Update: James LeyWeek in Review

Knausgaard and Breivik

The Secret Garden
Alexia Sinclair, The Secret Garden, photomedia tableaux, 1000 x 1000 mm; 1500 x 1500 mm, From: Rococo, courtesy Black Eye Gallery

Next week, the fourth book in Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six volume series My Struggle will be published in English translation. Titled Dancing in the Dark, it focuses on Knausgaard’s teenage years. For those (like me) who have been following the autobiographical series with interest, the new book is another substantial piece of the vast, contradictory, intriguing, solipsistic puzzle that is My Struggle, a work that has received far more attention for its transparent basis in autobiography and its patience-testing depictions of mundane domesticity than it has for the aspect that, in my view, makes it genuinely compelling – that is, its ambitious attempt to establish a connection between Knausgaard’s commonplace experiences and the grand philosophical and ideological currents of modernity, and in doing so to arrive at some kind of intimate understanding of the violent history that has been generated by those ideas.

For chronically impatient Knausgaardians, the New York Times Magazine has just published a long Knausgaard essay titled ‘My Saga’ , in which he describes his travels through America. The latest issue of the Paris Review  has also marked the English-language publication of Dancing in the Dark with a special feature, which includes an extract from the book and an interview with Knausgaard by the New Yorker’s literary critic James Wood (both behind the paywall, alas). The interview has its moments, not least Knausgaard’s remark that the only section of My Struggle’s 3600-odd pages he considers well-written is the first five pages of volume one. (There are those who would agree, but while there is certainly some loose writing in My Struggle, I think he is perhaps being a little hard on himself there.)

The more significant inclusion in the Paris Review, however, is the short essay tucked away at the back titled ‘Letter from Österlen’. It would be a stretch to say that this elegant fragment, which has been translated by Seán Kinsella rather than My Struggle’s translator Don Bartlett, might serve as an adequate substitute for readers who are perhaps interested in Knausgaard, but baulk at the thought of six hefty volumes. Yet the essay does give an excellent sense of the tenor and reach of his thinking. Presented in diary form as a series of personal reflections, it moves from a meditation on a passage in Dante’s Divine Comedy to consider the notion of individuality and the existential loneliness that is its inevitable corollary.

Knausgaard stated in an earlier Paris Review interview that the My Struggle series culminates in a long essay that discusses, among other subjects, Adolf Hitler and Paul Celan, and which is framed by the massacre committed by Anders Breivik, which took place on 22 July 2011 while Knausgaard was writing the final volume. So it is timely that the publication of Dancing in the Dark should coincide with the release of an extensively researched and utterly riveting account of Breivik’s crime. Åsne Seierstad’s One of Us: The Story of Anders Breivik and the Massacre in Norway, which will be published in Australia in March by Virago Press, is a detailed retelling of Breivik’s life from his childhood though to his trial and conviction, interspersed with accounts of the lives of several of his victims. The centrepiece of the book is Seierstad’s meticulous reconstruction of the horrifying events of 22 July 2011, moment by moment.

Near the end of One of Us, Seierstad notes that not only did Breivik’s crime turn everyone in Norway into amateur psychologists, the interpretations of his mental state tended to divide neatly along ideological lines:

People on the left were overrepresented among those who saw him as a right-wing extremist terrorist. He had tapped into contemporary trends, and these ideologies and ideologues had to be crushed by debate. In other words, he was of sound mind. The further to the right you looked, the more likely you were to find people who thought him insane. That he could not be taken seriously and was an irrelevance.

It is one of the virtues of Seierstad’s book that it makes no overt attempt to push either thesis, but simply leads us through the known facts of Breivik’s social and intellectual development, setting out, as far as possible, what he thought and where his ideas came from, while deferring to the (often conflicting) opinions of professional counsellors and psychologists when it comes to the delicate question of his mental condition. As a result, it becomes clear that Breivik was clearly not insane or disturbed in the common meanings of those terms, but that he was, at the same time, not a well-adjusted person. From a very young age, he was a psychologically puzzling case: an insular, socially detached boy prone to inappropriate and alienating fits of aggrandising behaviour. And yet his motivation was no less clearly ideological. His laboriously planned massacre was conceived not only after he had spent five years holed-up in his mother’s flat playing online war games, but after he had disappeared down an internet rabbit-hole of far-right lunacy, absorbing its romanticised militarism, its anti-Islamic paranoia, its crackpot historical theories, its violently intemperate rhetoric about ‘cultural Marxists’, feminists, and other left-wing villains who are supposedly to blame for a declining (always declining) Western Civilisation. One of Us is thus a sober but quite remarkable account of a susceptible psyche, isolated from everyday society, gradually detaching itself from reality, mistaking a jumble of nasty prejudices, resentments and frankly tendentious nonsense for a rational world-view, until the ideology and the isolation combine to displace any sense of humanity.

In his ‘Letter from Österlen’, Knausgaard observes:

Dante wrote that the individual variations in human reason are so great that each person appears almost to constitute a species for himself. He wrote that nobody could understand another human by reference to his own actions or emotions, the way animals can. God, therefore, endowed mankind with language, because we were the only creatures who needed it.

There are few events that would seem to demonstrate this point as effectively as an atrocity such as Breivik’s, which, by virtue of its extremity, seems to resist explanation, to retain an inscrutable core, at the same time as it urgently demands a comprehensive explanation, demands a language that might make such an explanation possible. Even if that explanation must ultimately prove elusive, we can be grateful to both Knausgaard and Seierstad for their efforts in edging us that little bit closer to something like comprehension.

Sydney Review of Books this week features an essay from one of our regular contributors, Martin Edmond, and another from a first-timer, Mieke Chew. In ‘Neo-frivolous’ , Chew looks at Journey by Moonlight by Antal Szerb, the most celebrated novel by one of the greatest Hungarian writers of the twentieth century, which was recently reissued as part of the New York Review of Books’ classics series. Szerb was an ironist who wrote books in many genres, but in Journey by Moonlight he crafted a novel with its own unique atmosphere and sense of narrative playfulness. It is also a work, argues Chew, with a powerful undercurrent of psycho-sexual intrigue – one that might be seen to demonstrate Georges Bataille’s thesis that there is something nostalgic about eroticism.

Martin Edmond’s ‘Ghosts of me’  is a review of A Bone of Fact, a memoir written by the irrepressible David Walsh, professional gambler and founder of Hobart’s Museum of Old and Modern Art (MOMA). Walsh is an unconventional character, to say the least, and his memoir – written, he claims, in the style of Kurt Vonnegut – reflects his peculiarity. A Bone of Fact, observes Edmond,

is really memoir as a form of self-portraiture and, David Walsh being who he is, not much is held back. He is garrulous, sardonic, impudent, without shame and without inhibitions; but he also has a vein of kindness to his person that makes the encounter with him ultimately worthwhile.

From the Archives this week examines two of the last century’s great Australian writers. In her essay ‘For Love and Hunger’,  Fiona Wright delves into Christina Stead’s For Love Alone and develops a powerful personalised reading of the novel based around its recurring motifs of eating and hunger. Our second selection is ‘No success like failure’ , Peter Pierce’s look back at an underrated classic of Australian literature, Kenneth MacKenzie’s The Young Desire It.