Wednesday, 28 October 2015

A Death In The Family: My Struggle Volume 1 by Karl Ove Knausgaard

Both inspiring and distracting me
from my own novel...
I sit here, wearing my limited edition Knausgaard t-shirt, immensely grateful to the kind people at Vintage Books for their surprising gift of the first four novels (and aforementioned t-shirt) simply as a result of being able to post a comment on their YouTube Vlog. There may have been a hidden agenda, considering I'm a book blogger (What, interrobang, a book blogger, interrobang and so on...) but I prefer to believe they picked me at random. Because I'm ace. 

Nonetheless, I had no idea what to expect of these books. I did do a little reading, and found lots of very interesting articles about Karl Ove Knausgaard, including this entertaining one in the Wall Street Journal. But in all honesty, nothing prepared me for reading them, and I can see why they cause controversy and consternation wherever they are translated (which is pretty much everywhere).

First off, being intelligent and perspicacious readers as I trust you all to be, you will no doubt have spotted the whole Godwin's Law thing going on, what with the title (in Norwegian and in translation) being a whole lot like that of another book of controversial fiction. You may rest assured however that the similarities begin and end there. The controversy arises from the raw, shameless writing, the unfettered descriptions of a perfidious man (and boy), and of everything that he experiences (that he can remember for he often is at odds with his memory). In book two, his editor, Geir, is reported to say that he was deeply moved by Knausgaard's description of sleeping with a thirteen year-old girl, that he could not believe that he would go so far as to take about such a thing openly. I think that, as a microcosm of the reaction to these books, is pretty much spot on. Not that Knausgaard goes around enjoying statutory rape–he denies in book two having said and performed this particular crime, despite writing about it–but rather that his perceived honesty surpasses any boundaries set by contemporaries or antecedents. Indeed, his form, whilst on the surface is simple, a first person narrator telling of his childhood and youth, his family life, growing up with a father both he and his brother hated, his father's death, his mother's casual distance, his drinking, his inner life, his excesses and restraint, his shame and fear and pretty much everything else, it is a revelation, a freeing of the writer from the constraints of form, which is probably why Vintage are unsure whether this sits in biography or fiction. It is classified as fictive, but I believe only in so far as the narrative of a person's life is pretty much all fiction framed by experience. Of course, people are apt to pigeon-hole things. As such he has been dubbed the Scandinavian Proust.

Meh.

In a way, book one is the chronicle of why this book and the five that follow (only four have made it into English thus far) came about. In it, he talks without censure or censoring, of his childhood with a father who wasn't very nice to him. His father was a teacher, and became a severe alcoholic in later life once he and Knausgaard's mother split up. Karl Ove and brother Yngve lived in fear of him, and yet when he dies, Knausgaard is overwhelmed and completely bewildered by his grief. In the WSJ article he mentions that his father retreated into a bottle in order to be able to deal with his world. He himself decided he had to write instead, that this was his way of coping. And, as a man given to the odd football analogy, I might have to compare his writing to the football philosophy of Jurgen Klopp - it's heavy metal writing, not pretty tiki-taka wordsmithery. In fact, what emerges is multi-layered and massively entertaining: it's part essay: Knausgaard has some insightful and startling views on life, art, fear and death; part simple narrative, sometimes exhausting the reader with his recollections of each situation, each moment; and part stream of consciousness. I lost a good few hours to this book after deciding to read to the end of a passage or line of thought before going to get a cup of tea or heading off to bed (or indeed getting back to writing my own NaNoWriMo novel from which this book distracted me but in equal measure inspired me to continue). I simply devoured it. Knausgaard himself is unsparing with himself as a character too, and in places I found him distasteful, whining, obtuse, ridiculous, but so much like how I see myself that it was liberating–not that I compare myself to him, but rather that by reading of his honesty about his experiences I can see patterns in my own behaviour that I choose to ignore or dismiss, or simply don't understand.
This book, and the three that follow, and my ace t-shirt, were
kindly donated to me by the good people of Vintage Books.

Knausgaard says there is nothing new to be done in literature, but in disregarding trends, forms, the restrictions of taste, concerns about the peccadilloes of any potential audience, he has written a truly liberated novel, foundation-shaking, intense, vital, passionate and most thrillingly, a daring book, but by all accounts the world is lapping it up. It appeals to the common humanity in us all.

I cautioned a colleague, and would extend this to everyone, that if, like me, you have even the smallest suspicion of an addictive personality, steer clear of this first book, or else you can kiss goodbye to evenings, weekends, and relationships with things other than the next three books, and his other fiction (which I'm busy collecting, even risking a pre-Christmas Saturday in the city to pick up a copy of A Time For Everything). 

You have been warned.

Sunday, 18 October 2015

The Wrestling by Simon Garfield

"So he became a wrestler, like his mum."
I have a vague memory, nestling in there with various tableaux of my grandfather asleep in front of the cricket, the hardened red marbling of raspberry ripple ice-cream, and an insatiable childhood desire for the game Tank Command*, of grey-blue images on the television of fat men in leotards. This was 'The Wrestling', as both my maternal grandmother and paternal grandfather would tell me, and was another television programme that my parents frowned upon but had no power to stop me from watching. Which I didn't. Before the 24-hour news cycle and WWE Superstars, I was only ever interested in cartoons, and later football and Star Trek: The Next Generation. 'The Wrestling' was something weird and quaint and discomforting to watch, so I didn't. 

Turns out that many other people didn't watch it either, and in 1988 it was binned from ITV's World of Sport programme for good. 

However, it seems I've been at best callously indifferent and at worst wilfully disrespectful of what had been, for a time, the most popular entertainment** on TV, and, it also seems, a truly colourful cast of rogues, roustabouts and rapscallions who were left to wither and die in obscurity. 


Mr TV's inside story!
In all honesty, there would have been very little chance that I would have opened the pages of this book in anything other than mild curiosity about the author's surname (in case he was related to a childhood hero, Jim Davis' cat of the same name), but after a drunken conversation in the midst of a pub full of #RWC2015 fever, a colleague insisted I borrow and read this rather idiosyncratic oral history of this much maligned entertainment. So I became immersed in the stories collected by Garfield of the antics and grievances of family favourites like Mick McManus, Kendo Nagasaki, Joe D'Orazio and Jackie Pallo (although in the words of Robbie Brookside, "we won't give any messages to Jackie Pallo other than 'Die you old bastard.'"). Heels and heroes, grapplers and brawlers, they all consistently, if rather cholerically, insist that wrestling was a hard game, a true sport, and the fronts that should have crumbled twenty years before are still propped up with the vim and vigour of youth. It's amazing that this bunch of ageing, crippled 'athletes' could keep up the pretence that wrestling was anything but a sham, a sport on which you weren't even permitted to bet, especially after Pallo's kiss-n-tell behind the scenes expos√© blew the covers off. Or not. It's equally likely that after years of treading the same line, telling the same story, that these old geezers are no longer able to differentiate between fact and fiction. But that adds to the charm of it all, and contributes in no small measure to the pathos of Garfield's book. 

Packed with whimsy and nostalgia, old codgers limping and griping, road trips with Giant Haystacks, people mythologising Kendo Nagasaki and Les Kellett (a hard bastard, mean as anything, and rubbish at replying to letters), this is a very British book. with more than one or two particularly cracking lines. I feel disloyal to let Mr TV, Jackie Pallo have the last word, but it is a good 'un:
Mick [McManus] had that know-how: a great performer. Horrible bastard, but a great performer.
Edit: November 2015. I've just realised that the copy I read, borrowed from the aforementioned friend and purchased secondhand, was missing everything after page 196, meaning there's another sixty odd pages I've not read. However, I shall assume that nothing is very different in those last pages and no-one suddenly shoots to British Wrestling stardom and saves the sport. I'm sure I'd have heard about that.

*Which was awesome when I finally got it, but terrible when I realised it was a two-player game and that my brother would relentlessly cheat in order to win, or else refuse to play... 

**According to the wrestlers themselves, but then they are all irredeemable braggarts and liars.

Friday, 2 October 2015

Love And Obstacles by Aleksandar Hemon

"When he was young, like me, he said, he used to think that all the great writers knew something he didn't... He was burning to write, he wanted to break through to that fancy knowledge, he was hungry for it. But now he knew that that hunger was vainglorious; now he knew that writers knew nothing, really; most of them were just faking it. He knew nothing. There was nothing to know, nothing on the other side." – The Noble Truth of Suffering
There was nothing to know...
You know me and short stories–I shan't revisit old graves–but every now and again I find a collection, usually with one author, that simply blows me away. Something in them speaks to personae I didn't even know I hid behind. Something rips free the mask, the fiercely clutched identity, fake as you like, and exposes everything. Those authors I fall madly in love with, because I hate them. I detest that they can say things that are as yet unformed zygotes in the barren womb of my mind, not even the germ of a clumsy, badly phrased expression at the back of my raw, dry throat. Up to now, despite clues and suspicions to the contrary, I thought it was because they were 'great writers' and I was a simple hack. Now, when even thinly veiled biography such as this, and also Karl Ove Knausgaard, of whom much, much more to follow, lays bare the shared terror of creation, of freedom of expression, of working to no rule, I feel that I am simply at the bottom of a ladder, much climbed by those with a little more passion, a little more dedication than I, and that the answer for me might be on the next rung up, or the next, or the next, or on none of them, but that the goal of the climb is not to reach the top, but to  experience the climb. "There was no walker, no path, just the walking," says Pulitzer Prize-winning Buddhistish author Dick Macalister in The Noble Truths of Suffering.

Of course, all this aggrandised meandering is leading up to an expression of love for Aleksandar Hemon. He's an astounding writer, this Chicago-based Bosnian (and fan of Liverpool Football Club, dreamy sigh), and in his first-person narrated stories of just such a child, youth and man, there is energy, clarity, humour and despair, all hinged around a fulcrum of such astute observation, sometimes delivered entirely objectively, that I was left breathless with how far I might need to go to follow in his footsteps. I'd read a few of his others, perhaps not giving them the credit they were due, but I was a fan from the off. This has knocked me down and sat me back up again with a snifter of brandy. And around behind it all, much like any fiction written in or around New York post-9/11, sneaks the atrocity of the Balkan conflict, which often throws the narrator into relief with it's burning horror and dazzling absurdity. In one story, a young boy is charged with travelling across the country to purchase a chest freezer, during a few comic pratfalls but eventually succeeding, the family stocks it full of meat only for the war to each Sarajevo and the power to go off. "Everything in the chest freezer thawed, rotted in less than a week, and finally perished." In another, a bedraggled refugee from Bosnia arrives to rent a room in the flat of an idiosyncratic Ukrainian, whose rules he silently follows, until evicted by a poem. 

I risk letting too many cats out of bags by giving outlines to these stories, and they need to be considered in their entirety to justify the scope of Hemon's talent. Needless to say, I would urge you to put your hands on a copy of this and immerse yourself in a steady torrent of great writing, if only for a short while.