Karl Ove Knausgaard on James Joyce

The Norwegian author discusses the 20th century Irish modernist in the New York Times
james-joyceThis year marks the 100th anniversary of the publication of “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.” Its genesis was long and tortuous — Joyce began writing his novel in 1904 — and the road to its canonisation as one of the seminal works of Western literature was not short either: The reviews spoke of the author’s “cloacal obsession” and “the slime of foul sewers,” comments that seem strange today, insofar as it is the subjective aspect of the book, the struggle that goes on inside the mind of its young protagonist, that perhaps stands out to us now as its most striking feature. What appeared at the time to be unprecedented about the novel seems more mundane to us today, whereas what then came across as mundane now seems unprecedented. Joyce’s novel remains vital, in contrast to almost all other novels published in 1916, because he forcefully strived toward an idiosyncratic form of expression, a language intrinsic to the story he wanted to tell, about the young protagonist, Stephen Dedalus, and his formative years in Dublin, in which uniqueness was the very point and the question of what constitutes the individual was the issue posed.

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Karl Ove Knausgaard

The first time I heard about James Joyce, I was 18 years old, working as a substitute teacher in a small community in northern Norway and wanting to be a writer. That ambition had prompted me to subscribe to a literary journal, and in one of the issues that came in the mail there was a series of articles on the masterpieces of modernism — among them Joyce’s novel “Ulysses,” which he published six years after “Portrait,” and which also featured the character of Stephen Dedalus. The word “modernism” evoked in me a vague notion of machines, futuristic and shiny, and when I read about the tower that Stephen inhabits at the beginning of the book, I imagined some sort of medieval world of turreted castles, though with cars of the 1920s and airplanes, a place populated by young men reciting works in Latin and Greek; in other words, something very remote from the world in which I resided, with its quaysides and fishing boats, its steeply rising fells and icy ocean, its fishermen and factory workers, TV programs and pounding car-audio systems. I longed to get away. What I wanted was to write, and I resolved to read this marvelous work and be illuminated by all its radiance. For me, at that time, literature represented somewhere else, and my conception of “Ulysses” was tinged by the books I had read, the boyhood excesses lived out in the French fantasies of Jules Verne, for instance, or swashbuckling classics like “The Count of Monte Christo,” “The Three Musketeers,” “Ivanhoe” or “Treasure Island” — imaginary worlds in which I had lived half my life and which for me were the very essence of literature. Literature was somewhere other than me, so I thought, and related to that was another idea I had, that everything of meaning was to be found at the center, that only there did important things happen, while all that occurred on the periphery — where I felt I was — was without significance and unworthy of being written about. History belonged to others, literature belonged to others, truth belonged to others.


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Three years later I sat in the library at the University of Bergen reading “Ulysses” in English. By that time, the literary adventures of my boyhood and youth had been cast aside and my naïve notion of literature’s essence adjusted, but the idea of it belonging to others, those with talent and knowledge who inhabited the center, lingered on. I never related “Ulysses” to my own world, to the young people at the desks around me — even though one of the scenes in the book takes place in a library, among students — not to mention the cobbled streets outside, the gateways and alleys, the shop windows and hoardings, the umbrellas, strollers, raincoats and overcoats. No, “Ulysses” took place in the language, and the reality the novel described occurred in the land of modernism, in the depths of literature’s continent. I read it in the way an archaeologist might excavate an ancient monument, layer by layer, piece by piece, endeavouring thereby to make some meaningful totality of it all, always with my own inferiority and limitations in relation to it clear in mind. It was like an idiot stumbling over the remains of Troy and trying to make sense of what he had found.

“Even now, 27 years after I first read the book, its moods come back to me”

Because I had an assignment to write about “Ulysses,” I read Joyce’s other books too, among them his first novel, “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.” And how different it was! Where “Ulysses” scatters, “Portrait” holds together. Where “Ulysses” describes one day in a single town, “Portrait” depicts 20 years in a life. And where “Ulysses” swells with linguistic inventiveness and gleeful experimentation, “Portrait” swells with … well, what? Mood. Even now, 27 years after I first read the book, its moods come back to me. The rain-drenched school buildings in the dusk, the circumambient sound of children’s voices, the dull thud of a foot striking a ball, the heavy arc of the ball in the dismal air. The smell of cold night in the chapel and the hum of prayer. The family gathered together on Christmas Day, waiting for the dinner to be served; the fire burning in the fireplace, candles lighting up the table, the bonds and conflicts that exist between the people seated around it. The father, who talks with strangers in bars and tells the same stories every time. The narrow, filthy lanes in which the prostitutes huddle, the yellow gaslights, the smell of perfume, Stephen’s trembling heart. And the birds at evening, circling above the library, dark against the blue-gray sky, their cry “shrill and clear and fine and falling like threads of silken light unwound from whirring spools.”

“[Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man] deals with identity or, more precisely, the way in which identity arises, the events that shape us and make us who we are”

“Portrait” is a bildungsroman, a coming-of-age story, perhaps the prime example of that genre in English literature. It deals with identity or, more precisely, the way in which identity arises, the events that shape us and make us who we are. These circumstances are more or less the same for everyone. We are born into a family, and by virtue of how it receives and relates to us, we become manifest to ourselves and to others. We learn a language, and though it does not belong to us alone but is shared by all members of the community, it is by means of our language that we understand and express ourselves and that which is all around us. With the language comes a culture, of which, whether we like it or not, we become a part. Our circles widen, we start school, and the process of our socialization becomes more formal. We learn about the language, our culture and society, and to that first identity within the family, a new layer of national identity is added. Within this screen, Stephen Dedalus emerges as an Irish Catholic son of a petty bourgeois family, only to turn against all these categories in the latter half of the novel, rejecting Irish nationalism, rejecting his Catholic religion, rejecting the middle class, insistent on being nobody’s son. [Read More]

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2 Comments

  1. Knausgaard reminds me of Picasso, at this point: famous enough to doodle any old thing on a cocktail napkin in exchange for free meals for life, or for a car. That’s an exaggeration, obviously, but if you’re going to write an essay about two of the most written-about books of the 20th century, shouldn’t you try a *little* harder to bring just a *hint* of something new to the topic? My mother had a subscription to the Reader’s Digest (that figure of fun!) and I read its mild offerings as a boy; Knausgaard’s remembrance of his early encounters with Joyce reminded me of my early encounters with the Reader’s Digest. Yet, surely, this is the funniest (and most Knausgaardian) sentence I’ve read all week:

    “We learn a language, and though it does not belong to us alone but is shared by all members of the community, it is by means of our language that we understand and express ourselves and that which is all around us.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think that Knausgaard is, in some ways, a victim of his own success. When his work was first translated into English, he was immediately embraced by writers, critics, and bloggers alike. As more of the volumes become available, I think we can begin to sense a shift in the tide.

      Liked by 1 person

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