When I started this new blog, I thought it would be interesting and relevant to include reviews of books I had been reading for fun. I haven’t written one until now because I have essentially been reading the same book since last September.
In July last year, I started writing a memoir. By December I had almost finished a first draft, and then I stopped abruptly, and in January the children were sent home from school again, and I haven’t really touched it since, partly because of the need to focus almost exclusively on homeschooling and work. The memoir is probably just a personal exercise, a reckoning with my romantic and erotic existence, and how the presence of various men in my life, not to mention an extraordinary number of different addresses, has shaped me.
In 2019 and 2020 I read as many other memoirs as I could manage, to support and inspire the writing project, and also because I’ve found of late that I really like reading about real lives. The list includes, in no special order:
- Another Planet – Tracey Thorn
- Three Women – Lisa Taddeo (not a memoir, but an account of three real lives)
- Motherwell – Deborah Orr
- The Argonauts – Maggie Nelson
- Constellations – Sinéad Gleeson
- I am, I am, I am – Maggie O’Farrell (ongoing)
- Welcome Home – Lucia Berlin
- Kitchen Confidential (re-reading, ongoing) – Anthony Bourdain
- The Woman Warrior – Maxine Hong Kingston
I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions about the content of the list, and especially the authors. Let’s just say there was a pattern emerging. I also read The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr (whose own memoirs I have not yet read), which was fantastic and inspiring, and had a wonderfully extensive suggested reading list at the back.
On the list, one series of books caught my eye: ‘Knausgård, Karl Ove. The Min Kamp (My Struggle) series.’ Of course I had heard of these books, and I’d always assumed they were not for me. Too exhaustive and exhausting. A man going on at great length, and not only being allowed to do so, but fêted for it. It made me feel a bit tired. But I also gathered that it was difficult to think about the contemporary act of writing memoir, of writing about real life and real people, without at least dipping a toe in the water of Knausgaard. He had taken the form (even if, ostensibly, in the shape of a novel) to its logical conclusion, hadn’t he? I decided to read just a little bit for free, on a Kindle, of My Struggle 1, A Death in the Family. And then I was hooked, and so I went to Waterstones and bought a physical copy, and that was it. That, it turned out, was my leisure reading sorted more or less for the next six months. Two of the books I needed to buy twice, because I bought an earlier edition of book 2, A Man in Love, and then fretted that the spines wouldn’t match, and book 6, The End, was so huge and with such dense print that I couldn’t comfortably read it in bed, so I had to revert to the Kindle for that one. So it was a financial commitment as much as an emotional and intellectual one.
I finished The End yesterday. For a while I’d thought I wouldn’t make it, because the 400-page section on Hitler’s Mein Kampf in the middle of the book seemed interminable. I only carried on because it honestly felt as if Knausgaard was trying to put me off at that point, and I was not about to play his stupid, macho game. I was going to finish what I’d started.
I’m not a practised book reviewer. The last review I wrote was of Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, for the purpose of getting a place on a creative writing MA course (which I started in 2018, but didn’t finish). And the problem with trying to write a review of My Struggle is that it is so enormous (Penguin says it is 1,371,255 words long) that by the time you’ve got to the end of it all, the beginning is something of a distant memory. I would need to keep reading it over and over again for the rest of my life to hold it all in my mind, and even then I probably wouldn’t manage. So this ‘review’ is necessarily impressionistic.
I will say that for large tracts of time while reading it, I was captivated. It is possible to dismiss it as narcissistic, as self-indulgent, as undisciplined and probably quite lightly edited, as immoral (in its portrayal of his wife at the time, and perhaps children). But that would be to overlook the beauty. Sometimes the beauty of landscapes, and sometimes the beauty of the minutiae of human existence. Whether or not all the memories are actually true (I don’t mean the biographical and historical details, I mean his recollections of light hitting gravel on a particular day when he was eight, things of that sort), they seem true, and they cast a strong spell. You do really feel that you are experiencing the world as he saw it at a particular point in his past, and you are there with him, however uncomfortable that might be. The books are also sad, and they are sometimes very funny. I often laughed out loud while reading. Sometimes they are infuriating, and you cannot escape the fact that you are experiencing the world through the eyes of a white middle-class man, with all that entails. (I too have had periods of time in my life when I have wanted to be writing for six hours a day, but there have always been other things – like earning regular money, or cleaning, or looking after children – that somehow needed to be done first, or just as pressingly. Of course Knausgaard does these things too, but you never hear the bloody end of it.)
When I put the last book down yesterday, I felt as if a relationship had ended, but it was a relationship that had been on the rocks for a while. (Probably since the Mein Kampf section.) I felt little regret, and much liberation. It had been a wild six months, and I’m glad I saw it through to The End, but now I’m looking forward to something completely different. Last night I started reading Sea State by Tabitha Lasley, and it is a refreshing blast of North Sea air.