Tagged: Walter Benjamin

Why Knausgaard?

Why Knausgaard? When I have a dozen other things I should be doing, at least three blogs I have lined up to write? Well, sometimes you just have to sit down and blog it out.

In this instance, the post was brought on last night when @gillybethstern hijacked a Twitter conversation about The National to ask: Any of you read the latest Knausgaard?

My contribution was:

I finished Vol II over w/end. Easy to SAY it’s superb. Harder to say WHY, to which Gillian replied

Agree. But I am enthralled, even when he boils water or fries up his meatballs. Then me:

and unties his shoelaces and takes off his shoes and hangs up his jacket…

She’s right, and those laces and jacket were already underlined in my copy of the book, that I finished in a glorious sunny binge this weekend just gone, during a 24 hour stretch staying in a nice hotel in St Ives on my own – one of those pockets in time that allow you to really immerse yourself in a book, with no distractions.

Nobody wanted me for reviewing duties on this, the second volume of Knausgaard’s epic, six-volume succès de scandale, My Struggle, so this is my opportunity to just sit down and bash out an attempt at that question: Why Knausgaard? What is about his books that fires me up in a way that simply no other books do, at the moment?

@seventydys tried to answer it thusly: The quality of attention. How the facts are held in language. Nope-can’t do it.

This then is nothing so considered as a review – instead, here are a few of the comments I scrawled across the tops of the pages I read, and a few of the lines or passages I underlined, with hopefully brief attempts to explicate them. Continue reading


What is ‘reading’?: A failed blog post about books

About a year ago I began writing a monthly post on this blog responding to the books that I had read over the last month – not reviews so much, nothing so considered; more a summation of what had stuck with me from those books. It’s not that I don’t like book reviews – people pay me to do those – but that I wanted to move beyond the balanced, culturally-engaged appraisal they call for to see if there was more to get out of writing about books once the books had been finished, put down, half-forgotten, and allowed to relax into the seething primordial swamp of read books, their sentences lost among the millions of other sentences read, processed, filed, erased. (It’s no surprise that I count among my favourite critical books Nicholson Baker’s U&I and Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage.)

I kept it up for all of 2012, not always posting on time – but then not all of the books were timely books – and letting myself slip only for December. And, indeed, what I found as the year went by is that single issues, single books, tended to dominate the posts. Some months had photographs of big piles of books at the top (nine, ten, eleven books), some three, or even two. Sometimes those books were big books, and so took up lots of reading time (January 2013 I’ve been reading Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, which doesn’t leave much head space for anything else) but sometimes I had read other books but didn’t much feel like writing about them.

Then there’s the question of how you actually define reading. For a book to be read, must it be completed? Properly engaged with? Where do you draw the limits? If I’ve ‘been reading’ The Magic Mountain does that mean I’ve not ‘been reading’ anything else? No. Also by my bed is Bettany Hughes’ The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life, which I’ve been dipping into after a discussion of philosophy books with my good friend Neil and his son Harrison, who’s just starting to study the subject at school. As part of that discussion I took down from the shelf my favourite philosophical anthology Porcupines – that got read, too, a bit.

Last Saturday, while supposedly watching Borgen on television with my wife, I found myself dipping into another of my favourite ‘dipping into’ books, Clive James’s book of essays Cultural Amnesia; I read two or three entries, including his spirited takedown of Walter Benjamin Continue reading

What ‘word of mouth’ means

Last week, in class, after we had discussed the Raymond Carver story ‘Gazebo’ I asked my students if they had read much else by that writer. All at once the class bloomed as they started sharing their favourite Carvers. Sometimes they could remember the titles, sometimes not, and never the names of the characters. What they did was retell the stories, a process that was something more than a simple plot summary or a paraphrase: they imbued their telling with a vital sense of narrative momentum, and enthusiasm. They told the stories excitedly. The others listened eagerly.

Then, on the train home, I read Walter Benjamin’s essay ‘The Storyteller’, in which he laments the passing of the oral tradition (linking it to the rise of the novel), rather as he laments the loss of aura from the work of art in his more famous essay.

Later I thought back to the conversations I had had with my fellow tutor P as to what stories we were thinking of setting our students in this seminar. The conversations consisted in large part of us recounting favourite stories that the other didn’t know. In this we did exactly as those students, with their Carvers. I told P Lorrie Moore’s ‘Dance in America’, he told me ‘True Short Story’ by Ali Smith. I don’t know if P rushed out to read Moore, but I got hold of the Smith as soon as I could.

True, we did include some elements of analysis in those conversations – the stories we set were supposed to highlight particular themes: plot, characterisation, point of view and so on – but by and large, and at base, we said what happened to the characters in the story.

In thinking back on these varied experiences of retelling favourite stories (as speaker, listener and witness), and comparing them to the usually  more measured terms in which the students discussed the stories I had set them in class, I got to thinking about that ghostly chimera of a holy grail that publishers like to speak of: word of mouth.

What is word of mouth? It’s saying, ‘I’ve just read a great book,’ yes, but it’s more than that. ‘It’s a great book’ will usually meet the rejoinder, ‘What’s it about?’ which can be answered in one of two ways. Either, ‘It’s about human despair in the face of mortality’ (thematic summary) or ‘It’s about a character whose mother dies and they go on a road trip to meet their father and… and… and…’

Word of mouth, true word of mouth – the good stuff, that actually sends the recommendee skipping off to the nearest bookshop or library – involves the impassioned retelling of a story. A word of mouth recommendation of a novel carries in it wisps and echoes of Benjamin’s lost oral tradition. The recommender becomes, in some minor way, a storyteller him- or herself – and the quality of their storytelling can be taken as a measure, in this instance, of the quality of the story retold.

Basically, a story retold with passion, concision and balance is likely to be a good story –  because it’s been remembered, and internalised, and is rewarding to retell. That’s how word of mouth works. In recounting a short story or a novel for a friend, you are essentially filleting it for its story. The story in the story.

Compare this now to a book review. The perverse, insidious thing about book reviews, as everyone knows, is that they absolve the person reading it from actually reading the book. In non-fiction, obviously, this can be because the review summarises the book’s argument (oh, so that’s her take on New Labour/Modernism/weeds) but it happens with fiction reviews too. The difference is that the fiction review ties up a plot summary (though, compared to the word of mouth recommender’s, a thoroughly dispassionate one) with an aesthetic judgment of the work, even an explanation of it. Now here’s Benjamin:

Actually, it is half the art of storytelling to keep a story free from explanation as one recounts it […] The most extraordinary things, marvellous things, are related with the greatest accuracy, but the psychological connections among the events are not forced on the reader.

In pop psychology terms, a book review offers closure that a word of mouth recommendation doesn’t. The book review gives us a story in the form of an autopsy report, the word of mouth recommendation in the form of a big wriggling bundle of characters, events and themes, thrust into our arms with the injunction to see what we make of it.

Obviously, there are stories that resist plot summary, and I’m rushing off right now to follow up P’s non-summarised recommendation of David Means (story in the New Yorker here) to test that out, but I’m talking about the broad middle ground here, the home of the ‘Yes – oh dear yes – the novel tells a story story.

A final thought. When someone asks you what your novel is ‘about’ (and again that’s always the terms in which the question is posed), they usually do so apologetically, acknowledging the reductionism it implies, but you should be grateful to them.

Even if you’re still writing your novel, and you’re all tangled up in the middle of it, lost in a wood made insistently of trees, think of this: they are asking exactly the same question they would ask of someone who’s just read your – published – novel: ‘What’s it about?’

Think of the answer you would want that person to give. That answer, if your novel ‘tells a story,’ involves – however briefly and reductively, but hopefully enthusiastically – telling the story of your story. That’s where the oral tradition lives on, in word of mouth.