Archive for the ‘ Proust ’ Category

My Struggle, by Karl Ove Knausgaard

This review was originally published at ReadySteadyBook.com

Towards the end of the shattering first volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s memoir My Struggle, he cuts from a scene of particularly sepulchral intensity to a flashback describing his days interviewing writers for a student newspaper. On one such occasion, while interviewing the author Kjartan Fløgstad, he forgets his notepad and is forced to try to recreate the interview from memory.  But it’s impossible. Even with the questions to hand his memories of the conversation are “too vague, too imprecise”. Having called up Fløgstad for some ‘follow-up questions’ he manages to cobble together a version that seems faithful enough, and submits it to the author for review. The response reads as an ironically prescient in-joke:

“I opened it. Held the printout of the interview. It was covered with red marks and red comments in the margin. “I never said this”, I saw, “Imprecise”, I saw, “No, no, no”, I saw, “???”, I saw. “Where did you get that from?” I saw.”

Knausgaard’s six-volume tell-all has become a literary sensation in Norway, partly due to the lavish acclaim it has drawn from more bookish quarters, but mainly due to the juicy controversy stemming from its warts-and-all portrayal of Knausgaard’s family. This, the first volume to be translated into English, centers on his enigmatic father, who walked out on the family and later barricaded himself in his mother’s house and systematically drank himself to death. Knausgaard pulls no punches in laying bare the desperate squalor in which his father spent his final days, and the very public fallout with surviving members of the family over Knausgaard’s version of events has made the book an unlikely bestseller.

Prescience aside, the anecdote demonstrates the fundamental impossibility of Knausgaard’s project. If he cannot recount a single conversation without scandalizing his interlocutor with flagrant distortions and misrepresentations, what can his memoir ever be but the most arrant of fictions? Even the passage itself is a double negative, a self-cancelling invalidation. As a remembered anecdote that Knausgaard uses to demonstrate the impossibility of really remembering anything, it negates its own purported premises, even as it undermines those of the entire undertaking. This awareness of his alienation from the past underpins Knausgaard’s approach to his subject matter. He may be able to dredge up disparate fragments, images, even the odd madeleine-prompted moment of uncanny convergence, but as Thomas Bernhard’s narrator puts it in Extinction, for the most part the past – even yesterday, even the last second – is nothing but a gaping void. Memory is to a greater or lesser degree fictional, and that is before one even confronts the problematics of writing, of subjugating experience to the outrages of narrative form and the corrupting medium of language.  Knausgaard reflects:

“You know too little and it doesn’t exist. You know too much and it doesn’t exist. Writing is drawing the essence of what we know out of the shadows. That is what writing is about. Not what happens there, not what actions are played out there, but the there itself. There, that is writing’s location and aim. But how to get there?” (p. 190)

Even self-knowledge becomes unreliable once it is detached from intuition, and has been assimilated into a personal narrative. Truth isn’t a question of content but of sense and feeling; an event; a verb not a noun. For Knausgaard, writing is a lie deployed in the service of exhuming and recapturing this fugitive truth. But writing muddies the water with its own manipulations and falsehoods, from the weight of usage and association to the gestures of ritual and convention, the charade of literary voice. Knausgaard thus chooses a way of ‘taking us there’ through his writing that is risky, oblique and at times disconcerting. Distrusting the tyranny of the adjective, he bases his style around flatness and matter-of-fact detail. For the most part he lets significations arise out of form and structure, the internally generated resonances and associations carried by objects themselves, rather than laying them on a plate for us through the line-by-line expressiveness of literary prose. Rather than channeling experience, Knausgaard’s dispassionate delivery more often than not serves to accentuate our distance from it:

“On the way downstairs a huge surge of tears overcame me. This time there was no question of trying to hide it. My whole chest trembled and shook, I couldn’t draw breath, deep sobs rolled through me, and my face contorted, I was completely out of control.

“Ooooooooh,” I said. “Ooooooooh.”

The subject matter sits uncomfortably with the anti-emotive, matter-of-fact style. The symptoms are simply presented in a non-hierarchical list (‘My whole chest…’), free of any of the inflective legwork we expect prose to do in order to enhance the sense of that to which it refers. Part of the uncanny effect of Knausgaard’s approach to his subject manner is this resistance to almost any kind of literary voice, rejecting its heightened sensibility on a line-by-line level and instead opting for a cumulative effect based on form rather than style. His prose rejects one of the central mechanisms of traditional literary aesthetics: enhancing and evoking subject matter through imitation. Like when Keats imitates the sticky sibilance of an overripe apple, or Dickens or Joyce modulate their sentences to evoke fog or snow. Knausgaard simply doesn’t bother with any of this, which becomes a kind of oppositional statement in itself. His stubbornly deadpan delivery accentuates the rupture between now and then, the void that separates the historical self from the self that tries to recapture experience and recreate it through prose. Yet this is not the mannered, deliberately enigmatic Dirty Realist minimalism of Hemingway and Carver, or even the offhand garrulousness of Kerouac. It lies somewhere much closer to the tone of Imre Kertesz’s remarkable novel Fateless, in which the narrator revisits Auschwitz and rather than emoting just ingenuously describes what he sees.

In Knausgaard the resistance to emotiveness is not merely a way of confronting the ineffability of trauma without reducing it to the forms and codes of habit, though this is undoubtedly partly where he is coming from. It is also down to a more general, pervasive sense of the impossibility of writing, of which the recollection of trauma is merely an extreme example. It is much more obviously impossible to convey the actual sense of Auschwitz than it is to convey the actual sense of the dinner-table atmosphere of one’s childhood, or the feeling of playing in a rubbish band, or making a pot of coffee or lighting a cigarette; there is much more at stake in its being subsumed into the normalizing network of shared association. But it is ultimately an amplification of the same incongruity. The sense of a moment passes through words like so many grains of sand through despairing fingers. If Knausgaard is to overcome this problem he must do so obliquely.

What does it mean to say that Knausgaard’s artistic effects arise from form and structure rather than style? Take, for example, the line that begins the passage that deals with his father’s death and its aftermath, the real subject matter of the book: “I was almost thirty years old when I saw a dead body for the first time”. This comes on page 222, but it is really the book’s beginning. The events that the narrative concerns – Knausgaard’s confrontation with the squalid house in which his father died, and his attempts to make sense of the events that drove him to what was in effect a prolonged suicide – are all to come. Yet Knausgaard prefaces this all with 222 pages, consisting of a mixture of saturnine overtures, philosophical asides, quotidian detail and fractured anecdotes from his youth, that can at times seem slightly directionless. However, in retrospect it becomes clear that by doing so he creates the conditions under which the objects and events that the main narrative concerns can become meaningful, independent of the stylistic shortcuts of a more conventionally literary treatment. We can well imagine a lyrical memoir in which the above sentence serves as a killer opening. It might continue with evocative prose that transports us inside the mind of the observer, creating resonance and an illusion of empathy. Yet this is not how Knausgaard continues. He merely dispassionately describes what happens:

“It was the summer of 1998, a July afternoon, in a chapel in Kristiansand. My father had died. He was laid out on a table in the middle of the room, the sky was overcast, the light in the room dull, outside the window a lawn mower was slowly circling around a lawn.”

The significance of the scene arises from the painfully accumulated sensibility we have derived from the previous 222 pages, insidiously, accretively drawing us into the author’s way of looking at the world, his many-sided relationship with his father, the ineffable web of significations contained within the corpse laid out on the table before us and its relationship to the observer. Knausgaard could try and communicate something of this through evocative prose, perhaps using free indirect discourse to try to recreate his mental reaction to what he observes. Yet he knows that this would be a fraudulent way of recreating the ‘there’ of the moment. Instead, through its structure and painfully assembled detail, the novel cultivates a sensibility whereby the signification is able to arise, to some extent, out of the objects themselves. Hence, when Karl Ove and Yngwe pull up outside of the house in which his father drank himself to death, all he needs to do is flatly describe what they see:

“The garden was completely overgrown. The grass was knee-high, like a meadow, grayish-yellow in color, flattened in some places by the rain. It had spread everywhere, covering all the beds, I wouldn’t have been able to see the flowers had I not known where they were…”

Knausgaard doesn’t tell us what he is thinking, because he knows the structure of the novel does that for us. We immediately cast our minds back to our first encounter with his father digging his immaculately maintained garden twenty years previously, a cold, rigidly disciplinarian figure. The contrast with the dissolute slob who drank himself to death does not need to be articulated through high-flung phrases or hand-wringing lamentation; Knausgaard subtly creates a textual structure in which it arises out of the detail itself.

The fault line separating autobiography and fiction was explored by some of the great writers of the 20th century, from Nabokov and Cendrars to Bernhard and Coetzee, though the obvious source text for Knausgaard’s epic is Proust’s A la recherché du temps perdu. Knausgaard’s memoir is a Proustian undertaking not just in the most obvious sense of it being a gargantuan six-volume novelistic examination of the author’s memories, but also in the sense that it tells the story of how it came to be written. It remains to be seen exactly where the remaining five volumes will take us, but even as a standalone Knausgaard’s narrative is circular in the sense that it creates the conditions for its own coming into being in the reader. It engenders the requisite sensibility in the reader who has finished the novel whereby he is able to comprehend something of the full meaning of the author who began writing it. In this sense it is a book that reinforces the Nabokovian diktat that we cannot read, only re-read. And one of the great gifts of this devastating, urgent and original masterpiece is that its resonant last line invites you to do just that: turn back to the first page and start over, all the better equipped to make sense of the journey.

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Proust Was a Neuroscientist by Jonah Lehrer


Ever since E.O Wilson famously declared there to be two distinct cultures within academia that suffered from “a mutual incomprehension”, the great art vs science divide has entrenched itself in our consciousness. Even as we speak, classrooms up and down the country are in a state of primordial flux, churning out the next generations of these two irreconcilable tribes. One will wear anoraks, develop bad skin and myopia, and form an ironclad will to explain the world through cells, forces and equations. The other will smoke Gaulouises, make flamboyant hand gestures, and develop a penchant for the transcendental.  Science will continue in its belief that everything in the universe can be explained, while art will continue with its gloriously useless flights of the imagination. Never shall the two meet.

Enter Jonah Lehrer. A fresh-faced former Rhodes Scholar with an easy smile and a shapely turn of phrase, Lehrer is a Renaissance man for our times. An Ivy League neuroscience graduate and former assistant in the laboratory of Nobel Prize-winner Eric Kandel, according to his marketing team Lehrer is also blessed with the sort of literary sensibility that makes Keats look like a philistine oaf. What’s more, he has a revelation to make: art and science are merely parallel roads leading to the same truth. Indeed, Lehrer can reveal that art, far from being a rarefied form of escapism with no application to the real world, has repeatedly pipped science to the post. The ‘truths’ about the human mind later eureka’d upon in labs around the world were first articulated in the works of great artists like Marcel Proust, Walt Whitman and George Eliot.

That which we might have thought of as an opposition is really a symbiosis, a ying and yang. In Lehrer’s words (like a good scientist he tells us the conclusion of the experiment before providing his proof), “Science needs art to frame the mystery, but art needs science so that not everything is a mystery. Neither truth alone is our solution, for our reality exists in plural”. So science shouldn’t write off art as a complete waste of time, and vice versa. It turns out that literature can provide more than “a little entertainment, or perhaps an education in the art of constructing sentences”, which is apparently all Lehrer was expecting when he decided to read Proust.  In other news, Joseph Ratzinger continues to subscribe to the tenets of Apostolic Succession and the Nicene Creed, and mammals of the Ursidae family appear to favour arboreal defecation.

Proust Was a Neuroscientist consists of eight essays, each following the same basic formula: Lehrer tells us the point, or ‘moral’ of a particular artist’s work (yeah, more on that later), and then goes on to explain how this moral was later verified and explained by neuroscience. Walt Whitman’s poetry anticipates the discovery that emotions are generated by the body; George Eliot told us that minds change before we discovered that neurons divide; the chef Charles Escoffier discovered how to unlock the common element that makes food taste delicious before science discovered umami and MSG; Proust discovered the subjectivity of memory before Kandel and Si theorised the function of prions; Cezanne’s post-impressionist paintings portrayed the world as, we have now discovered, it appears before the optical cortex assimilates it into a coherent picture; Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring intuited that dissonance and harmony are states of mind before science knew that the cortifugal network adapts to impose a hierarchy based on the sounds to which it is accustomed; Gertrude Stein’s automatic writing experiments showed that language is held together by an invisible underlying structure that precedes meaning before Chomsky theorised universal grammar; and Virginia Woolf knew that identity is a continual act of self-creation before science discovered that consciousness is generated by neurons and electrical` impulses.

Lehrer covers some fecund ground and deftly synthesises an impressive range of theories and contexts. He writes with journalistic panache, and while it can occasionally feel that he is adapting his material to fit the snappy figures of his prose rather than vice versa (his penchant for ending paragraphs with significant-sounding clichés like ‘Life imitates art’ can sometimes grate), in general Lehrer admirably balances accessibility and detail. In a Gladwellian world where books that elegantly extract meaning from the abstruse and translate it for the masses are the publishing vogue, Lehrer seems well placed to help flesh out a scientific context still frequently overlooked in literary criticism, while showing science that there are limits to its materialism and that art isn’t completely useless. And good luck to him. But to anyone approaching this book from the literary side of the Great Divide, Lehrer’s armchair criticism will be as infuriating as his pop science is enlightening.

The main problem with Lehrer’s approach to literature – and it’s a fatal one – is that he summarises rather than analyses. All too often, in arguing against the reductivist attitude common to science, Lehrer is ironically guilty of reducing the complexity and conflict of the literature he intends to promote as a viable alternative – in short, that which gives it its power and significance – to an overriding message or, in his oddly anachronistic terminology, a ‘moral’ that we can extract from the whole.

Time and again, Lehrer takes the classic undergraduate shortcut of paraphrasing and translating, rather than explaining how and why a passage means what he wants it to mean. Giving a reading of a typically inscrutable passage of Gertrude Stein, he offers this:

This tricky paragraph `is about the trickiness of language. Although we pretend our words are transparent – like a layer of glass through which we see the world – they are actually opaque. Stein is trying to remind us that our nouns, adjectives, and verbs are not real. They are just arbitrary signifiers, random conglomerates of syllables and sound. A rose, after all, is not really a rose. Its letters don’t have thorns or perfumed petals.

While this is undoubtedly true as far as it goes – five minutes on Wikipedia will tell you that in a very general sense this is what most of Stein’s writing is ‘about’ – it doesn’t offer any insight into why Stein wrote what she actually wrote. If this was all Stein was trying to say, she could have saved us all a lot of time and bother by just writing ‘words are arbitrary signifiers’. Lehrer tells us what he takes to be Stein’s intention, but he never actually sheds any light on whether or not her methods were successful in achieving it.

The suspicion that arises from this tendancy is that Lehrer’s main critical criterion for the literature he includes is merely that it is ‘about’ something that fits into his argument, rather than anything to do with its execution. This suspicion was confirmed, at least for this reader, by the Coda. Lehrer upholds Ian McEwan’s Saturday – no sniggering at the back – as a template for the future of the novel as a combination of artistic and scientific endeavour, picking up the baton from Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway as a novelistic investigation of the mind. This dystopian prediction shows off Lehrer’s critical blind spot to full effect. Now, in my personal view anyone who can’t tell the difference between the prose of Woolf and McEwan has no business in making proclamations about the future of the novel. But aside from this, there remains the fact that, while Woolf was an innovator who operated at the formal boundaries of her medium, in selecting Saturday as a modern-day equivalent Lehrer has unwittingly selected a novel that for many is the absolute epitome of middle-of-the-road, run-of-the-mill convention. As one literature professor recently put it in a blog post (in reference to Tom McCarthy slagging off the conventional middlebrow humanist novel):

I’d be willing to bet that what he’s ultimately referring to is what all of us are implicitly referring to when we make this sort of statement, and that’s Ian McEwan’s Saturday. Do you know what I mean? I used to joke at the beginning of my courses on modernism that I wished I could assign everyone the title The Utterly Conventional Novel – some sort of Platonic ideal of “straight nineteenth-century fiction” that we could all read and then use as a benchmark against which we could measure the changes that happen with modernism. Somehow Saturday seems to have come to serve as just that in our time

Again, it’s tempting to suspect that Lehrer mainly chooses Saturday because it’s ‘about’ science. This tendency to define a novel by its subject matter is also evident in an apparent obliviousness to literary form as a generative component of the meaning to which he enjoys such unproblematic access. Mostly he just ignores it, but on the rare occasions when Lehrer does condescend to talk about form, his writing is tellingly vague: “And while her realist form touched upon an encyclopedia of subjects, her novels are ultimately concerned with the individual”, or, “the sprawling realism of Eliot’s novels ended up discovering our reality” – both statements that would elicit a snort of derision from any professor marking an undergraduate essay. Lehrer later quotes Proust’s contention that “The kind of literature which contents itself with ‘describing things’, with giving them merely a miserable abstract of lines and surfaces, is in fact, though it calls itself realist, the furthest removed from reality”.  How does this fundamental difference in the way that Proust and Eliot represented the world – one largely objective, one entirely subjective – help produce the meaning that he so glibly summarises? Again, Lehrer seems to approach literature primarily as a well-written message, rather than as a combination of form and content.

While the chapters on Whitman, Eliot, Proust, Stein and Woolf all suffer from this flaw, Lehrer is more convincing when talking about music and painting, and the Cezanne and Stravinsky chapters are the most successful in the book. Non-literary art fits more naturally into Lehrer’s style of analysis because he is able to equate the form – the actual substance – of the works of art in question with the neural` processes he describes. There are fewer external ideas to jar with the materialism of the explanation. He is able to offer enlightening discussions of how the discords of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring or the colours of a Cezanne painting interact with our auditory or visual sensors. But in literature – an art of words problematically connected to ideas – no such directness is possible. Lehrer is instead content merely to equate these processes with a dominant idea or ‘moral’ that he has himself extracted from the aesthetic whole. This approach is inescapably reductive.

It is probable that the constraints of space and the simplifying demands of writing for a popular audience forced Lehrer to gloss over the details of the texts he addresses. He is clearly a precociously talented writer and thinker (he was just 25 when Proust Was a Neuroscientist first came out in the US), and for all the frustrations of its Wiki-happy concision Lehrer casts some interesting contextual light on his chosen authors, even as he cheerily bulldozes the complexity of their works. However, interesting though they are, the specific links Lehrer draws between art and science tend to be pretty tenuous. For example, Eliot’s intuition in the 1860s that our personalities are fluid and subject to change does not in any specific way anticipate Pasco Rakic’s discovery in the 1980s that neurons divide. If, as Lehrer puts it, ‘life is chemistry and chemistry is physics’, then any experiential observation has a material micro-explanation. But Eliot wasn’t talking about cells, she was talking about personalities – and Lehrer is guilty of a classic false syllogism. Just because Eliot wrote of the nature of personalities, and personalities are ultimately derived from neurons, it does not necessarily follow that Eliot was writing about neurons.

Of course art anticipates science in very general ways.  We may not have verified the mechanism by which the mind changes on a physical level until the 1980s but its effects have been a preoccupation of literature since Shakespeare. The opposite scenario would be an ironic inversion – like starting to feel depressed because a doctor diagnoses you with depression. We tend to experience things – say, gravity, or respiration – before we work out why and how they happen. If we understand science to be empirical verification – explaining why what is, is – then it follows without saying that art must explore the experiences that science later finds a way to explain. Again, perhaps commercial demands forced Lehrer to make rather more of this not-exactly-groundbreaking argument than he would otherwise have done. A book using literary examples as a way of exploring the philosophical connotations of the discoveries of neuroscience may not have been as easy to market. But it might have made more sense.