Category: Essays

A Season of Subtle Scandinavian Scrutiny: Knausgaard’s ‘Autumn’

Karl Ove Knausgaard

Karl Ove Knausgaard

Karl Ove Knausgaard has become an infamous contemporary writer by his beautiful prose and raw portrayal of human experience. His massive soon-to-be six volume, autobiographical series dubbed My Struggle has made an irrefutable mark by vividly cataloguing Knausgaard’s ordinary Swedish life and the challenges that come along with it. Essentially, My Struggle is the 3,600-page memoir to end all memoirs. While readers are still awaiting the release of My Struggle’s sixth volume, Knausgaard has begun a new project. Autumn begins another deeply personal adventure for the Norwegian writer as he begins to explain the world to one who has yet to enter it, Karl Ove’s unborn daughter.

I want to show you our world as it is now: the door, the floor, the water tap and the sink, the garden chair close to the wall beneath the kitchen window, the sun, the water, the trees. You will come to see it in your own way, you will experience things for yourself and live a life of your own, so of course it is primarily for my own sake that I am doing this: showing you the world little one, makes my life worth living.

autumnNow, at first glance, you may think that this is a heavy book and by “heavy,” I mean emotionally heavy. I won’t lie to you and say that isn’t in there, but amidst the rawness of Karl Ove’s descriptions there lies a certain beauty that is just as much frightening as it is entrancing. As Knausgaard begins to describe the world to his daughter, he engages in deep reflections on everything from cars to war, Flaubert to twilight, and bottles to beekeeping. What follows is a refreshing view of ordinary life as it is explained to one who has not yet experienced anything outside of a mother’s womb. In essays like “Lightning,” the author delves into the odd relationship between horror and beauty as he and his family watch a gigantic bolt of lightning hit the street outside their home. In “Flaubert,” the author reflects upon his favorite novel and the distinction between literary enjoyment and study. The heart of each meditation is the urge of the author to find what exactly it is that makes life worth living. As Knausgaard takes on each new topic, describing it as though it has never been seen, the reader is brought into the depths of the real and at times the philosophical. “Labia,” as an example, explores the complexity of male sexuality and the shame that often follows closely behind it. “Vomit” takes opportunity to explore the plethora of bodily fluids that we are all familiar with, but puts inquiry into the generally hatred that human beings have for that which is “usually yellowish” and still contains “chunks of pizza” and other remnants of the “undigested.”

At the heart of Knausgaard’s project is the desire to get back at the reality of life and to leave behind the routine prejudices that we allow to filter our view of the world. Through explaining the world to his daughter, the author as well as the reader is confronted with the raw beauty and the absurdity of life. Each time I finished a sitting with these essays, I somehow walked away feeling more real. Like my perception of the world had been sharpened and I had the tools necessary to appreciate the nuts and bolts that make up the world around us.

‘We Were Eight Years in Power’ is a vital addition to nation’s racial conversation

By Jim Ewing. Special to the Clarion-Ledger Sunday print edition (October 1)

8 years in powerIn Ta-Nehisi Coates’ new book of essays We Were Eight Years in Power (One World), he recalls that he felt at odds with himself when penning the first one for The Atlantic in 2007.

Barack Obama was running for president but, as a black man, was hardly thought then to be a full-on contender. Coates’ feeling of being adrift was shared with young black men and women across the country. They were “lost in a Bermuda triangle of the mind or stranded in the doldrums of America.”

Obama’s election changed that, he writes. But it also changed the nation’s dialogue on race, one that continues with an urgency underscored by the headlines of the day.

The book is composed of the eight essays he wrote for The Atlantic during each of the eight years of the nation’s first black presidency, along with current commentary. But it is Reconstruction in the South that the title of the book refers to, quoting W.E.B. DuBois, that: “If there was one thing… (whites) feared more than bad Negro government, it was good Negro government.”

With the rise of Donald Trump after a period of “good Negro government,” it can be argued we are witnessing from Washington and much of the country that frame of mind today. It’s manifested in displays by sports figures taking a knee in solidarity against police brutality against blacks, racial profiling, social inequality, disparities in education and opportunity, fueled by a president who finds no qualm in siding with Nazi protesters while calling those who demonstrate against it “sons of bitches.”

Before Obama, the idea of a black president lived as “a kind of cosmic joke,” Coates writes. “White folks, whatever their talk of freedom and liberty, would not allow a black president.” Witness, Emmett Till’s audacity to look at a white woman, the fact that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “turned the other cheek, and they blew it off.”

Lincoln was killed for emancipation, Freedom Riders were beaten for advocating for voting rights, Medgar Evers was shot down in his driveway “like a dog.”

“That a country that once took whiteness as the foundation for citizenship would elect a black president,” Coates writes, “is a victory. But to view this victory as racism’s defeat is to forget the precise terms on which it was secured.”

It encapsulates a paradox: America couldn’t elect “a black man,” but it could elect a qualified man who was black–as long as he didn’t evince blackness.

Coates’ outstanding previous book, Between the World and Me, was as much a plea for understanding race consciousness as a denouncement of racism in America.

The question it raised in 2015: Is this plea heard? By whom? And are the intractable problems of race solvable by a society founded on centuries of racial and economic inequality?

In Power, the pleas are gone. Instead, with its contextualizing commentary, it’s a questioning odyssey throughout the Obama years and now of the fact of racial polarization and misunderstanding that colors all attempts at recognizing progress or reversal. It’s an indictment of a nation where even black citizens who hold conservative, mainstream values are turned away from the party that espouses them because of its open appeals to people who hate them.

Power is an exploration in many ways to explain how a society based on Enlightenment values could ignore its essential white supremacy, that the foundational crimes of this crimes of this country are to somehow be considered mostly irrelevant to its existence, as well as those excluded and pillaged in order to bring those values into practice.

Through troubling to read, the aggregate is a journey of wonder, even when topics are troubling, for the deep mental explorations they offer, often without road map or easy conclusions.

Power is an exemplary, perhaps even vital, addition to the national dialogue on race in America.

Jim Ewing, a former writer and editor at The Clarion-Ledger, is the author of seven books including his latest, Redefining Manhood: A Guide for Men and Those Who Love Them.

Fennelly: Gaitskill’s ‘Somebody with a Little Hammer’ Makes a Big Impression

By Beth Ann Fennelly. Special to the Clarion-Ledger Sunday print edition (May 7).

little hammerThe 31 pieces included in Mary Gaitskill’s new book, Somebody with a Little Hammer, were written over two decades, many of them originally book reviews. That normally makes for a very poor collection. Miscellanies can read as miscellaneous, scattershot assignments written for various editors in various magazine styles, as opposed to having been conceived of and executed through an author’s passion. Such collections often have no centrifugal force binding them. Further, such collections often smell a little past-their-sell-by-date; 20-year-old reviews might disparage books rightly forgotten, or heap early praise on books so heaped with post-publication prizes that the reviewer’s stance fails to enlighten. The earnest charge–“Rush out and buy this book!”–loses force when the book’s 10 years out of print.

Perhaps that’s why Gaitskill’s first book of nonfiction is such an accomplishment. This book shouldn’t be so compelling, but Gaitskill is incapable of writing a bad sentence, and her opinions are original and playful, and she always provides insight on much more than simply the item being reviewed.

The novels (and, less frequently, movies or music) to which she turns her clear and unsentimental judgments are revelatory, a kind of self-portrait through subject matter. She writes on some well-known texts, including the Book of Revelation, Bleak House by Charles Dickens, and Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie.

She also writes on books that most of us haven’t read and probably never will, such as foot fetishist Elmer Batters’ From the Tip of the Toes to the Top of Her Hose, a collection of photographs taken from the mid-1940s to the mid-1980s, which Gaitskill calls “a loving and lewd celebration of female feet and big ol’ legs.” Gaitskill describes a few of these “stylish, energetic, humorous, and dirty” photos, using them to illustrate “the vulnerability and silliness of sexuality as well as its power.” Batters’ photos are not, it turns out, the subject of Gaitskill’s essay, only its catalyst. Those familiar with Gaitskill’s fiction, such as “Secretary,” (in Gaitskill’s words, a “story about a naive young masochist who yearns for emotional contact in an autistic and ridiculous universe and who winds up getting her butt spanked instead”) will recognize her fearless exploration of the less commonly explored aspects of human sexuality.

Mary Gaitskill

Mary Gaitskill

A handful of essays–some of the book’s longest and most developed–don’t approach their subjects through the gaze of the reviewer but through the rear-view, the memoirist’s contemplative backward gaze. Here, too, Gaitskill rejects sweet nostalgia. Her memoir on losing her cat turns surprisingly into a troubled and troubling essay and race and class privilege.

Another memoir opens, “In Saint Petersburg, Russia, I got hit in the head with a bridge.” We don’t know yet that Gaitskill and her husband are on a tourist boat, ducking to avoid the river’s low-clearance bridges, and this sentence feels so abrupt and inexplicable it’s as if we, too, suffer a blow to the head. The narrative reverses from here and explains the unlikely events that brought the couple to Russia. It will be 10 more pages before we pick up with the head-smacking bridge, the blood, and her trip to the hospital, all of the interspersed with Gaitskill’s memories of a young woman she had worked with years before, a stripper who’d fallen and banged her head on a curb, then entered into a coma and died. It’s a meditation on chance and memory, and it’s an immensely lively performance.

The book reviews Gaitskill has collected here can’t urge readers to “rush out and buy this book!” but I can. Rush out, book lovers, especially if you can make Gaitskill’s event at 5 p.m. Thursday at Lemuria Books in Jackson.

Beth Ann Fennelly is the poet laureate of Mississippi. Her Heating & Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs will be published in October by W.W. Norton.

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