June 7, 2016

My Struggle, Book Five

Some weeks later Mom visited us, we went to Gullfoss and Geysir and Thingvellir with her one day, another down to the south coast, where the sand was black and there were immense solitary rocks standing in the sea.

We went to an art museum together, the walls and floor were completely white, and with the sun flooding in through large skylights the light inside was almost aflame. Through the windows I could see the sea, blue with white crests of waves and breakers, a large white-clad mountain rose in the distance. In these surroundings, in the bright white room on the edge of the world, the art was lost.

Was art only an inner phenomenon? Something that moved within us and between us, all that which we couldn’t see but marked us, indeed, which was us? Was this the function of landscape painting, portraits, sculptures, to draw the external world, so essentially alien to us, into our inner world?

When Mom went home I accompanied her to Keflavik Airport and said my good-byes there, on the way back I read Stephen Hero by James Joyce, the first book I had bought by him and quite evidently his weakest, it was also unfinished and not meant for publication, but there was something to learn from it, too, how he slowly transformed the autobiographical element, which was obvious here, into something else in Ulysses. Stephen Dedalus was a strong young character, summoned home to Dublin by his father’s telegram, “Mother dying come home,” but in the novel, Ulysses, that is, this arrogant brilliant young man was perhaps first and foremost a place where things happened. In Stephen Hero he was a person, distinct from the world around him, In Ulysses the world flowed through him and the story, Augustin, Thomas Aquinas, Dante, Shakespeare, everything moved through him and the same was true of Bloom, except that in him it wasn’t the highest and the best that was in motion, that flowed, but rather the town with its people and phenomena, advertising slogans and newspaper articles, he thought about what everyone else thought about, he was Everyman. There was, however, another level above them, namely the place from where they were observed, which was the language, and all the insights and prejudices the various forms of language embraced, almost in secret.

But in Stephen Hero there was none of this, there was just the character, Stephen, in other words, Joyce, set apart from the world, which was described but never integrated. This development culminated, from what I could infer, in his final book, Finnegans Wake, which I had bought but hadn’t read, where the characters had disappeared in the language, which lived its own everyman life.

I jumped off the bus at the stop between the university and the landmark building Perlan and walked the last part home through the embassy district. It was raining and misty, I felt empty, like a nobody, as a consequence of saying good-bye perhaps. In the apartment Gunvor was huddled up in the armchair reading with with a cup of tea on the table beside her.

I hung up my coat and went in.

“What are you reading?” I said.

About the famine in Ireland,” she said. “The Great Famine.”

—Karl Ove Knausgård, My Struggle, Book Five (Min kamp 5 [2010], translated by Don Bartlett)