ONLY CONNECT

My Struggle, Book 3
by Karl Ove Knausgaard

The other day, I was standing on the train platform reading Book 3 of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six-volume series, My Struggle. Most of my fellow passengers consulted their phones or walked by me zombie-style, immersed in whatever was coming through their headphones; a few pushed bikes down the platform and a couple sat chatting with one another. While I stood reading, feet planted firmly on the ground in Berkeley, California, March 2016, I was, at the same time, in Karl Ove’s childhood bedroom in Tromoya, Norway circa 1978. A breeze rushed past me as a train left the station while Karl Ove sat on his bed and picked up a book by Ursula K. Le Guin. In that moment, I felt like I was on the tail end of a ricochet, knowing that Le Guin grew up in post-World War I Berkeley.

People like to say that we’re more connected today than we’ve ever been thanks to current technology. But writers and readers know that we’ve always been connected through our conversations on the page. And even my beloved Skype hasn’t figured out how to time travel yet.

My Struggle Book 3

Of course not every writer connects with every reader. And anyone who tells me that Karl Ove is too internal and plot-deficit for their taste gets my full support and understanding. Yet clearly I’m invested at this point, having read the first half of his 3,600-page opus. So what’s in it for me, besides some company while I’m waiting for my train?

I’ll put it this way. Why do we like strange, twisty, suspenseful plots? Because we feel like we’re actively navigating through the story, picking up the crumbs a writer leaves and using our minds to interpret the path on which we’ve been set. It’s satisfying to figure things out and to be surprised, especially when both happen at the same time.

Karl Ove doesn’t map out intricate plots (this is a memoir* after all) but instead he lays out in exceptional detail every last nook, cranny and conifer of both his external and internal worlds. Were I to be air-dropped into Tromoya Island, Norway in the year 1978, I feel confident I could make my way through the “… gardens and rocks, meadows and woods, up and down dale, around sharp bends, sometimes with trees on both sides, as if through a tunnel …” to Karl Ove’s newly developed neighborhood, where buddies Geir, Rolf and Dag Lothar would be waiting to play. And then I’d see Karl Ove’s sadistic, alcoholic father looming in the doorway and feel just as shaken as Karl Ove does.

A cynical person could say that enjoying the kind of intimacy and sharing Knausgaard offers is another form of today’s rampant voyeurism (see reality tv, celeb gossip and pretty much the whole Internet). On the contrary, I think he’s speaking to something older and more visceral and thus, the hubbub around this series.

Simply put, he’s connecting.

P.S., I seem to find myself on an unintended Norwegian kick these days. My library copy of One of Us: The Story of Anders Breivik and the Massacre in Norway just came in and my buddy Anne recently got us into Occupied on Netflix. I guess it’s no wonder I found myself buying smoked salmon earlier today.

*KOK calls these books “a non-fiction novel”

 

H IS FOR HAWK

H Is for Hawk

Love this cover

H Is for Hawk
by Helen Macdonald

Sometimes our most irrational decisions are also our most defining moments. They are the moments when we know we’re acting a bit mad, as they say on Downton, yet we feel better, freer, and wilder than at any other time. Perhaps we’ve quit our job to write a novel. Perhaps we’ve quit our life to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. Or perhaps we’ve brought home a baby goshawk.

That last one is what Helen Macdonald did after the unexpected loss of her father. And while I don’t know Helen Macdonald, after reading her unique and idiosyncratic memoir about this attempt to harness her grief, it’s safe to say that it’s a book only she could have written. With beautiful, poetic language (that works surprisingly well when describing the sometimes gory details of training a hawk), Macdonald narrates her surface story while weaving in meditations on grief and nature and our relationship to animals and the meaning of solitude.   She also gives us just enough on the history of falconry to understand its place in the British class system and its place in her life. And then there’s her metaphysical kinship with the late T.H. White (author of the Once and Future King series and falconer).

Now I should back up and explain that Macdonald is a trained falconer and naturalist (in addition to being a writer and historian), so her decision to adopt a hawk wasn’t quite as far off the rails as it might sound. Although for yours truly, a self-proclaimed indoorsy type, the concept was still a little hard to get my head around when I picked up her book.

It reminded me of when we first adopted Henry The Wonderdog a few years back: he’s no bird of prey, but he is still undoubtedly a member of the animal kingdom. And while he immediately won us over with his loving personality and striking resemblance to a Gund stuffed animal, there was a part of me that couldn’t help feeling a little, well, grossed out, frankly, at the thought of having “an animal in my house.” Six years later there are still times when I feel like I know where the wild things are – on my sofa – and my ambivalence surfaces.

I suppose this is to say that the next time I start to lose my mind (the clock is ticking), I probably won’t be donning a falconer’s glove and waistcoat, but H Is for Hawk did help me remember why I keep this crazy terrier/hound mix around. (He’s snoozing on my freshly vacuumed sofa as I write this.) Anyone who’s had a pet (or been to the zoo or the petting farm) will bashfully admit that we tend to project our motivations and needs onto animals. But Macdonald reminded me that it’s reciprocal; we also long for the purity of what animals can give and receive.

 

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P Is for Pup

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There’s an animal in my house