April 17, 2021
Critic Leo Robson is our erudite and eloquent guide as we lose ourselves in the estuaries and marshes of Henry James’s sinuous “blue river of truth.” We begin in the archives of Leo’s G-chat and Whatsapp messages, where he first heard--and ignored--whispers of KOK’s boundless literary project. His indifference breaks down, however, after he and friend of the pod Christian Lorentzen take a desultory post-stag-party walk through Barcelona. A lugubrious Leo, sick of John Berger’s Marxist reading of Picasso, opens his Blackberry to find that James Wood has written an essay on Perr Petersen, which makes him think of that other Norwegian, the one with the endless maybe-novel underway, which leads him back to Lauren and Drew, who discover their friendship is coterminous with My Struggle’s publication history: they met, devoted listeners will know, over a drunken discussion about The Queen is Dead in summer 2010, just after Volume 1 had appeared on American Shores. Where are they now, in their actual reading of My Struggle itself? Leo asks. “I don’t fucking know,” says Lauren.
Leo’s self-described “big data” survey of Knausgaardiana elicits comparisons between chronological expansions and contractions in My Struggle and Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood”--are these examples of “big data” narratives? Richard Brody will soon be coming on the pod soon to anatomize Linklater’s use of time.
Leo suggests that Harold Brodkey and Adam Mars-Jones might be seen as Knausgaard’s precursors in the aesthetic tradition of what Wood lyrically deemed “autopsied minutiae” and “psycho-pointillism” (Lauren jeers at the latter term). Drew takes this opportunity to proclaim Brodkey his “hero.” Drew and Leo discuss a near-mythical public conversation between James Wood and Brodkey, held in London in 1991. Link: https://sounds.bl.uk/Arts-literature-and-performance/ICA-talks/024M-C0095X0801XX-0100V0
We then embark on a disorderly Odyssey into Knausgaard’s reception in the anglosphere--and, somehow, into the history of realism and its discontents. For Schylla and Charybdis, we have David Shields and V.S. Pritchett (or something like that). Along the way, Sheila Heti, Ben Lerner and Frederick Jameson help us pick apart the itemized thinginess ("choisisme") of Knausgaard’s project: are things differentiated? Are things merely commodified, or, in their very banality, redeemed? Robbe-Grillet and his New Novelists provide an obsessively textural counterpoint to Knausgaard’s seemingly blank litanies of objects and products.
Geoff Dyer takes a break from writing a blurb for Lauren’s eponymous Easter roast chicken to serve as another formal model for My Struggle and its reverberations. Like Brodkey and Mars-Jones, in his work, “nothing happens in a really a big way.” Here Drew invokes sensuous sun worshipper John Updike who, via a review of The Adventures of a Photographer in Los Platas by Adolfo Bioy Cesares, provides us with these weirdly apt sentences: “The novel arrests our attention and wins our respect by the things it disdains to do: it does not overdramatize or moralize, it denies events a deeper meaning. A clean if desolate flatness results”
Does KoK fit into David Shields’ anti-novelistic canon of Reality Hunger? Lauren and Leo get into some narratological weeds: is Karl Ove an ironized character, or a source of Shields-approved wisdom writing?
Things are rambling along nicely until Drew “artlessly opens a can of worms.” Defending the so-called novelistic tradition against Shields’ claims of lifeless conventionality and formal tidiness, he brandishes a long quotation from V.S. Pritchett’s essay on Dead Souls (first collected in In My Good Books, 1942) :
“The modern novel has reached such a pitch of competence and shapeliness that we are shocked at the disorderliness of the masterpieces. In the modern novel we are looking at a neatly barbered suburban garden; in the standard works how often do we have the impression of bowling through the magnificent gateway of a demesne only to find the house and gardens are unfinished or patched up anyhow, as if the owner had tired of his money in the first few weeks and after that had passed his life in a daydream of projects for ever put off. We feel the force of a great power which is never entirely spent, but which cannot be bothered to fulfill itself. In short, we are up against the carelessness, the lethargy, the enormous bad taste of genius, its slovenly and majestic conceit that anything will do”
Pritchett inspires Leo to give us an intricate tour of the history of tensions between form and chaos in the novel: the wet and the dry, the tidy and baggy. “We’ve conspired to mention every writer in the Western canon,” Leo says. “There’s the mess and the chaos--but there’s also the art.”