Performance Issues

Premature ejaculation is this novel’s main concern. At a set of increasingly fraught junctures the young novelist-to-be is stricken by an inability to give a full account of himself. The young Karl-Ove is precocious in all the wrong places.

There are connections between the particular character of Karl-Ove’s performance issues and the manner in which they are described, which is the same manner used to describe the whole wealth of enumerated life experiences that surround them and make up the substance of Karl-Ove Knausgaard’s celebrated ‘My Struggle’ series. Knausgaard’s style, too, could be accurately characterized by the hyperbolic peremptoriness of its disclosures, by how mortifyingly cut off it is from any possibility of self-aggrandizement or embellishment: it is honest, upfront, often brutally so. And the indecorous immediacy of Knausgaard’s disclosures, in both sexual and literary arenas, is almost wholly self-imposed, albeit to varying degrees of conscious intent.

This particular essay isn’t overly concerned with young Karl-Ove’s sexual performance issues, but a late stage admission puts their self-imposed character beyond all doubt:

The fact was I had never masturbated. Had never wanked. Had never even played with myself. I was eighteen years old now and it had never happened. Not once. I hadn’t even tried… Somewhere I knew that my situation with regard to girls, or Irene, as she was the one in question now, would improve dramatically if I just started masturbating. Nevertheless, I didn’t. Even though I knew this, at the same time I didn’t, wanking belonged to the unthinkable. [392]

For similar admissions concerning the self-imposed character of Knausgaard’s stylistic inadequacies we can turn towards an interview with James Woods conducted to mark the publishing of Book 3:

The whole time I was writing these six books I felt, This is not good writing. What’s good, I think, is the opening five pages of Book One, the reflection on death… I needed one place in the book where the writing was good. I spent weeks and weeks on that passage, and I think it’s modernist, high-quality prose. The rest of the book is not to my standard. [Laughter from audience] I’m not saying this as a joke. This is true.

A fascinating admission. Such intentional self-abasement is only to be found in the service of some higher principle. A principle that must be worthy of even higher praise than ‘modernist, high-quality prose’! And praised it is: ‘Knausgaard is intense and utterly honest’ (New Yorker); ‘A living hero who landed on greatness by abandoning every typical literary feint’ (Jonathan Lethem); ‘a passionate writer prepared to take… risks, to try to show his face as it is, rather than as he wishes it were’ (Hari Kunzru). Rarely is a chorus convened to celebrate such an ordinary trait as ‘honesty’ on the flyleaf of a novel; is it not as absurd as celebrating a writer’s ‘niceness’ or ‘friendliness’? But Knausgaard has succeeded in transforming Honesty into a literary quality, or something that can at least be praised as such.

He did it by writing at speed, which, it is evident in his interviews, is a euphemism for conducting a sustained assault on reflexivity,

When I wrote my first novel—I was nineteen—I did it very quickly. If you write fast, you feel like you’re entering … a world rather than thoughts about the world… I spent six years after my first novel and five years after my second without getting into a new book. That was what I was longing for [when writing ‘My Struggle’], just to write at full speed. Book 1 was written slowly, in something like eight months. I spent oceans of time on the opening pages—the sentences were written and rewritten—but the rest of the sentences were written just once. Book 5 was written in eight weeks.

Out of speed-writing and the rejection of revision Knausgaard was able to fashion two blunt, makeshift instruments with which to perform a partial lobotomy on himself, using them to de-bug his prose-producing mechanisms of any habitual tendencies towards composition, mediation or analysis. The resulting prose is Honest, that is, courageously un-insightful (un-insightful like all of us, all of the time, except when we’re making an effort, which is often when we’re writing). ‘I loved mist and what it did to the world around us’- this is what I mean by courageously un-insightful prose; I imagine it was very difficult to write, or to leave in a state so under-written… ‘the desire for simplicity, which also is the desire for religion, as against the act of writing.

Philosophical Interlude

‘If you write fast, you feel like you’re entering … a world rather than thoughts about the world.’ Knausgaard’s Honesty entails a certain mode of approaching experience that can be epistemologically unpacked (if your will to overcomplicate and altogether derail your already shaky analysis is sufficiently intense, as mine assuredly is). The precondition for writing honestly is deciding what parts of one’s experience one can be honest about, what parts one can talk about without lying (these should not be confused with the parts one can talk about without being wrong). This decision has already been made countless times, including, in a canonical, precedent-setting instance, by Rene Descartes (as recounted here by Brandom):

The Cartesian strategy for realizing the concept of knowledge was to stake out a realm of genuine cognition unriven by any gap between appearance and reality, by restricting its objects to appearance itself. For while something could appear red and not really be red, it could not appear to appear red and not really appear red. For this restricted realm of certainty as both subject and sole object of knowledge, whatever appears to be so is so. (456)

Knausgaard makes the decision to write about and within this ‘restricted realm of certainty’ and the flyleaf rewards him with gold stars for ‘abandoning every typical literary feint’, ‘show[ing] his face as it is, rather than as he wishes it were’ etc. ‘My Struggle’ is a catalogue of un-analysed responsive dispositions to the material and emotional minutiae of our contemporary world.

Appearance talk, as in ‘that appears (looks, seems) red,’ is explained as secure from error only because in saying that something looks red one expresses the same responsive disposition, but does not endorse the claim one is responsive disposed to make [that the apple is red]. (458)

Honesty is therefore a kind of intellectual fail-state (or what Brandom calls ‘a contraction strategy’), but it does have its benefits…

An Afternoon at the Ron Mueck Show

The room was large and the sculpture was not in the centre of it but slightly pushed back towards the far corner. There were two large, old people, unrealistically large but not unrealistically old, with their backs to the corner; they, along with the brightly coloured umbrella that partially sheltered them, were the elements that made up the sculpture. Apart from their unrealistic size they seemed to be honest reproductions of everyday people. The photocopied honesty, the everyday-ness, was an itch in the mind of their audience. It would’ve been easier to accept them in a different context, a natural history museum for example, next to the stuffed lions and the stuffed monkeys. Here, slightly pushed back towards the bare gallery’s far corner, their patent verisimilitude was unacceptable, it had to be hiding something, or saying something… were their hands oversized relative to their indisputably oversized bodies? Was their race significant – was it their whiteness that I had confused for their everyday-ness, their normality? Was it racist of me to even think that? (standard art gallery thought patterns) or Were they depictions of Nag and Nell from Beckett’s ‘Endgame’ in their pre-bucket heydays? All inquiries were met, neutralised, by one ubiquitous answer: hyperbolic surface detail, covering the whole sculpture, it was all over the people and their umbrella, there was so much that the audience’s anxiously enquiring eye couldn’t find a way around or though it, it met them at every angle, it was impenetrable. Overgrown toe-nails; cuticles; epidermis; downy old-person hair; rosacea; the soft relenting of an upper arm’s aged layer of fat under the pressure of a light grip that finds it reassuring; the button at the top of the umbrella pole that can be pressed in order to collapse its temporary canopy. A continuous notation of surface details was the only activity the sculpture seemed to be willing to offer its audience, other points of entry were innocuously blocked off or covered over; the couple’s gazes were distracted from their audience, difficult to locate. The audience manoeuvred, craned, bent in search of the people’s eyelines. The sculpture was missing that self-consciously outward-facing, assertively blank gaze pasted across the faces of other such objects (Michelangelo’s ‘David’ is the one I have in mind). Trying to find it was like straining one’s ears to overhear an old couple’s softly muttered conversation conducted in the shade afforded by a collapsible umbrella, conducted in the midst of the continuous roar of the sea and the shouts of children. Crouching low, at the right distance, I found it, the blank stare. A gap in the children’s screams, a lull in the seas tumult, I overhear the softly muttered words:

‘I loved mist and what it did to the world around us.’

Safe Space

Hyperrealism is the rhetorical strategy of an Honesty that is self-consciously distinct from Sincerity*; by constantly drawing attention to its own superficiality it aims to leave its audience in no confusion concerning the distinction between not-lying (Honesty) and saying-what-you-mean (Sincerity). It is a deeply Ironic Realism, the only form of Realism that could exist on the other side of Realism’s ideological deconstruction. In his interviews Knausgaard is at pains to make this clear:

There is a certain irony in this book. Not many people have paid attention to it—but there is a difference between the self who writes and the self who is written about. I’m very well aware of the fact that women are objects in the book, because that’s how it is for me, and I wanted to show that. I’m aware of me doing it. 

Which, translated into Brandom, means:

Appearance talk, as in [that women appears to me as a purely sexual object, ‘that’s how it is for me’], is explained as secure from error only because in saying that [this woman appears to be a object] one expresses the same responsive disposition, but does not endorse the claim one is responsive disposed to make [that the woman is an object]. (458)

The Hyperrealist amassing of surface detail, of superficiality, of banality creates a rhetorical safe-space, a bubble protected from ideological critique, in which Knausgaard is able to represent the responsive disposition to think of women as objects, while refusing to claim that they actually are. This is a way of avoiding responsibility for the things one writes. The Hyperrealist sticks to appearances but wouldn’t have us actually believe in them. The Hyperrealist sticks to appearances precisely because no-one believes in them.

Artificial Stupidity

In the year 2048 a news team was dispatched to an island off the coast of Kristiansand where it was rumoured that Karl-Ove Knausgaard, once author of the internationally acclaimed ‘My Struggle’ series (which had since been consigned to the status of a historical curiosity), now resided as a recluse. They found him making his lingering and haphazard way across the rocky shoreline of one of the coves through whose waters he swam as a child. Catching up to him with difficulty, their calls ignored or lost in the sea noise, they requested an interview. To their surprise, he didn’t require persuading, but immediately agreed on the condition that it be conducted right where they stood, telling them ‘you wouldn’t like my home, it wouldn’t be suitable, it’s a disgrace.’ In the film footage he can be seen wearing a raincoat and a light blue beanie, his hair falls below his shoulders, strands catch and flick up in the wind as he talks. His expression is intense, but never directed at the interviewer or the camera, the thinking can be seen happening in his eyes, as they move and fix on the surroundings and in the distance. The overall impression is not that of a composed man.

Interviewer: After the international literary smash that was ‘My Struggle’ you’ve gone into hiding, you haven’t written a novel in 20 years, why is that?

Knausgaard: Ok, first of all let me explain something to you about the world now. Nothing just simply is what it is anymore, nothing is just left alone. Instead of a world of objects we are placed in a world of theories about objects. Everything is muddled up in everything else, by showing one preference or inclination we’re forced to acknowledge all these other consequential commitments, we’re made complicit in all these other issues that we didn’t even know about when .. uh.. when we originally showed that preference. You can’t just enjoy something or find satisfaction in a simple observation anymore, you have to argue for it. Writing a novel in these conditions is simply impossible.

Interviewer: Could you explain a bit more why you think that is?

Knausgaard: I’ve tried, and it is, it’s impossible. The novel is dead, everyone’s too clever for them now. As a species we have apparently transcended the need for novels, they’re inefficient concept-delivery mechanisms, apparently… And it’s about to get worse, we’re on the verge of becoming even cleverer, Artificial Intelligence within the next 5 years says the news…

Interviewer: What do you think about the coming Artificial Intelligence?

Knausgaard: Not much, I’m not qualified to answer such a question.. All I know is that the more intelligent we get the more ashamed we’ll be, it will become impossible to act, in fact, if we still want to express ourselves and venture ourselves in the future then we’re going to need a healthy dose of Artificial Stupidity! Let’s create a machine capable of producing Artificial Stupidity, then we can talk about the future of the novel.. (he pauses) We were that machine! At our best moments, when we act and imagine, we still are! If we want to be in the future, we’re going to need help, we’re going to need to shelter ourselves from the hail of our own judgement… A long time ago in an interview I said something along the lines of

We are told, This is wrong, that is wrong, you shouldn’t think this way. But the difference interests me a lot—the difference between what you should do and what you really do.

Now – these days – it seems to me that the difference has disappeared, or that we’re getting really good at pretending it has.

Novelist David Markson comments bewilderedly on the Internet: ‘How can people survive in that first draft world?’

This distinction is powerfully presented in Peter Wolfendale’s blog: ‘Sincerity vs Honesty’