Here is the audio and transcript, this was one of my favorite Conversations. Here is the CWTeam summary:
Knausgård’s literary freedom paves the way for this conversation with Tyler, which starts with a discussion of mimesis and ends with an explanation of why we live in the world of Munch’s The Scream. Along the way there is much more, including what he learned from reading Ingmar Bergman’s workbooks, the worst thing about living in London, how having children increased his productivity, whether he sees himself in a pietistic tradition, thoughts on Bible stories, angels, Knut Hamsun, Elena Ferrante, the best short story (“Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”), the best poet (Paul Celan), the best movie (Scenes from a Marriage), and what his punctual arrival says about his attachment to bourgeois values.
Here is one excerpt:
KNAUSGÅRD: You have this almost archetypical artist putting his art before his children, before his family, before everything. You have also Doris Lessing who did the same — abandoned her children to move to London to write.
I’ve been kind of confronted with that as a writer, and I think everyone does because writing is so time consuming and so demanding. When I got children, I had this idea that writing was a solitary thing. I could go out to small islands in the sea. I could go to lighthouses, live there, try to write in complete . . . be completely solitary and alone. When I got children, that was an obstruction for my writing, I thought.
But it wasn’t. It was the other way around. I’ve never written as much as I have after I got the children, after I started to write at home, after I kind of established writing in the middle of life. It was crawling with life everywhere. And what happened was that writing became less important. It became less precious. It became more ordinary. It became less religious or less sacred.
It became something ordinary, and that was incredibly important for me because that was eventually where I wanted to go — into the ordinary and mundane, even, and try to connect to what was going on in life. Life isn’t sacred. Life isn’t uplifted. It is ordinary and boring and all the things, we know.
COWEN: So many great Norwegian writers — Ibsen, Sigrid Undset, Knut Hamsun — there’s nationalism in their work. Yet today, liberals tend to think of nationalism as an unspeakable evil of sorts. How do we square this with the evolution of Norwegian writing?
And if one thinks of your own career, arguably it’s your extreme popularity in Norway at first that drove your later fame. What’s the connection of your own work to Norwegian nationalism? Are you the first non-nationalist great Norwegian writer? Is that plausible? Or is there some deeper connection?
KNAUSGÅRD: I think so much writing is done out of a feeling of not belonging. If you read Knut Hamsun, he was a Nazi. I mean, he was a full-blooded Nazi. We have to be honest about that.
COWEN: His best book might be his Nazi book, right? He wrote it when he was what, 90?
COWEN: On Overgrown Paths?
COWEN: To me, it’s much more interesting than the novels, which are a kind of artifice that hasn’t aged so well.
COWEN: But you read On Overgrown Paths, you feel like you’re there. It’s about self-deception.
KNAUSGÅRD: It’s true, it’s a wonderful book. But I think Hamsun’s theme, his subject, is rootlessness. In a very rooted society, in a rural society, in a family-orientated society like Norway has been — a small society — he was a very rootless, very urban writer.
He went to America, and he hated America, but he was America. He had that in him. He was there in the late 19th century, and he wrote a book about it, which is a terrible book, but still, he was there, and he had that modernity in him.
He never wrote about his parents. Never wrote about where he came from. All his characters just appear, and then something happens with them, but there’s no past. I found that incredibly intriguing just because he became the Nazi. He became the farmer. He became the one who sang the song about the growth. What do you call it? Markens Grøde.
COWEN: Growth of the Soil.
COWEN: Arnold Weinstein has a book on Nordic culture, and he argues that the sacrifice of the child is a recurring theme. It’s in Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling. It’s in a number of Ibsen plays, Bergman movies. Has that influenced you? Or are you a rejection of that? Are you like Edvard Munch, but with children, and that’s the big difference between you and Munch, the painter?
I told you we ask different questions.
KNAUSGÅRD: Yeah, yeah. You just said different. You didn’t say difficult.
Knausgaard showed up for the taping carrying a package of black bread, which he forgot to take with him when leaving. So for the rest of the day, I enjoyed his black bread…
I will be doing a Conversation with him, no associated public event. So what should I ask him?
Here are previous MR entries on Knausgaard. Here is Knausgaard’s forthcoming book So Much Longing in So Little Space: The Art of Edvard Munch.
Remember when Ortega y Gasset wrote: “Within the novel almost anything fits…”? Well, Karl Ove Knausgaard has proven him right in this improbably wonderful conclusion to his ongoing semi-fictionalized autobiographical series My Struggle, the first two volumes of which stand as literary masterworks. It’s not every day that a 1153 pp. rant, outside the author’s main fields of expertise, turns out to be so compelling. But wait…I guess those are his main fields of expertise.
Maybe a third of this book is an intellectual biography of Hitler and an analysis of how the proper readings of Mein Kampf change over the years and decades. “Mein Kampf received terrible reviews,” writes K., and then we learn why they matter. I found that segment to be a masterful take on liberalism and its potential for decline, as Knausgaard tries harder than most to make us understand how Hitler got anywhere at all. Underneath it all is a Vico-esque message of all eras converging, and the past not being so far away from the present as it might seem.
Another third of the book covers various writers, including Dostoyevsky, Handke, Celan, Joyce, Hamsun, and Olav Duun, and why they matter to Knausgaard, and is interesting throughout. There are detailed brilliant takes on Herman Broch’s The Death of Virgil and Rene Girard on Hamlet and then desultory remarks on William Petty’s Political Arithmetick. For those sufficiently familiar with the underlying sources, it absolutely comes off.
The other third of the book, most prominent at the beginning, is a mostly failed and meandering fictional narrative of the author’s own life, unsatisfying if read “straight up” but in context a reminder that all thought processes degenerate, and an account of how and why they do so, and in that regard an ideal introduction to the rest of the work and a meta-move which ties together all six volumes of the series, including the often-unsatisfying volumes 3-5. But it will try your patience.
As for what went wrong with liberalism, here is one relevant bit:
Charisma is one of the two great transcendental forces in the social world: beauty is the other. They are forces seldom talked about, since both issue from the individual, neither may be learned or acquired, and in a democracy, where everyone is meant to be considered equal and where all relationships are meant to be just, such properties cannot be accorded value, though all of us are aware of them and of how much they mean…beauty eclipses everything, bedims all else, it is what we see first and what we consciously or unconsciously seek. Yet this phenomenon is shrouded in silence…driving it out instead by our social mechanisms of expulsion, calling it stupid, immature, or unsophisticated, perhaps even primitive, at the same time as we allow it to flourish in the commercial domain, where it quietly surrounds us whichever way we turn…
I do “get” why the reviews have been so mixed, but I think someone has to have the stones to stand up and call this a masterpiece and that someone is me. With it, Karl Ove Knausgaard has cemented his claim to have produced something truly creative and new, and now instructive as well.
This is every bit as good as volume one. I now also know why he titled the whole thing what is in essence *Mein Kampf* (no, the author is not a Nazi, but rather he is rather savagely poking fun at modernity and the modern notion of struggle).
You can buy it here. It is better, by the way, to read volume one first, but if you picked this up blind, without having read the first part, you would do just fine with it.
Think about it: Carlsen, Knausgaard, and the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund. This has been some century (so far) for The Land of the Midnight Sun.
Imagine a Norwegian Proust, albeit more concrete and with less repetition. The Amazon link is here, and you will notice that all nine Amazon reviews give it five stars. Here is a James Wood review from The New Yorker. Here is Wikipedia on the author. Here is a good blog review. Note this is only one out of six volumes, from Norway.
I would put this among the greatest Continental novels of the last fifty years and not at the bottom of that tier. It is not often that one discovers such books.
Here are some answers, I put his questions — from Request for Requests – in bold:
Melancholy among academics.
We’re a pretty sorry bunch, and many of us don’t have so much professionally to live for, at least not at the relevant margin — it is easy to lose forward momentum and never recover it, given the constraints and incentives in the profession and broader pressures toward conformity. Rates of depression in academia, and especially in graduate school, are fairly high. Many of the core processes are demoralizing rather than inspiring. It is remarkable to me how much other people simply have accepted that is how things ought to be and perhaps they believe matters cannot be that different. I view the high rates of depression in academic life as a “canary in the coal mine” that doesn’t get enough attention as an indicator of bigger, more systemic problems in the entire enterprise. What are you doing with your lifetime sinecure?
Your favorite things Soviet.
Shostakovich. And the Romantic pianists, most of all Richter and Gilels. Constructivist art and ballet up through the late 1920s. The early chess games of Tal. Magnitogorsk. War memorials, most of all in Leningrad. Tarkovsky. I admire the “great” Soviet novels, but I don’t love them, except for Solzhenitsyn, whom I would rather read then Dostoyevsky. Probably the poetry is amazing, but my Russian is too limited to appreciate it.
The optimal number of math PhDs worldwide.
I would think fairly few. I am happy having lots of mathematicians, with independent tests of quality. But is the Ph.D such a great test or marker of quality? Did Euclid have one? Euler? Does it show you will be a great teacher? Maybe we should work toward abolishing the math PhD concept, but out of respect for the profession, not out of hostility toward math.
What historical works of art were anticipated to be great prior to creation, were immediately declared to be great at creation and have continued to be judged great ever since?
Overall it is striking how popular how many of the great revolutionaries have been. Michelangelo was a major figure of renown. Mozart was quite popular, though not fully appreciated. Beethoven was a legend in his time, and every Wagner opera was an event. Goethe ruled his time as a titan. A significant percentage of the very best writers were well known and loved during their careers, though of course there was uncertainty how well they would stand up to the test of time.
The future of Northern New Jersey.
Much like the present, plus defaults on the pension obligations and over time the Indian food may get worse, due to acculturation. The Sopranos will fade into distant memory, I am sorry to say, as will Bruce Springsteen. So many young people already don’t know them or care. I feel lucky to have grown up during the region’s cultural peak.
Who are the greats that still walk among us (other than McCartney)?
The major tech founders and CEOs, Stephan Wolfram, Jasper Johns and Frank Stella and Richard Serra and Gerhardt Richter and Robert Gober, a number of other classic rock stars (Dylan, Brian Wilson, Jagger, Eno, etc.), Philip Glass, Richard D. James, and note most of the greatest classical musicians who have ever lived are alive and playing today (Uchida anyone?), at least once Covid goes away. Many of the major architects. Ferrante and Knausgaard and Alice Munro. Many of the figures who built up East Asia and Singapore. Perelman. Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David. Magnus Carlsen and all sorts of figures in sports. A bunch of other people whom Eric Weinstein would list.
From Alex X.:
With the decade coming to a close, I would be curious on everyone’s favorite of the decade [gives list of categories]:
Without too much pondering, here is what comes to mind right away:
Film: Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, or A Touch of Sin. Might Winter Sleep by next? It was probably the best decade ever for foreign movies, the worst decade ever for Hollywood movies (NYT).
Blockbuster/action film: Transformers 4? Big screen only, live or die by CGI!
Album: Kanye West, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.
Single: I don’t see an obvious, non-derivative pick here that really stands out. Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” probably is the mainstream choice, but do I ever go over to the stereo to put it on? Janelle Monae’s “Make Me Feel” is another option, but is it such a big step beyond Prince? Lorde or Beyonce? LCD Soundsystem seems more about the entire album, same for Frank Ocean. Something from Kanye’s Yeezus? To pull a dark horse option out of the hat, how about Gillian Welch, “The Way It Goes“? Or Death Grips “Giving Bad People Good Ideas“? I’ve spent enough time on Twitter that I have to opt for that one.
TV Show: Srugim, Borgen, The Americans.
Single Season: Selections from same, you know which seasons.
Book Fiction: The Ferrante quadrology and Houllebecq’s Submission.
Book Non Fiction: Knausgaard, volumes I and II.
Athlete of the Decade: Stephen Curry or Lebron James.
What are your picks?
I chuckled at that FT headline, fortunately the on-line version names Olga Tokarczuk and Peter Handke in its header.
Can you imagine a sports header: “Big name wins NBA most valuable player award.” No, they would name the “big name” because that big name is in fact big.
I still think Stephen King should get one. I didn’t enjoy trying to read Tokarczuk, though I suspect she is a very good writer in Polish. By Handke I can recommend his Sorrow of Dreams, a memoir of his mother dying, and also a book that influenced Knausgaard. But mostly I am find him boring, pessimistic, and nasty, perhaps consistent with his support for Milosevic and the tyranny in Serbia. I don’t think that disqualifies him from the prize per se, but neither do I see him as an author who had to win, though he is indeed “a big name in European writing.” The thing is, he is nothing more than that.
Here you can buy The Stand for $8.30, by the way I love Houllebecq but the new one isn’t very interesting, as sadly it reads like a parody of his earlier, superior work. Submission remains one of the truly great novels of recent times.
1. Sarah A. Seo, Policing the Open Road: How Cars Transformed American Freedom. “The revolution in automotive freedom coincided with an equally unprecedented expansion in the police’s discretionary power.”
2. Allison Schrager, An Economist Walks into a Brothel, and Other Unexpected Places to Understand Risk. My blurb: “Allison Schrager’s An Economist Walks Into a Brothel is the best, most readable, most informative, most adventurous, and most entertaining take on risk you will find.”
3. Marlon James, Black Leopard Red Wolf. While the author of this new budding fictional series seems quite talented, this is more a book to admire than to enjoy. I can’t imagine that people will read it fifteen years from now. I’ve also read a bunch of reviews which try to praise it, without every telling the reader it will hold their interest.
4. Rachel M. McCleary and Robert J. Barro, The Wealth of Religions: The Political Economy of Believing and Belonging. A good overview of their work together on economics and religion, and also more generally a take on what the social sciences know empirically about the causes and effects of religion (not always so much, I should add).
5. The Bitter Script Reader, Michael F-ing Bay: The Unheralded Genius in Michael Bay’s Films. There aren’t enough enthusiastic, intelligent fanboy books, but this is one of them.
For prep for my Conversation with Knausgaard, I read a good deal of Ivo de Figueiredo, Henrik Ibsen: The Man & the Mask, and was impressed by how much new material he had uncovered.
Ben S. Bernanke, Timothy F. Geithner, and Henry M. Paulson, Firefighting: The Financial crisis and its Lessons: your model of this book is what this book is.
Arrived in my pile are:
Thomas Milan Konda, Conspiracies of Conspiracies: How Delusions Have Overrun America.
Uwe E. Reinhardt, Priced Out: The Economic and Ethical Costs of American Health Care. Uwe is gone but not forgotten.
Marion Turner, Chaucer: A European Life. This one may not please the Brexiteers.
Marie-Janine Galic, The Great Cauldron: A History of Southeastern Europe seems impressive, though I have not had time to read much of it.
This year produced a strong set of top entries, though with little depth past these favorites. Note that sometimes my review lies behind the link:
Varlam Shalamov, Kolyma Stories.
Gaël Faye, Small Country. Think Burundi, spillover from genocide, descent into madness, and “the eyes of a child caught in the maelstrom of history.”
Madeline Miller, Circe.
Karl Ove Knausgaard, volume six, My Struggle. Or should it be listed in the non-fiction section?
Can Xue, Love in the New Millennium.
Homer’s Odyssey, translated by Emily Wilson.
Uwe Johnson, From a Year in the Life of Gessine Cresspahl. I haven’t read this one yet, I did some browse, and I am fairly confident it belongs on this list. 1760 pp.
Which are your picks?
1. Swedish “Future Skills” podcast: “Tyler Cowen – Economist and Master Generalist on: Economic Outlook, Social Change, and Future Cities.”
3. Joshua Rothman interviews Knausgaard (New Yorker).
5. Short Tyler video on what economists know and do not know. Recommended.