On Karl Ove Knausgaard’s “My Struggle”

Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard’s has written a six-volume autobiography called My Struggle, the first part of which was published in 2009 in Norwegian, with the first three books published in English translation in the past several years. The first book received a glowing review in The New Yorker and books two and three were likewise praised in The New York Times.

All these reviews have noted the minute detail with which the author chronicles his everyday life, and in the Times’ review of book three, Rivka Galchen raises the issue of gender:

If “My Struggle” — which is arguably most engrossing when it describes the care of children in what feels like minute-to-minute detail — were written from the point of view of a woman, would it be the literary sensation it is?

She answers “I don’t think it would be,” but for her, the more important gender difference is actually part of the story itself:

That cultural norms are obtuse about men and women in such different ways is an essential part of Knausgaard’s predicament; he changes diapers, he cooks dinner, he is said to be pretty good-looking, he doesn’t talk about sex all that much — he often feels perceived as too feminine.

In contrast, Katie Roiphe’s commentary, published yesterday in Slate, takes the view that the cultural discrimination outside the book does matter. She, too, wonders

what would happen if the literary sensation were written not by the handsome Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard but by Carla Olivia Krauss of Cobble Hill, Brooklyn.

Her answer is that readers and critics would find the author “narcissistic, well-traveled, self-indulgent.” But, refreshingly, she doesn’t use this as an excuse to reject Knausgaard’s work, in part because it’s more complicated than a simple male-female divide:

I am not trying to make the point that male readers and critics would dismiss Carla, which they would, but that female readers and critics would as well. I mention this because of the enduring fantasy of a shadowy male literary establishment that discriminates against women writers, when in fact the discrimination is much trickier and more pervasive than that.

Well, I would hardly call the male literary establishment shadowy; it is, in fact, rather blatant, but Roiphe’s point that both men and women enact discrimination against women is also valid. Read her full commentary here.

The key point is that debates like these inspire me to read Knausgaard’s work––and to encourage the Carla Krausses of the world.

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Death and Stories

If Ben Franklin is right that death and taxes are all that’s certain, our time in this world is pretty much defined by uncertainty. And if you’re seriously ill, like Paul Kalanithi, a neurosurgeon who wrote a lovely piece for Sunday’s NY Times about his fight against cancer, the uncertainty of knowing how much time you’ve got left takes on an entirely new level of intensity.

Skilled at offering hope to terminally ill people while being careful not to predict how long they might live, Kalanithi suddenly found himself in the same maddening position as his patients. At first, he persisted in trying to get his oncologist to tell him how much time he might have – of course to no avail.

But eventually he realized something important:

I began to realize that coming face to face with my own mortality, in a sense, had changed both nothing and everything. Before my cancer was diagnosed, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. After the diagnosis, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. But now I knew it acutely. The problem wasn’t really a scientific one.

He began to understand that when patients become obsessed with how much time they have left, they are not really asking about how much time they have left:

What patients seek is not scientific knowledge doctors hide, but existential authenticity each must find on her own. Getting too deep into statistics is like trying to quench a thirst with salty water. The angst of facing mortality has no remedy in probability.

Science has helped to keep Kalanithi alive for a bit longer, but it had no power to help him through what was arguably his real crisis: a heightened and crippling uncertainty. For that, he needed Samuel Beckett:

I remember the moment when my overwhelming uneasiness yielded. Seven words from Samuel Beckett, a writer I’ve not even read that well, learned long ago as an undergraduate, began to repeat in my head, and the seemingly impassable sea of uncertainty parted.

What are the seven words? Read the full piece here to find out.

And then go read Samuel Beckett. Or whatever writer helps you grapple with the uncertainty that – unlike death and taxes – actually defines our lives.

Jeanette Winterson on Oscar Wilde’s Fairy Tales

Oh how I love Jeanette Winterson and most everything she writes. Along with her stunning novels and her ingenious 2011 memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal, she writes great reviews that are both brilliant and warm. Read her latest in the Guardian on Oscar Wilde’s book of fairy tales, The Selfish Giant and Other Stories.

What I love about this review is how she explains – and understands the need to explain in our current age of science-worship – the value of fairy tales and fiction in general:

Reason and logic are tools for understanding the world. We need a means for understanding ourselves, too. That is what imagination allows. When a child reads of a Nightingale who bleeds her song into a rose for love’s sake, or of a Selfish Giant who puts a wall round life, or of a Fisherman who wants to be rid of his Soul, or of a statue who feels the suffering of the world more keenly than the Mathematics Master who scoffs at his pupils for dreaming about Angels, the child knows at once both the mystery and truth of such stories…As explanations of the world, fairy stories tell us what science and philosophy cannot and need not. There are different ways of knowing.

Read the full review. Read Winterson’s stories. Read Oscar Wilde.