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.

Raimundo Panikkar

I missed blogging last week because I was in India. I went for a ‘seminar’ – a small conference really – on Raimundo Panikkar, at the beautiful India International Centre in New Delhi.

imagesO87JTMMA

Raimundo Panikkar

Panikkar (1918-2010) was an amazing man: a philosopher, born in Catalonia but half Indian, who ordained as a Catholic priest but then went to India to study Hinduism and Buddhism in Benares. He famously said ‘I went to India as a Christian, discovered I was a Buddhst and came back a Hindu, without ever ceasing to be a Christian.’ Not surprisingly, he became a specialist in the philosophy of comparative religion and inter-religious dialogue, as well as in ecology, the nature and future of technology (he had a Ph D in chemistry) and in thinking about the future and destiny of humanity.

I worked with him briefly on a project in 200 and 2001, and became very fond of him and very inspired by him, though I never came to regard him as a guru, though some did.

Here’s a memory of him from his time as a Professor religious studies in Santa Barbara, California (a memory from Joseph Prabhu, whom I had the pleasure of meeting at the conference):

 His famous Easter service in his Santa Barbara days would attract visitors from all corners of the globe.  Well before dawn they would climb up the mountain near his home in Montecito, meditate quietly in the darkness once they reached the top, and then salute the sun as it arose over the horizon.  Panikkar would bless the elements — air, earth, water and fire — and all the surrounding forms of life — plant, animal, and human — and then celebrate Mass and the Eucharist.  It was a profound “cosmotheandric” celebration with the human, cosmic, and divine dimensions of life being affirmed, reverenced, and brought into a deep harmony.  The celebration after the formal service at Panikkar’s home resembled in some respects the feast of Pentecost as described in the New Testament, where peoples of many tongues engaged in animated conversation.

And here’s one of many YouTube clips of him to give you an idea of his presence.

I’ll never forget Panikkar and he stays with me in my mind as an ever-present friend, and someone who did the kind of thinking we need for humanity’s future: broad, generous, imaginative and full of kindness and humour.

Temenos: An Experiment in REAL Education

The Temenos Academy in London is offering a new kind of course (or maybe a very old kind) this autumn: a Foundation Course in the Perennial Philosophy. Please take a few minutes to watch this video and if you are interested, or know anyone who might be interested, please pass it on. You can contact Temenos at www.Temenosacademy. org.uk

The Temenos Academy Foundation Course in Perennial Philosophy from Ian Skelly on Vimeo.