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.

Majestic Manchester Mahler 3

Gustav Mahler - currently celebrated in Manchester

Gustav Mahler - currently celebrated in Manchester

The Halle set a very high standard with Mahler’s Second Symphony a couple of weeks back (you’ll need to scroll down 5 posts should you want to see comments). So the BBC Philharmonic faced quite a challenge with the Third, another epic soundscape with a passionate philosophical programme behind it.

But they proved equal to the task, and if the Third didn’t send us out quite as dazed and elated as its predecessor, it was mainly because this symphony, though just as complex, is more contemplative, a slower-paced work with quieter dynamics relying more or mood and melody than on stark contrasts and shattering climaxes.

Vassily Sinaisky took the first movement, with its resounding opening fanfare on the horns representing the great god Pan arriving to reanimate nature after the winter, at a steady but not rapid pace – very much the approach Stenz used last time for the opening of the Second. The brass section was superb throughout, playing with resonance and precision. Just as well because in every movement the brass has vital thematic parts to play, most often to remind us, in some way, of that opening motif of descending horn notes. The first movement as a whole gave an experience of restrained power, deep strings sporadically throbbing and surging, with the brass and the more fragile, fragmentary woodwind floating over the top.

Here’s an extract from the movement (LSO, splendidly conducted by Valery Gergiev, looking more than ever like Boris Karloff):

Mahler’s idea for the symphony was to make it ‘a work of such magnitude that it actually mirrors the whole world…In my symphony the whole of nature finds a voice.’ The movements aim to layer one tier of being on top of another. The orchestra gave second movement (originally titled ‘What the flowers tell me’) a light, almost staccato touch and brought out the exuberant, dance-like qualities of the third (‘What the animals of the forest tell me’, according to Mahler’s early notes). The distant horns (how Mahler loves those!) sounded here like a faint reminder of the world of men, rather thanan eruption of the animalistic Pan.

Reaching ‘Night’ and the world of men, the 4th movement, mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill got her entrance exactly right: the voice seemed to emerge and radiate without an identifiable starting-point, simply welling up out of the orchestral sound, as if uttered by the universe as well as by humanity. This lovely setting of the mysertious Nietzsche poem was a delight.

Mahler’s gentle audacity is astounging and wonderful: having begun the symphony with Pan, then led on to Nietzsche (who loathed Christianity), he then dances into the fifth movement with a children’s folksong – it sounds almost like a skipping game – about Jesus, St Peter, and God’s forgiveness. And every so often what sounds like a reminiscence of a Bach choral sweeping in to underline the religious elements. The CBSO Youth Chorus made a fine job of the children’s chorus, vigorous and precise, entering with the ‘Bimm bamm…’ of the church bells. Personally I would have liked a bit more volume from them, and I suspect Sinaisky held them back a bit too much; but it wasn’t a major blemish.

The transition to the sixth movement made me see something I’d missed before, listening to the symphony endlessly on disc, which is that having brought Christianity and Gid into the structure, Mahler goes a step further and higher. Where the 2nd symphny ends in song, it’s as if he now sees that words aren’t enough and nothing but pure music will say what he has to say. We’ve gone beyond God too, beyond anything that can be formulated or imagined.

The final movement was wonderful, with that sense of endlessly-shifting and changing and evolving harmonies as Mahler finds his way very slowly through a vast musical mist, drawing notes out and mutating the harmonies so that you constantly find a chord emerging that’s different from the one you expected, and then that melds into yet another and so on. Sinaiski did a good job with the dynamics here, very slowly building and building the movement until all the layers came together in those vast closing chords that show you the whole imaginable cosmos towering up octave above octave, layer above layer, energised and tranquil but completely alive, like a vast wall of glass or water that doesn’t topple but just settles and poises there, with the brass finally folding harmoniously into the picture and the timpani slowly repeating deep notes that echo the bell-chimes of the children’s song. The combination of energy and peace at the end of the symphony was very impressive. Here’s a clip (Dudamel, La Scala Philharmonic):

I didn’t cry this time (though the girl next to me was in tears throughout the final movement). There’s less melodrama, more serenity in this than in the Second Symphony, but the vision is vaster. Maybe Sinaiski didn’t always make the dynamics as exciting as he might have done. I overheard one departing audience member talking about the difficulty of staying awake, in a way that made me wonder if the work is just too big and complicated to grasp until you’ve heard it over and over again and got all those details into your system. The applause was loud and long but it didn’t really match the reaction to No 2.

Certainly I notice these days how closely-integrated the Third is. The pattern – melodic and rhythmic – of that opening fanfare, for example, comes into just about everything in the work. Sometimes I think Mahler 3 has an entire symphony for its first movement, and a whole other one for its last, with a suite of other things in between. Then again I find myself thinking the entire work is a single movement. The first time you hear it, it’s a sprawl. By the tenth time, you just notice the mind-boggling precision with which it’s all integrated. Very strange. But how wonderful to hear these masterpieces one after another, so well-played. Not sure yet if I’ll make the Fourth on Thursday. Lorraine’s Rueda class at Cuba Cafe is calling, and Amanda is able to dance again now her broken arm has healed. A dilemma. But I’ll post something as soon as I get to another Mahler extravaganza. Meanwhile there’s always salsa and a million other things.
And don’t forget: starting 5 April, BBC Radio 3 will broadcast the entire series on consecutive Monday nights at 7 pm. Listen to any you missed and see if you agree with me! And do post your comments.