Gotham Diary:
October 2017 (III)

17, 18 and 19 October

Tuesday 17th

Kathleen insisted that the movie wouldn’t disturb her. She didn’t want to watch it, but given her powers of concentration, she could ignore it. She could get on with her computer searches, and perhaps even take a nap. In the event, however, she crept out of the room about halfway through and stretched out in the living room. The movie was simply too loud, she said — not complaining. You will think me barbaric, not having turned the sound down a bit, but in fact the movie was too loud because the dialogue was inaudible at normal levels. This was not the problem that it might have been with a domestic film, because I was entirely dependent on the subtitles to understand what people were saying. But I did want to hear the sound of voices. So I’d turn up the sound a bit, and then, bam, there would come another outburst of rock ‘n’ roll. I knew that these music bits never lasted very long, but the contrast between whispered conversation and Bacchanalian revel was too much for Kathleen.

What kind of a movie is quiet, except for sporadic explosions from a noisy rock band? Well, one kind would be the movie that’s about the lives of young literary lions in Norway. I had been reading about this way of life in Volume 5 of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, subtitled Some Rain Must Fall, and when I was through with the book I remembered that there is a movie about it, Joachim Trier’s Reprise (2006). I was very taken with it when it came out, and I bought a copy on DVD. Now I itched to see it again.

Where Knausgaard’s book is about a writer living on the margins of a literary herd in Bergen, Reprise concerns two writers at the heart of a small club of still-boyish men in Oslo. Phillip and Erik have known one another forever. Phillip has been published. Then he has suffered a psychotic episode. At the beginning — more or less; there is a great deal of time-frame flipping in the early scenes of Reprise, so much so that the movie threatens to be difficult to follow — Phillip is being fetched by his friends from a hospital in the countryside and returned to his flat in the town. One big question is whether he will get back together with his old girlfriend, Kari, whom everybody seems to blame for Phillip’s breakdown. The other big question is whether Erik will publish his first book, Prosopopeia.

Now, I wonder: in today’s America, could even a writer as exalted as Philip Roth publish a book with that title? Even if you know what it means, you wouldn’t want to be telling friends that that’s what you’re reading. In a sly way, prosopopeia could be said to be what every fiction writer does: speaking in another’s voice. This may or may not be a little joke intended by Trier and his co-writer, Eskil Vogt. A larger joke, also possibly unintentional, is that literary Norwegians might tolerate such pomposity because they’re still amazed that there is such a thing as literary Norway. I remember watching Reprise for the first time, and sensing in its unscratched sheen of prosperity the breeze of North Sea oil, which transformed one of the poorest countries in Western Europe — and one of the most recently independent — into a fairly cosmopolitan society. With a population smaller than that of Greater New York, Norway boasts a literary culture that supports the publication of novels in a language that relatively few people can read — and not just bodice-ripping romances or fantasy witch-fests, but novels with titles like Prosopopeia. Or, in the case of Knausgaard, Min Kamp, a jokey reference to Hitler’s screed, Mein Kampf.

And yet, to a man, these blithe spirits are aficianados of progressive rock. Even when they’re barely competent, like Knausgaard himself as a drummer (“I managed to produce a variety of beats for a variety of songs” — how I howled with laughter when I read that!), they all seem to play in bands. In Reprise, they sing along rowdily, as if they wouldn’t know a thesaurus from a slide rule. The music is always very loud and upbeat, and yet the lyrics are anthems of despair — well, of lost or unrequited love, anyway. It is not subtle stuff. Even the women join in from time to time: Tonje, Karl Ove’s first wife, is also a drummer.

This commerce between high writing and low music is not uniquely Norwegian, of course — Jonathan Franzen has rhapsodized the joys of knowing about bands whom no one else has heard of — but Knausgaard has done a great deal, intentionally or not, to suggest its unhealthiness, especially for a writer who seems to have nothing to say. Noise is not good for the sensitive mind. At the very best, it is a brutal, addictive anaesthesia.


Not that I think for a second that rock ‘n’ roll is the cause of Karl Ove’s writer’s block, which stretches throughout most of the thirteen years covered in Some Rain Must Fall. The cause of Karl Ove’s writer’s block is obviously youth. At the start, he is only nineteen. What does someone who is nineteen years old have to write about? Hopefully, nothing. But if there is some interesting trauma, it will probably exceed a young person’s powers of perspective and description. Setting poetry aside, writing requires both experience and distance, and it also requires, I have found, the experience of a lot of writing. I lingered over a moment, late in the book, in which Knausgaard hit on the nature of the problem and the appropriate solution, as I remembered doing many years ago:

After a few days in the house I realized that I could forget about writing. I tried, but to no avail, what could I write about? Who did I think I was, believing I could create something that would interest anyone apart from my mother and my girlfriend?

Instead I wrote letters. (553)

Ah, those letters! All that writing! Endless and bad it may have been, but, once I was out of school, it was the only teacher I had. It was also, for me, an effective teacher. I don’t know why this was so, and I feel very lucky to have had it. For what I write has a way of loitering in my mind afterward in a way that brings shortcomings to the fore. Bad sentences nag me. It’s not necessary to go back and correct them, or at least it wasn’t in those early days, when my letters were too voluminous to read once, let alone twice. It was enough that I didn’t repeat my mistakes. Later, writing for the KLEF Program Guide, I had the music to write about. And I had readers, too. The existence of actual readers demanded best behavior: if I was going to say something, it must be something worth reading — thinking about, judging. I had learned from the English teachers at boarding school that I had a gift for saying nothing and saying it very nicely; I had to make sure that I didn’t discredit my columns in the program guide with any of that.

What’s irritating about the literary life described in Some Rain Must Fall is the expectation of prodigies. Publishing a masterpiece at the age of twenty-five isn’t virtuous, but suspicious. The worst thing that can happen to a writer is to become a vessel of the Zeitgeist, a temporary medium for the fashions of a moment. Consider poor old J D Salinger, who wasn’t really all that young when his career took off but whose career ended when he was still fairly young. Consider The Great Gatsby, which was the novel of a moment, which it perfectly captured but which was not followed by other equally remarkable moments for Fitzgerald to transcribe.

What were they thinking, when they invited Karl Ove Knausgaard to participate in the Writing Academy at Bergen University when he was only nineteen? The reader notes that, in 1988, the Writing Academy was in its second year of operation; perhaps there was not much collective experience of thinking about these things. It turned out, I think, to have been a terrible step for the writer, confirming his doubts and misgivings while filling him with unnecessary frustration. Where were the mentors? In Reprise, a mentor materializes for a moment. He is the (fictional) writer whom Phillip and Erik most admire: Sten Egil Dahl. A recluse, he tells Erik that television is no place for the discussion of literature, and he also praises parts of Prosopopeia (which has indeed been published). After their encounter, Erik realizes that he must get away. He leaves Oslo for Paris, writes like a monk for a year, and then returns to his friends as a seasoned writer. I am not entirely convinced by this success story: Erik is still very young. But there is no doubt that Dahl’s advice invigorates him. No such figure appears in Knausgaard.

I have thought a lot about the absence of mentors. Like Knausgaard, I wouldn’t be the most amenable beneficiary of good advice. But there are objective explanations as well. Social arrangements have been fluid for too long, and minds that might have provided mentoring in the past have developed in circumstances of confusion. Which way is up? What a mentor must provide above all is assurance about one’s own inner voice, which one not only doubts but which is so easily drowned out in the din of jockeying youth. The very best mentor conveys the patience and conviction required to sit quietly in a room, at least part of the time, listening to that voice. But what have the old men of the past several generations known or wanted to know about youth and their voices? What was the Twentieth Century, if not a parade of bright young cohorts exploiting the latest in popular culture, from jazz to rap, as earplugs against the wisdom of older minds?


Wednesday 18th

In the closing pages of A Man in Love, the second volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, the author’s mother survives a heart attack that, when it struck her, left her thinking that she had had “a fantastic life.” Hearing this, Karl Ove is astounded.

If I keeled over now, and had a few seconds, perhaps minutes, to think before it was all over I would think the opposite. That I hadn’t accomplished anything. I want to live. But why don’t I live then?

There is His Struggle in a nutshell. Will he work it out? There’s still another volume to get through, written years ago now but coming out in English only next year, and who knows when if I wait for the paperback. The struggle, as I see it, is this: can you live if you are trying to accomplish? I’ve written about this before, always with the French verb achever in mind. It means what you think it means. But make it reflexive, s’achever, and what literally means “to achieve oneself” signifies death. To accomplish your life is to complete it, to end it, as if it were a project. Ever since Plutarch at least, men have been educated to regard life as a block of marble from which to chisel out the statue of a man of notable achievements.

The difficulty for the writer is the immateriality of the achievement. A book is not like a bridge. It is the very opposite: it ceases to exist the moment it is published. Writers complain about this all the time, but I don’t think laymen (or other writers) pay attention. When you finish a writing project — when it is sent out into the world — you’re done with it, it has nothing to offer you anymore. A writer is someone who writes, not who has written. To read something that was done with ten or twenty years ago is to have the odd conviction that it was written by someone else — as indeed it was. The written book is a bubble that pops, leaving its author gasping for a new project and leaving behind nothing else, except of course the money and fame, if any, that never mean anything to a writer. Only writing really matters.

The trick for the writer — and this is what I hope Knausgaard will realize before all that smoking kills him — is to learn how to live alongside the writing, to accept that writing will never lead to real accomplishment. If you are a writer, then writing is how you live. For most writers, this requires some peace and quiet, some distance from the madding crowd. But it does not require monastic withdrawal. Nor more than any other profession, writing is not going to be all there is to life. But it will be a well of misery if the writer hopes to pull up accomplishments.


Rather than repeat myself, I’ll refer you to one of several entries that I posted two years ago, after finishing A Man in Love. Scroll down to the final section, the one with the bullet points. What I said then still seems to hold as a description of how Knausgaard creates an architecture capable of infusing his highly vernacular story with literary interest, and also how he makes reading My Struggle so comforting, even during the most harrowing scenes. I must, however, repeat the last line: What will it be like to re-read the damned thing?


Reprise, My Struggle, rock ‘n’ roll, casual misogyny — speaking of which, if I may interrupt, I noticed an ad for Emirates, the airline, that featured a young man snoozing in a first-class pod, looking great but unshaven. Well, more than unshaven. That stubble thing. Now, I have a pretty full beard myself, trim I hope but about two inches long at the chin. Stubble is not a beard. It is a signal that always reminds me of Tom Ford’s confession that I cultivated his stubble in order to look his age. Without the stubble, he looked twelve years old. But I see something different. The message is not “I am older than I look,” but “I am not a girl.” And the point is not to clear up confusion. The point is to make a gratuitous statement. It’s rather like that prayer with which some Jewish men are said to start the day, Thank God I am a man, or words to that effect.

Men adrift.

Thursday 19th

On a weekend in 1961, my sister spent her allowance on two 45 RPM records. I was disgusted by her choices, and had to be told to stop saying so. Thus came to an end my belief that being a white man entitled me to tell other people how to live.

I knew that there was pop music, of course. My father listened to it all the time, on WNEW. An announcer called William B Williams had a show, called “The Make-Believe Ballroom.” My problem with this show was that the music he played wasn’t any good for dancing, and by that I mean the kind of dancing that people did at a night club. I had never been to a night club, but I had worked my way through several years of dancing school, fox-trotting and waltzing and cha-cha-ing with girls in party dresses. (We would learn the Twist the following year — a silly dance, I thought, because you couldn’t hold the girl.) William B Williams played Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald, now recognized as centerpieces of “the American Songbook,” but still, not really dance music. I preferred the bands that my parents had grown up with: Eddie Duchin and Tommy Dorsey. I had unearthed my mother’s 78s in the attic, and, amazingly, they were still playable, although with the undulations of a fun-house ride.

I knew about Elvis, yes. We had done silly imitations of “You Ain’t Nothin’ But a Hound Dog” in kindergarten. I thought it was revolting. From the very start, I longed to live on a planet where the phenomenon of Elvis Presley was unknown. I am still convinced that it would be a better planet. When I think of the late Duchess of Devonshire’s notorious passion for Elvis — she visited Graceland the way normal people visit Chatsworth — I conclude that Elvis must have served as a sort of plumbing purge, a clearing-out of clogged cloaca. Useful, perhaps, but nether.

But to have my sister bringing such swill into the house! It was as though she had succumbed to a white-slaving Orphic cult. I had always known that she was not artistic, but who but a degenerate could stand to listen to “Tell Laura I Love Her”?

Years later, I would decide that the other song that she bought that weekend, “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” was really rather sweet, if totally dumb. When I say “rather sweet,” I mean it. Only rather. You could get diabetes from Ray Peterson’s hit. At the time, though, I thought that “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” set African culture in a bad light.


The next bad reaction was prompted by Bob Dylan. He was as revolting as Elvis, certainly, but mystifying, too, because he was so unmusical. I don’t mean that his voice was ghastly or that his tunes were jejune, although he and they were certainly those, but rather that he was so unpleasant. Rude. Listening to Bob Dylan was like offering a guest a glass of water and being told to piss off. As with “Tell Laura I Love Her,” I could not understand voluntarily subjecting oneself to the experience.

In 1968, I found myself in Houston, and Fossil Darling found himself in Austin. He came down a couple of weekends, but mostly I went up, driving my new Beetle along the endlessness of US 290 with the radio on. I would listen to whatever was playing. Steppenwolf. The Doors. Blood Sweat and Tears. Jose Feliciano. It was part of the penance of being in Texas.

Aside from one-hit-wonder Grace Slick, and the Mamas and the Papas (and, come to think of it, Sergio Mendes and Brasil ’66), women’s voices were rare in the more sophisticated pop that I was learning to tolerate. Someone had given me an early Joan Baez record, and I kind of liked it, but not much — not as I would love her collaboration with Peter Schickele, Joan. I knew of Judy Collins, too. Everybody knew “Both Sides Now.” But I kept the writer of that song, Joni Mitchell, at a distance. There was something off-limits about Joni Mitchell. It seemed to me that she was writing either for angry women or for men who were up to no good. As a fun person whose depressive tendencies were already well tended by Bach and Wagner, I had no room for Mitchell’s critiques. And, yes, I thought that she sounded shrill at the top of her voice. It would take Kathleen to change my mind. Or, rather, it would take Kathleen to make me a fan. I never disliked Joni Mitchell. She just wasn’t fréquentable.

There is no need to say that I loathed the sound of Janis Joplin, and was relieved when she died, because she was clearly not going to stop screaming otherwise. Soon after that, Ellen Willis announced that rock was dead, which was also a relief, and kind of funny, too, a sort of fuck you to the burgeoning Rolling Stone. What would it have to talk about now?

No, that’s right; almost forgot. I disliked the Rolling Stones, in pretty much the same way that I disliked cauliflower. I always loved the Beatles, but the Beatles had nothing to do with any of this.


Well, almost.

Reading the Times today, I felt an oddly coincidental synergy. Here I am, thinking about rock ‘n’ roll much more, this week, than I usually do, wondering why such music would put anyone in the mood for love, when the Times presents me with two pieces, in two different sections of the paper, about the semi-surreptitious homosexuality at the bottom of things! On the one hand, so what? So what if the managers of famous rock bands were gay? That’s the now hand. On the then hand, we have nothing but scandal and professional suicide. Would the Beatles have been welcomed by Ed Sullivan, in their cute suits and mop haircuts, if it had been known to the television audience that manager Brian Epstein was a lonely gay man? Not bloody likely. Might the macho of the Who have been deflated by the widespread outing of manager Kit Lambert? Epstein and Lambert didn’t just book gigs for their bands, they managed them. The musicians knew, but weren’t bothered by it. (I can hear Ray Soleil chirruping, “More for me!”) They welcomed the input. Arguably the evaporation of general hostility to gay men may have begun in the offstage warrens of rock venues. It used to be thought that gay men posed a security risk because of their vulnerability to blackmail. Rock bands appear to have provided a counter-conspiracy, a black hole in which blackmail wouldn’t work. When you recall the homophobia of the time, it seems remarkable.

That’s all in Jim Farber’s Styles Section piece, “The Gay Architects of Classic Rock.” Just to imagine the title appearing in, say, 1968 is stupefying. Joe Coscarelli and Sydney Ember have a somewhat lighter story to tell in the Styles Section. The gay aspect of this story is certainly not news; Jann Wenner came out a long time ago. Nevertheless, his plausibility as the editor of Rolling Stone would have been dented if not totaled by the revelation of his sexual preference when he launched his epochal magazine. The now and then are the same, so far as homosexuality goes. The now part of Jann Wenner’s story is that he’s really beginning to remind me of Donald Trump. He’s feuding, see, with the latest author to attempt a biography, Joe Hagan. Like the president, he wants attention, but only the right kind of attention. Seasoned pros will tell you that there’s no such thing as bad publicity, but the publisher and the chief executive share not sharing this view.


At the end of this period of my life — my first youth — my sister more than made up for “Tell Laura I Love Her” by discovering Laura Nyro and introducing me to “Flim-Flam Man.” I was impressed.

Bon week-end à tous!