As fate would have it, I was exposed Wednesday evening to a reading by a professional writer, Karl Ove Knausgaard, the Norwegian whose six-volume autobiography (translated by Don Bartlett) has received a storm of approval and sold thousands of copies.
The Lensic Theatre here in Santa Fe was packed when the tightly-suited author walked onto the stage. Reading from one of his volumes, he shifted from foot to foot, never raising his face from the text; along with his accent, this made his forty-minute reading almost unintelligible.
His excuse seems to be that he is shy, although after the reading, as he signed hundreds of copies of his books for sale, he didn’t seem shy at all.
As I see it, shyness is no excuse for a wretched performance that left a lot of the audience shifting in their seats—especially the row of teenage boys in front of me, one of whom was in the throes of a passionate attachment to the boy next to him, a good deal more interesting to observe than the mumbling, pacing author on stage.
I haven’t read Knausgaard’s six volumes, and I am not inclined to; an autobiography extending to this length makes me suspicious. What author is interesting enough to write six volumes about his admittedly humdrum middle-class life?
Many clues dangled. Why did Knausgaard choose My Struggle for his title when this is the subtitle of Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf? Is ignorance enough of an excuse?
Why does he give no credit, in his reading, to the labor of his translator?
And since he is asking, it seems to me, for praise for his stay-at-home dad responsibilities for his four children, while his wife works, who is she and why do we know nothing about her?
Worst of all, from my point of view, is his claim that he is burdened by guilt (perhaps part of a dark country inheritance) and must prod himself to write about incidents in his life others consider shameful.
Well, maybe he does this somewhere, but in the selection he read, a long account of looking through art books for a naked woman to inspire his masturbation stops discreetly before the act itself.
And can any writer, these days, get away with objectifying naked women in this fashion, even using the excuse that art and daily life (or at least erotic fantasies) are now combined?
What are we to make of the phenomenal success of this endlessly self-indulgent series of books?
Perhaps we are now at a point where readers want series; it all began, I think, with Henry Potter and has gone on with “Game of Thrones.”
Reading a series does save the reader from having to choose a new book by another author. You just work your way through the whole bunch, the way you might work your way through a box of breakfast cereal.
Women writers took the challenge years ago—along with some men—to write about daily life rather than heroic adventures, but few of us would have dared to call these domestic accounts My Struggle, when the struggle seems to be mainly with self-absorption.And since all writers, good, bad and indifferent, are so soon forgotten, it is worth mentioning a great forgotten writer I found recently through an introduction from my son Chris: John Williams.
His Butcher’s Crossing is a novel that expands and redefines what a Western can be, and his brilliant Stoner (unfortunate title) expands and redefines what a novel about academic life can be.
Both went out of print; Butcher’s Crossing was recently reissued by the admirable New York Review of Books. Only one other Williams’ title, Augustus, is still available.
He won no prizes, received no awards, and may have published only a few thousand copies of each book during his lifetime, making his living for thirty years as a teacher in the Creative Writing Program, which he founded, at the University of Denver. I would love to know what he thought of the professional writer.
In the last sentences of Williams’ Stoner, William Stoner, who has devoted his life to teaching and has been tripped up all along by academic feuds and a miserable wife, is dying alone.
Holding his only published book, now long forgotten, “The fingers loosened, and the book they held moved slowly and then swiftly across the still body and fell into the silence of the room.”
As all our books will fall. But what a contrast: a novel about the struggles the individual always faces in an engaged life, complete at 278 pages—and not part of a series. A novel based on a lived life but moving beyond autobiography into art.
[For more on John Williams, please see my post, Wild West Women.]
[This post was originally mistakenly titled ‘Great Authorities’ – the name has now been corrected.]