Tuesday, January 6, 2015

“Reach Up:” Karl Ove Knausgaard on Writing


About ten days after my travels a small unexpected package arrived in the mail from, of all places, Alaska Airlines.  Inside was my copy of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle: Book 1 which I had left on the plane in Salt Lake City as I hurried off to make the connecting flight to Calgary.  I realized this nearly instantly in the terminal but I didn’t have a spare minute.  Besides, I had finished the book.  My only regret was that I had marked three of Knausgaard’s passages on writing for further contemplation and I knew that in order to find them again I would have to reread the whole book. And that wasn’t going to happen.  I was still debating whether I would go on to read Book 2, of the proposed six volumes. Much less reread Book 1, as much as I liked it.
So, I was very happy to have my copy back and delighted (word chosen carefully) that Alaska Airlines had returned it unbidden: so  . . . civilized. 
Here are the passages:
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? (192)

Our minds are flooded with images of places we have never been, yet still know, people we have never met, yet still know and in accordance with which we, to a considerable extent, live our lives.  The feeling this gives that the world is small, tightly enclosed around itself, without opening to anywhere else, is almost incestuous, and although I knew this too be deeply untrue, since we actually know nothing about anything, still I could not escape it.  The longing I always felt, which some days was so great it could hardly be controlled, had its source here.  It was partly to relieve this feeling that I wrote, I wanted to open the world by writing, for myself, at the same time, this is what made me fail.  The feeling that the future does not exist, that it is only more of the same, means that all utopias are meaningless.  Literature has always been related to utopia, so when utopia loses meaning, so does literature.  What was I trying to do, and perhaps what all writers try to do—what on earth do I know?—was to combat fiction with fiction.  What I ought to do was affirm what existed, affirm the state of things as they are, in other words, revel in the world outside instead of searching for a way out, for in a way I would undoubtedly have a better life, but I couldn’t do it, I couldn’t something had congealed inside me, a conviction was rooted inside me, and although it was essentialist, that is, outmoded, and furthermore, romantic, I could not get past it, for the simple reason that it had not only been thought but also experienced, in these sudden states of clearsightedness that everyone must know, where for  few seconds you catch sight of another world from the one you were in only a moment earlier, where the world seems to step forward and show itself for a brief glimpse before reverting and leaving everything as before . . .  (Ellipsis: Knausgaard’s) (221-222)

. . . the world of advanced literature, where you wrote essays about a line of Dante, where nothing could be made complex enough, where art dealt with the supreme, not in a high-flown sense because it was the modernist canon with which we were engaged, but in the sense of the ungraspable, which was best illustrated by Blanchot’s description of Orpheus’s gaze, the night of the night, the negation of the negation, which of course was in some way above the trivial and in many ways wretched lives we lived , but what I learned was that our ludicrously inconsequential lives, in which we could not attain anything of what we wanted, nothing, in which everything was beyond our abilities and power, had a part in this world, and thus also in the supreme, for books existed, you only had to read them, no one but myself could exclude me from them.  You just had to reach up.  (330)

So, the third passage is more about reading, but the advice—Reach Up—works for writing as well.  Thanks Alaska Airlines.  And, yes, I will be reading Book 2.