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.

Geoffrey Hill (1932-2016)

Geoffrey Hill, who died last Thursday, was a magnificent poet – and sometimes a difficult one. He produced lines that haunted you, perhaps because they contained so much questioning, as well as so much music.

Geoffrey Hill

Sir Geoffrey Hill

His early books, King Log and For the Unfallen, contained poems that were truly haunting. The very first poem of his first collection was – perhaps – about the difficulty of religious belief but also about the fact that we need myth and see miracles all around us. Its lines and rhythms enacted what they talked about:

 

Against the burly air I strode,

Where the tight ocean heaves its load,

Crying the miracles of God.

Reading that, you can feel the battering of the wind against your face. You can feel the mass of the sea sliding and beating against the land. And then you notice the questions too: is it ‘I’ who am ‘crying the miracles of God’? Or is it the ocean?

There are lines that fascinate, full of magic even if you don’t understand them:

…And made the glove-winged albatross

Scour the ashes of the sea

Where Capricorn and Zero cross…

It was years before I realised that this referred to the Tropic of Capricorn and longitude zero, an actual place (it’s a remote spot in the South Atlantic). But what magical lines!

My favourite book was perhaps Tenebrae, and its sonnet sequence An Apology for the Revival of Christian Architecture in England. A sequence full of the most beautiful images: ‘Where wild-eyed poppies raddle tawny farms’ ‘horseflies siphon the green dung’; ‘the crocus armies of the dead/rise up…’ Hill combined a profoundly questing intellect with a wonderful gift for phrases and images; and yet he questioned and reflected on the meaning of every word he used. He used language so well because he didn’t trust it.

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Geoffrey Hill at the grave of Charles Williams in Oxford

 

When he heard I was writing a life of Charles Williams, a writer about whom he was enthusiastic whilst clearly also seeing his faults, he was immensely encouraging, but he didn’t stop at encouragement. He laboriously copied out – by hand – all of Williams’s annotations in a copy of Kierkegaard he owned, and sent them to me. He heralded the book in the opening words of his valedictory lecture as Professor of Poetry at Oxford; and when it came out he reviewed it in the TLS – a quirky, impartial review, whose opening words were ‘I welcome the appearance of this book though not unreservedly.’ – a sentence that made me laugh aloud, it was so characteristic.

And he sent me the wonderful photograph I reproduce here, of himself at Charles Williams’s grave. He looked like Merlin, whose voice he had used in one of his earliest poems: ‘I will consider the outnumbering dead:/For they are the husks of what was rich seed…’

I met him two or three times. He was kind, genial, funny, and quite without self-importance. As great a man, I think, as he was a poet.

WHO WAS CHARLES WILLIAMS?

Ever since I began writing Charles Williams: The Third Inkling, people have been asking me ‘Who was Charles Williams?’

Well, I wrote the biography to make him better known, so the question is fine with me. It’s exactly what I want people to ask.

As my title suggests, he was one of the group of Oxford writers known as the Inklings – the other most important members being C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Owen Barfield. Charles Williams attended the group regularly during World War Two, when his workplace – the London office of Oxford University Press – was evacuated to Oxford to avoid the bombing.

But Williams was more than that. He was, I believe, a major poet, with a brilliant sequence of poems on the Arthurian legends. In fact he was the major English Arthurian poet of the twentieth century.

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He was also a pioneering author of supernatural fiction. His seven novels, cast as thrillers but with serious messages, all concern the breaking through of the spiritual dimension into daily life in extreme ways – demonstrating that, as TS Eliot said, for Williams ‘there was no barrier between the spiritual and material worlds’.

Williams was both an influential Anglican theologian and deeply involved in the occult – a member of a secret Rosicrucian fraternity, The Fellowship of the Rosy Cross, and in contact with magicians of the Stella Matutina, an occult group descended from the more famous Order of the Golden Dawn.

Lindop.22.jpgLess dramatic but also important is the fact that Williams was an influential publisher. He worked his way up from humble proof reader to senior editor at OUP, running the World’s Classics series and the Oxford Standard Authors. As such, he more or less decided which books would be regarded as classics by the reading public, and had a huge effect on public taste. And he pushed ahead the project of publishing the Danish philosopher/theologian Søren Kierkegaard in English, at a time when Kierkegaard was unknown in Britain and America.

As a hugely popular and charismatic lecturer at Oxford during the war – a job he did alongside his publishing work – he inspired a whole generation of future teachers, and poets including Philip Larkin, Sidney Keyes, John Heath-Stubbs and Kingsley Amis.

In my biography I explore all these areas but also take the reader into the secret world of Williams’s occult rituals and magical activities, and his intense and complicated love-life, which was also wrapped up with the bizarre practises arising from his involvement with magic.

I hope you will enjoy Charles Williams: The Third Inkling and find it as exciting to read as I did to research and write. It’s a dramatic story full of new information, much of it from interviews with people who knew Wiliams, or from archives never before opened to scholars. If you’d like to buy the book at 20% discount, just go to www.oup.com/uk and use the code TREVNT14 at the checkout.

Otherwise just click on the poanel at top right on this page and it will take you straight to Amazon, where you can order it for immediate delivery.