Book Info Session: Karl Ove Knausgaard, Lucia Berlin



Claire Vaye Watkins, the well-known protagonist of Claire Vaye Watkins’ latest novel, I love you but I chose the darkness, knows that her vagina has teeth. Claire reflects the author in many ways beyond their common name: they are both writers who navigate a new motherhood and mourn a deceased father when they were young. But those strange teeth – which Claire grows lovingly, in secret – are one of the first clues to the reader that this book is not just a memoir. On the contrary, Watkins wrote an unsettling autofiction. By merging the unreal with the hyperreal, she can dig into the thorniest pieces of her family’s history while simultaneously building an escape route.

A fascinating genre for reviewing difficult realities, autofiction is an equally effective way for writers to deal with trauma head-on. At Zinzi Clemmons What we lose, a narrator named Thandi vaguely describes the author’s own experiences after her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. Experimental and non-linear, the form of the novel reflects the fragmentary language of mourning. Karl Ove Knausgaard, on the other hand, avoids fragments for Odyssey: his six-volume autobiographical novel, My battle, is a feat in terms of personal disclosure. Throughout the series’ thousands of pages, the Norwegian author directs a spotlight around every corner of his life, whether mundane or grotesque, in search of the truth of an uncensored “I”. In the final volume, however, Knausgaard’s most striking revelation might be that pure and perfect truth is the business of fiction.

Knausgaard’s opus is often touted as a pioneer of autofiction, but in Japan the semi-autobiographical genre of Novel I has been in vogue since at least the beginning of the last century. In 1979, Yuko Tsushima made a fundamental contribution to the tradition with his novel Territory of Light. Like Tsushima, the protagonist is a single mother, and many critics have read the author’s handwriting as a memorial. However, by carefully rendering the ordinary circumstances of her narrator anonymous, she also created a plausible avatar for countless other single mothers navigating the challenges of 1970s Japan.

A rereading of Lucia Berlin’s writings similarly reveals how she intertwined memory with imagination. The posthumous publication of Welcome home: a dissertation with selected photographs and letters invited to take a closer look at how many protagonists, and even certain passages, of the short stories from Berlin actually seem to be paraphrases of the author’s unfinished memoir. The fictional women Berlin wrote – its litany of alibis – are often alienated and ashamed. They are unstable by trauma. By his hand their fullness, which is also his, is firmly demonstrated.

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What we read

Adam Maida / The Atlantic

In defense of falsehood

“Both works suggest that, precious as truth may be, invention and forgery are necessary sources of possibility and relief in relentlessly difficult times. Reading these two books side by side shows that autofiction, like any other form of writing, can be an escape.

?? A call for Charlie Barnes, by Joshua Ferris
?? I love you but I chose the darkness, by Claire Vaye Watkins

Woman seen from the back, standing with an umbrella and facing a bridge in the rain

Shannon Stapleton / Reuters

What we are losing: A gripping novel about filial mourning

“Clemmons’ novel presents another in a line of predominantly young women for whom the search for identity presents itself as a dilemma of authenticity, a challenge to make sense in the face of existential drift and pain. How should a mother be?, ask this novel. What should a girl be like? How should a person grieve?

?? What we lose, by Zinzi Clemmons

Illustration of Karl Ove Knausgaard's face, on black and white background

Illustration by Jesse Draxler; Martin Lengemann / LAIF / Redux

How to write My battle defeated Knausgaard

“Spiritual confession is one of the models of My battle, although it is really a confession for our time: Knausgaard does not find God, but himself. For this reason, criticizing his character, even in his ugliest moments, is irrelevant. The uglier he is, the more powerful his redemption becomes. “

?? My fight: volume 6, by Karl Ove Knausgaard
?? Summer, by Karl Ove Knausgaard

Woman squatting with a sleeping baby strapped to her back

Corbis / Getty

The careful art of writing female subjectivity

“See only the staff or, on the contrary, immediately dismiss the staff,” Tsushima underestimates. “

?? Territory of Light, by Yuko Tsushima

Illustration: Lucie Berlin

Illustrations: Célina Pereira; National Archive / Wikimedia

The poignant and radiant fiction of Lucia Berlin

“Does it matter where his material comes from? Is it disrespectful to the writer to consider the question? Or is it a failure to consider this work without fathoming its apparent function of witnessing pieces from a real life that could not be recognized otherwise?

?? welcome to the house, Lucie Berlin
?? Evening in paradise, Lucie Berlin

About Us: This week’s newsletter is written by Nicole Acheampong. The book she can’t let go is Three strong women, by Marie NDiaye.

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