My Struggle, by Karl Ove Knausgaard

This review was originally published at

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.


The Kid with a Bike , by the Dardenne Brothers

In Vittorio De Sica’s 1948 Italian neo-realist classic The Bicycle Thieves, a desperately impoverished, salt-of-the-earth Roman worker has his bicycle (and thus livelihood) stolen, shortly after securing a long sought-after gig pasting up posters during the post-war depression. The film follows his quest to recover his cherished mode of conveyance, accompanied by his cherubic son. Along the way they encounter various examples of the dog-eat-dog pragmatism of poverty, illuminated by the odd flash of human warmth, not least that which emerges from their own relationship. Dominated by hardship and misery, the film nonetheless offers a glimmer of redemption in the form of human compassion and forgiveness, a contrast to the alienating indifference of a capitalist system that reduces people to units of currency.

It is tempting to view the Dardenne Brothers’ latest film as a remake or homage, though as tends to be the case in their particularly stark brand of unadorned realism, any of the consolations of humanism are considerably harder won. Whereas De Sica’s social realism depicts the material circumstances of urban poverty but is seduced by the twin temptations of sentimentality and dramatic performance, in the Dardennes the human subject is shown to us at a far more advanced stage of late-capitalist alienation. De Sica’s implied faith in the redemptive transcendence of the human soul is replaced by unknowable, conflicted individuals whose acquisitiveness and occasional flashes of affection are never straightforwardly separable. If the Dardenne Brothers are not always as engrossing or aesthetically memorable as De Sica, at their best they are a good deal more unsettling.

Whereas The Bicycle Thieves is glued together by the fundamental bond between father and son, The Kid with a Bike focuses on Cyril, a 12 or 13 year-old boy who has been casually rejected by his father. Initially the plot concerns Cyril’s attempts to recover his bike, yet it morphs into something more akin to a bildungsroman, a character portrait of a vulnerable yet resilient child adrift in a world in which acquisitiveness and indifference are the norm. An abandoned orphan, Cyril is offered an unexpected lifeline in the form of a hairdresser who encounters him during one of his frequent dramatic flights of rage, and subsequently agrees to foster him. As in De Sica, a bond emerges between the two that offers the film’s promise of redemption. However the sentimentality and idealised character traits (the stoical simplicity of the father, the crowd-pleasing cuteness of the son) that mark that film are absent, or at least presented far more problematically.

Just as their hero Robert Bresson remade Dreyer’s silent classic The Passion of Joan of Arc in a way that stripped it of what he regarded as its grotesque thespianism, the Dardennes slam shut the door that De Sica offers us to his characters’ interior lives, rejecting any unnatural expressiveness and obviously scripted dialogue. As in Bresson, the Dardennes’ mode of characterisation is all flatness and surface; physical movement and cinematic syntax take over the work more conventionally assigned to dialogue and performance. We are denied the background information or intimate access that would allow us to readily categorise the characters, or credit them with the clearly differentiated motives, desires and stable traits of traditional humanist subjects.

This alienation ties in with the films’ more fundamental concerns. Though the Dardennes deal with the wrong side of the tracks, they seem to be primarily interested in a form of spiritual rather than material poverty. True, their characters are generally frenetically rushing around struggling to make ends meet, and a lack of material opportunity and hope is a continual backdrop. However, they are not primarily out to shock us with representations of extreme poverty or domestic abuse, or to promote a clear-cut social or political message. Existential themes of meaninglessness and indeterminacy are instead pushed to the foreground, and this makes their films far more unsettling. Whereas a film such as The Bicycle Thieves encourages the utopian interpretation that if it were merely unburdened of an unfair social system mankind might flourish, the Dardennes are as interested in emotional and spiritual forms of alienation as they are in social disenfranchisement. Though they may in some ways be by-products of a dehumanising capitalist system, there is no obvious political solution to the problems they confront.

If this groups the Dardennes films together into one, that is because they are in a sense stages of the same project, corners of a cumulative picture of the world as viewed through the microcosm of the unremarkable industrial city in Belgium in which all their films are set. Through adapting Bressonian techniques they have developed a method by which to translate their worldview into a cinematic form that is at times almost perfectly at the service of content, utilizing and making a virtue of the tendency of film to aestheticize and keep us at arms’ length, rather than attempting to overcome it through artificial means. The immediacy of the medium gives them a mimetic advantage over the Zola-esque novels their films recall, presenting the world to us in its natural state of flux and indecipherability, free of the necessarily reflective dimension of language.

Despite being of the same bloodline, and though it shares many of the broader virtues that make them so unsettling and indispensible, The Kid with a Bike in my view ultimately falls slightly short of the devastating cogency of films such as L’Enfant and Rosetta. Though the first half of the film is flawlessly crafted, in the second there is a tailing off that I would suggest can be traced to both structural and thematic problems that are absent from their best work. The ending of the film is in a sense a reprise of that of The Bicycle Thieves. In that film the father, driven to desperation, steals a bike from a crowded square only to be chased down by an irate mob. Though initially out for revenge, the owner of the bike relents upon seeing the man’s defenceless child, and opts for forgiveness. The son too forgives the father and, as the film ends with a shot of them walking away hand in hand, materially destitute but somehow spiritually enriched, we are left with an image of humanity that transcends the dehumanization of material want.

Similarly, The Kid with a Bike ends on a note of hope and redemption. Cyril has briefly become caught up with a local small-time dealer, and in return for a bit of mild buttering up commits a robbery that involves him – somewhat implausibly in an otherwise rigorously realistic film – knocking out a father and son with a baseball bat. He is saved from the path of juvenile detention and seemingly inevitable ruin by the man he has assaulted, who agrees to forgive him and drop charges. Cyril is ultimately able to return the compliment when the man’s son attempts to exact revenge and briefly fears he has killed him. In an apparent nod to its own artificial symmetry, Cyril is also knocked out only to come around minutes later having suffered no serious ill effect.

Part of the deflation that takes place with this late storyline comes from the fact that not all of its details are particularly believable; but this would not be a primary concern if it served a more compelling essayistic function. The problem for me is that the ending feels rather too determinate, dissipating some of the energy generated through the powerful portraiture of the opening half of the film. In the Dardennes’ best work the final scene arrives as a crescendo that is also a paradox, an inevitability that somehow also manages to question and redefine all that has gone before – like the emotional outpouring at the end of L’Enfant that is rendered all the more shattering for its stubborn indeterminacy, or the sheer relentlessness that marks the final crescendo of Rosetta. Both scenes confer on us an urgent interpretative choice, as in the devastating final shot of Trouffaut’s The 400 Blows when the young Antoine is frozen in an unexpected close-up, looking almost pleadingly into the camera as if to ask ‘what now?’

In the more optimistic closing note of The Kid with a Bike, we can still hear some characteristic undertones: the conflict between that which is shown and presumed, and the probability that the symmetry of the plotline is coincidental and ultimately meaningless. As Cyril cycles off into the sunshine we have no idea what he is thinking, whether he will manage to choose a better life than that which seemed his fate, whether he will collapse from a brain haemorrhage following his concussion, or indeed whether he will make it home at all without being hit by a lorry. Yet it failed for me to gather these conflicting possibilities into the sort of compelling paradox that makes films like L’Enfant and Rosetta so piercing and resonant. As an addition to the Dardennes’ body of work it sits somewhere short of the apex, but it still does enough to demonstrate why they are of a completely different order of significance to 99% of the films that will be showing in a cinema near you this year – and for that reason it demands to be seen.     

The Melancholy of Resistance, by László Krasznahorkai

This review was originally published at

Fans of Bela Tarr’s wonderful film adaptation Werckmeister Harmonies will be familiar with the basic outline of this dense metaphysical parable: a circus turns up to a remote Hungarian town boasting the world’s largest whale, and provokes a mysterious outpouring of carnivalesque violence.  However, what Tarr viewers may be unprepared for is its thematic and philosophical richness. In many ways The Melancholy of Resistance is an old-school European ‘novel of ideas’ in the dialogic tradition of Dostoevsky through Conrad and Mann, yet it is also back-lit with a Kafkaesque disquiet. Tarr’s film is still probably better known than its source text among an English-speaking audience, and Werckmeister Harmonies is characteristically austere and inscrutable; it relies on surface and silence, and makes a virtue of its own cryptic lack of explanation. While these elements are present to some degree in Krasznahorkai’s novel, it is considerably more discursive, more tonally varied in its surrealism and dark humour, and more stylistically baroque than one might expect given the rigorous minimalism of Tarr’s treatment.

Whatever avant-gardeist reputation Krasznahorkai may have amassed thanks to his long sentences and Bernhardian distaste for paragraph breaks, his material is some of the oldest in literature: in fact, the symbolic devices read at times like a post-Nietzschean take on Elizabethan tragedy. There are two major interconnected metaphorical codes running through the novel. On one hand, the giant dead whale is a symbolically loaded literary signifier, somewhere between leviathan, Moby Dick, a mysterious memento mori and a Trojan horse that smuggles into the town the seeds of its destruction; yet on the other it maintains the stubborn silence of materiality and non-being, a monument to the indifference of the phenomenal world. Meanwhile the thematic opposition of order and disorder – a throwback to the central mechanism of Shakespearian tragedy – is animated through the prism of the philosophical worldviews of four main characters: Mrs Plauf, Mrs Eszter, Valushka, and Mr Eszter.

The book highlights the schism between their various belief systems and its violent events. We begin the novel through the eyes of Mrs Plauf, an uptight petit bourgeois, as she journeys back by train across the frozen plains of central Hungary in an unseasonably Baltic November. Written in free indirect style, the journey is unsettling: a disheveled drunk apparently misinterprets her innocent adjustment of her bra, and attempts to follow her into a toilet. On her return to the town she witnesses a rabble of strange men, a random outbreak of violence, a power cut – the stuff of pathetic fallacy. Though her insular frame of reference is gently mocked, it nonetheless foreshadows in its own naive vocabulary the eventual outbreak of violence. The latter is unleashed on the town in unreasoning ferocity by a strange mob led by the Prince, a mysterious Zarathustran prophet of doom recalling Cormac McCarthy’s Judge Holden.

The violence is juxtaposed with various illusions of order. Mr Eszter provides the major articulation of the order/disorder theme in the form of the despair to which he has been driven by his research into musical tonality. Eszter’s pessimism recalls that of a Bernhardian narrator, right down to his study of musicology, hermeticism, obsessive negativity and tragic-comic literal-mindedness. Bernhard’s most pessimistic novel Correction concerns the logico-philosophical death-spiral of a character, loosely based on early Wittgenstein, who  effectively manages to reason himself into non-existence. Driven to despair by the impossibility of aligning thought and experience, he obsessively ‘corrects’ the imperfections of an autobiographical text until he is driven to destroy both it and himself in the ultimate act of self-correction. This deadly rupture between representation and fact – the remainder that leaks through the illusions of order we cognitively impose on the flux of the phenomenal world – is represented through Eszter’s studies in musical tonality.

In a lengthy interior monologue Eszter outlines his erstwhile conception of music as the representation of cosmological harmony that redeems the Schopenhauerean misery of the world:

“Ever since he was young he had lived with the unshakeable conviction that music, which for him consisted of the omnipotent magic of harmony and echo, provided humanity’s only sure stay against the filth and squalor of the surrounding world, music being as close an approximation to perfection as could be imagined”

Yet Ezster’s obsessive, tonal-mathematical studies into the inner workings of harmonics have led him to a devastating discovery: the seven-tone European scale operates at a departure from absolute purity of pitch. The works of Brahms, Beethoven and Mozart do not adumbrate some transcendent cosmological harmony, but are in fact, mathematically speaking, aberrations. In ‘natural’ (ie tonally equidistant) tuning the works of Bach are nothing but a horrible clamour; harmony is in fact an illusion concealing, in Bruchner’s famous words “that screaming that men call silence”. The masterworks that Eszter had regarded as evidence of the redeeming possibility of the unity of object and idea are in fact merely “evidences of human failings”, and this for Eszter has the profoundest of philosophical implications:

“music was not the articulation of some better part of ourselves, or a reference to some notion of a better world, but a disguising of the fact of our irredeemable selves and the sorry state of the world, but no, not merely a disguising but a complete, twisted denial of such facts: it was a cure that did not work, a barbiturate that functioned as an opiate”

Whereas Ezsther’s despair is purely conceptual (he has retreated from the world, we are told, “to recline on his bed and banish boredom by composing, day and night, sentences like variations ‘on the same bitter theme’”), his unlettered companion Valushka undergoes before our eyes his own Weberian ‘disenchantment of the world’, played out in the pre-conceptual domain of the aesthetic.

Whereas Eszter attempts to rationalize the world through the metaphor of harmonic correspondences, the unlettered Valushka aestheticizes it through a rhapsodic intuition of totality. Regarded as a village idiot, Valushka delivers letters, entertains the punters at pub closing time with his rapt demonstrations of the movements of the planets, and performs nightly circuits of the city, watching over it like a guardian angel. Valushka is enchanted by a dimly comprehended image of ‘the regal calm of the universe’, a platonic realm to which the phenomenal world is a mere shadow dance. His initial reaction to the appearance of the great whale is “to cry aloud that people should forget the whale and gaze, each and every one of them, at the sky”; yet even its dumb mass is soon subsumed into his belief system as a sign that points to ‘the apparently lost unity of things’.

Whereas Eszter reasons himself into his fallen state, Valushka’s disenchantment is a consequence of the senseless violence that the strange circus unleashes on the town, brutally exposing the illusory nature of his idealism: “he no longer believed the world was ‘an enchanted place’ for the only power that really existed was ‘that declared by force of arms’”. In Krasznahorkai’s world of will and representation, the latter is doomed to failure; the ascendancy of predation is personified in the eventual rise to power of Mrs Eszter, a corpulent macchiavel. She takes advantage of the violence to seize control of the town council, monopolizing the use of legitimate violence through her affairs first with the chief of police, then with the army colonel brought in to quell the rioting.

It is not merely systems of belief that crumble in the face of the brute facts of appetite, predation and decay, but even the normalizing network of everyday language. As one captured rioter rants at his moralistic interrogator:

“Because you don’t talk, you “whisper” or “expostulate”; you don’t walk down the street but “proceed feverishly”; you don’t enter a place but “cross its threshold”, you don’t feel cold or hot, but `’find yourselves shivering”, or “feel the sweat pouring down you”! I haven’t heard a straight word for hours, you can only mew and caterwaul; if a hooligan throws a brick through your window you invoke the last judgment, and because your brains are addled and filled up with steam, because if someone sticks your nose in shit all you do is sniff, stare and cry “sorcery!”

The Prince’s followers seem to be in some sense attempting to purify the town by correcting it into rubble, pure matter cleansed of the aberrance of form. Yet if the quaint language of the townspeople is absurd, groundless and irrelevant – codifying the sustaining illusions of their insularity – so too are the enchanted metaphysical ravings of Valushka, and Eszter’s mannered expressions of despair. Ultimately, for any metaphorical foreshadowing contained in Eszter’s learned analysis of the tonal system, or the townspeople’s quaint intimations of the apocalypse, neither has any effect on the outcome. The destruction that is wrought on the town is ultimately impervious to metaphor, a manifestation of the sheer indifference of the material world. In the Nietzschean terms of the Prince the destruction of the town is a kind of fatalistic correction, an Etch A Sketch end of the world:

“A town based on lies will continue to be a town based on lies… What they do and what they will do are both based on lies and false pride. What they think and what they will think are equally ridiculous. They think because they are frightened. Fear is ignorance. He says he likes it when things fall to pieces. Ruin comprises every form of making: lies and false pride are like oxygen in the ice. Making is half: ruin is everything”

As if to vindicate its own anti-metaphysics the novel ends with a scientifically detailed five-page account of Mrs Plauf’s bodily decomposition, as Mrs Eszter – a personification of the will to power – looks on at her graveside. In a cruel twist of structural inevitability, she has been raped and murdered – an ironic vindication of her slightly laughable paranoia at the start of the book. In a novel that evokes the utter, crushing indifference of the phenomenal objects that we invest with meaning and significance, it is fitting that the very eyes through which the narrative begins are ultimately ground down into dust, in the rigorously dispassionate language of biological description. The man who sinisterly tries to follow Mrs Plauf into the toilet on the train may indeed have had the last word, a perversely ironic fate that screams utter indifference even as it apes the nightmare visions of her own petit-bourgeois paranoia. Either way, her beliefs have no effect on her fate.

Nor is the novel itself exempt from this bleak vision. It too will succumb to the indifferent corrective force of material fate. Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert, that hopeless idealist, ends his confession with an elegant appeal to the “the secret of durable pigments, prophetic sonnets, the refuge of art. And this is the only immortality you and I may share, my Lolita”. But for Krasznahorkai, even ink has its shelf life:

“It ground the empire into carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen and sulphur, it took its delicate fibers and unstitched them till they dispersed and had ceased to exist, because they had been consumed by the force of some incomprehensible distant edict, which must also consume this book, here, now, at the full stop, after the last word.”

Dogma, by Lars Iyer


“You should never learn from your mistakes”, declares W. in the opening line of Dogma, the sequel to Lars Iyer’s cult philosophical comedy, Spurious. Fans will be reassured to know that neither W. nor Lars seems to have learned much between then and now: they still hang around in pubs abusing each other and waxing grandiloquent about the End of Days; they still haven’t really figured out Rosenzweig and Cohen; they still haven’t had an original thought; and though Lars’ apocalyptic plague of damp may be in recession, it has been replaced by a chronic infestation of rats. All in all, what with academia falling ever further into disrepair and W. on the verge of losing his job, if anything things have become even more hopeless.

Like its predecessor, Dogma revolves around the suffocating inertia of Lars and W., its tragi-comic double-act. The characters move around a bit more than in Spurious, but – like the dancing chicken at the end of Werner Herzog’s Stroszek, which W. adopts as a symbol of the idiotic ‘dance of the cosmos’ – it is movement without progress, without sense and without cease. As well as visiting each other in Plymouth and Newcastle, this time the pair embark on an ill-fated lecture tour around the Deep South, visit Oxford, and go to worship at the shrine of their latest ‘leader’, the misery-folk recluse Josh T. Pearson, at a music festival in Somerset (which those of a certain cast of mind will recognise as ATP).

Read the full review at ReadySteadyBook

Scenes From Provincial Life, by JM Coetzee

‘Autobiography as defacement’, my piece on JM Coetzee’s trilogy of autobiographical works Scenes From Provincial Life, has been published over at 3:AM Magazine.


Whom do we hear speaking in the following sentence?  “For a man of his age, fifty two, divorced, he has, to his mind, solved the problem of sex rather well”. The self-justifying tone of the opening clause, the rhetorical qualification ‘to his mind’, the telling definite article in ‘the problem of sex’, suggest an inflection on the part of the character in question. But the journalistic parenthesis ‘fifty two, divorced’, to say nothing of the fact that it is written in the third person, sounds more like the author spatchcocking in some background information to chivvy his narrative along. The voice is neither straightforwardly that of the author nor that of the character. It occupies, though the use of Flaubert’s style indirect libre, a space between the two that allows both for critical detachment and internal access.

The above, the opening sentence of Disgrace, might be cited in a creative writing course as a textbook example of a modern literary style (though the uses to which Coetzee puts it are anything but). Coetzee retains a reputation for this kind of minimal, slightly frosty precision, surgically dissecting his characters while maintaining all along an unflinching distance and restraint. Passages such as the above play out the uncertain relationship between the narrator and narrated in their every word, and this dynamic has been one of the key points of tension throughout Coetzee’s oeuvre. Indeed, his very first novel, Dusklands, begins with a narrator who labours under the gaze of a military supervisor named Coetzee. (First sentence: “Coetzee has asked me to revise my essay”).

Read the full piece here 

Journey by Moonlight, by Antal Szerb

Journey by Moonlight was a serendipitous find – an unknown (to me) European modernist classic, reissued by Pushkin Press and jettisoned by some kind or foolish soul in Oxfam Books, with a glowing blurb from that most reliably discerning of broadsheet critics, Nicolas Lezard. It is, it transpires, regarded in Hungary as perhaps the nation’s most important 20th century novel; a modernist classic to rank alongside the likes of Ulysses, The Trial, A la recherché and Berlin, Alexanderplatz, and taught in schools up and down the country.

Whereas the canonical texts of English literature tend to have a certain whiff of respectability – Victorian moral disquisitions, stately pentameter odes, earnest examinations of social themes, even Shakespearean tragedies sanitised by innumerable polite performances in the West End – Journey by Moonlight is a novel laced with unreconstructed existential menace. Like Jean-Paul Sartre’s The Age of Reason, it examines the clash between unconscious desires and the arbitrary mores of bourgeois society, in a world whose meaninglessness and irrationality has been brutally exposed by war.

As its title suggests, Journey by Moonlight is a book with a haunted, dreamlike quality, a transmigration of souls like WG Sebald’s Vertigo or The Emigrants. The novel follows the peregrinations of Mihaly as he drifts around Italy, with a shifting support cast of miscellaneous rootless dreamers. At the beginning of the novel Mihaly and his newlywed Erzsi are on honeymoon in Venice, but before too long Mihaly abandons her and begins a strange odyssey, traversing the historic landscape of Italy in a mysterious search for meaning and identity that takes him into confrontation with the characters and obsessions that populate his subconscious.  Like Sartre’s Mathieu Delareu, Mihaly has reached the ‘age of reason’; recently married, a partner in a small father-son Budapest law practise, his life is seemingly mapped out before him. His vicarious fascination with transgression is reigned in by what he calls his “order-loving, dutiful bourgeois soul”. Though he is suffocated by his deeply conventional existence, he is incapable of finding an alternative way to live.


The words ‘to live’ carry the emphasis in that statement, because for all its charm, lightness of touch and wry, understated wit, Journey by Moonlight is also a pitch-black novel that is completely obsessed with death. Indeed, perhaps its key recurring motif is suicidal longing – the primal, irrational desire for the paroxysm of destruction that is sinisterly interwoven with the sexual imagination. Early in the novel Mihaly relates the story of his teenage circle of friends: Ervin, the intense, intellectual romantic and future Catholic monk; international man of mystery Janos (a ridiculous but entertaining cipher); and most importantly, the sinister, dionysian Ulpius twins, Eva and Tamas. On the outside the epitome of patrician poise, in private the Ulpius twins represent the transgressive, taboo-breaking opposite to Mihaly’s instinctive conservativism:

“Later I read in a famous English essay that the chief characteristic of the Celts was a rebellion against the tyranny of facts. Well, in this respect, the two of them were true Celts. In fact, as I recall, both Tamás and I were crazy about the Celts, the world of Parsifal and the Holy Grail. Probably the reason why I felt so at home with them was that they were so much like Celts. With them I found my real self. I remember why I always felt so ashamed of myself, so much an outsider, in my parents’ house. Because there, facts were supreme.”

However, this liberation comes with a dark side: an obsession with sex and death (Eva, like a Celtic goddess, represents these twin seductions). In fact, the story is in a sense the process of Mihaly trying to come to terms with the secret fetish for death that defined their childhood in nihilistic, Dadaist post-WW1 Budapest, and that resulted in the mysterious, sleazy incest-driven suicide of Tamas. The main characters all represent potential paths, alternatives to the life of default conformity from which Mihaly wishes to escape: the spiritual self-sacrifice of Ervin, the unscrupulous liberty of conman Janos, the life of the mind represented by the brilliant intellectual Waldheim, or death, as represented by Tamas the suicide. The difference is that whereas each of these characters seems able to absolutely, almost passionately embody their identity, Mihaly is somehow inessential, a lost soul devoid of conviction. In fact, the book leaves open the unsettling inference that his failure to follow in Tamas’ footsteps and commit suicide is down to a lack of integrity rather than a desire to live.

While this is heavy territory, one of the wonderful things about this novel is that it is brought to life with complexity, irony, detail and warmth. On one level the characters are pawns on a Freudian chessboard on which Szerb plays out the rupture between the primal subconscious and the bourgeois superego. But they embody and animate these ideas in a way that is more than merely essayistic, making this a book that lives. Like The Tin Drum and Heart of Darkness, it is a novel with horror at its core, yet it is never oppressively or self-consciously bleak; indeed, it is frequently charming.

Through a Glass Darkly, by Ingmar Bergman

Through a Glass Darkly contains all of the classic elements of early Bergman: Aristotelian unities of character, time and location, long and dialogue-heavy black-and-white takes, wearyingly intense performances, excellent glasses, and a winning combination of earnest religious doubt and chic continental angst. Nobody makes despair look as cool as Bergman.

Like most of his works of the same period, it’s a deceptively simple story (I could say something here about how it was ‘conceived as a chamber piece’, but you all know where Wikipedia is). The film focuses on 24 fairly melodramatic hours in the lives of four characters. David, a morbidly self-obsessed author suffering from writer’s block, returns from a period of artistic retreat in Switzerland to visit his much-neglected family in a remote cottage in the fjords: Karin, his energetically schizophrenic daughter who has just been released from hospital; Martin, her decent, upstanding and rigorously boring husband; and her younger brother Minus, a precocious and conflicted 17 year-old with a massive paternal inferiority complex and an uncontrollable crush on his flirtatiously batshit sister. Let battle commence.


The initial harmoniousness of the father’s return is broken by Martin’s revelation to David that Karin’s recent schizophrenic breakdown may in fact be an incurable illness. Karin later discovers David’s diary, in which he admits to his intention of using her impending mental decline as the artistic subject-matter that his intensely bourgeois life has so far failed to provide. This precipitates a mental unravelling in which the codified meanings of domestic life break down and taboos are temporarily suspended. While David and Martin are on a daytrip to the mainland, Karin and Minus find themselves careering towards a consummation of their irrational mutual fixation.

Like John Cassavettes’ A Woman Under the Influence, the film on one level portrays a female consciousness ground down by the patriarchal tedium of domestic life. Martin does a great line in irreproachably unfanciable Nordic steadfastness: tall and reassuringly boring, like an Ikea wardrobe. The earnest man-chat between him and Karin’s father that opens the film is so hilariously leaden that in five minutes it creates a ready-made empathy for Karin’s mental unravelling. We instantly side with the weird and sexy dionysian over the unsexy domestic males. What’s more, so does young Minus.


Whereas Martin personifies groundedness and certainty, the three blood relatives stand on differing points along an imaginative scale passing through religious uncertainty and ending in total annihilation (the mother died following a mental illness). David – who writes commercially successful novels but wishes he was a great artist – is a quietly despairing narcissist who perversely envies his daughter’s more extroverted suffering, as well as his son’s naïvely uninhibited creativity.

Minus oscillates between creative and destructive impulses and struggles to control or comprehend his nascent libido; he and Karin, who perennially teeters on the precipice of self-destruction, are irresistibly drawn to one another. In a farcically charged scene, Karin catches Minus taking time out from his Latin conjugation homework to surreptitiously flick through a porno mag. When she grabs the magazine from his hands and teases him, Minus spits in her face before collapsing in shame and self-reproach. Bergman ends the scene with a close-up of the scrunched-up magazine sandwiched between the leather-bound respectability of two Latin textbooks.


Like Erica Kohut in The Piano Teacher, Karin and Minus embody in varying ways the conflict between the irrational destructive spirit, and the structural staves of consensus reality. Picking up the Kierkegaardian theme that runs though Bergman’s early work, the film is a study of the potential unravelling of meaning and morality in a world bereft of a God-shaped lynchpin. Bergman frequently drives dangerously close to self-parody, yet here as elsewhere there is a certain stripped-down intensity and focus that gives improbable depth to a plot that could easily have been merely melodramatic. With just four symbolically tessellated characters Bergman creates a switchboard of conflicting energies, correspondences and false oppositions.

For those unfamiliar with Bergman, Sweden may not seem the instinctive first-port-of-call for such an explosive cocktail of sex, art, taboo and philosophy. But then once you are familiar with Bergman there are a great many things about the world that never really seem the same again.