A monstrous delight

Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard.A MAN IN LOVE.By Karl Ove Knausgaard. Random House. 528pp. $32.95.
Nanjing Night Net

A Man In Love is the second volume to be published in English of a monumental six volume, 3600-page memoir by the Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard, collectively titled – amusingly for a small nation once invaded by Nazi Germany – My Struggle (Mein Kampf in German).

The first volume, published last year in English as A Death in the Family, was about the author’s adolescence and his father’s death. It was the best contemporary work of literature I had read for several years.

My Struggle is an astonishing creation, in which Knausgaard invents a monstrous, tender, brutal, gentle, vain, humble, selfish, brilliant and banal man called Karl Ove Knausgaard, whose life he minutely documents. Just as Walter Whitman, failed journalist, had only superficial resemblances to Walt Whitman, genius, of Leaves of Grass, so too, one suspects, the Knausgaard of these pages shares some but by no means all characteristics of the real Knausgaard. This is one of the strangest projects of recent literature, and also one of the most fearless.

As A Man in Love slowly opened up to me, I began to make sense of the grand architecture of Knausgaard’s ambition. Where the first volume was about death, this was about creation. It tells of Knausgaard’s time after he leaves his first wife and Norway for a new life in Sweden. There he falls in love with the poet Linda with whom he has three children.

A time of love becomes also one of crisis; his purpose in life, to write, becomes impossible, and the book ends with him abandoning fiction and starting a new project in which he seeks meaning by writing up his life, beginning the work that will become My Struggle. He writes quickly, up to 20 pages a day, seeking to stay ahead of his thoughts. This means abandoning all attempts at literary perfection.

”You have to burst the balloon that is the world,” he writes, ”and let everything in it spill over the side.”

As a result, much of the writing is bad, cliches abound, and rather than cut Knausgaard adds; for him, more is decidedly more. He’ll spend a paragraph on making a cup of tea with a tea bag, a page on changing a nappy, and we even get not one shopping list but several. If much of this is dull it also becomes weirdly compelling. If the task is self-consciously Proustian, it also smacks of the voyeuristic mesmerism of reality television.

It is not without writerly vanity: Knausgaard does it because he can. What, in the hands of a lesser writer, would be in turn pompous, dull, dead and – most unforgivably – unreadable is instead fascinating, occasionally transcendent and rarely less than compulsively readable.

”You can spend 20 pages describing a trip to the loo and hold your readers spellbound,” his friend Geir says. ”How many people do you think can do that?”

If it were just this strange virtuosity Knausgaard would become a boor and the book fail. His description of dreary daily life builds to a larger scream of anguish and isolation. Yet at each point this threatens to become unbearable it is relieved and released into passages of sometimes great beauty dealing with God, death and love – all the verities and mysteries rendered coolly, strangely, exquisitely and ever originally.

It is all mad and mundane and magnificent at the same time; the hyper-realism honed with images of startling wonder, the self-abasement Karl Ove Knausgaard is willing to visit upon himself – whether it is his bizarre recurrent fear of being feminised or a long description of cooking a Jamie Oliver dish, or Googling himself to find a recommendation suggesting people use his books to wipe their arse. Knausgaard teeters perilously close to pretentiousness and falls into tedium, and still he writes on, and it all finally works, this art of artlessness, because Knausgaard is no mere diarist. He is a remarkable writer who has read widely, thought deeply, and understood his craft completely. The sheer scale of these books and their detailed telling gives the misleading impression of them being exhaustive. But large slabs of life and people are clearly absent. The description of the birth of his first child is a stunning set piece but the births of their other two children rate only a sentence. A dinner party runs for 70 pages but four years pass in six words. And in all this Knausgaard is making careful choices.

The technique is novelistic; using specific events and details for certain effects. Things are shaped, balanced, reprised, juxtaposed, imagined. Similarly his long slabs of dialogue are novelistic in form and purpose and can hardly be regarded as accurate to life. Perhaps in the end it is a novel even more illusory than most by claiming the veracity of a memoir. The truths Knausgaard is chasing are, in any case, not those of his life. In the destruction and recreation of his own experience, he hopes for the universal.

”For I am you,” he writes, ”and you are everyone, we come from the same and are going to the same.”

This is a book about writing, its nightmarish heritage, its unbearable burdens, its intolerable costs, and the redeeming grace it grants of communion and meaning.

”What is a work of art,” Knausgaard asks, ”if not the gaze of another person?”

The costs of that gaze for a writer such as Knausgaard are great.

”Your life is joyless,” Geir tells Knausgaard. ”You have such unbelievable reserves and so much talent, which stops there. It becomes art, but never more than that. You’re like Midas. Everything he touches turns to gold but he gains no pleasure from it.”

There are numerous meditations on everyone from Lucretius to Rilke, Holderlin to DeLillo (”clearly in decline”) but the two writers who hover over the character of Knausgaard are Dostoyevsky and the Knut Hamsun of Hunger (1890), the great Norwegian novel of a starving writer that is arguably the founding text of literary modernism. Pushing a stroller, Knausgaard wanders Stockholm’s streets ”with a furious 19th-century man inside me”. That man seems more and more to be Hamsun. The narrator of Hunger – monstrous, irascible, compelling – echoes loudly in the obsessive nastiness of Knausgaard, a man for whom writing is life itself, who would leave his wife if she came between him and his writing, and who seeks to ”write as if my life depended upon it”.

If A Man in Love, for all its remarkable qualities, feels a lesser and less-interesting work than A Death in the Family, lacking the power, tension and control of that first volume, it also cannot fairly be judged outside of the whole six-volume project, any more than Molly Bloom’s soliloquy can be judged outside of Ulysses. Knausgaard’s struggle for meaning is finally the ceaseless struggle of the novel to reinvent itself, and in its sometimes crazily brave determination to risk failure and mediocrity, My Struggle finds new ways of writing about new things. Though it courts failure, it is in the abyss between a book’s ambition and failure that their genius is so often found. As Hamsun’s Hunger announced the beginning of 20th-century literature, it may be that Knausgaard’s My Struggle marks the moment 21st-century literature begins.

Richard Flanagan’s novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North will be published by Knopf in October.

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.

The annual Tour of duty

‘It has heroes and villians and a loopy, imperious code of honour.’I was born with a front-wheel wobble that nothing – not age, experience, nor a sinking centre of gravity – can remedy. Riding a bicycle (it’s vain to call it cycling) is misery. Which makes my grand sporting passion unlikely. As the winter invades and the bitter wind bites, I wonder: is it too soon to annotate my SBS Tour de France form guide? When can I watch souvenir DVDs of previous tours as essential pre-race conditioning?
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In the immortal words of a discredited drug cheat, this Tour de France obsession is not about the bike.

I got off training wheels in the 1970s, but it was a near thing; neighbours had embraced the era’s boulder-and-cactus landscaping trend enthusiastically and my little purple bike was a magnet for spiky succulents.

Even when vertical, riding brought no joy. I pedalled grimly in my square helmet waiting to fall under a passing Cortina, doggedly dismounting at every intersection and crossing on foot to fend off certain death.

The bike went to the shed for good after an unhappy accident delivering Waltons’ catalogues; splayed on the road after tangling with a traffic island, hundreds of pages of menswear bargains billowing down Bell Street.

Friends loved riding; I envied their pleasure and bombproof confidence, but it wasn’t for me.

It was, after all, mere pre-

L-plate transport. Cycling as sport was laughable. What next? Cooking as prime-time entertainment?

The spectator sport of choice was, of course, footy. Standing among squashed hot-dog ends and beer cans at the Western Oval, I can’t pretend it wasn’t fun being with family and tribe, shouting to the grey skies, muffled in a numbered duffle coat.

I loved the creative profanity of the game, the mad, lung-busting joy of a win. But wins were scarce, and then came a damp, dispiriting trudge home – frequently from that grim gulag VFL Park – clenching a footy record twisted with despair.

The Tour de France came upon me by stealth, like a patient peloton reeling in a breakaway. A cyclist friend tried to tempt me with the neat television highlights package. It looked fun, lots of lovely sunflowers and alps, but there seemed an unreasonable amount of cycling involved.

Babies arrived and I began keeping antisocial, zombie hours and with them, antisocial zombie television tastes. Anything flickering was fair game, even cycling. Even after the baby at my breast had slumped into a sated stupor I kept watching the Tour, recognising individual riders and their exotic-sounding teams.

Slowly, it made sense, the strategies opening up like a Magic Eye puzzle. The tour concluded and I felt … could it be regret?

Stage 17 of the 2006 Tour sealed my fate and ensured July is now lost. American Floyd Landis staged an epic mountain ride, leaving spectators and commentators awestruck. ”Unbelievable,” commentator Phil Liggett gushed. ”There’s no other adjective to describe it.” Except ”crooked”. ”Drug-fuelled” would work, too. Stripped of his Tour win after a positive drug test, Landis became one of Lance Armstrong’s accusers. Surely this would crack my resolve.

Inexplicably, I didn’t care. This sort of heroism must be possible clean; now I never wanted to miss a stage. And I don’t, slinking off to bed – heart thumping after a particularly exciting finish – at 2am, day after day. Weeks are spent tired, tetchy and tearful, a burden to family, friends and employers.

In January I watched Armstrong quibble, grovel and snivel to Oprah Winfrey and television millions about his years as a fraud and again I was tested: could I love the Tour after this?

Don’t get me wrong – I loathe Armstrong’s conduct. Being stripped of titles and losing sponsors isn’t punishment enough. Having to spend hours with Oprah isn’t punishment enough. He should be forced to lead the pariah peloton along the bike paths of the world, wearing the drab olive jersey of plain-packaged cigarettes, riding a too-small dragster with a sissy bar. There are few more satisfying sights at the local op shop than an unloved pile of his It’s Not about The Bike autobiography, sandwiched between stacks of Dan Brown and Fifty Shades.

But his shameful, bullying deceit hasn’t ruined it. I still love the speed and the strategy, the exotic place names, and that riders stuff newspapers down their jerseys to insulate against the chill on descents from glorious summits. I love that undie-clad drunks stagger alongside these gritty athletes. I love riders named Carlos and Vincenzo and Cadel, especially Cadel. Yes, I love the sunflowers, the lavender, Gabriel Gate’s gateaux and the damn chateaux. I love that it’s adored by millions but isn’t perfect; that it has heroes and villains and a loopy, imperious code of honour honed over a century.

A pilgrimage to France is unlikely. With navigation skills to match cycling ability, I fear a wrong turn in my camper van will see me sipping vin ordinaire watching roller derby in Minsk.

No. My Tour is strictly televised, ridden solo, armed with flannelette pyjamas and my copy of Tour de France for Dummies.

Refreshingly, it has brought renewed … engagement … with the bike. Mine is best described as a ”Northcote” – with a nice basket for organic shopping and a little gauge on the high handlebars to measure my positive impact on the environment.

But the front-wheel wobble remains sadly undiminished. A sleek yellow jersey might make all the difference.

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.

The boys are back in town

Too genial … John Goodman as Marshall. No hangover? … Zach Galifianakis (Alan), Bradley Cooper (Phil) and Ed Helms (Stu) in The Hangover Part III.
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(MA) General Release

This is billed as being the conclusion in the series, and let’s hope so. The first Hangover had clever plotting to make up for its sometimes obnoxious characters and a slightly cruel tone; the sequel offered more of the same, to diminished effect. But this time, the storyline is a little bit different.

Alan (the ever-irritating Zach Galifianakis) is off his medications and his behaviour is even more childish, selfish and destructive than usual. After an intervention, the rest of the Wolf Pack – Phil (Bradley Cooper), Stu (Ed Helms) and Doug (Justin Bartha), who have (somewhat inexplicably) stuck by him, are driving him to an interstate treatment centre when they are kidnapped.

Their captor is gangster Marshall (a miscast John Goodman: he seems rather too genial for this role) who has had millions of dollars in gold stolen by Leslie Chow (Ken Jeong), their depraved criminal ”friend”. He’s heard Chow has escaped from prison in Thailand and figures they will be able to find and fetch him – and to make sure they do, he holds Doug hostage.

So, yes, it’s a variation on the theme. Chow plays a much bigger role than previously, which is a mistake – his weird and wild antics were funny in small doses, but there’s simply too much of him (in every sense), though Jeong is certainly committed in the role.

There are bright moments, including a scene where Alan – miracle of miracles – finds a woman who is attracted to him (Melissa McCarthy), and a reasonably inventive and well-staged sequence at and around Caesars Palace (which has a perhaps unintentionally funny disclaimer in the credits). But although the camaraderie is still there, it’s a bit like catching up with old friends you haven’t seen in a while and realising you don’t have as much in common any more (and maybe never did).

And there isn’t an actual hangover this time around, unless you stay until midway through the end credits: let us hope they keep their word, though, and end the series here.

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.

Hitman misses mark

Revenge plot … Colin Farrell in Dead Man Down. Moody and stylish … Dominic Cooper and Colin Farrell.
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Hoyts Belconnen and Woden, Limelight Tuggeranong

Part love story, part gangster thriller, this is a moody and stylish first Hollywood outing from Niels Arden Oplev (Danish director of the original The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo), but Oplev’s bleak Euro-sensibilities and focus on central characters sits uneasily with a convoluted – and at times ludicrously unbelievable – Hollywood revenge plot.

Colin Farrell, who continues to have trouble getting his international career into top gear, plays Victor, a Hungarian hitman who’s infiltrated the gang of crime boss Alphonse (Terrence Howard), in order to avenge the death of his family. Methodical, cool and emotionally closed, Victor has a secret workshop where he does his plotting, carefully studying images of the evil gang that plaster the walls while replaying video clips of his wife and daughter: you know the drill.

But Victor is being watched by a neighbour, Beatrice (Noomi Rapace), and the two form a tentative bond. When she discovers he is a killer for hire, she asks him to take revenge on the man who disfigured her in a drunken car accident. A strange and fascinating relationship builds around their inner pain and need for revenge, with the new feelings that start to emerge between them threatening to undermine their resolve to harm those who caused their grief.

The scenes between Farrell and Rapace show their acting skills and Oplev establishes an intriguing tenderness and depth to the relationship between these two complicated and damaged souls – it’s this that makes the film watchable despite the silliness of the plot. For those after some darker thrills, there are some well-executed action scenes, but J.H. Wyman’s screenplay gets increasingly tedious and obvious.

There are also some obvious questions to be asked, such as: why doesn’t Victor just get revenge when he easily could? And why doesn’t Alphonse recognise Victor? Oh yes, Victor has put on a strange Irish-American-European accent, guaranteed to confuse any paranoid gang boss. And more importantly, what is Isabelle Huppert doing in this film as Beatrice’s deaf French mother? Je ne sais pas.

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.

Complex thriller in the shadow of terror

Pleasant surprise … Kate Hudson and Riz Ahmed. Dialogue is occasionally brilliant in The Reluctant Fundamentalist.
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(M) Palace Electric

It’s nice to be pleasantly surprised by a movie, as I was by Mira Nair’s new film. Nair began her career winning the Camera D’Or at Cannes for Salaam Bombay! and her films since have vacillated between the terrific – Mississippi Masala, Amelia – and the certainly-high-profile-if-not-actually-amazing, such as her take on Vanity Fair or Monsoon Wedding, which everybody in the world except me adored.

She dedicates this film to her father who died during the production. Her dad grew up in Lahore, Pakistan, and this is the hometown of the film’s protagonist Changez (Riz Ahmed). Changez hails from a family of the Pakistani upper class in decline, driven by his family’s fading fortunes to excel on scholarship at Princeton, and win himself a graduate spot on Wall Street as a business analyst under the mentorship of Jim Cross (Kiefer Sutherland). Changez is a man going places – until the attack on the World Trade Centre.

As the film opens it is a decade later and Changez is now a lecturer at Pakistani University, being interviewed by an American journalist (Liev Schreiber) with a hidden agenda, and to whom he explains the radical change America’s increased xenophobia and treatment of its foreign guests had on his life thereafter.

Screenwriter William Wheeler has adapted Mohsin Omid’s Booker Prize-nominated novel. The lady at the pay-parking machine after my screening tells me the film was told completely differently, but still very well. Ah, to have the time to actually read a book!

The dialogue is occasionally brilliant, occasionally annoying exposition, but there is a lot of plot to get through, and Nair employs some interesting visual devices to help sweep us through the morass of characters and history as she tackles big themes in a complex layer of issues.

The film belongs to British actor Riz Ahmed, who some will remember from the comedy Four Lions. His handsome, expressive face draws you to his character, though Nair keeps you guessing his motivations to the end.

The rest of the cast is a bit of a who’s-who from three continents, with Kate Hudson as Changez’s conflicted girlfriend, Erica, Nelsan Ellis (LaFayette from True Blood), Pakistani pop star Meesha Shafi as Changez’s sister Bina, and noted Indian actors Om Puri and Shabana Azmi.

Nair’s camera is worked by Declan Quinn who made Nair’s Monsoon Wedding look so lush. He does equally good work here, helped by some stunning locations. Michael Andrews’ score is enhanced by vocal performances from the likes of Peter Gabriel and Pakistani heart-throb Atif Aslam.

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.