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Stephanie

Here’s What Bothers Me about Karl Ove Knausgaard

There’s a snippet from Karl Ove Knausgaard’s interview at the Norwegian-American literary festival, reprinted in the latest issue of The Paris Review, that’s been on my mind this week. The necessary background here is that Karl Ove Knausgaard is a Norwegian writer who has become one of the most hyped international authors of the last several years. The recent translation into English of three volumes of his six-part, autobiographical My Struggle (yes, that was also the title of Hitler’s book) turned him into somewhat of a celebrity among American readers. Just this weekend The New York Times Magazine put his face on the cover and captioned his portrait, “Knausgaard in America.” If that’s not the pinnacle of American literary celebrity, I don’t know what is.

Part of Knausgaard’s appeal is his honesty, but “honesty” also seems to be his downfall. When played right, his bluntness humanizes him. He jokes in the New York Times about his inability to plan ahead, and in The Paris Review about his fear of writing, which he overcomes by reading his drafts to a friend whose job is to provide excessive encouragement. Other times, though, Knausgaard crosses the line and becomes something of a provocateur. Such was the case in The Paris Review, when his conversation with James Wood veered into a commentary on objectifying women:

Karl Ove Knausgaard: “I’m very 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. Every time I see a woman, I think, How would it be to have sex with her? I think that’s the first thought for every man. [To James Wood:] Don’t you think that? I mean, if you are absolutely honest?”

James Wood: “I didn’t write the book. I don’t have to answer the questions.”

Karl Ove Knausgaard: “But that’s the thing. These are things you are not supposed to say. 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. Of course that is easily taken as a provocation, and people think you are sexist, but it’s not like that. I am just describing life. I may live that life wrong, but it certainly makes it more interesting to write about than if I lived it right.”

No surprise: his remarks irritate me. My negative feelings stem mostly from my disbelief that a writer of Knausgaard’s stature latches onto such a narrow prescription of ‘how life really is’ without bothering to dissect his assumptions. Sure, it’s a transcript from a live interview, but his sweeping judgments about men and women aren’t even a little bit inquisitive, sensitive to nuance, or mindful of the people on whose behalf certain “should do” behaviors have arisen.

Three particular aspects of his statement fester in my mind. The first is how he twists his personal experience of objectifying women into a blanket statement about “how it is for every man.” The second is his misdiagnosis of his rude remarks as heroic honesty (he classifies his “provocation” as a challenge to the insidious line separating what should be from what actually is in real life). The third is his flippancy regarding the entire subject matter—as though his words will never reach the ears of women who might feel belittled, or people who might insist that life is more complicated than he acknowledges, and who might even call hypocrite on a writer who claims to be “describing life” but so shamelessly simplifies the vast cultural phenomenon of sexism.

Ironically, Knausgaard mentions that eliminating the “should do” from his writing makes his work more interesting. Can’t he see the paradox? The impetus to stop sexist behavior isn’t about policing reality; it’s about broadening people’s perspectives so that a writer who “just describes life” in 100 years will be able to explore gender with genuine inquiry and empathy. “Interesting” is exactly the opposite of Knausgaard’s one-is-all mentality about male sexual desire, and his zero-interest mentality about the harm of objectifying women.

When I step back from my disappointment with Knausgaard and give him the benefit of the doubt, I have to imagine that he intended to lift a veil on human sexuality and, by way of privileging personal experience, forgot to consider that human sexuality amounts to more than male sexual desire. His faux pas has a literary precedent, and the example that comes to mind for me is James Joyce writing about Stephen Daedalus in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, in which Stephen’s first visits to the local brothel are prominent scenes in his character development. Another example is Hermann Hesse’s Narcissus & Goldmund, in which Goldmund’s entire future hinges on his acknowledgment of his desire for women, after which point the plot relies heavily on his serial sexual encounters. Joyce and Hesse are only two of several (white male) literary pioneers who parted the curtains on sexuality in modern literature. In these novels, male sexuality is sexuality. That was a sign of the times. Now, those times are gone, but comments like Knausgaard’s still perpetuate the idea that male life is life, while female life is, well, a secondary concern.

For today’s writers who want to break taboos, the difference between sexuality and sexism is crucial. Talking about sexual desire from a gendered point of view doesn’t make somebody sexist. Admitting sexual desire isn’t a provocation. Doing either of these things in a way that strips women of agency, assumes they can’t relate, strikes a “boy’s club” note, and fails to acknowledge the exclusionary affects of objectifying women as opposed to desiring them…well, that’s sexist at worst and ignorant at best. While I’m disappointed that an influential writer like Knausgaard hasn’t revealed a more thoughtful take on sexuality, I also believe in the power of providing a model for better discourse in the future. With some humor intended (but mostly just good will), here’s how I hope an interview like Knausgaard’s might turn out in the future:

Author: “I’m very aware of the fact that women have a sexual role in the book, because at times that’s how it has been for me, and I wanted to show that. I’m aware of me doing it. There are times when I see a woman and think, How would it be to have sex with her? I think other people, both men and women, experience this. I think that as long as we humanize each other, and take care not to strip each other of agency, then desire doesn’t have to be sinister and can be an interesting topic to explore.” [To James Wood:] Don’t you think there’s value in being honest about desire, because that’s part of the human experience? I mean, if you are absolutely honest?”

Critic: “I didn’t write the book. I don’t have to answer the questions.”

Author: “But that’s the thing. These are things you’re not supposed to say. We are often told that sexuality is wrong, desire is wrong, you shouldn’t think this way. But the difference interests me a lot—the difference between what is frowned upon and what is actually wrong. Perhaps that is easily taken as a provocation. But it’s not like that. I am just describing life in the most honest and attentive way I can. I think that by examining “wrongful” behaviors explicitly, you can analyze what about them is actually harmful, and what about them is just human and acceptable after all. I may live life wrong, but it certainly makes it more interesting to examine my behaviors and evaluate them than to pretend my sexuality doesn’t exist, or insist that everything I notice about myself is unchangeable.”

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Contemporary Hungarian Literature & The Politics of Repression

Fire & Knowledge
by Péter Nádas
Picador, 392 pp., $16.00

Satantango
by László Krasznahorkai
New Directions, 274 pp., $27.95

I.

Housing Works was standing room only on the night in July when Hungarian novelist László Krasznahorkai sat behind the microphone. I had just arrived back in New York from a five-week stay in Budapest, and I was surprised to see that the SoHo establishment had, at least on this night, become a more fervent mecca of Hungarian literature than Budapest’s own university bookstore. Americans crowded around the author whose reputation as an overseas phenomenon was just starting to gain traction in the United States. From the front of the room, Krasznahorkai discussed his winding syntax and signed copies of his newly translated novel, Satantango. Given that Hungarian books seldom attain an American readership (Hungarian is a grueling language to conquer), the stockpile of Krasznahorkai hardcovers represented a triumph for both the author and his reviewers.

Moderating the Housing Works discussion was James Wood, the critic largely responsible for introducing Krasznahorkai’s work to an American audience. In July 2011, Wood published a feature in The New Yorker exploring the Hungarian author’s unusual fiction. Casting Krasznahorkai into the literary constellation of avant-gardes Bolaño, Bernhard, Sebald, and Foster Wallace, Wood calls Krasznahorkai “perhaps the strangest” of them all. He identifies the novelist as a craftsman of the long sentence, a visionary who pulls his plots just to the brink of revelation—but never beyond. Krasznahorkai’s impulse toward cataclysm is his most distinctive feature. His three novels available in English—War and War, The Melancholy of Resistance, and Satantango—all describe worlds that brim with foreboding. Characters imagine paranormal manuscripts, a Hungarian village becomes home to a whale’s body, bells ring from no discoverable source. This sense of impending doom in Krasznahorkai’s work led Susan Sontag to call him “master of the apocalypse.”

Master though he is, Krasznahorkai is not the only luminary on the contemporary Hungarian literature scene. Novelist Péter Nádas, whose Book of Memories also garnered Susan Sontag’s acclaim as “the greatest novel written in our time,” plays an equally vital role in nourishing Hungary’s literary life. Nádas is famous for his 1,000-plus-page novels that entwine multiple narratives into Proustian fabric. His most recent publication is a collection of short stories and essays called Fire & Knowledge. The book is humbler than his novels but no less accomplished. Nádas uses frank observations and tight prose to create the same discomfort that Krasznahorkai invokes with his evasive plots and meandering sentences. Where Krasznahorkai is strange, Nádas is candid. Both authors revitalize a literary culture that is often condemned to international oblivion. Americans reading their works know that somewhere between Budapest’s Hapsburg-style grandeur and post-Communist decay, literature blossoms.

But beneath Hungary’s cultural topsoil, political tumult rumbles like unstable tectonic plates. This year alone, the autocratic Hungarian government slashed university funding, slurred the European Union (to which Hungary was accepted in 2004), and introduced measures rolling back freedom of press. Legal scholars have disparaged Hungary’s entire new constitution as “unconstitutional,” and after the government violated the independence of Hungary’s central bank, the European Commission put Hungary on trial. The ultra-conservative Fidesz Party, currently controlling Parliament with a two-thirds majority vote, is only the latest installment in a long line of repressive governments. Before Fidesz, Hungary suffered through forty years of Soviet-enforced Communism. Prior to that, the Hungarian Parliament housed the Arrow Cross Party, a German puppet government brutally installed toward the end of World War II. The danger of yet another unchecked government, Hungarian-bred or otherwise, imposes a political continuity that is painful to witness.

Contemporary Hungarian literature is by necessity a product of the country’s unique political story. It is strange to think that, while Krasznahorkai and Nádas have been praised in America for their formal accomplishments, these writers are rarely discussed as an access point to Hungarian politics. Krasznahorkai, born in 1954, and Nádas, born in 1942, both wrote under the mantle of Communist censorship. Repression leaves their literature with a particular taste, and resonances from Communism and the preceding war echo through their texts. Recognizing the historical tinge in their writing helps us to understand the political past that so vitally orients Hungary’s political present. Beyond aesthetic value, these authors offer precious insight into the history of one of the European Union’s most troubled constituents.

II.

Krasznahorkai’s Satantango opens onto the destitute world of a failing Hungarian farm estate. A small number of men and women live in the village in near-poverty. In the first sentence, bells ring. A crippled man named Futaki hears them while in bed with his neighbor’s wife; he hobbles over to the window to locate the source of the ringing. Unable to hear the bells any longer, Futaki feels as though the phenomenon could be “a kind of game or ghostly half-dream.” His suspicion sets the tone for the rest of the story. As the villagers await the arrival of their prophet-like leader Irimiás—who, it seems, has been resurrected from death—a series of events both dark and comedic reveal the mystifying reality in which these inhabitants live. The rain continuously falls, a young girl kills her cat in a hidden loft, an ailing doctor spies on the community through his window and fills his journals with drunken notes. The other adults while away the long night in the local bar, groping each other’s spouses as they dance a prolonged tango beneath shrouds of spider webs.

Both the tango dance and the spider web structure the novel. Krasznahorkai splits Satantango into two six-chapter sections called “The Dances.” Borrowing from the tango’s six-steps-forward, six-steps-back pattern, the chapter numerals ascend in one section and descend in the other, until we circuitously arrive back at the novel’s origin. Through the chapters, we follow an enormous circle of rotating perspectives. The sequence of these viewpoints is asymmetrical, even repetitive. Chapters cross over each other like silken strands in the spider’s web; through holes between the novel’s scenes, we glimpse a second layer of events. The two-part bar scene, for instance, called “The Work of the Spider I” and “The Work of the Spider II,” opens in the middle to reveal a furtive death across the estate. As the plot-dance continues, it seems as though the devil is its choreographer. In the final chapter, the doctor hears the same bells that haunted Futaki and decides to pursue their origin. He comes upon a ruined chapel with “an infinitely aged, tiny, wrinkled creature lying on the ground, his knees to his chin, shaking with fear.” This destitute man maniacally rings the chapel bell upon the doctor’s request. Whether the man is an incarnation of the underworld, or, as the doctor assumes, “a filthy tramp,” the reader is left to wonder. The reader experiences the novel like a spider herself, crawling over the web of the story in search of an explanation that never arrives. She is more knowledgeable than the plot’s victims, but helpless, nonetheless, in the face of the powers controlling the events.

At the time Krasznahorkai was composing Satantango in the 1980s, Hungarian Communism was in its final throes. The rural landscape had been destroyed after mishandled nationalization of farms. Farmers accused of false crimes were deported to gulags without receiving trials (though the word “deportation” was banned from use). Children had been taught to watch for suspicious behaviors within their families and were encouraged to report parents to the government police. Propaganda flooded the marketplace of ideas; the government, it turns out, blamed the fallow fields on an American insect conspiracy designed to undermine the Soviet dream. The plot and structure of Satantango channel this Communist ethos. Truth breaks into a multitude of unreliable perspectives: citizens spy on each other, spouses cheat, corrupt leaders guide their supporters into traps. The novel manages to capture the feeling of inescapability that defined this period of Hungarian life. The feeling of anti-climax upon reaching the final scene, which closes the plot’s circle but carves for its victims no escape route, reflects the repression that was a smothering reality for real villagers under Communism.

Satantango’s 1980s-era portrayal of Hungarian countryside politics still resembles the afflictions facing Hungarian farmers today. As Hungary approaches 2014, the year in which foreigners will be able to legally buy Hungarian land after a 20-year moratorium, farmers are accusing the government of dishonesty. While the Fidesz Party campaigned on the promise of land security for local farmers, political favoritism seems to have erased their guarantees. In the central Hungarian village of Kajaszo, lease tenders eluded every single local farmer and ended up in the hands of a company from the Prime Minister’s hometown. The village families, some of whom have been farming in the area for over six generations, find themselves as forsaken as Kraszahorkai’s characters, who follow Irimiás out of their village and into a duplicitous scheme. The plot parallels are evocative, but perhaps Satantango’s most effective depiction of Hungarian plight rests in one metonymic image: Horseflies in the village bar try to escape the spiders’ grasp by circling figure eights around the bar’s lamps. The flies believe they are transcending their troubling fate, only to find themselves carving infinity symbols through the air.

III.

Nádas offers a different side of the Hungarian aesthetic. Cut away the frill, peel back the skin of comfort, and run your finger along the bone of truth. Nádas’s characters are savagely human, and they deal with difficult questions: How can I live with my body? What is the cost of silence? How does language contend with truth?

In his 1962 story “The Bible,” third in Nádas’s collection Fire & Knowledge, the schoolboy Gyurka arrives home and combats his boredom in the family garden. The focal point of his after-school routine is called the “bullfight”: Gyurka flashes a red flag for his fox terrier Meta to pursue; they struggle playfully on the ground, rolling and knocking each other down until Meta manages to snatch the rag and run away with it. One afternoon, the playful struggle escalates. Meta snaps at Gyurka’s foot, and Gyurka, reacting in a surge of fury, beats the dog viciously with a hoe: “I began to hit him. Blood was flowing from his body. During the first blows he’d still howl; then his eyes closed, and he quietly suffered.” Days later, Gyurka’s father finds the fevered dog under a haystack, his open wounds matted with straw. Gyurka doesn’t admit to his role in the attack, but when he trips on Meta’s dead body in the garden the next morning, he bursts into tears.

The story feels like a crooked archetype. The garden, typically a haven of paradise, becomes in the story a home to violence and death. The garden is dilapidated and difficult to enter and exit, filled with “rust-eaten roses” and a “huge iron gate.” Throughout the plot, pastoral harmony is disturbed as traditional sources of comfort—pet animals, and later on, the Bible—spark Gyurka’s anger. The innocence of beauty reaches its expiration point. Children, animals, the scenery: everything is corrupted, corruptible.

Gyurka is one of several childhood protagonists in Fire & Knowledge. The collection of nine stories and fourteen essays, composed between 1962 and 2000, was published as a compendium in 2007. The fiction dates from the 1960s and 1970s, when Nádas was an emerging writer. Through the eyes and actions of his stories’ children, morality blurs; impulses become mysterious. Nádas’s children seem lost in dark voids, struggling to understand themselves—yet, they do not question their behaviors, are detached from the moral code we call on to evaluate the actions of adults. The children refrain from offering any moral commentary on the strange world they witness and navigate. At most, they reveal that they are brutally aware, delivering their stories with deadpan neutrality.

Gyurka struggles to grasp the cruelty he is capable of committing, a cruelty that expresses itself through a series of transgressions as the 65-page story continues: he smashes a basketball into the head of his girl neighbor after she mocks him for kissing her; he spies on his religious seventeen-year-old maid in the bath, bringing her to tears; he destroys his family Bible and blames it on the maid out of spite. The question driving the narrative is whether he will face the consequences of his misconduct. It seems that recompense is a privilege bestowed on the powerful; the poor maid cannot hold Gyurka accountable for his deeds, but Gyurka’s neighbor, daughter to a high-ranking Communist official, smugly tells the boy that her father had him reported.

In the story, justice is never served. The maid gets no apology, and Gyurka is never pursued by the cronies of his neighbor’s father. The boy does not face the costs of his actions, though we sense that Gyurka feels unsettled by the course of events. Eventually, though, Gyurka’s impulse toward cruelty starts to feel natural. His offenses lie so buried within his conscience that they become accepted, pushed to the side, undemanding of justice. His wrongdoings seem, if not forgivable, forgettable. Every expressible outcome—a confrontation, scolding, or confession—is evaded so that only the inexpressible stew of confused disgust remains.

Nádas’s personal essays in Fire & Knowledge unpack this disgust. The essays were written in the 1980s and ’90s, as the mature writer looks back on his younger self and observes the disassembly of the Communist framework within which his mind developed. We sense that each fictional child of Nádas’s is a splinter cut from the difficulties of his own conscience. Like Gyurka, whose nascent sexuality prompts cruelty, Nádas confesses to his troubling relationship with the body. In his 1984 essay “Homecoming,” the author grows abhorrent towards his physicality after first experiencing the body of a woman. Swimming one morning, he realizes that “with the knowledge of the other body, [I] would not be able to endure life.” His own body, he declares, “wanted to die.” Nádas blames his repulsion on political violence. A child during Budapest’s brutal siege in World War II, Nádas reflects on the carnage that infected his psyche: “If I had been given the chance to reach my youth in times of peace, without the sight of death and piles of corpses—most likely I would not have been so sensitive to the love of the body.”

As a young writer, Nádas also tortures himself for being unable to express himself in language he finds sufficiently honest. After he spends a week and a half in isolation writing about his father’s suicide, he suddenly feels he cannot “live under the same roof with this text,” and he burns the manuscript. At another point, Nádas devastates himself by realizing the falsity of punctuation: “I felt I was putting punctuation marks here or there because that’s how others were doing it…And the more faithfully I served this consensually accepted global sense, the more I distanced myself from my personal requirements.” Punctuation itself becomes a system of oppression, a convention that Nádas must individualize to keep his honesty intact. The predicament distresses Nádas to the point of suicide. He wants his language to reflect truth, but cannot see how to make this happen, and so wants to die.

The stakes for truth are high in Hungarian literature. And yet, repression pervades even the most truthful texts. It suffocates Nádas’s writerly impulse and his sexuality, pushes Gyurka’s moral truths down into the depths of his conscience, and veers Krasznahorkai’s characters away from revelation. Repression is the profoundly political sentiment that lives at the heart of these authors’ works.

Repression is also the sentiment that lives in the hearts of many Hungarians. The mood of contemporary Hungarian literature captures the feeling of powerlessness that the current government still inspires. One by one, groups within the country find themselves deprived of freedom. New laws rule that judges must relinquish their posts eight years before the traditional retirement age; members of Parliament request that Jewish Hungarians register with the government; officials inform art curators that government agencies must approve exhibitions. The same fear of powerlessness driving the government’s detractors also motivates the government’s supporters. While one subset of Hungarians fights the government to protect their individual rights, another rallies for the government under the belief that they are warding off the encroaching power of the European Union. The tension is breeding consequences worthy of serious reflection. Between the covers of contemporary Hungarian literature a preview awaits.