Why do I (or does anybody) read Karl Ove Knausgaard?

Jeffrey Eugenides said that Karl Ove Knausgård “broke the sound barrier of the autobiographical novel” in his six-volume account of his life that is 3500 pages long, called Min Kamp, (Mein Kampf , My Struggle), and finished before he was 50. Eugenides’s comment is perhaps deliberately ambivalent: the series is either a tremendous achievement or over-the-top. Or perhaps it’s both.

I’ve just finished the second volume A Man in Love, and it did seem interminable at times. He made thousands of cups of coffee and changed hundreds of nappies, and each time described himself doing so. (Actually coffee is mentioned 100 times and nappies 23 times.) Why, I wonder, did I carry on reading it? I don’t have a wholly convincing explanation, and at least one writer has compared reading Knausgaard to taking a drug.

The Economist reviewed the first volume, which I’ve also read, and picked out for features that make the book special. Firstly, the energy of his writing. Secondly, his willingness to put everything in the book. Thirdly, the book has a sense of transcendence. Fourthly, it’s his father who provides the narrative drive and “a sense of menace.”

His “willingness to put everything in” is certainly a reason, but it’s also the cause of much of the tedium. But he writes about his every move and his every thought, including deeply negative ones about himself and others. Assuming that everything he writes about happened, then there must be a fair few people offended by what he has written about them. His disregard for them fascinates.  He writes in the book about a conversation with a friend: “You went so far, put so much of yourself into it. That requires courage.’ ‘Not for me,’ I said. ‘I don’t give a shit about myself.’ He constantly disparages himself and seems to have low self-esteem, making it even more extraordinary that he should write so much about himself.

He also writes at one point about having a poor memory. You then wonder how he could remember making a cup of coffee 15 years ago. Then you begin to think that perhaps much of the book-and obviously the dialogue, of which there is a lot–is invented. And if it’s invented does that make the book a novel?

He writes as well in the book: “Everyday life, with its duties and routines, was something I endured, not a thing I enjoyed, nor something that was meaningful or made me happy.” Why then would he write so much about it and in so much detail? He answers this question later in the book:

Fictional writing has no value, documentary narrative has no value. The only genres I saw value in, which still conferred meaning, were diaries and essays, the types of literature that did not deal with narrative, that were not about anything, but just consisted of a voice, the voice of your own personality, a life, a face, a gaze you could meet. What is a work of art if not the gaze of another person?

I like that definition of a work of art “the gaze of another person.” You undoubtedly see through Knausgaard’s eyes.

And anyway Knausgaard contradicts himself, as he does often, when he writes: “Everyday life, which could bear down on us like a foot treading on a head, could also transport us with delight.” In his book we feel the foot treading on our heads, but we are also at times transported with delight. After pages of nappy changing we come to passages that fascinate, which is why I’ve found that I’ve taken a great many quotes from the book (see separate blog:)  His description in the first book of Rembrandt’s self-portrait in the National Gallery was an example and inspired me to go and look again at the picture: https://richardswsmith.wordpress.com/2016/08/23/face-to-face-with-rembrandt/

I wouldn’t describe his writing as energetic, but it does move along quickly. He’s often called “the Norwegian Proust,” and there are clear similarities: a very long account written in the first person of a man’s every move. But Proust is much more artificial and artistic, less direct; and Knausgaard doesn’t have the exquisite style of Proust. Indeed, the volume I’ve just read seemed filled with clichés and awkward phrases, which I thought (and a letter in the London Review of Books from someone who reads both Norwegian and English made the same point) might be due to a poor translation.

I don’t agree that his writing is transcendent, but I would describe it as hypnotic, which is not wholly a good thing.

His father, who dominates the first volume, which dealt with death, hardly features in the second volume, but there are these four sentences:  “A life is simple to understand, the elements that determine it are few. In mine there were two. My father and the fact that I had never belonged anywhere. It was no more difficult than that.”  It seems hugely ironic this his life can be explained with two elements but he writes 3500 words about the first 40 years of his life. But he might respond that he’s no trying to explain his life.

Although the book is about love there’s little of the transporting romantic love that usually dominates books that are about love. His love is a much more domestic love of his wife, children, and mother with all the everyday irritations that are part of such love.

What comes through most clearly in this book is that writing is everything for Knausgaard, the most important thing in his life. I, for my part, never looked forward to anything except the moment the office door closed behind me and I was alone and able to write.” And: “ ‘But you must write, Karl Ove!’ And when push came to shove, when a knife was at my throat, this was what mattered most.” But again he contradicts himself: “Children were life, and who would turn their back on life? And writing, what else was it but death? Letters, what else were they but bones in a cemetery?” And: “Everything that can be said with words can be contradicted with words, so what’s the point of dissertations, novels, literature?” But his obsession with writing explains better than anything else why he would write 3500 words about his own life. “One thing I had learned over the last six months was that all writing was about writing.”

So will I read the other four volumes? I doubt that I will.



Ali Smith on Brexit

Ali Smith’s novel Autumn has been described by the New York Times as the “First Great  Brexit Novel.” https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/17/books/review/autumn-ali-smith.html The book isn’t just about Brexit, nor is it a direct onslaught on Brexit. Indeed, you couldn’t write a credible novel set in Britain after the referendum that didn’t in some way, no matter how slightly ot tangentially, deal with Brexit. It dominates out lives. Smith’s novel begins after the referendum but goes backwards and forwards in time. The whole book captures the feel of Brexit, but here are two passages that are very much about Brexit.

“I’m tired of the news. I’m tired of the way it makes things spectacular that aren’t, and deals so simplistically with what’s truly appalling. I’m tired of the vitriol. I’m tired of the anger. I’m tired of the meanness. I’m tired of the selfishness. I’m tired of how we’re doing nothing to stop it. I’m tired of how we’re encouraging it. I’m tired of the violence there is and I’m tired of the violence that’s on its way, that’s coming, that hasn’t happened yet. I’m tired of liars. I’m tired of sanctified liars. I’m tired of how those liars have let this happen. I’m tired of having to wonder whether they did it out of stupidity or did it on purpose. I’m tired of lying governments. I’m tired of people not caring whether they’re being lied to any more. I’m tired of being made to feel this fearful. I’m tired of animosity. I’m tired of pusillanimosity.”

“All across the country, there was misery and rejoicing. All across the country, what had happened whipped about by itself as if a live electric wire had snapped off a pylon in a storm and was whipping about in the air above the trees, the roofs, the traffic.

All across the country, people felt it was the wrong thing. All across the country, people felt it was the right thing. All across the country, people felt they’d really lost. All across the country, people felt they’d really won. All across the country, people felt they’d done the right thing and other people had done the wrong thing. All across the country, people looked up Google: what is EU? All across the country, people looked up Google: move to Scotland. All across the country, people looked up Google: Irish passport applications.

All across the country, people called each other cunts. All across the country, people felt unsafe. All across the country, people were laughing their heads off. All across the country, people felt legitimized. All across the country, people felt bereaved and shocked. All across the country, people felt righteous. All across the country, people felt sick. All across the country, people felt history at their shoulder. All across the country, people felt history meant nothing. All across the country, people felt like they counted for nothing. All across the country, people had pinned their hopes on it. All across the country, people waved flags in the rain. All across the country, people drew swastika graffiti. All across the country, people threatened otherpeople. All across the country, people told people to leave. All across the country, the media was insane. All across the country, politicians lied. All across the country, politicians fell apart. All across the country, politicians vanished. All across the country, promises vanished. All across the country, money vanished. All across the country, social media did the job. All across the country, things got nasty. All across the country, nobody spoke about it. All across the country, nobody spoke about anything else. All across the country, racist bile was general. All across the country, people said it wasn’t that they didn’t like immigrants. All across the country, people said it was about control. All across the country, everything changed overnight. All across the country, the haves and the have nots stayed the same. All across the country, the usual tiny per cent of the people made their money out of the usual huge per cent of the people. All across the country, money money money money. All across the country, no money no money no money no money.

All across the country, the country split in pieces. All across the country, the countries cut adrift.

All across the country, the country was divided, a fence here, a wall there, a line drawn here, a line crossed there, a line you don’t cross here,

a line you better not cross there,

a line of beauty here,

a line dance there,

a line you don’t even know exists here,

a line you can’t afford there,

a whole new line of fire,

line of battle,

end of the line,

here/ there.”


My ridiculous encounter with Enoch Powell

This morning I listened to a discussion on the radio about a play based on Enoch Powell’s infamous “rivers of blood speech.” http://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/3643823/Enoch-Powells-Rivers-of-Blood-speech.html The play is not about Powell or even racism directly but about the speech. I was prompted both to read the speech for the first time and to remember my ridiculous protest against it.

The speech was delivered to a Tory party meeting in Birmingham on 20 April 1968. It was prompted by a forthcoming bill on racial discrimination. That year saw “the summer of love,” the end of the criminalisation of male homosexuality, the legalisation of abortion, and me being 16. I was a member of the Greenwich Young Communist League and was outraged by the speech even though I have never read it until today.

Reading the speech I’m struck first by the complexity and even beauty of the language and the classical references. I didn’t know then but I know now that Enoch Powell was one of the best educated and literary of politicians who had had a first class classical education. His book on the politics of the NHS, which I read 40 years after his infamous speech, is, I have argued, the best book on the subject. https://richardswsmith.wordpress.com/2017/07/11/the-best-book-ever-written-about-the-politics-of-the-nhs/

Early in the speech Powell presents himself as the messenger who must say important but shocking things, and he asks his audience not to confuse the messenger and the message; in doing so he refers to an ancient belief:

“Above all, people are disposed to mistake predicting troubles for causing troubles and even for desiring troubles: “If only,” they love to think, “if only people wouldn’t talk about it, it probably wouldn’t happen.”

Perhaps this habit goes back to the primitive belief that the word and the thing, the name and the object, are identical.”

Another classical reference comes soon after:

“Those whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make mad. We must be mad, literally mad, as a nation to be permitting the annual inflow of some 50,000 dependants, who are for the most part the material of the future growth of the immigrant-descended population. It is like watching a nation busily engaged in heaping up its own funeral pyre.”

Then he refers to the Nazis, knowing that most of his audience would have fought in the war, and makes a colourful reference to appeasers:

“The same newspapers which year after year in the 1930s tried to blind this country to the rising peril which confronted it, or archbishops who live in palaces, faring delicately with the bedclothes pulled right up over their heads.”

The centrepiece of his speech is the story of the “white widow,” the last white woman in a street filled with Negroes, as he calls them. She’s frightened to go out:

“She finds excreta pushed through her letter box. When she goes to the shops, she is followed by children, charming, wide-grinning piccaninnies.”

His reference to “wide-grinning piccaninnies” was the second most awful and widely remembered phrase from the speech.

He attacked the whole idea of integration. He didn’t refer to Apartheid, but it’s as if he approved of it. It was not his “solution” for Britain: rather he wanted immigrants to be encouraged to “go home.”

“The other dangerous delusion from which those who are wilfully or otherwise blind to realities suffer, is summed up in the word “integration.” To be integrated into a population means to become for all practical purposes indistinguishable from its other members.”

His speech didn’t actually contain the phrase “rivers of blood,” but journalists shortened his quote from Virgil’s Aeneid:

As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding; like the Roman, I seem to see “the River Tiber foaming with much blood.”

Outraged, I set out from Kidbrooke, a suburb in South London where I lived, with a communist friend to join a protest against the speech. Unfortunately we neglected to find out where the protest was being held. So when we got into Central London we found a phone box (no mobile phones then) rang Challenger, the Young Communist League newspaper, and somebody told us that the protest was outside Powell’s house in Eaton Square. But where was Eaton Square and how did we get there? And which number did he live at? This was all decades before Google and Google Maps, so it took us a long time to find our way.

When we eventually arrived in Eaton Square it was empty but for two policemen and lots of bits of paper. [ The policeman were, of course, unarmed: now there would be 30 policeman with machine guns and the whole square cordoned off.] Shamefacedly we approached the policemen: “Excuse us, but have you seen a demonstration?”

“It’s over, mate. You’ve missed it. They’re in the pub round the corner.”

We went to the pub and continued our protest over pints of bitter.



Schopenhauer, the Economist, and cancer

This morning I’ve read a disappointingly shallow account in the Economist of the attempt to cure cancer and a quote from Schopenhauer that could be sent as a letter to the Economist in response to its articles on cancer.

I’m an admirer of the Economist, but it’s in thrall to technology. I find the science section the weakest in the magazine, and I rarely read it. The articles on cancer argue that it’s only a matter of time before cancer will be cured. It’s true that much has been achieved in the past 60 years in stopping people dying of cancer, but it may be overoptimistic to think that this progress will continue to the point of nobody dying of cancer.

The article makes the almost universal mistake of concentrating on health care, failing to recognise that health care accounts for only around 10% of the factors that determine how long we live and how much we suffer. But the Economist’s two biggest failings are, firstly and ironically, to hardly consider the economics of it all and, secondly, to think what would happen when cancer was cured.

The point is made that most new treatments for cancer are extremely expensive, but the “opportunity costs” are not considered at all. By spending so much money on expensive treatments we divert resources from activities and investments (education, the environment, housing, community development, social care, the arts, social care, primary care, mental health) that could do much more to lengthen life and reduce suffering–and provide more “meaning.” Plus if we wanted maximum value from our investments we would concentrate on getting the treatments that do work to those who have no access to them rather than searching for new treatments, particularly as the astronomical costs of those individually-tailored treatments will increase inequality, which itself is highly harmful both to those who have and those who have not.

But let us suppose that cancer is cured? What then? We all die of something else, probably dementia or frailty. The length of life may increase, but the period of unhealthy and often dependent life will increase more. The costs of that, both emotional and financial, will be huge.

This is how Schopenhauer puts it–I have added just one phrase in square brackets.

“For whence did Dante take the materials of his hell but from our actual world? And yet he made a very proper hell out of it. But when, on the other hand, he came to describe heaven and its delights, he had an insurmountable difficulty before him, for our world affords no materials at all for this . . . . Every epic and dramatic poem [and programme to cure cancer] can only represent a struggle, an effort, a fight for happiness; never enduring and complete happiness itself. It conducts its heroes through a thousand dangers and difficulties to the goal; as soon as this is reached it hastens to let the curtain fall; for now there would remain nothing for it to do but to show that the glittering goal in which the hero expected to find happiness had only disappointed him, and that after its attainment he was no better off than before.”



Quotes from Les Misérables XI:  Diamonds are to be found only in the darkness of the earth, and truth in the darkness of the mind.

We can no more prevent a thought returning to the mind than we can prevent the sea from rising on the foreshore. To the sailor it is the tide, to the uneasy conscience it is remorse. God moves the soul as He moves the oceans.

Diamonds are to be found only in the darkness of the earth, and truth in the darkness of the mind.

Is there any man who, once at least in his life, has not found himself in that blackness of uncertainty?

Punctuality is a part of kindness

A London morning

I catch a tube from Clapham Common at about 8.15 to go to Guy’s Hospital for dental treatment. Remarkably I am able to get on the first tube, but I have almost no space. But I do have enough space to look at my phone, and I read one of the daily pieces I’m sent from Writers’ Almanac.  It always starts with a poem, as every day should, and it’s William Blake’s poem about London.

I wander thro’ each charter’d street,

Near where the charter’d Thames does flow.

And mark in every face I meet

Marks of weakness, marks of woe.


In every cry of every Man,

In every Infants cry of fear,

In every voice: in every ban,

The mind-forg’d manacles I hear


How the Chimney-sweepers cry

Every blackning Church appalls,

And the hapless Soldiers sigh

Runs in blood down Palace walls


But most thro’ midnight streets I hear

How the youthful Harlots curse

Blasts the new-born Infants tear

And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse

“Marks of weakness, marks of woe” are still to be seen on London faces. I see them on this tube. I wonder what exactly are “mind-forg’d manacles,” but I think I know: Blake was perhaps one of those rare people who didn’t have them, living his highly creative life according to his own principles. The blights that plague the Marriage hearse are presumably syphilis, and goodness what a phrase is “Marriage hearse”?

I reflect on stumbling across Blake’s grave in Bunhill Fields in the City, the graveyard of the dissidents. Daniel Defoe is buried there as well.

The next piece in Writers’ Alamanac is about the London Blitz, probably explaining their selection of Blake’s poem.

“The Blitz began on this date in 1940. “Blitz” comes from the German word “Blitzkrieg,” which means “lightning war.” Germany had successfully invaded France, and now Hitler was determined to conquer Britain as well. The German Luftwaffe, or air force, had been engaging the Royal Air Force for a few months, but without much success. Hitler changed his strategy: rather than focusing on military targets, he set out to crush the morale of the British people through relentless attacks on its major cities.

The first wave of bombers — 348 in all — hit London at around 4:00 in the afternoon. The Luftwaffe primarily targeted London’s docks on this first attack, but many bombs fell in civilian areas as well. Four hundred and thirty people died, and 1,600 were seriously injured. The fires that had started as a result of the first wave of attacks served as beacons for a second wave that hit after dark and lasted until 4:30 the next morning. But Hitler’s attempt to crush the British spirit had the opposite effect. Winston Churchill said: “[Hitler] has lighted a fire which will burn with a steady and consuming flame until the last vestiges of Nazi tyranny have been burnt out of Europe.”

Journalist Ernie Pyle reported from London during the Blitz. He wrote: “It was a night when London was ringed and stabbed with fire. […] The greatest of all the fires was directly in front of us. Flames seemed to whip hundreds of feet into the air. Pinkish-white smoke ballooned upward in a great cloud, and out of this cloud there gradually took shape — so faintly at first that we weren’t sure we saw correctly — the gigantic dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral.

“St. Paul’s was surrounded by fire, but it came through. It stood there in its enormous proportions — growing slowly clearer and clearer, the way objects take shape at dawn. It was like a picture of some miraculous figure that appears before peace-hungry soldiers on a battlefield.”

The attacks of September 7 were only the beginning. The Blitz continued for 76 consecutive nights, with the exception of a single night of bad weather. Bombs fell on London, Liverpool, Manchester, and several other cities in England and Wales. All told, some 43,000 British civilians died by the time Hitler called off the Blitz in May 1941, and more than a million homes were damaged or destroyed. The Blitz cost the Germans most of their air force, however: they lost most of their airmen and hundreds of planes.”

Famously (and probably apocryphally) my grandfather slept through the Blitz, which paradoxically many regard as London’s finest hour. It features heavily in books I read, not least the Cazalet Chronicles and the Dance to the Music of Time. People stood together. I was born 12 years after the Blitz, but its effects were everywhere to be seen. They still are: the street I live in has two blocks of 50s flats put up in spaces where the Victorian houses were destroyed. A man who lived in our house during the war knocked on our door a couple of years ago and asked to look round: he told us how he’d been in the house during the war and the windows had blown in after a bomb exploded in the street.

But my main thought after reading the account was how ignorant I was about the Blitz: I didn’t know that nearly 400 planes bombed London on the first night and that attacks continued for 76 consecutive nights; and I didn’t know that 43 000 civilians had died.

As I was early I decided to get off the tube at Borough and walk. As I winkled through the narrow streets I encountered for the first time the site of the Marshalsea prison, where Dickens’s father was held in reality and Mr Micawber in David Copperfield. One of the things I love most about London is encountering these hidden treasures.


Guy’s now is–like all big hospitals–a city as much as a hospital, but the old bits are there. I thought of John Keats and Thomas Wakely, founder of the Lancet, both of whom were students at Guys.

I saw an old arch abandoned like the statue of Ozymandias. It’s a war memorial and says across the top “Their name liveth for evermore.” What a con, I thought. Those young men died in mud and squalor and had no lives. They are not remembered.

From the 22nd floor of the Guy’s Tower I looked down on Blake’s Charter’d Thames snaking through the city. I looked particularly at the Tower of London and thought of Richard III having the two princes killed and Anne Boleyn being beheaded. Now I’m 65 I know that neither event was long ago.

After my dental adventure I walked past Southwark Cathedral where John Harvard, founder of the university, was baptised; the reconstruction of the Golden Hind in which Drake, who was essentially a pirate, sailed round the world; and the recreation of the Globe Theatre where Shakespeare’s plays were first performed.

And I looked across at St Paul’s and thought of its remarkable survival during the Blitz.

Once I couldn’t wait to leave London; now I’m ready to die here.


“I can’t sing, I ain’t pretty, and my legs are thin.”

The fact that I have no hard skills whatsoever continues to haunt me, but luckily death will solve allsoon. I dug out this blog from the BMJ in 2012 for a friend and thought I’d post it on my website. http://blogs.bmj.com/bmj/2012/07/24/richard-smith-i-cant-sing-i-aint-pretty-and-my-legs-are-thin/

It’s been a bad week. I’ve flown 6000 miles to attend two meetings where not only did I not manage to say anything useful but I also came across as stupid. Such experiences always lead me to reflect on my extreme deficiencies and marvel that I’ve got as far as I have. I’m writing this partly to assuage my discomfort (one of the best reasons for writing), but more to illustrate to the young how you can get a long way with minimal talent.

(If you want to read more on such a theme I recommend Anthony Powell’s twelve volume Dance to the Music Time, in which one of the main characters Kenneth Widmerpool, a socially awkward fool, rises to be Lord Widmerpool. Mind you, by the end of the book he is the powerless, naked member of a pagan cult. Perhaps a similar fate awaits me.)

As far as I can see, I have no skills. I can’t speak a foreign language, one of life’s most important skills in that it is the key to other cultures. I might—and do—read lots of books written initially in languages other than English, but it’s very much a diminished experience compared with reading them in their original languages. And, although poetry is hugely important to me, I’m shut out completely from poetry written in other languages. I spent five years learning French, but even ordering a meal in a Parisian restaurant is a strain. Yet I have friends, particularly African and Asian friends, who speak up to six languages without hesitation.

Music is as important to me as poetry, but I can’t play a musical instrument. I did spend several years learning the clarinet and tenor saxophone, but the sounds I made couldn’t be described as music. Nor can I sing or dance, although I enjoy to do both. My daddy dancing mortifies my family, and the only song I can sing in public is the Winkle Song, which I always introduce by saying “This is a song that can be sung only by those who can’t sing.” Nor do I have other performance skills; my comedian brother can keep an audience laughing for two hours, and his question to measure anybody’s value is “Could you do 10 minutes at the Comedy Store?” My answer is no.

Then I’m not a proper doctor. Some doctors can do things as remarkable as transplant a heart or embolise a brain tumour, and the humblest doctor who sees patients has to have a formidable range of skills. I don’t see patients, and as I did so for only two years never learnt many of those skills. Most academics also have technical skills like being able to do differential calculus or calculate when Halley’s comment will next appear. Although, I’ve been a professor in five institutions I don’t have any such technical skills.

Nor do I possess sporting skills. I went to Lords last year and was astonished by the skills of the cricketers: even the slowest bowlers bowled so fast that I couldn’t see the ball, and yet batsmen could most of the time put bat on the the fastest bowling. I did once take 10 wickets in an innings, but that was 50 years ago when I was 10—and  I don’t think that the standard was high in a park in Rotherhithe. I play tennis sometimes but can’t serve properly. I can at least swim, but that’s not a  marketable skill.

Then there’s all those practical skills that I don’t have. While I sit upstairs writing silly blogs like this, five Bulgarians have built an extension to our kitchen, an achievement that has demanded many complex skills. I remember as a child passing a tall chimney in a train, and my father telling me “Your uncle built that chimney.” In retrospect I recognise that he wouldn’t have done so alone (as I thought at the time), but it must be a fine thing to point to some solid structure, perhaps even a house, and say “I built that.” I once was part of a start up business, and every day as I cycled to work I past a block of flats being built. After two years the flats were built and occupied, whereas our business was shaky.

I can change a plug, but that seems to be an almost redundant skill. I can cook, but when I think of my attempt to cook something special I think of the utter failure of my macaroni pie that I cooked for the Guardian‘s restaurant critic.

There must, I suppose, be some skills that I have. I can walk, chew gum, clean my teeth, and tie my shoelaces, but who can’t do these things? (Mind you, even changing the clock on the microwave is beyond me: I have to wait for my daughter to come home from university to get this done.) I can compose a grammatical sentence, although not a 100% of the time, but I could not write a novel or poem that anybody would want to read. Perhaps I have “soft skills” unlike the “hard skills” of being able to speak Spanish fluently, play the cello well enough to play in a string quarter, or do a hip replacement—but there’s not much satisfaction to be had from skills so soft that they are hard to define and impossible to measure.

Perhaps I should be terrified by this lack of skills, and if I was 20 rather than 60 I might be. But somehow I’ve managed to get myself into Who’s Who? with no discernible skills. I’m another Widmerpool.