Categories
Fiction Poetry

Is your writing true to yourself?

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Karl Ove Knausgaard

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.

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Sylvia Plath

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.

(Daddy)

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.

Categories
Autobiographies Reading

What I read in 2014: autobiography and other

Here are some more books I read in 2014.

Autobiography

  1. 36 Views of Mount Fuji, Cathy N Davidson.  My first book of the year, started on the plane back from Japan after a family holiday. Cathy N Davidson is an American Academic, and here describes three long stays in Japan and the cultural differences she found there. A sensitively written, thoughtful account. Well worth looking at even if you have no intention of visiting Japan.
  2. On Writing, Stephen King Now this is the kind of how to write book I like. Such advice as there is, is  derived from his personal experience as a successful writer, and is presented in an autobiographical context. The book ends with a lengthy account of returning to work after an appalling road accident that left him for dead by the side of the road. Well worth reading.
  3. Rock Stars Ate My Life, Mark Ellen. I once met Ellen in a Chiswick swimming pool and chatted to him for five minutes. As genuinely nice then as he seemed on the telly. This book is a amiable recollection of how the love of music filled his life with characters and adventures. Ellen is engagingly self-depreciating, and quietly nostalgic for a lost age of rock music. A happy read.
  4. I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou. I found this lived up to its reputation. Maya Angelou is unsentimental in her reminiscence. I find her account of her episode of silence after she was raped as child to be heartbreaking, and the depiction of her childhood in the country seems to me to be describing something from the 19th Century.
  5. Night, Elie Wiesel. Holocaust literature is always going to be gruelling. ‘Night’ is a  chilling account of the author’s deportation, the loss of his family and experience in Auschwitz and Buchenwald with his father in the last years of the second world war. This, alongside Primo Levi’s work should be required reading throughout Europe, especially for nationalists of all hues.
  6. Experience, Martin Amis. A memoir of disparate strands. A murdered cousin, thoughts on writing, a history of his bad teeth, his relationship with his father Kingsley. To me this was a highly satisfying read, though I can’t quite say why. Martin Amis is one of those writers whose work plays on my mind afterwards.
  7. A death in the family, Karl Ove Knausgaard. This book is fascinating. It is ostensibly a novel, but is written so autobiographically with banal or hyperreal detail,  featuring the writer and his actual family that for me it transcends genre. My brother told me to read this. He said it was like inhabiting someone-else’s life. He was right. One of the few literary name-checks in it is for Proust, and I can see why.

Other

  1. The Big Book of Hell a cartoon book, Matt Groening. I’m a sucker for cartoons. And I love these drawn by the man who came up with The Simpsons and Futurama. Great stuff, and with a bleak pessimism that makes it all the funnier.
  2. Fictions, Jorge Luis Borges. A book of short stories, but annoyingly as everyone said about it, these are stories that stick with you. So for example when watching the Interstellar movie, I almost yelped, “Borges! Infinite library!” These stories are so influential on contemporary fiction, that it seemed rude not to have read them before. Marvellous stuff. One of my books of the year.
  3. The World of Perception, Maurice Merleau-Ponty. As someone who did a degree, back in the days of quill pens, in Philosophy and Literature, I like to read a bit of philosophy every now and then, and prefer a bit of what used to be called Continental Philosophy to its Anglo-American counterpart. I particularly like it when a philosopher is forced to be clear and succinct and resort to natural language. Merleau-Ponty’s book was based on a series of radio talks given on French radio. An accessible glimpse into a great philosophical mind.

I also wrote about these two last books in this post.

Next post, Poetry.

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