Byrne on Karl Ove Knausgaard

Danny Byrne reviews the third volume of My Struggle

From Danny Byrne (Music & Literature):
The mental process for which the term “remember” serves as shorthand is something that in everyday life remains necessarily unexamined; a process, like breathing or the act of falling asleep, that becomes problematic as soon as it is exposed to conscious thought. We realize as soon as we attempt to isolate the act of remembering that it is drastically partial and fragmentary, an act of brazen improvisation. Attempting to recall even a simple sequence of events in detail confronts us with a set of narrative problems: we can visualize a series of static images, but animating them into continuous motion—compelling a mnemonic self to walk across a room or sustain a conversation—is a surprisingly difficult act to accomplish.

It is something of a critical cliché to point out, following Proust, that all memory is fictional. Yet the acuity of this insight does not absolve those who use it from applying the relevant considerations of scale. If it were literally the case, we would all be afflicted with the tragicomic amnesia of Beckett’s Vladimir and Estragon, or would exist in a void like the narrator of The Unnamable, forced by some obscure inner compulsion to go on narrating ourselves into existence, if only in order to ward off the darkness and silence of non-being.

Perhaps what memory involves more specifically is a transaction, or even a struggle, between the general and the particular; the reflex of habit and the residue of authentic experience. Images can be stored in the memory, photocopied and filed away for future use; a framework of relevant facts can be established; reserves of intuition can be haphazardly and involuntarily accessed. But we combine these constituent parts into a sequential recollection through a mixture of imagination and habit. We use imagination to flesh out data and intuition, with the ballast of habit always on hand to seal them into rigid form.

Karl Ove Knausgaard’s now-infamous six-volume memoir, of which the third volume has just been published in English, as Boyhood Island in the UK and simply as “Volume 3” in the US, is the monument to his personal struggle with this set of Proustian problematics. Readers of volume one may recall that Knausgaard’s autobiographic odyssey was prompted by his own madeleine moment. In late 2003, the grown-up Knausgaard, then the author of one novel and the beginnings of what would become a strange book about angels, A Time for Everything, is sitting in his office in front of a blank screen. Scanning absently around the room, his eyes half-consciously register a pattern on the parquet floor, which forms “an image of Christ wearing a crown of thorns.” Getting up to make a coffee, he is overcome by a sudden access of involuntary memory, conjuring a long-forgotten scene from his childhood: the narrative beginning of My Struggle. [Read More]

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