Category Archives: Literary Arts

The Place Where an Author Speaks

The six part series, My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard

The six part series, My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard

You’ve probably heard of Karl Ove Knausgård–he’s a living Norwegian cannon and he’s widely known for his series My Struggle, translated by James Anderson and first published by Archipelago. He currently has a series of essays, The Seasons Quartet, published by Penguin. But you never hear about A Time for Everything. This book was recommended by a friend of mine who, years ago, was in the same literary circle in Rochester as me. We read it in our book club. To date, I wouldn’t say that Knausgård is one of my favorite authors (like Krasznahorkai or Clarice Lispector) but A Time for Everything is one of my favorite novels. The premise is simple: a man named Antinous Bellori researches angels as a species. The narration cycles through Bellori’s perspective and also cites (and completely rewrites) stories from the bible in which angels are mentioned: Cain and Able, the Great Flood, and so on. Knausgård, a staunch atheist, knows the literary merit of the bible and re-rwrites these excerpts with a certain pathos—we get access to Cain’s interiority/three-dimensionality, his love for his brother. We watch as Noah let’s his family die within sight of his ark, as they beg him for help. All of this is written in that Knausgårdian style that references biology, epistemology, and historical figures like Galileo, Copernicus, Aquinas. The “Coda” is horrific and traumatizing—a man self-mutilates his body for several pages and in a strange cohesion with the rest of the plot.

A Time For Everything by Karl Ove Knausgaard

A Time For Everything by Karl Ove Knausgaard

The description I just offered is a perfectly adequate reason to love a book. When I review books, I typically keep this question in mind: why language? There are seemingly infinite media with which to tell a story: dance, sculpture, film. The plot is important, but the use of the medium, in this case: form, grammar, structure—is what makes a work a masterpiece on a technical level. Knausgård knows his medium—at least in A Time for Everything––and that’s why he’s often compared to Proust. It’s why he’s revered.

But there’s more to this book for me than its literary merit.

On June 5, 2014, I took a train from Rochester to McNally Jackson because I heard Karl Ove Knausgård was going to be at the launch event for the release of Book Three of his My Struggle series—and that it was going to be moderated by Zadie Smith. I got to Prince Street an hour early and the line was wrapped around the block. I was lucky because the line was cut off just a few people behind me due to fire code. That’s how many people wanted to see him. We were on top of each other on the bottom floor of McNally. I stood on a chair to see him and Zadie Smith the whole time.

Here’s what I remember about this event: Knausgård read from the Norwegian, Zadie Smith read in the English (and if you’ve never heard her read, you don’t really know what Poe meant when he said tragedy and melancholy are the height of beauty), and a Q&A followed.

Zadie Smith and Karl Ove Knausgård

Zadie Smith and Karl Ove Knausgård

At one point, early into the Q&A, someone asked if his depression was alleviated by his writing process. He gave a terse “no” and a brief explanation. Then the hands went up. No one was satisfied with this. Didn’t creative expression offer relief and release? It seems impossible to be in a perpetually depressed state. No one accepted his answers, the questions were nearly the same and unrelenting, and all while he struggled with a language barrier. He started getting pissed off. Zadie Smith had to take over the conversation and shut it down. She told the audience to move on. They did, eventually. The Q&A was almost over anyway.

My friend and I went upstairs to get my book signed. I was the only person with A Time for Everything and people around me kept asking about it. Big fans of his who either hadn’t read or hadn’t heard of it. Most were there to purchase Book Three of his series.

I finally got to Knausgård. I apologized for the audience. I told him writing doesn’t do anything for my depression, either. It’s not why I write. It’s not an inspiration and I don’t feel relief after the fact. He told me that the audience’s approach was purely cultural––that in Norway, people don’t ask questions this reductive. Depression isn’t shocking there—hell, it’s where modern black metal came from. And then he told me he was sorry for me, that I lived in a culture that either sensationalizes or completely rejects the reality of a fairly common state of being.

I had three books I wanted to write about—some titles that are rare and signed that I’ve found locally. But I wanted to tell this story because it points to the inherently uniting property of the arts—particularly in music and literature. And it makes it especially clear why we should read books from other cultures—our collective ethos isn’t the only ethos to this or that. (Like how Japan and the Netherlands view suicide from a different perspective than the States and yet those perspectives stem from wildly different origins.) This story also makes clear why bookstores are important—they’re , maybe to an impenetrably and willfully obstinate audience, and he then has something provocative to respond to.

The rippling consequence is that today, there’s a woman with a signed novel—one of her favorite novels—written by a living canon compared to Proust, who spoke to her for under two minutes, normalizing a subject that no longer made her feel deeply alienated. Nearly four years ago she has a tangible and really quite transcendent object that revisits what is an otherwise oxymoronic concept, maybe now more relevant than ever: collective isolation, and conceptually connecting amid it.

Introducing Literary Arts Coordinator, Rachel Crawford

Rachel

I want to thank all of you for welcoming me to the Main Street Arts family as the new Literary Arts Coordinator. As I get to know Clifton Springs, I find that so much of the charm I love about Western New York is present and thriving—and I’m humbled to be part of the work Bradley and Sarah put into integrating the arts here. It’s remarkable that they see literature as integral to the arts and I couldn’t be more excited to share our upcoming events with the rest of you.

For the sake of providing a little background as to what literature means to me and what my experience entails, I completed my bachelor’s degree in Comparative Literature (with a focus in Russian) at the University of Rochester and went on to complete my master’s in English Literature there as well. During my time at the university, I can say that it was the internships and volunteering opportunities with Open Letter Books—a Rochester-based press that publishes literature in translation—that left the greatest impression on me. I learned how prevalent contemporary literature in translation is,  why we should all be reading living authors, and diversifying what we read.

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While I was completing my master’s degree, I began freelancing for City Newspaper covering the literary community, and interviewing visiting authors. I was granted the opportunity to write a cover story about literary translators in Rochester who bring women’s voices to the spotlight. These translators’ roles are so significant to creating diversity in the literary arts. Marginality in literature has always interested me—the other or the subaltern; who speaks and who is spoken for. Throughout both my graduate and undergraduate careers, I focused on voice and representation. I spoke on two panels in New York (the New York Public Library and Columbia Teachers College) on women and madness in literature. After that, I presented at the University of Johannesburg and co-presented at the Catholic University of Portugal—each on Zimbabwean author Yvonne Vera, through the lens of ecofeminism.

But these are just my interests—I want to know what you’re reading: science fiction? nonfiction? Or maybe you’re revisiting Little Women to prepare for the newest film adaptation. I know some people who solely read specific genres of graphic novels or who casually flip through the New Yorker every week. Maybe you listen to books during your long commute or during a run. I want to talk about all of that with you.

For those of you who may be curious, I’m currently reading Joytime Killbox—a collection of short stories by Rochester-based author Brian Wood (which hits shelves October 15th).  (Joytime Killbox is published by BOA Editions, also based in Rochester.) I’m also  reading On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong, a melancholic and mournful rendering of a difficult relationship with a parent. (Of course, there’s a stack of books on my nightstand waiting to be read.)

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With Main Street Arts, I want to bring literature from independent publishers (especially our Western New York neighbors) to the forefront of our growing literary community. Moreover, I want to facilitate an inclusive space where readers can meet authors and poets and discuss what makes a work of fiction or poetry engaging. We will be hosting author visits, poetry readings, fiction workshops, a book club, and film screenings.—so stay tuned for more programs like these, yet to be announced.

Finally, a few fun facts about me: I’m the mother of a thirteen year-old boy who goes to the School of the Arts in Rochester, New York. We try to be adventurous about food, music, art, and by traveling whenever we can. I love a good glass of bubbly. My son and I enjoy camping––there’s no sound I love more than the Adirondack loons at night, paired with the stars during a new moon. But more than anything, I love meeting new people and exchanging ideas. As the saying goes, I’ve never met a stranger—so please come say hello to me at Sulfur Books!

Sincerely,

Rachel Crawford