Brief thoughts on the purpose and meaning of writing from a writer not known for his brevity.
This book, first presented as the 2017 Windham-Campbell Lecture at Yale University, has a few trademark Knausgaard (Summer, 2018, etc.) moves. It’s digressive, shifting focus from the painter Edvard Munch to Ursula K. Le Guin to Ulysses, and it’s shot through with a low-boil anxiety, as the author wrings his hands over his writing and how it’s received by critics. Knausgaard engages in all of this meandering to explore a pair of straightforward, if somewhat contradictory, points: that literature is one of the most powerful tools we have to connect individuals to a collective humanity and that the true measure of a writer’s success is an ability to ignore the herd and soldier forth individually. The success of the My Struggle series as a work of art, he explains, came from his willingness to reject artifice and simply plow ahead: “I simply wouldn’t have time to think, to plan or to calculate.” That’s not to say he rejects artfulness, just that he privileges emotion in literature. He prefers the James Joyce of “The Dead” to the one who wrote Finnegans Wake, though emotion alone isn’t enough; the hollow provocations of Game of Thrones leave him cold. Navigating this unsteady line between the head and the heart doesn’t lend itself to simple answers to the lecture’s prompt (“Why I Write”), but the book has a motivational quality all the same. For any writer seeking reassurance of the virtue of rewriting, his description of “eight hundred pages of beginnings” is a kind of balm. But he demands that writers never shy away from big questions: “What is the meaning of life? Where does this meaning come from? Who am I?”
A light-footed meditation on the literary life that will be best appreciated by his fans.