Reading A Man in Love, volume two of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, I’m struck by how his fidelity to describing life’s minutiae lends credibility to his descriptions of more important things. If he can be so reliable in his description of doing the washing up, then we instinctively trust his truth telling about more important events. Knausgaard’s candour is magnificent. He seems to remember everything, and retells it unflinchingly, however bad it makes him seem, or how humiliating it is for the people close to him.
He does have a consistent tone. The tone is truthful. Obviously ‘truth’ is word guaranteed to start arguments, but having such an identifiable tone is an advantage, but it seems to me to presuppose a stable identity from which that voice emerges.
Rightly or wrongly, I tend to think of people as a cluster of sub-personalities. So to me having a tone which is sustained for as long as Knausgaard sustains it, seems remarkable. It is a fictional device however, and a tension exists between the consistency of this device and the idea that Knausgaard is relentlessly truth telling. I find the truthfulness in Knausgaard challenging in all the right ways. He manages to convey a searing emotional reality, that is strangely able to remain grounded in the concrete world.
Confessional writers appear to grant you permission to access to private thoughts. Sylvia Plath electrified this approach. Take Daddy written on October 1962.
Although the ‘I’ is addressing a ‘you’, I don’t really have any sense of a dialogue here, rather of eavesdropping on one of those repetitive interior monologues.
If I’ve killed one man, I’ve killed two –
The vampire who said he was you
And drank my blood for a year,
Seven years, if you want to know.
Daddy you can lie back now.
There’s a stake in your fat black heart
And the villagers never liked you.
They are dancing and stamping on you.
They always knew it was you.
Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through.
This sounds like a confession, but who is she confessing to? Us as readers I suppose.
Elsewhere in the poem she employs holocaust imagery to describe her Daddy, such as: ‘A man in black with a Meinkampf look’. Her father was a German-born academic who wrote a book about bumblebees, and arrived in the US at the age of 5 in 1900. Plath is clearly describing an emotional reality rather than a empirical one. But in the arena of her supercharged interior monologue, emotional and symbolic truths exist with mesmerising force.
As someone who likes plays, a fictionalised I, such as in a Shakespearian dramatic monologue, seems entirely normal. In English poetry Robert Browning was well known for his poems which were essentially dramatic monologues. While Y.B. Yeats had what he called ‘masks’ through which his various personae spoke. There is nothing new about toying with identity. The Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa for example, published poems under several identities. When I visited his house in Lisbon, there were the horoscopes he’d drawn up for these different identities on the exterior walls of the house. Wikipedia lists 81 different heteronyms.
What Knausgaard makes me think about how we manage self-disclosure and present our truth in writing. When you can make your writing seem like unalloyed truth, the fripperies of fiction can seem artificial. I’m hoping that by gulping down another dose of Knausgaard, my awareness of inauthenticity in my own work will be heightened.
For me the idea of who is this person who is writing your work, is quite an intriguing one. I think I tend to give vent to different kinds of truth in my plays than I do in my poems. I like the idea of different media conveying different sub-personalities. But there must be some centre to it all somewhere, some bedrock of personality. Perhaps this is why I am enjoying Knausgaard so much. Perhaps we can infer from his work that there is a bedrock, and we find this reassuring.