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Two Paths for the Novel
So the debate is on. Or rather, it continues. Zadie Smith (of all people I’m tempted to say) has waded into the session of soul-searching going on over the future of the Anglophone novel. For the last eight years, thanks mostly to the Internet and the astounding uniformity of the ‘marketable’, bland books commercial, regressive and lazy book publishers have forced on everyone, an intellectually hardened, avant-garde yearning milieu have developed. International, well-connected, non-commercial. And I’m not talking here about Dave Mc Sweeney’s Eggers. Zadie Smith is late to the debate, in the New York Review of Books review-essay on Joseph O Neill’s ‘Netherland’ and Tom McCarthy’s ‘Remainder’ she very eloquently and intelligently, it must be said, brought to the stall of the establishment sentiments long aired on countless websites such as readysteadybook.com or 3amMagazine.com. As Smith carefully pointed out, for the Anglophone novel, ‘These aren’t particularly healthy times. A breed of lyrical Realism has had the freedom of the highway for some time now, with most other exits blocked.’ Well, turn-offs are open, ‘Remainder’ has caused tail backs (it is the undisputed champion of the so-called Offbeat Generation, revelling in concrete literariness and avant-gardism), and Smith, well-used to the highway route of the conservative novel-writing tradition whose survival she admits to ‘cautiously’ hoping in, has merely turned off late, beeping her horn loudly at the rear. But at least she’s noticed. And at least she’s had the temerity to bring it to James Wood and company.
We are constantly given man’s point of view. God – and his angels – are just a distraction really, the source for the ideas the characters group around often bringing them hardship and strife. Noah is portrayed as an albino-type child, photophobic and who grows up indoors, a scientist by night, a naturalist occupied by the make-up of the world. A world Knausgaard feels free to portray as he wishes seeing as the Great Flood completely obliterated it. Leaving us no trace of this sinful world (they have guns for instance, in this doomed terra obliterato). I would say to take or leave Noah’s bland thoughts on fire: they’re forced and not a little boring.
And while it isn’t to be read as Freudian, we are given lots of chances to read it as just that. Cain and Abel are tied up in a cold family that favours one son over the other; the tortured, often poignant inner world of the likeable Cain are mapped out carefully. This story lays out the ‘psychology’ of man’s first fracticide with precision. Noah’s childhood family is headed by a proud, prosperous patriarch named Lamech who ‘could go an entire day without saying a thing, and then suddenly sling out a sentence or two about whatever he was thinking, which his children, if they happened to be nearby just then, found almost sinister.’ It is testament to the imaginative breadth of this novel that the author can playfully lull the reader to enjoy so many strands of thought and narrative turns and on so many levels, without little heavy handedness. And without resorting to the tried and tested Freudian-Balzacian formulas of inner characterisation.
Translated fiction like this offers a turn off from the dominant highway of current English novels because it offers new takes on the novel that don’t feel new: this novel is comfortable within its own skin, it is fresh. This composure needs to be kept in mind when taking an axe to lyrical Realism. But it’s not a perfect road to follow if rejuvenation of the Anglophone novel is what you’re after: it is, after all, fraught with problems. James Anderson has provided a very fine translation, well-levelled and holding its pitch. Portobello Books are to be commended also for taking on such a distinctly challenging novel. But, without taking away too much of the singular experience of reading this novel cover-to-cover, one had to lament that they started here, with Knausgaard’s second novel. This novelist obviously has an extremely ambitious vision for his work, and this novel offers but a tantalising, somewhat enigmatic instalment of it. In terms of important European novels of this decade, Knausgaard’s first three novels will undoubtedly go down as a seminal roman-fleuve; let’s just hope Portobello Books will deliver us the other two books.
What I’m talking about is the Coda of the book – it ties us in with a bigger story Knausgaard would seem to be telling over the course of three books centring around a character called Henrik Vankel. Out of Old Testament concerns and into late 20th century neuroses we would seem, for the last 80 pages, to be back in the world of Freud. All the old anxieties. The anxiety Heidegger believed we have to pay for our spiritual freedom, our physical abandon in a savage environment. What Zadie Smith tried to put down in her review of ‘Netherland’ by O Neill as that seemingly ‘too perfect’ expression of these old anxieties of our day and age (and literature!), are set against, in the last 80 pages of the book, a world set of free of Freud, of Balzac, that world were man met the divine in the form of angels, and ultimately suffered for it. It’s a telling contrast (a wound you could call it, a wound in the novel which the reader feels acutely) and intriguing in the possibilities it suggest. Now you just have to go and read all 518 pages to intimate what those possibilities may be.
Reproduced with permission
John Holten lives in Berlin where he currently writes a novel, awaits an uptake on his last one and writes visual art and literary reviews for various print and online magazines. A chapbook of prose poems was published by Parking Meter Press in November 2008. His website is www.johnholten.com.
|A TIME TO EVERY PURPOSE UNDER HEAVEN
Karl O. Knausgaard
(Portobello Books 2008)
Reviewed by John Holten
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