And I thought of myself too, of my foot, and of Oddball’s thin, wiry body; it seemed shot through with appalling sorrow, quite unbearable. As I gazed at the black-and-white landscape of the plateau I realized that sorrow is an important word for defining the world. It lies at the foundations of everything, it is the fifth element, the quintessence.
The Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard’s latest cycle of books, the Seasons Quartet, has recently seen its first release, Autumn, in English this month. (A quick note – the Seasons Quartet was originally published in Norwegian throughout 2015-16). Styled as a series of letters to his unborn daughter, the quartet takes everyday objects or landscape features as their starting point for Knausgaard’s short and varied digressions on what it means to be alive. I currently have Autumn by my bedside and it is a beautiful publication indeed, illustrated in style by Vanessa Baird and ably translated by Ingvild Burkey. I haven’t yet started reading it but I shall do tonight, as it seems fitting to do so as the clouds roll in and the temperature drops. Autumn truly is my favourite season and I look forward to the changing colour of the landscape as trees shed their leaves and the nights draw in.
The second volume in the series, Winter, is released on the 2nd November 2017 and I cannot wait to hold and to read it. I note on the publisher’s website that the volume has a different illustrator; I’m quite impressed that Knausgaard (or at least his publisher) is bringing together other artists into the fold of his new publications. It also introduces the English-speaking world to new Scandinavian writers and artists that they may otherwise have not come across. In the meantime Knausgaard’s much-anticipated sixth volume of his My Struggle cycle of novels isn’t released until late 2018, in the English translation, but the Seasons Quartet more than makes up for the long wait. Happy reading!
‘At first pass (= shot) some ten or so Numbers from our hangar were caught napping beneath the engine exhaust – absolutely nothing was left of them but some sort of crumbs and soot. I’m proud to note down here that this did not cause a second’s hitch in the rhythm of our work, no one flinched; and we and our work teams continued our rectilinear and circular movement with exactly the same precision as though nothing had happened. Ten Numbers – that is scarcely one hundred-millionth part of the mass of OneState. For all practical purposes, it’s a third-order infinitesimal. Innumerate pity is a thing known only to the ancients; to us it’s funny.’
She never regretted moving to this flat. It was her bolt hole in this fast paced city, a place where she could flutter and eventually fly free of her parents, beloved though they were. In fact, they were the reason why she had moved to the city. She couldn’t quite face looking into their eyes once Robert had been to visit her at her parent’s house. If they had known of all of the positions that they had made love in then her cheeks would be forever burnished, matching only those of rosy fresh apples. No, much better that she had moved away to a swanky new flat with him instead, free to both explore their love and to allow their careers to take a foothold upon the employment ladder in their chosen fields.
The flat wasn’t really swanky in all honesty. Sometimes, especially after a heated remark or two, it could feel like a shoe box and one that she yearned to escape. It was at times like those that she felt she could happily return to her parent’s house, to become engulfed once again in their loving embrace. But she realized that this would never happen again, she had flown the coop and would not return to live there in this lifetime. She visited, from time to time, and had hosted her mother and father in her adopted city, but they would not meaningfully live side by side again.
Robert was her immediate family now, her lover and confidant, her romancer and family man. Her father wrote often though, kept the familial bonds strong and she wrote back as often as she could, though writing was not her forte and clearly her path in life was not to follow her father. She loved his letters though, decorated as they were with doodles on each page. The notes on his latest writing project filled her with hope for her father and his health, as she often mistakenly equated the health of his imagination with the health of his ailing body. Her mother sometimes added a page or two of notes as well, updated her on school crushes and old boyfriends. It was these tidbits from her mother that she really enjoyed, that kept her in the loop of small town life and let her feel guilt-free pangs of happiness. In this raging city of 24/7 access, it was grounding to know that life continued as much as it ever had in other parts of the country, parts that the creeping suburbia of the city hadn’t yet reached.
The illness unhinged her for a while though, the images of her father spraying droplets of blood was not something that she wanted to think about, neither was the fact that her parents were indeed mortal and not immortal, as a childish version of her thought still. Her foundation of independence had just become solidified, yet it felt like even as she started to make her mark on the world, the world instead turned and had started to shake the rock that she built her life upon.
In all honesty she tried not to think about the condition slowly taking over her father’s life. To put death at a distance and to keep love close. That was her motto, though she could never think of the words to articulate it; it was how she lived her life in the shadow of her parent’s slow, earthly demise. Her father would probably be writing a poem at this very moment and she could just picture it, his pen gliding across the paper in what would seem to be a well-rehearsed manner. The words would flow, the inconvertible truth that this man was born to give a voice to his generation would be undeniable.
In her darkest moments, sometimes the ones that followed the passionate lovemaking sessions with Robert where she lay in quiet repose, the thoughts would intrude into her mind like unbidden shards of shattered glass. He would be remembered by the many, not by the few.
It would not be long now.
Sometimes I read novels and often think that they hit the spot a bit too close to home. This was the case recently as I came to the concluding pages of On the Beach, which was written by the novelist Nevil Shute Norway in the decades following World War Two. The scene includes two of the main characters discussing the context for the apocalyptic situation that they face and openly lament the global use of nuclear weapons during an escalation of an international war:
“Couldn’t anyone have stopped it?”
“I don’t know… Some kinds of silliness you just can’t stop”, he said. “I mean, if a couple of hundred million people all decide that their national honour requires them to drop cobalt bombs upon their neighbour, well, there’s not much that you or I can do about it. The only possible hope would have been to educate them out of their silliness.”
“But how could you have done that, Peter? I mean, they’d all left school.”
“Newspapers”, he said. “You could have done something with newspapers. We didn’t do it. No nation did, because we were all too silly. We liked our newspapers with pictures of beach girls and headlines about cases of indecent assault, and no Government was wise enough to stop us having them that way. But something might have been done with newspapers, if we’d been wise enough.”
Quoted from the novel One the Beach (1957), by Nevil Shute Norway.
It is a wonderful novel and a book that I highly recommend. For me one of the most moving aspects of the characters portrayed throughout the text was their attitude and civility in the manner in which they led their lives, and how this civility influenced their actions throughout the novel despite the fact that they knew what was to come.
Next up on my reading list is a newly published novel that I have started reading earlier today entitled Here I Am, by the American author Jonathan Safran Foer. Foer has previously released a clutch of interesting and diverse novels over the past decade and a half that have really captured my attention, especially his first novel Everything is Illuminated, which was published in 2002. Perhaps unwittingly I noticed that the Here I Am novel continues the theme of international and national destruction set in On the Beach. Perhaps it is somewhat fitting considering the way 2016 has so far developed…
I have been away for a while but nothing much really changes within the hearts of humans. We are all flesh, we all feel, love and grieve, and we are all united by life and divided by it:
“What you find in him are cul-de-sacs within the sweep of history – how people betray each other for the sake of nations, how people fall in love… How old did you say you were?”
“I was much older when I fell in love.”
Hana pauses. “Who was she?”
But his eyes are away from her now.
Quoted from the novel The English Patient, by Michael Ondaatje.
My room, I realize, is covered in books and CD’s. Stacks of both poke out from under my bed, bulge on shelves, take root on free patches on the floor. I have boxes of academic books and reference texts resting below where I sleep, buried alongside those are boxes of CD’s and cassette tapes, filled with yesterday’s music and recorded jam sessions made during the proclivities of my youth. They are, it appears, my media of choice for consuming the experiences and thoughts of being human.
To be human, as to recognize to being alive, is temporary but what a beauty that it is in itself:
‘But the stars twinkle above our heads, the sun shines, the grass grows and the earth, yes, the earth, it swallows all life and eradicates all vestige of it, spews out new life in a cascade of limb and eyes, leaves and nails, hair and tails, cheeks and fur and guts, and swallows it up again. And what we never really comprehend , or don’t want to comprehend, is that this happens outside us, that we ourselves have no part in it, that we are only that which grows and dies, as blind as the waves in the sea are blind.’
From My Struggle: Part 2. A Man In Love (2014) by Karl Ove Knausgaard.
She had heard him coughing over his poem in the far off room, could no doubt imagine the fine spray of blood that was probably even now covering his crisp writing paper. It would not be long now before he was too ill to write. This was a period that she had been dreading, even as he sought to convey the full confection of his feelings for her in his short, often romantic, poems detailing their shared life together.
Today, however, was a different story. She had already heard him earlier, muttering under his breath about the lines that had formed on his paper in the distinct rays of the morning sun. Once or twice she thought she had even heard him growl in resigned and quiet anger. Why didn’t he stop, rest and enjoy the short time that they had left? Why hadn’t they eaten breakfast together the past few days, as they normally would have either in the light yellow breakfast room or in one of the cafes that proliferated the nearby shopping arcade?
She knew, of course, why he had been focusing on his writing, even more so in the autumn of his life, ever since that damn diagnosis. It was to be a slow decline for the writer of such fiery youthful polemics, which had made him his name as an author in the country of his birth. There was to be a steady lessening of his commands, a slow fire that would rise up from his belly and engulf his lungs so that in his last days he would feel as if he was drowning in flames.
They both faced this poetic decree by his doctor with solid stoicism, unmoved by his descriptions and livid features, the jowls that so willingly proclaimed the closing chapter of a life well lived. She had swallowed hard that day, had pushed down that knot of fear, pushed it down so deep she had barely registered its original presence. Yet it lingered, as the ghost of an early morning dream does to those that live the day believing that they are forgetting something fundamental in their routine. Guilt mingled with the fear, the fear that, even if he were to pass as she was still undecided on this matter, she would remain in this house built for two alone. Her coming winter was to be spent in silent reflection.
She had somehow forgotten of his ills, perhaps buried them once more, as she busied herself with the tasks of daily life. Filtering the mail, answering calls, fielding journalists. In truth this was a remote interaction with the world at large, her life with him had been steady, filled with the romance of every day love. Gestures that Romero would never have a chance to show to his youthful Juliet that filled theirs instead. avec amour chaque devoir quotidien.
This day she had let him write alone and she thought he was progressing, writing further poems of truly requited love, the kind that beats across the decades and the kind that fills the marital bed with the warm glow of satisfaction. Towards the drawing of the late summer sun she had heard that cough percolate throughout the house time and time again, shaking her core foundation and filling it with a silent dread. She abandoned her tasks and rushed towards the sounds of his frail body, wracked as it was by coughing convulsions. They embraced as one, his eyes holding hers. A quick glance at his desk showed a poem, scribbled all over and dotted with the fine droplets of blood that he had indeed sprayed forth.
It would not be long now.
“In my wanderings from agency to agency, imagining myself working in the various businesses, I had also gained an insight into the country’s wonderful freedom. No one asked about my nationality, my religion, my origin, and what was more – an amazing thing to imagine in our modern world of fingerprints, visas and police permits – I had travelled without a passport. But there was work waiting for people to do it, and that was all that counted.”
Stefan Zweig on America in the early 20th century. From his memoir The World of Yesterday (page 212, Pushkin Press), originally published in 1942.
(Full of (foul), you are society’s ire incarnate….////
(Burn that witch/turn her heart… black)///
Use your paw to punch a gaping maw- -..
…/// (Bloody gullet, … let it flow over tongue, tooth and lip).
Let your children bathe in fire, (born anew)…. Let your desolation angels roam (free), cursing this ill-gotten – (land)….
Claw open the skin of this earth/let flow her fiery blood/ … to burn each plant and tree///
It was no good. It was too dark, too miserable, too damn silly and too damn awful to proceed with at this late hour. What the hell had he been thinking, he thought as he dashed out a few squiggles and symbols on the broken lines of a half-hearted poem. He just couldn’t get into it. It was a waste of ten minutes, no less and no more. The imagery was vivid, sure, but it was just ridiculous. Especially at his age where he should know better, should be better surely? He jabbed his newly sharpened pencil into his hand, a quick defiant flick to make sure he was still alive and still feeling.
Yes he was and he sure as hell wouldn’t be getting lead poisoning from that small scratch, no matter how much he heard his infant self suggest so in such innocent tones. He’d need a bullet or two to do that.
Writing came easily, even in his childhood where he could whip up a story out of thin air. It continued, for a while, into adolescence but necessarily slackened off when girls took his interest instead. It returned, sharper than ever, as he reached the waning years of his teenage life. Never announced itself as such, he just picked up a pen every other day and doodled a quick story or two on a pad of paper that was lying around. He sent letters as well, hand wrote but rarely read, and eagerly awaited replies that never came. Ah well everyone is busy these days he’d reason to himself, no one has time to spare half an hour or so, to dedicate a task to a single person when they could be messaging everybody at once on social media. Announcing their new found love to the world, or sharing an intimate picture to people they’d only met once and even then only briefly. No, he wrote alone and for himself. His handwriting was awful anyway.
The stories, well they changed and grew, some became novels, others became short stories. Sometimes it was fiction, sometimes non-fiction. Often he’d plan a whole novel in his head but it actually never came out onto paper as new ideas pushed aside old, and screamed for their place in the sun. Sure he made a living out of writing, a meager one, but it was a living none-the-less. Not many could say that these days.
The coughing fits started again after he scribbled and crossed out most of the above poem, malformed as it already was. Blood splattered in little droplets onto the fine paper, parachuting down in an attempt to escape a dying body.
He knew this too, of course, and didn’t begrudge any of the droplets their last attempts at freedom. In fact he was rather envious, even as they gathered in number and deformed his poem further. It was a rather beautiful sight though, the blood of life, oxygenated in full in the fresh breeze of a summer morning. His wife heard him, as she always did, and rushed to be by his side, such was the situation of his advanced condition.
It wouldn’t be long now, no it wouldn’t be long.
Once more Marías has accompanied me into the late hours of the night, into my bed where my body takes its own nocturnal rest. It is where I clutch his book close to my eyes as I fall deeply into the world of his characters trials and tribulations. Having now finished my second novel by him (this one being Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me) and having read a book of his short stories, I am keen to dig ever deeper into his works of literature.
There is something captivating about the written word and the paper page, something that cannot be captured electronically. It’s the simple collected elegance of a person’s thoughts, pressed onto the paper for all times sake until either the page crumbles or the book is burnt. The book represents, for me, one of the fundamental pillars of humanity’s humanity, one of its real achievements in expression and deliberation. As such, and accordingly, my room is covered in them, each surface littered with books on anatomy, literature, travel accounts and histories. It is into books that I disappear into most nights, where I am immersed for longer than a movie, more deeply than a painting.
“You’re right about one thing though: I won’t forget those hours you talked about. There are certain things that we should be told about immediately so that we do not, for a single second, walk about the world believing something that is utterly mistaken, when the world has utterly changed became of them. It is simply unacceptable to think that everything is carrying on as it was, when, in fact, everything is different, turned upside down, and it’s true that, afterwards, the time we spent in error becomes unbearable to us. How stupid I was, we think, and yet we shouldn’t find that so very painful.”
– From Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me, by Javier Marías (published in 1994).
I recently returned to the city where I initially discovered the beautiful works of literature that Javier Marías produces. As such it was a fitting place to come to the conclusion of Marías novel A Heart So White, a powerful and moving mediation on time and families, bonds and relationships. If you find yourself browsing a bookstore and have never read any of his works before I heartily recommend you take a look and discover this moving writer.
As the train pulled out of the station and I left the city once more, I could only look towards my next journey, and to my next literary discovery, with joy as I thought of the power of the novel format to both move and inform the reader simultaneously. Although my hometown now lacks bookshops I have a deep hope that one will return one day, perhaps in the not too distant future.
“…I realized that I found it very difficult to think about her and utterly impossible to think about the future, which is one of the greatest inconceivable pleasures known to anyone, if not the daily salvation of us all; to allow oneself to think vague thoughts, to let one’s thoughts drift over what will or might happen, to wonder without too much exactitude or intensity what will become of us tomorrow or in five year’s time, to wonder about things we cannot foresee.”
A Heart So White, by Javier Marías.