For the past couple of years I’ve been addicted to a series of books by the Norwegian writer, Karl Ove Knausgaard. Presented as fiction, these explore in minute detail the everyday life experiences of the author from his childhood in the 1970’s to his relationships with his friends, his family and his children.
Knausgaard presents a vivid picture of the world around him as it is affected by, and affects, the constantly evolving interior world of his own perception and consciousness. The writing is phenomenological. It evocatively captures the materiality of ordinary living through its various locations and artifacts, as well as the intensity of the embodied feelings and sensations which make up life as it is lived. The reader experiences what it was like to grow up on an island in Norway, to ride a bike aged thirteen on a summer evening and the click of inserting a cassette tape into a tape recorder in the 1980’s.
These evocations of what anthropologists would recognize as ‘ordinary affect’ are profoundly moving. The first book in the series deals with the emotional repercussions of the death of the author’s father, a violent alcoholic. The most recent, published in English translation in 2016, describes a visit to his elderly grandfather in a city hospital. While the interior orientation of these books and the emphasis on the narrow consciousness of the author seems at first sight to be in sharp contrast to the exterior orientation of an ethnographic approach, it generates astute insights into the wider cultural and social worlds which he inhabits. Reflecting on the organization of the hospital in which his grandfather is a cardiac patient, and by extension all hospitals, Knausgaard observes how the medical categorization of disease as afflicting specific organs organizes social relations and the space within it. The personal identity of his grandfather is rendered insignificant through this process of classification. `For hospitals all hearts are the same’.
I love reading Knausgaard’s books because such close accounts of every day life and relationships are fascinating. These are, after all, the staple diet of anthropology. But I think these books are good for anthropological thinking beyond this, prompting a reflection on anthropological practice as comprising both participation and representation. Knausgaard’s books offer a situated perspective on what it is to be a social actor in a specific time and place. They provide access to a position usually inaccessible to an anthropologist. They allow the reader to experience `being there’ as an observant participant, from the inside looking out, and as a person who is changed by these experiences.
Knausgaard is not solely concerned with thinking about participation. He takes us one step further as he explores the difficulties of capturing this in writing. Representation is explored practically through the structuring of the texts and as a social practice. Knausgaard’s life effort which he recounts in this series is his struggle to become a writer. This struggle is not simply intellectual. It entails getting the time and space to sit alone and write uninterrupted, managing the demands of other work, of partners and children and dealing with the unsightly by products literary production in the form of wasted effort, rejections and negative reviews.
A key insight, over the five books so far published in English (there are six in all), is that good writing takes time. Time to actually do writing, time to develop the skills to write well and, importantly, time to develop a voice. Recommended summer reading.