Phil “Oh, God, how delicious it is to pee yourself.”.
Jay OK (laughs)
Phil That’s it. I think it’s a fitting metaphor for the book.
Jay Oh, my God. Jesus Christ. Welcome to Dog-eared and Cracked, the podcast where each host subjects the other to his taste in authors. It’s a conversation between two old friends about a book that one of us has picked for the other. Sometimes we get a chance to read a book we enjoy. Other times we have texted each other with comments like “Why?” Or, “Have you even read this book?” If you want to read along with us, head to dogearedandcracked.ca to see our upcoming titles and flip through our blogs. We’ve also got show transcripts loaded, which one day I am planning to publish a collection of as Christmas gifts. I’m Jay.
Phil And I’m Phil.
Jay Now, dedicated listeners will recall that we switch back and forth between fiction and non-fiction. And this week we’re starting back on non-fiction books. We’re talking Knausgaard lite. Rather than forcing Phil to read the six volume, 3,600-page series My Struggle, I picked the first book in a shorter four-part series. This one is called Autumn and its author is, of course, Karl Ove Knausgaard. And wow. Now I realized that when we released this to listeners, they will have a chance to experience autumn in the autumn. That’s so cool. Phil, before we start this podcast, how would you describe the form of writing used in Autumn? Sure, it’s a series of short essays, but is there a better way to describe it? And what can you tell us about its Norwegian author?
Phil Yeah, Autumn is a, it’s a series of essays. Don’t k now if I would call them anything other than essays. They’re very, very short. They’re almost like postcard essays. They only run a couple of pages each. And they’re interspersed with letters to his unborn daughter, his fourth child. So Knausgaard, I have, I’ve never read Knausgaard before. But as you said in the introduction, he’s known for his My Struggle series, which is very, very long and dense from what I understand. And in this book, he takes kind of everyday observations and I guess tries to make something not too pedestrian out of them with, you know, I think limited success. And the book also has artwork by a Norwegian artist called Vanessa Baird. So each of the essays has like a one-word title like “Lime” or “Apples” or “Frogs.” And then he riffs on that, riffs on that for a little bit. And then he’s on to the next thing. Knausgaard himself, so Knausgaard is, he’s Norwegian. He was born in 1968. And it seems to me like he is always photographed with greasy hair. And he’s kind of like if I imagined I wanted to look like a dark and serious Norwegian author, I would say that’s the look I would have. I’ve got to say, you made his My Struggle books sound really appealing a couple of times when you you know, they’re autobiographical novels. And you told me that you’d read some of them, but you quit when he spent 40 pages describing a birthday party at which nothing happens. I’m not sure which volume that was in.
Jay I didn’t quit! That’s an example I would use from his, that’s in his second book. And I got all the way to—and he does spend 40 pages describing a children’s party. And I got all the way to book six, and halfway through book six, I have taken what we’ll call a sabbatical on it, because he’s he spent about 60 pages analyzing each line of a poem. The same poem,
Phil I misunderstood you. You persisted much longer than I thought. Sorry.
Jay I would say he has an ability to speak poetically about the mundane. For example, he talks about cars as something that define us. As more than mechanical machines. He speaks about beautiful events like holding his child to his chest in a way that explains the accompanying feelings he has, but doesn’t downplay the beauty and intensity of those feelings and his kind of, we’ll call it analysis. Were there any essays that resonated with you? I’m assuming there’s some that made you shake your head.
Phil You know, the cars, what I thought was like, wow, “cars are something that defines us.” Like, there’s something I’ve never heard before. What an interesting observation. I mean, like, come on. And my note on the “Frogs” chapter, I looked at my notes, it says, “I really fucking hate this chapter.” And that’s how I felt about a lot of them. So I have to say, this is a very small book. It’s only a couple of hundred pages. And, you know, I know how we talked about Catch-22 being a slog and then kind of coming around to it. To me, this just felt like a slog, like the whole way. I had a hard—I finished it last night because I just put it aside and I was having a hard time finishing it. And it really, I mean, maybe in a perverse kind of way, it makes me curious about the My Struggle books, because everything I read in terms of reviews of Autumn, which is the first in a series of four books of essays about the seasons, talks about how much lighter it is than the My Struggle books and kind of delightful and childlike. And I guess, you know, his family members probably aren’t suing him over this like like his previous books, or talking about the breakdowns they had as a result of it. But I had a really hard time getting into it. I mean, that said, you know, the one that you mentioned is nice. It’s beautiful. He talks about holding a baby and kind of regulating the temperature between you and how that differs from holding a toddler. It was, it was really nice. And so he does like have these nice, clear observations. But for me, they often just devolved into something really banal. Like, I think, “That’s it? That’s all you’re doing with this?”
Jay Sometimes we ask each other kind of why we recommend the book to the other. And I’ll…
Phil in fact, I specifically just texted you, “Why?”
Jay You know, so years ago now, Eitan, who has got me into a few books now, my friend out of Toronto, he recommended My Struggle to me, and I looked at it and thought, well, this is just, this is a book about somebody’s personal life and it’s not even a very interesting personal life. But then I started to read it. He would take kind of our mundane lives and really work out the details of that and take this perspective. And I enjoy that. And I really enjoyed reading My Struggle. I mean, it was, it’s a very interesting series of books. And it’s not, they’re not necessarily page-turners. They’re not necessarily 100 percent captivating all of the time. But they are a form of writing that I really, really kind of enjoyed. So I recommended this one because there’s no way we would have been able to tackle one of his My Struggle books. They are just too long and too dense.
Phil I’m very appreciative.
Jay I kind of agree with you. Like, some of the essays were just nonsense. Like, there’s one on toilet bowls, there’s one on Thermos flasks. And it’s really was difficult to understand where he was going with this thought. And then sometimes every once in a while, he some of his poetic insight I thought was really I really appreciate it, because one point he’s talking about a chimney being left when a fire has burned down the house, just the way he describes that and how he describes how the fire. You know, could not defeat the chimney, and—I’m doing a terrible job of explaining that one. His transitions, at times are strange. I mean, at one point he’s talking about Madame Bovary and how it’s the world’s greatest book, and it’s a beautiful piece of art. And then you turn the page and the next one is called “Vomit.” And sure enough, it’s all about vomit. And so I don’t know—how about his notional audience? Like, does that make sense to you? Like, he essentially was writing this for his daughter. Was it really a series of essays for his daughter or is it just an excuse for him to wax poetic about nothing?
Phil I began with the idea that he was writing this for his daughter. But it seems to me like that’s maybe a misunderstanding, because as I was reading it, I thought this isn’t written for his daughter. Like, you know, he doesn’t say “your sister.” He says “my daughter.” Right? Like, when he refers to other people in his, in his family. And then I thought, oh, well, each section begins with something that says “Letter to an unborn daughter.” So I feel like that is the part that’s written directly to the unborn daughter, not the rest of the essays. So I can’t actually fault him for that. But he does say something about how he’s using these as a way to kind of introduce her to the world. But I think for most of the time, he’s not directly writing to her because he clearly isn’t, right? Like he’s…
Phil You know, when—yeah, when he just—and the way some of the things he says, and the way he notes them, and the people he talks about…
Jay It was less self-instructive and more self-indulgent. You know, here’s my conception of a Thermos bottle. That’s not really helpful for anyone in life, but it was just a way to show his daughter kind of how he looked at life. So it was weak. It was weak,
Phil You know, so, I think a lot of these essays—they have to do with things that transgress categories. Like, there’s a lot about bodily fluids, right? It’s OK when it’s inside you and it’s not OK when it’s outside you. Or, you know, relationships or things that are out of place like the chimney. We never see the chimney in the house, really. We don’t see the whole thing because it’s in the walls unless the house burns down. So there’s, there’s a lot of that. Most—not all of them, but most of them—had a similar structure, which is there’s a description, then followed by some expansion and observation. Often it’s related to like the body, but not always. And then it kind of ends abruptly. And… Can I read a couple of things?
Jay Yeah, go for it.
Phil So like the “Dawn” one I thought opened actually beautifully. So he’s describing, I guess, the village where he lives. He goes: “The houses here lie in a horseshoe, with its opening toward the east so that every morning, all year round, I can see the sunrise. It’s a sight that is hard to get used to. Not that it is surprising, of course, I know the sun rises every morning and that its light makes the darkness yield. But rather because it happens in so many different ways and perhaps most importantly, that it feels so fundamentally good.” Like, that’s, that’s, that’s quite lovely, right?
Jay Mm hmm. Mm hmm.
Phil You know, but then he ends it with, “For darkness is the rule and light is the exception, as death is the rule and life its exception. Light and life are anomalies. The dawn is their continual affirmation.” And I thought, how did we get from that nice opening to this in like two pages?
Jay I know. It’s like he’s trying to be all smart and philosophical at the end. He just doesn’t, I mean… Actually, we’re being super critical. I don’t know. He set himself up, though for this and for, you know, two guys to be talking on a podcast about him, because really he’s got, he just—maybe that’s his secret. Maybe you write 3,600 pages and no one touches you because no one reads the books and they all just kind of talk around themselves. But…
Phil Well, did you did you notice that he’s married to his editor?
Jay He’s been married three times. I don’t know who he’s married to. Is it…
Phil Well, she edited the I think the My Struggle books or at least…
Jay This’d be yeah, Linda or something. You get to know them after six books, but I’ve still forgotten their names. He’s got this complementary ability to express unusual perspective and insight. But I agree some of these essays were—some of them just didn’t work, is the simplest way to put it.
Phil What were the unusual perspectives and insights that you liked?
Jay Well, I mean, he looked at everything from, you know, how an adder—like, the serpent –nooks at, or a fly looks at the world, and how that, how that looks differently. He looks at—I would describe it this way: He takes objects that we take for granted and puts a different light on them, describes them in a way that’s kind of different than how we’re used to.
Phil When I was originally reading the book, I thought, what the hell am I going to talk about on the podcast? Like, I just hate everything.
Phil And then as it went on, I thought…
Jay I’m shaking my head.
Phil I thought as it went on, I thought, OK, like, let me… I do think a part of it was I did approach it with a negative—like, when you, when you told me what you wanted me to read, my reply was, “Oh, God.” And you said, no, it’s a short one. So I definitely had a negative attitude going in. And so then I did think, OK, let me kind of step back and not be like completely mired in, you know, negativity about this.
Jay Why did, why did you have a negative attitude even before you read the book?
Phil I think it’s just like he’s—I haven’t read his books so it’s unfair. But it just seems like he’s a cliche of the, like, overindulgent guy who takes himself too seriously, you know?
Phil A lot of the essays, particularly early in the book, they just start with observation, right? And so he describes something that, you know, maybe we all know what it looks like or it’s something familiar. But he describes it in a way that’s very detailed, which I guess is an effort to get us to see it differently. But I didn’t find that worked. I just found like, OK, you’re describing what a mouth looks like. You know, you’re going like “labia is the name given to the oblong folds that from either side meet above the urethral orifice and the vaginal opening in women.” I’m like, oh, you know, I know.
Jay I agree. Yeah. There are a few instances of that where that was just—it was just terrible, really, because he really literally was describing it. It was a writing exercise. And that’s, that is probably the best distinction between between the My Struggle books and the series of essays that you read, like they just smacked of writing exercises.
Phil So he had a list of words Like, each of these is based on that? I understand that,,,.
Phil Like each of them is based on a word that he would pick.
Jay Yeah, that’s what—I did see an interview with him. And he had a list of 400 words on his computer. And then he’d basically spend an hour picking one and then two hours writing the essay every day.
Phil I mean, that’s kind of interesting, right?
Jay Yeah, but it’s a writing exercise. It is interesting. And that’s I think that’s where I’m left with this.
Phil It’s it’s interesting that… because one of the things I liked, I did like about the book, which is a theme that runs through it, and it comes up in that chapter on adders that you mentioned, is the stuff about his father, right? So, you know, he is a father already. He’s about to become a father for the fourth time, I guess. And he’s clearly thinking a lot about his father writing this book. There’s kind of a poignant essay about rubber boots. He has his father’s rubber boots, his father’s dead, and he thinks about his dad when he wears the boots. You know, and the idea of lineage of things, you know, eating the apple from the tree and like his grandfather would have eaten from the same tree. Did, did, what did you think of that, that whole—because it’s ostensibly, largely for his daughter, but he’s thinking back to his dad and by reflection on himself and his relationship with his dad, right?
Jay He had a terrible relationship with his father. And I’m not surprised that he’s almost obsessed with it and that it, that storyline kind of made its way through into the essays as well. It’s unfortunate, because I think he puts too much of a weighting on it. You kind of realize that –maybe I’m being critical now. So, Knausgaard really didn’t have a lot of life experiences in the same sense that some people do. He didn’t go off to war. He didn’t travel extensively. He really just, pardon the pun, he struggled. He struggled with his writing. He struggled with relationships, with raising children. So the base material—there’s not a lot there. And so I think that’s why he’s become a little fixated on this lineage and the, and the family, and talking, you know, about his mother and his father.
Phil And would it be fair to say he’s moved from like “I had a terrible relationship with my father” to trying to understand him a bit more?
Jay I guess? I don’t know. I don’t know if I care. I mean, I… Sorry. I just, I just it’s just, it’s been done. It’s been done to death, that stuff.
Phil So I’m still curious now about why you wanted me to read this book, because I thought maybe the idea was that, you know, it would be like a gateway drug. I’d read it and I’d be like, oh, you know, I like this. I want to read My Struggle now. But that was not your intention.
Jay Well, I mean, in Dog-eared and Cracked fashion. I had not read Autumn before I recommended to you.
Phil Goddamn it!
Jay I mean, let’s admit something. You came into it already biased for some reason. You’d already had in your head that you didn’t like this guy. So you came in and you’re like, OK, well, it’s a shorter book, maybe I’ll I’ll give it a shot. And you did?
Phil I did find some things I liked.
Jay That’s just it. I think it’s almost like—I’m not saying if you reread the book, you would have, you would have enjoyed it. I’m not saying it was the best book ever, but I, I don’t want to take away from it being a great—not necessarily a gateway drug, but a nice teaser. Like it’s a sample of what he’s capable of. Let me put it that way. So the book itself is not something I necessarily recommend. I mean, I recommended it to you, because I hadn’t read it. If you want to understand… Words escape me right now. I need a writing exercise.
Phil Well, and one thing My Struggle brings up, again, not having read it, but from what I’ve read about it, is this thing that’s always an issue for writers about writing about people they know or their families, which is, you know, are you willing to burn down those relationships in the service of your book or not, which he clearly was willing to do, and a lot of people aren’t, right?
Jay Yeah, yeah. I mean, I’m more than happy to do it. I’m actually disclosing a lot of details about your life in my book.
Jay Some of my favourite books, Les Misérables, The Brothers Karamazov, they’re all translated, including this one. It began to make me think in terms of like, who should we give the writing credit to here, the translator? I mean, it’s such a huge job. And depending on the author, I mean, there’s so many inflections that you need to pick up. How do you do that? What do you think? Like, have you ever thought of that?
Phil Well, I work as a French-English translator in part, but not a literary translator. But I do think about those things a lot, you know. I’m sure they were able to hire a top=notch literary translator, but you can never capture every nuance and inflection, I’d agree. You know, they give it a tone that, you know, there’s, there’s a series of four Cuban crime novels called The Havana Quartet that I read several years ago. There’s a Netflix series based on them. And, you know, it’s a Cuban writer. He lives in Havana. I guess the translator his publisher hired knows nothing about baseball. So one of the books, you know, they’re Cubans, one of the books, they’re playing baseball. But the description of the baseball game is terrible. Like he has all the wrong terms, right? Like it just—I actually wrote to the publisher and they said, believe it or not, you are not the first person to write to us about this. And if we release a revised edition, we’ll fix the baseball terms. So, like, it, you know, when the translation is off it, it really throws you off, right? I think it takes a real talent to do literary translation.
Jay It’s technically an interpretation of the book. I mean, I know it’s technically a translation, but it’s arguably an interpretation. And, and there’s some expressions we both know in languages that are not directly translatable.
Phil Yeah. And you have puns, right? And, and you have references to –cultural references that we’re not going to get.
Jay So should we get around to reviewing this little classic piece of literature?
Phil In honour of the My Struggle series, I thought we’d make the scale one to six this week. This time around, where a six means you quit your job to commit yourself to the entire catalogue of Knausgaard books. And a one means you would rather read the back of a cereal box. So Phil, where do you come around this time?
Phil There were times that I did feel I would rather read the back of a cereal box. But I would, I would give it like a two or a two and a half, you know, like it had a few moments for sure. But for the most part, it just seemed very—it just seemed very pedestrian to me. Like, it was very pedestrian wrapped up in trying to be something special, and it just — a lot of it just did not work for me. What about you?
Jay If I rated My Struggle on so many terms, and this is great for listeners because they’re getting two reviews in one right now, because I’m also rating the My Struggle series, apparently. If I gave that a four, based on different reasons, including the length and content and the density and the amount of detail. then I would give this a three. It’s more accessible. But there are some essays where it was, it felt misleading to me as a reader. It felt like he was… not cheating. He was cutting corners.
Phil You know, I mean, maybe—you said he set himself a two-hour time limit. Maybe they end abruptly because he hit his two hours.
Jay Right. But then he could have maybe kept working a little longer. Like this, you know, that’s what I’m saying. Like, sure, it’s a two, two-hour… I kind of got the feeling he just had other things he wanted to do that day, you know?
Phil Yeah. I mean, I thought, OK, like, this did feel like writing exercises, and I thought, all right, like, that’s great. But like, you know, is that something you need to publish? And then on the other hand, I thought he’s like, you know, more wildly successful than I will ever be. So who am I to question that? Right?
Jay Yeah, I mean, that’s a whole other discussion. I don’t know where this success came from. I think he’s just become—he’s effectively gone viral over the years. They say one in nine Norwegians have read his book, something like that.
Phil How many Norwegians are there?
Jay There’s at least nine, Phil. We’ve given our reviews and in return, I think we’ve gotten a couple of rave reviews back.
Jay Do you want to go through them?
Phil So we have a review on Facebook from Chris L. which says, “Highly enjoyable literary challenge podcast.” I like that because that kind of captures, I think in some ways what we’re doing.
Jay Oh, you’ve got to mention there’s an exclamation mark at the end of “podcast!”
Phil All right. So an enthusiastic “highly enjoyable literary challenge podcast!” But that review has actually been there for months. And so I apologize that it took us this long to get to it. Sorry, Chris.
Jay Sorry, Chris.
Phil And we have a second one from Gregg Y, left at dogearedandcracked.ca. He says, “I enjoyed the Catch-22 episode, and not just because of the shout-out.” So, Gregg, I believe, is “cousin Gregg,” who Jay mentioned.
Jay That’s correct.
Phil Yeah. And I had asked about why Major Major Major Major had four names. So Gregg says, “I always recalled that Major was his middle name. I thought that was explicit, but maybe I just inferred that.” And he says that he recalls “the Mash treatment in Mad Magazine, but I do not recall one of Catch-22. But I’d like to think one was done by both Mad and its little brother Cracked. Keep up the good work.” So, after seeing this review, I did actually go looking. And there is a Mad magazine with Catch-All 22 on the cover that has not one, not two, but three different Catch-22 articles in this 1971 copy of Mad. So I may get it together and write a blog post about that and you can check it out at dogearedandcracked.ca
Jay Yeah, I’d highly recommend the blogs on the website and we’re getting a lot of great feedback from those as well.
Phil Well, you shocked me last time when you suggested maybe we should drop non-fiction altogether, so I’m hoping I wow you with the next pick. It is The Night of the Gun by David Carr. You know, I think my non-fiction picks in some way — I learned about a lot of great non-fiction books doing my MFA that I didn’t have the time to read then. So I’m reading them now. And The Night of the Gun is one of those. And I think you’re going to enjoy it. It’s an autobiographical book by a journalist who decides to investigate his own past.
Jay Well, that’s it for this week. If you haven’t signed off yet to go write your own autobiographical series of novels, please write and reviews on Apple podcasts or wherever you listen. Ratings and reviews make the podcast easier to find and allow us to reach more people. And please leave us feedback at dogearedandcracked.ca or on our Facebook page. Or we also have a Twitter page.
Phil I’m always curious to see how my transcription software renders “dogearedandcracked.ca”. It’s an adventure every time.
Jay That’s right.. Well, we’ll see you next time
Phil See you next time.