“Serious Noticing”

Now my birds hang in the gallery, along with the other birds, some of which are big but none bad, and in this time without travel I’ve been casting around for what’s next.

I’m reading “The Nearest Thing to Life,” a book that collects a series of lectures by the literary critic James Wood, and in it he devotes an entire section to describing how writers go about “seriously noticing the world.”

A phrase in Wood’s piece concerns what he calls a kind of death that novelists save us from, ”…the slow death that we deal to the world by the sleep of our attention. By congested habit, or through laziness, lack of curiosity, thin haste, we stop looking at things.”

Being a fan, Wood describes Karl Ove Knausgaard’s world as, “one in which the adventure of the ordinary – the inexhaustibility of the ordinary as a child once experienced it (‘the taste of salt that could fill your summer days to saturation’) is steadily retreating, in which things and objects and sensations are pacing toward meaninglessness.” And Wood says: “In such a world, the writer’s task is to rescue the adventure from this slow retreat: to bring meaning, color, and life back to the most ordinary things – to soccer boots and grass, to cranes and trees and airports, and even to Gibson guitars and Roland amplifiers and Old Spice and Ajax.”

Reading this helped me identify what Knausgaard’s books do for me. He reminds us to look for the meaning in the everyday, as novels often do. But his, with their piling up of the detail of ordinary life, operate like some magic elixir delivering the engaged liveliness I want to feel.

The concept of some inevitable “pacing toward meaningless” horrifies me. I want to retain the excitement that comes from paying attention, from engagement – the way I used to always feel about observing flowers, trying to capture their variety, their shapes and colors, an adventure that seemed endless. And in the interstices without an object or a flower to attend to, I always knew the way back was to begin with drawing – or writing – to try and bring “meaning, color, and life back to the most ordinary things.”

Every once in a while I need serious reminding about serious noticing, a reminder that paying attention is the secret. I used to thank Virginia Woolf most of all for this thought. I still do. And I’m grateful to the bottom of my heart to a thinker like James Wood, to novelists like Knausgaard and Woolf, Austen and Ferrante – for the great writing that, as Wood says, not only asks us to look more closely, but “asks us to participate in the transformation of the subject through metaphor and imagery.”

As time goes on, and life is ever more cluttered with possible distractions, and the spectre rises of the “sleep of our attention,” I want to stay awake, engaged with the ordinary!

Sweater beginning

Reading Knausgaard with the Sweet Baby

Mrs. Hughes and I read book after book in the “Game of Thrones” series with newborn Lady Baby. In the setting they seemed the most improbable books one could read. But I’m just as engrossed with the Sweet Baby – AND – in another unlikely series, the Norwegian Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six volume “My Struggle.”

A disjointed chronology upsets the bildingstroman nature of these autobiographical novels. The series begins with “A Death in the Family” when Knausgaard is 20. In the second volume, “A Man in Love,” Knausgaard is in his forties and a stay-at-home father. (All those details, nappies and naps, wrestling with strollers and recalcitrant children are familiar – though not a male story until this generation.) And he is a child in the third volume, “A Boyhood Island.” His father is cruel, a “house tyrant,” and the descriptions painful.

But outside the house, Knausgaard’s life in a Norway with such childhood freedom feels mythical – to ski and skate and ride bikes, to range the forests and village, to stupidly set fires and drop rocks on cars. Long summer evenings with packs of friends. And always the sheer terror elicited by his father. (Reading Ferrante and Knausgaard both, I marvel at the kind and good men I know.)

All six books have been published in Norway to much clamor – objecting and admiring – and now are being translated into English.

I had read references to Knausgaard, sometimes in terms of Ferrante, suggesting if one liked Elena, Karl Ove might not be one’s cup of tea. And vice versa. So I was skeptical, given my passion for Ferrante. But the first book had me on the airplane on the way to meet the Sweet Baby. Now I’m through the third and, like a lot of other people, awaiting the fourth (available this week).

I would not have predicted the mesmerizing effect of these books, written in language rooted in the here and now, the ordinary. While Ferrante rushes pell mell through her narrative, Knausgaard pauses to enumerate the contents of a pocket, the tasks in cleaning a filthy house, and interrupts with essay-like bits about art or philosophy. It’s addictive.

Holding a tiny baby and reading on the Kindle, makes for erratic note taking, but I keep remembering the “machine chuntered out a receipt,” exactly the sound of those odd credit card machines in a taxi. If you describe the banal and keep the attention of the reader as Knausgaard does, the magic is in the language (the translator, Don Bartlett, must get much credit).

Sometimes the detail piles up like a list of the everyday, and other times the seven-year old’s imagination takes off, returning home at night to familiar objects: “The shoes with grommets as eyes and the tongue as forehead, the chilly gaze from the white two-holed electric sockets above the baseboard, the hat stand in the corner with its back turned. And in my room: the pens and pencils assembled like a gang of school children in the pen stand….”

As a child Knausgaard is a seemingly “clueless know-it-all” who cries a lot – and observes. “Grandma took the coffee pot off the stove in the kitchen and the steadily increasing noise of the whistle died with a little sigh.” And his grandfather: “The eyes behind his glasses were sharp, but were totally transformed once [he] took them off. Then they were like two small children who had just woken up.”

Maybe because Knausgaard begins with death, everything, and I mean every little thing, the hard things and the small things, are more meaningful.

I have never read anything like this. Never ever.

sweet baby's sweater