Six. It is interesting to contrast the style of the first two books, written before the storm of publicity broke, with the subsequent two. Journalists were tracking down his family and friends as his surname is uncommon in Norway and this cramped Knausgaard’s ability to be as trenchant. Knausgaard, according to some Norwegian reviews, returns to form for Book Six, which looks very interesting as he writes about that other author to write about their struggle – Adolph Hitler! Now I think about it, some of the multimedia display that I saw at Bergen University last year, was Knausgaard reading from Book Six about the challenges to Norwegian notions of democracy caused by the massacre perpetrated by Anders Breivik. Here’s two stills from the reading:


flickr photo shared by Darcy Moore under a Creative Commons ( BY-NC-SA ) license


flickr photo shared by Darcy Moore under a Creative Commons ( BY-NC-SA ) license

The Lake District

I have a pile of books that are loosely about nature, walking, literature and travel to read but doubt I will enjoy many of them as much as this story about a shepherd, his life and musings about place and family. A Shepherd’s Life: A Tale of the Lake District by James Rebanks is a truly wonderful read and certainly has given me greater insight into the culture of the land so many walkers love, unaware of the traditions that have shaped the landscape, in Cumbria and surrounds.

Rebanks writes about a range of subjects that interested, especially if familiar with The Lake District. His musings about the poets and writers who have shaped the imaginations of tourists and travellers over the centuries are really thoughtful. He also talks about class, Beatrix Potter and the professional relationship with she had with her own shepherd (their letters have been published).

It seems like an unlikely book to recommend to educators but there are some insights to be gained that translate well beyond the school the author attended in the North of England. Rebanks describes his alienation from a school that had no respect for anyone who would plan to stay and work locally rather than move away to university. Interestingly, Rebanks does just that as an adult when he studies at night and eventually gains a university education. There’s some great passages musing about the nature of schooling, teaching and respect that are really worth reading.

His twitter account is worth following, if you like this kind of thing:

The North Sea

Barry Cunliffe opened my eyes to the trade and travel along the Atlantic seaboard in the period prior to 800 BC and I am super keen to read his latest book: By Steppe, the Deserts and the Ocean (October 2015). In the meantime, The Edge of the World: How the North Sea Made Us What We Are by Michael Pye is a very satisfying read focusing on the post-Roman period. Pye regales the reader with story after fascinating story that helps us to see this period in a different light. In many ways, he describes what could be effectively viewed as a period of modernisation rather than a ‘dark age’. Pye specifically explores how trade led to common understandings and cultures for money; the books; fashion; written law; science; and, the growth of cities.

Silver worked: small, thick silver coins that were often minted locally. The Frisians minted them with the old god Wotan on one side, with spiked hair, a drooping moustache and eyes that stare out like goggles; and on the other side a serpentine kind of monster with clawed feet and a high tail. The Anglo-Saxons in England imitated the Frisians, and put a creature like a porcupine on their silver, or sometimes a king.

The first I really knew of the Frisians was via Melvyn Bragg’s, The Adventure of EnglishOf course, I had some sketchy understanding that the Frisian language was the oldest spoken antecedent of Old English but Pye has really fleshed out these people in a number of other important ways. He suggests that as Rome declined, the Frisians became an important link for the North Sea communities. These people are briefly mentioned in Tacitus and The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle notes that the Frisians had a distinctively boat-building style that was clearly different to the Danish longship. Pye says Frisian means ‘merchant’. These people ‘reinvented’ money and were key in controlling the ports where trade routes flourished, often using the old Roman roads.

Fashion may have a longer, stranger history than we thought. The great sagas from Iceland have everything you expect: heroes, killings, dragons, feuds, great voyages and great horrors; they also have something less likely, they have dandies.

The chapters on the book trade and fashion are particularly interesting. The importance of the written word led to ‘significant libraries libraries in England’ by the 7th Century CE. The beautiful, rare and expensive books were a currency in themselves and often, when lent, travelled much further afield than expected. Originally transcribed in Gaul, the Irish scribes taught the Anglo-Saxon ones their trade and a burgeoning industry developed.

I knew much of what was in the chapter on the book trade already but the quotes and excerpts regarding fashion were an eye-opener. I knew that cloth was a currency but the importance of fashion in both confirming and undermining status and social hierarchies was fascinating. I was surprised, considering it all, that books on fashion did not really exist until the sixteenth century. Pye does range across the centuries, often from sentence to sentence, and his commentary about fashion may have benefitted from a less rangy approach. This is not a real issue though, especially when there’s such a cavalcade of historical characters to be enjoyed. Philip Stubbes, ‘a professional moralist’, who was greatly concerned at the importance of fashion to all classes and he mocked the ‘great and monstrous Ruffs’ that ringed Elizabethan necks, would have read that tome with disgust, no doubt. Stubbes was the crustiest of conservatives and his concerns have been echoed ever-since. “He made choice seem like sin”.

“The inhabitants of England go bravely in apparel changing fashions for every day for no cause so much as to delight the eyes of their whorish mates withall, and to inamour the minds of their fleshly paramours.”

Pye’s bibliography is impressively extensive, as is his thesis, that too much regard has been paid to our Roman heritage rather than the cultures that flourished around the North Sea. I should acknowledge that I enjoyed a perceived weaknesses in his thesis, that is, the scant regard he pays to Roman christianity and the influence it wielded in the formation of Western Europe. I thought that quite refreshing!

What have you been reading?

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