Grevel Lindop

Poet, biographer, critic, essayist and writer on just about everything

Knausgaard’s Masterpiece

I’ve recently finished The End, the appropriately-titled sixth and last volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s epic ‘novel’ My Struggle. An extraordinary book, and I think a very fine one.

That said, it has to be admitted that it’s not an easy read, despite being extremely gripping, suspenseful, stimulating and emotionally-wrenching at times. Indeed, I’d say that it requires as much effort to read this sixth volume as it takes to read all the previous five put together.

This isn’t just a question of length – though this final volume, at 1160 pages, is longer than any of the earlier ones. It’s also, more importantly, due to the nature of the material. The narrative is certainly gripping – when we have narrative (which we do for a good part of the time). This is partly because the autobiographical story has now caught up with the point where Knausgaard’s first volume, A Death in the Family¸ is being published. And (not surprisingly, given its utterly honest and completely unvarnished confessional realism) Knaussgaard finds that a lot of people really don’t like it.

Despite the fact that he has checked with everyone mentioned explicitly in his narrative, and changed names etc when necessary, it still isn’t enough. His uncle (who doesn’t really figure significantly in the earlier volume) is beside himself with fury about the book, because it depicts the alcoholic death of Knausgaard’s father (the uncle’s brother) in a filthy house and the uncle feels Knaussgaard is letting the entire family down. He resorts to threats of legal action (empty, because you can’t in any case libel the dead, and no one else is criticised), abusive phone calls and any other weapon he can find.

Knausgaard finds that the one thing people don’t want from a writer is honesty. And we get the impression that tidy, bourgeois Scandinavian society can’t face the truth about itself, even told with the best intentions.

Then there is a dreadful suspense that builds around the mental health of Knausgaard’s wife, who turns out to be bipolar and towards the end of the book is sunk in a suicidal depression from which it seems she may never recover. You read the last section of the book in profound concern about the outcome.

All of this is wonderful, and told with Knausgaard’s remarkable, obsessive, close-up realism, which seems to give you every moment and gesture – making you look freshly and closely at the details of your own life.

But the book turns away from these things and at certain points becomes a colossal essay, first on the boyhood of Hitler (of whom, despite his overall title – My Struggle – Knausgaard is absolutely not an admirer), and then on Paul Celan’s poem ‘Engführung’. And extraordinarily, even as he is writing these passages, to his near-disbelief the massacre of teenagers by Anders Brivik on Utoya Island takes place. Knausgaard’s treatment of all this is not in any way sensationalistic; indeed he writes so thoughtfully and with such care that many readers will probably be bored or just bogged down.

And the passages confirm my suspicion that Knausgaard isn’t really a novelist at all. I think the best label for him is ‘existential philosopher’. Like Kierkegaard, he’s using the material of his own life, mercilessly, as the material for reflection. And though he writes in narrative much of the time, it isn’t fiction, and we recall that Sartre, Nietzsche, and Kierkegaard all told stories to embody their ideas.

How well Knausgaard’s work will stand the test of time remains to be seen. I’ve been gripped by it; and I think Volume I, A Death in the Family, is a masterpiece. Whether I’d plough through all the other volumes again I’m not sure. A Norwegian Proust (as he’s been called) he certainly ain’t. He doesn’t have the subtlety, the stylistic beauty or the contemplative poise of Proust. Knausgaard is angry, frustrated, often crude and impatient, often very funny. But he has done something wholly original and, I suspect, profound. I recommend him strongly.

Lois Lang-Sims (1917-2014)

On Monday I went to Canterbury for the funeral of Lois Lang-Sims. It was a beautiful service, held in the ancient crypt of the Cathedral –  the ivory-white stone of the Norman columns polished by the touch of thousands of hands over almost a thousand years, the carvings of birds, animals and plants on the capitals as crisp and vivid as ever, and the whole quiet contemplative space lit by candles.

Like most people, I knew Lois first of all as a follower of Charles Williams (1886-1945), the poet and theologian whose biography I have just finished writing.  For Lois, who died on March 11 at the age of 97, was perhaps the last of Charles Williams’s ‘disciples’ – those who, for a time, took him as their spiritual teacher. She will be known, therefore, to many people as the co-author of Letters to Lalage, in which she added her own commentary and reminiscences to Williams’s letters to her, written in 1943 and 1944.

But Lois was more than simply a follower of Charles Williams. She was a writer and spiritual seeker of considerable stature. Another of her teachers was the Buddhist scholar Marco Pallis with whom, as with Williams, she eventually broke – for Lois was nothing if not independent-minded. One of the first English people to become aware of the sad plight of the Tibetan refugees who fled to Nepal and northern India after the Chinese invasion of 1959, she helped to found the Tibet Society, the first charity dedicated to helping them, becoming a friend of the Dalai Lama and other senior Tibetan lamas.

Her Tibetan adventures are depicted in a beautifully-written volume of autobiography, Flower in a Teacup. This, and an account of her earlier life in A Time to be Born, form one of the finest British autobiographies of the twentieth century and richly deserve to be reprinted. Having worked as a guide for visitors to Canterbury Cathedral, she was also the author of Canterbury Cathedral: Mother Church of Holy Trinity, a discursive account of the Cathedral, its history and its significance, as well as of One Thing Only: A Christian Guide to the Universal Quest for God and The Christian Mystery: An Exposition of Esoteric Christianity.

I met her in 2001, when I went to record her memories of Charles Williams. She lived then in a care home in Hove, where, as a devout mystical Christian, she spent much of her time in prayer and contemplation. She was surrounded by her books, and by the photographs of people from her childhood who had become, for her, archetypal figures of deep spiritual significance: her mother and father, her beloved nurse ‘Old Nan’, and an adored elder brother who had died during her infancy.

She was still beautiful; and her mind was clear and incisive, as it remained to the end. We stayed in touch, and she eagerly read every draft chapter of my biography of Charles Williams, responding with helpful comments and fascinating discussion. She continued to write essays, and to read widely. Biography was her favourite genre: she was something of an expert on Gandhi’s life, and in the last few months was carefully reading Ian Kershaw’s recent life of Hitler, developing her own theories about the psychological forces which had led Gandhi to good and Hitler to terrible evil.

Towards the end she grew too weak to write, so we talked on the telephone. (I like to think that she was able to read the final chapter of my book about Charles Williams, which I sent her on 13 February.) Asked about her health in those last months, she would exclaim ‘Oh, I’m crumbling away! But don’t worry, my dear, I’m looking forward to death. I really can’t wait!’

Hypersensitive, opinionated and argumentative at times, she nonetheless radiated love and intelligence. I found her a delight and an inspiration. And she has probably left much literary work greatly deserving of publication. I hope that a late essay of hers, ‘The Simplicity of Faith’, will be published in Temenos Academy Review in 2015.