The End, Karl Ove Knausgaard

The first thing to say about The End, the sixth and final volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard's series, My Struggle, is that it's 1153 pages long. It's enormous and it's an conundrum, representing a struggle for the conscientious reviewer: first the task of concentrating on subject matter ranging from the minutiae of child-minding and housework to the Bible, to Joyce's Ulysses, to the poetry of Paul Celan, to Hitler's Mein Kampf, then the hours spent sorting through notes, heaving the giant volume about, trying to create an orderly response to each discrete topic while also, on another level, wondering what exactly it is that Knausgaard has achieved here, what the correct taxonomy should be, whether the book can be accurately described, whether there is a method to it, in the sense that he's been in control of the project all along, or whether he is simply (although not simply) a writer who has compulsively set about listing his thoughts, experiences, memories, relationships, in an undertaking that's original for its very disorderliness, its intrinsic lack of architecture and forward planning, a creation that's spilled out of him, forming itself into a thing that can be described in a bewildering number of ways: a chronicle of a writer's life, a dissertation on reality and art, an intellectual deconstruction of the civilisation around him, a love letter to his family, a study of male shame, an intimate description of living with his wife's bipolar disorder, a disturbingly relevant warning (first written in 2011, although only translated into English now) about the threat of nationalism and populism in Europe, a reminder that everyone in 2018 should be reading about the Weimar Republic, the rise of fascism in Europe in the thirties, the seduction of the German people by Hitler, the intricate ways that the Nazis used language to dehumanise the Jews, to create a society where they could be killed with no one questioning, because the new language didn't have space for them, they had been linguistically and conceptually erased.
Has he, in the course of this strange and highly original project, in which he's constantly agonising over the trouble using real people and names has caused him, while at the same time benefiting from the excitement and literary stardom the use of real people and names has earned him – has he created a new, hitherto undiscovered relationship between writer and reader? Does his confessional style, his insistence that the people and places and memories are genuine, bring the reader closer in, so that we're not considering a man or a father or a writer, we're thinking all the time about Karl Ove himself; has Karl Ove been a jerk, has he been a coward, is he a good father and husband or a bad one, do his ideas stand up?
And he, as he writes, is thinking about us, about our reaction; he's inviting it as he welcomes us in – all the while telling us how taciturn he is, how he doesn't want to talk, no he seldom has anything to say and his self-esteem is so low that even waiters frighten him, he feels inferior to everybody – he draws us in, to his messy flat, to his marriage, to his mind. And then he unleashes it all on us: his experiences, his opinions, his torrent of ideas.
How do you deal with a writer who, while constantly chucking another nappy in the bin, taking the kids to kindergarten, brewing coffee and grimly shopping while herding the toddlers (all that stuff one did for years and years – how well he brings back the agony, the way happiness and love survive amid the grind and exhaustion) and then abruptly draws you into a fifty-page disquisition on the sublime in art? Well, in life, some people make themselves impossible by being large, difficult and complicated. Once you've decided they're worth it, once you're on board, all you can do is buckle down, pay close attention and take each new development as it comes.


On Fear, by Bob Woodward

Charlotte Grimshaw reports on the latest weird and turbulent week in Donald Trump's presidency: "The most powerful country in the world is at the mercy of someone so unfit for office that he shouldn't be running a gas station."
It was the end of summer on the east coast of America, and it was only getting hotter. By the Charles River in Boston it was nearly 40 degrees, the light was so bright it hurt, the river glittered and the sky was a high, washed-out blue. White dust blew up in little tornados on the river path.
Here in the east, where the American colonial story began, Bostonians formed a revolt against British taxation. The Boston Tea Party, an anti-tax, anti-big government movement, would later reinvigorate itself, drag the Republican Party to the right, increase the partisan gulf in American politics, and finally give rise to the phenomenon of Donald Trump. It all began here; potentially (given the nature of Trump and the bigness of his nuclear button) it could end very badly indeed.
I walked by the Charles River, all the way to Harvard University. This was the centre of American elitism where, I'd been assured, the reaction to Trump was one of horror. In a café, a woman frowned over a book on organic chemistry. Two men were discussing a legal precedent. I had my own reading, purchased at the Coop bookshop in Harvard Square (already 30% off): Omarosa Manigault-Newman's torrid account of her time in the Trump White House.
Unhinged, by Omarosa: it's more coherent and readable than you'd expect. It's a story in which the abiding preoccupation is not politics but the American Dream of "making it", from humble beginnings to the centre of power. After growing up poor and successfully auditioning for The Apprentice, Omarosa went on, improbably, to win a senior position in the Trump Administration. The flaw in the dream, she came to realise, was that she'd made it into a madhouse.
Reading Unhinged in Harvard, there was an unexpected element: comedy. Omarosa describes Vice President Mike Pence, the "Stepford Veep", spending an hour-and-a-half gazing adoringly at the back of Trump's head. She recounts Trump's reason for the firing of an aide: he disapproved of the way she'd installed his tanning bed in the West Wing; also she hated him deeply and wasn't able to hide it.
Unhinged details creepy flirting between Trump and his daughter Ivanka that makes those around them squirm and wish they'd "knock it off." Trump pauses a high-level meeting so they can admire Ivanka's ass in a new tight skirt. In the Oval Office, Trump would talk to his old friend Omarosa in increasingly incoherent rants. During their Apprentice years, she recalls, he was sharp as a tack; now he's cognitively impaired, unable to read long words, or to concentrate. She estimates his reading age at 12 years old.
Summer was ending harshly for President Trump. After the criminal conviction of his former campaign manager Paul Manafort, after the guilty pleas of his lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen – pleas that expressly implicated Trump as an unindicted co-conspirator – after the betrayal of Omarosa's Unhinged, from which he'd briskly bounced back by calling her a "low-life" and a "dog", he'd had to endure the incensing death of John McCain, the war hero and thorn in his side, who'd thwarted him, criticised him, and worse, explicitly banned Trump from his funeral, shutting him out of the hottest event in town, where ex-Presidents from both sides of the aisle would mingle, show their most statesmanlike and human qualities (there was the endearing clip of President George W Bush passing a mint to Michelle Obama) and, above all, use the occasion to deliver eulogies blasting the wreckage Trump had wrought on America: the triumph of ignorance, the vicious partisanship, the dog whistle racism, the scorn for the rule of law.
John McCain hated the abuse of power, George W. Bush said in his speech, his rebuke highlighting the current administration's elevating effect: Trump makes even the thuggish W look like a paragon of dignity, charm and enlightenment.
Trump sulked in his golf clothes; he golfed grimly while the elites of Washington mingled, expressing their utter disdain for him – and also their disturbing paralysis. The Democrats don't have the numbers to deal with Trump, not until the mid-term elections, after which, if they win back the House, they could conceivably impeach him. But in the meantime, they appear more scandalised and flummoxed than effective. How to deal with this guy, this liar and crook, this fraud?
Republican politicians, hopelessly compromised, only look shiftier and more morally bankrupt as the disaster unfolds, unable to get off the Trump train, too scared of his supporters to speak out against him or to stand up, even for the rule of law.



The Letters of Sylvia Plath Volume 1

So much has been written about Sylvia Plath that reading her letters involves a continual reference beyond them, to all that's known about her life. As I grappled with this enormous, hardcover book, a volume so heavy that it needs some kind of stand (or derrick – of which more later) to hold it up, I found myself continually cross-referencing with my own copy of Plath's journals, in which a different version of her exists, the private Plath, whose voice sometimes rises to terrible rage, or sinks to a pitch of venom so intense it's almost frightening.

The Letters of Sylvia Plath: Volume 1: 1940-1956 is dauntingly vast, an exhaustive 1400-page archive containing every piece of correspondence Plath produced from the age of eight up until 1956. Most of the letters are addressed to her mother, Aurelia Schober Plath, to whom Plath wrote most often, confiding in minute detail her daily experiences, her emotions, her illnesses and her diet. The letters are open, affectionate, warm, chatty, and full of every possible disclosure.
Reading with Plath's journals in mind, there's a strong sense of separation between layers of Sylvia.

We know from the outset that the happy, impulsive, affectionate young Sylvia of the letters, who writes, "Honestly, mum, I could just cry with happiness – I love this place so...", and signs off "XXX your happy girl, Sivvy," is also the author of the journals, and the writer who could produce her famous poem "Daddy", the most baleful and intense piece of black rage anyone could write about a parent. (A recording of Plath reading "Daddy" can be found online and is worth listening to for anyone who hasn't already: three minutes of hair-raising malevolence.)

Plath's attitude to her mother was complex, to put it mildly, and awareness of the complexity colours the reading of these hundreds of mundane, cheery mother-daughter communications. It's hard not to look for a fraying of the sunniness, some clue to tension. But there are no such clues, at least not at first, perhaps because Plath really did have different selves, discrete versions of herself.
When the brightness does fray and there's a plunge into darkness, the anger is directed inward, and Plath damages only herself. Her loving tone, her desperate, focused eagerness, remains undimmed.
The young Sylvia reports conscientiously from school camp. "Dear Mum..." "Dearest Mummy..." "Dearest, Most Revered, Twice-Honoured Mater, Last night was a red-letter night because I got two postcards and two nice big fat letters from you..."
There's screeds of detail about food, listing exactly what she's eaten and how much. She's trying to put on weight. She gorges on this and that. She writes, "Gosh I'm happy!" and in another letter, "Gosh, I felt lonely!"
She is sweet, keen, lovable. She has enthusiasms, is warm and demonstrative; she jokes and confides. Later, hundreds of pages later, she writes from Smith University in the same fervent, fond tone: newsy, breezy, intense, tireless, vulnerable.
There are letters to many different recipients, and the volume is so huge that it's not possible to focus on all of them. Still, the most striking feature is what the letters reveal, not expressly but by implication – and only with reference to outside sources – about the bond with her mother.
There was something rotten in the relationship, completely masked in Plath's letters and brooded over in her journals, in which she grapples with the terrible anger of the unloved. You could attribute Plath's rage to an "unbalanced mind", but the imbalance had to come from somewhere. People who are loved know that they are; when there's doubt about love, it's a reliable indication it wasn't there. Plath was explicit in her secret complaint: being unloved by her mother had a life-long, destructive effect. A secure self can't develop on its own; it can only be formed by relating, and Aurelia had reflected a void back at her. In her journals, Plath accused her mother of "vampirism", or effectively of what Henrik Ibsen called "soul murder": a withholding of love that had deformed her.

Her fury at the fundamental wound is compounded by what she sees as the lying forces of the "powers-that-be". What maddens her is her mother's falseness. In the journals she rails against the familial charade that conceals her mother's "deadliness", even as she participates in it in the letters, and reinforces it herself. The more she conforms and behaves like a loved daughter, the angrier she becomes, until finally she takes out her rage – on herself.


The Laureate Marae Whanau Trip

The Poet Laureate had been summoned to a weekend at Matahiwi Marae in the Hawkes Bay, for a ceremony to honour his appointment. He was invited to bring an entourage: not only a troupe of support poets, but his whole whanau.

The whanau gathered to talk about it. We all share a tendency to be shy, to wince at the prospect of public events, also the strong inclination to find everything funny. My sister Margaret suggested the Laureate hire a stunt family for the proceedings. The Laureate thought perhaps he could employ a stunt poet too, and we could all go off and do something else. I saw the weekend forming itself into a story: the poet, invited to a literary event, finds himself embarking on a trip with his entire extended family in tow. A Laureate saddled with whanau. What might happen when this large, hypersensitive and complex group took a journey together? There was such potential for tragedy and comedy, it had the ingredients of a French movie. All we had to do was get on the road, and the screenplay would write itself.


Searching for the Self

I was asked by The Spinoff to write a piece on "my year" :

In a narrow street of tiny houses, in a district near the Yanaka Cemetery where the last Shogun is buried, a row of shoes was laid out along the pavement. Policemen stationed beside their bikes wielded glow sticks to move along the passersby, but so politely and cordially that it was possible to pretend not to understand and to drift closer and closer until the crime scene was clearly visible: a tiny, cube-like building, a claustrophobic staircase, a child's pink bicycle parked at the bottom, and within, the room in which lights were set up and investigators were working, dressed in special overalls, their feet encased in plastic bags. It seemed typical and not: atypical because a crime had occurred, and crime is so little in evidence in Tokyo, and yet typical in its Japanese neatness, its crisp efficiency. The line of shoes was absolutely straight, the emergency outfits were chic and toy-like, dinky-coloured boiler suits with epaulettes and buckles, helmets with straps done up under the chin.

Inside the tiny room, one act of untidiness had occurred, a piece of chaos involving blood splatter and something lying on the floor. One meltdown or blowout in a city of rigid order and control. You hoped it hadn't involved the owner of the small pink bike.

Tokyo, unreal city, under the iron light of an autumn noon. One day it rained, and a cold wind tore across the vast grounds of the Imperial Palace. Crows sat on the black palace walls, and the black water in the imperial moat had a brooding, sullen sheen. In the shelter of the grounds, the dark green foliage hung dripping over black bridges, and framed the ancient gates. The Palace is grand, imposing, so steeped in the atmospherics of power (beauty and menace) that it makes Buckingham Palace look like a block of flats. Later the sky cleared and turned luminous and the palace grounds became wildly pretty; for days the city glowed with a still, golden sheen, an autumnal radiance that turned the early dusk into a light show, long shadows cast by skyscrapers, low sun glancing off acres of mirror glass.
An app on my phone totted up walking distances: it got up to twenty kilometres a day. It's a vast city where people live crammed into tiny spaces, a ceremonious city, where a uniformed functionary (boiler suit, helmet, glowstick) bows low and guides you past road works. Such is the mania for formality that the fixing of one paving stone will entail a scene: cordons, signs, fencing, as if you would be lost if not guided around the tiniest obstacle, and you can't help wondering how New Zealand must seem to visiting Japanese tourists: a wildly unregulated free-for-all presumably, full of people who are friendly but ill-dressed, physically degenerate, staggeringly rude.


The Naked I - On Ferrante and Knausgaard

The Naked I



Some time after the Christchurch earthquake, I visited the city. I hadn't been there since before the disaster, and I was shocked by the devastation in the centre, and in particular by the number of multi-storey buildings that were still standing, completely derelict. I couldn't believe that so little progress had been made in restoring the place, and I was particularly struck by the eeriness of all that dead space in a close urban setting. I walked around the Red Zone too, noting its silent emptiness and beauty, nature taking over orderly lines, the houses broken, sinking into the earth. Christchurch was lost and neglected; it was fallen and ruined. For the first time, I found the place compelling.
I wrote a piece in the New Zealand Herald, in which I recalled a phase of my life when I lived in a flat on top of derelict building. Each day, I had to travel through eight floors of empty space – the silence, the darkness, the isolation. I never knew if anyone had got into the building during the night, and if I'd screamed up there, no one would have heard on the street below. Empty buildings, I wrote, are infinitely more terrifying than abandoned open spaces, and I felt for the people of Christchurch, living with those spaces around them, above them, in the very centre of their lives.
The piece received the usual small mix of positive and negative responses, but there was one that caught my eye, a tweet by journalist and editor Finlay MacDonald. Reacting to comments about my piece he'd simply tweeted, "I,I,I..."
As tweets go it was nicely economical, as well as wittily sarky. My Herald piece was all about me, he was saying. I had started out with poor Christchurch, but only in order to steer the reader back to myself. Implicit was a dash of self-righteousness, too: Was nothing sacred? Even a disaster's an opportunity to go on about herself. (Oh, shallow, "latte-sipping" Aucklander!)
I thought of a few literary jokes, referring perhaps to Milton's poem about Samson, who was kidnapped by Philistines, and rendered eye-less in Gaza. (Oh, shallow Philistine, who would poke out my I's!)
And yet, I thought, while it made its point neatly, the tweet missed a distinction between methods: what he saw as egotism I felt as empathy; moreover my response was intrinsic to my profession, not his. I had resorted immediately to the reflex, not of journalist but of fiction writer. Instead of writing about funding difficulties, Cera, insurance companies, government and bureaucratic inaction, I had simply thought my way into what seemed the most dramatic effect of the disaster, the psychological blow: the fear, the uncertainty, the darkness that had inserted itself into a previously orderly scene, the precarious nature of things.
This is what fiction writers (those egomaniacs) tend to do. They insert themselves into experience. Fiction can't work without that ability to infiltrate consciousness into empty spaces. You could probably find a correlation between writers with a tendency to malice and their creation of unconvincing, two-dimensional fictional characters. Christina Stead put it another way when she said, "A writer has to have a Christ-like sympathy for everyone."
And yet again, hadn't Finlay MacDonald, who never says anything that's not clever, immediately perceived something, and expressed it with typical wit: that in writing my column I was trying to have it – fiction and journalism – both ways?
So good journalism, granted, involves selfless commentary. And good fiction involves the self, but is incompatible with solipsism, with "I,I,I."
Or is it?


Ramadan Diary

We were parked on the side of the road, outside a restaurant called the Dejavu. Youths watched us from a ramshackle balcony strung with washing lines. The old van made a slow, ticking sound. Rubbish and stones lay heaped along the road; white dust rose in the hot wind.
We were in Beit Jala, on the West Bank. From Jerusalem we'd queued at the Israeli Army checkpoint, then driven beyond the giant security wall that separates Israel from the Palestinian territories, up into the hot dusty hills, the roads lined with shabby white apartment blocks overlooking the illegal Israeli settlement of Gilo.
'The economic situation here is very bad,' our Palestinian companion said. At intersections, children dodged cars, offering small wooden flutes for sale. A thin youth with a waxy, stoned face leaned against a wall, closed his eyes and slid onto the pavement. A man with a scarred, burned face sold bracelets.
We had been all afternoon in the West Bank, now on our way back we were stuck. The Palestinian driver, Mohammed, was on his phone: he'd left his permit by mistake at the last stop, and without it, he couldn't get back through the military checkpoint. He was trying to get someone to bring him his papers. In the meantime we waited, dreaming, in the shadow of the Dejavu.

It was Ramadan, and we were travelling with it. We'd started in Dubai, where the heat rose to 50 degrees. 'It is the Holy Month,' we were told. 'Do not drink water or eat in the street in daylight hours. You will cause offence, and you will incur a fine.' Dubai considered itself quite liberal though: in the hotel the receptionist blithely told me, 'Of course you can use the pool during Ramadan. We're not Saudi Arabia, you know!'

It was Ramadan, and no one was on the streets. Dubai was conducting business indoors, the cafés closed, the wide avenues silent. You really couldn't be out in it for long, amid the glass towers and chemical blue ponds, the soaring fountains. I hid from the sun in full headscarf, looking out through the mesh of fabric, my own breathing sighing in my ears. Dubai shines and glitters and gleams, and then it changes, out beyond the fancy space-age skyscrapers the city flattens, collapses into shabbiness and squalid sprawl; finally it faces what is out there: the wild, harsh beauty of the Arabian Desert. We drove into it: after the shabby buildings, the pylons, the rubbish-strewn roads, eventually there is nothing but red dunes, iron blue sky. The spine of a dune cuts a precise, wavering line against the air. Below it, spread pools of black shadow. The wind is a force like the blast from an open oven door. Standing on the dune, you are looking across a landscape but also into it; its otherness is an enclosed system. It's beautiful, savage, unforgiving.


Beating Time - On Knausgaard

On Form and Memory: My Struggle, by Karl Ove Knausgaard

This really happened.
One evening, when I was standing with my siblings at a party, a woman approached who was familiar and yet unknown. We all had the same split-second reaction: who is this stranger we know so well? It was age, of course, the passing of years, that caused the stalled beat of time before we recognized her. She approached and we all made friendly faces and she said, in her immediately familiar, slow and slightly dopey voice, with no preamble, as if we were resuming the conversation we'd carried on decades before, 'I was just remembering the roll-up lawn.'
And with that, the information arrived at once: her voice, the face she used to have, the faces we used to have, and the roll-up lawn: that tiny detail edging an expanse of green memory, the past opening out before us. The long ago garden, the neighbourhood, where we created ourselves, where our first selves were formed.
She was one of our local gang. We were children of the seventies and eighties. We spent our lives outdoors; we were our own savage, separate little tribe. The way parents did childcare back then was to say, "Go and play. Come back at dinnertime."
Childhood territory. There was the shed where my father locked himself in and wrote his poetry and fiction, there was the back lawn where we played for hours on the high jump set my father made for us, complete with proper measurements penned on the posts in inches, a bamboo cross beam and mouldy old mattress to land on. At the edge of the grass was a concrete wall and below that the lawn formed a fragrant green mat, which, we discovered, could be rolled at the edges into a long tube made of earth and grass, a thick mud-reeking sausage, veined here and there with writhing worms. Here, in the roll-up lawn, was the essence of memory, the detail, minutiae, smells and sounds: this was the kind of information out of which the early self was constructed. The roll-up lawn was a thing only a child would notice. You had to be close to the ground, in that formative phase where every part of the garden was material to explore. There was no larger meaning beyond "lawn" and "garden", there was only each vivid constituent part, the distance between hedges, the plum tree, the rat hole under the deck: these things made up a whole world.