When my friends ask me to recommend a work of “contemporary literature,” I often tell them about Karl Ove Knausgaard or Nell Zink or Ben Lerner. But mostly I talk about Knausgaard. Now, I realize that my friends only want a “good book” written recently — a work of contemporary fiction — but I can’t help recommending Knausgaard’s books on a slightly different basis, one that mischievously fulfills the criterion: Knausgaard’s My Struggle volumes are assertively contemporary, even if I’m not always sure what that means.
I don’t know why, but “contemporary literature” does not have a conception of itself. It isn’t concerned (overmuch) with what it means to be contemporary, even though it often uses the phrase. To illustrate my point by contrast, just eavesdrop on initiates of the art world, whose parlance has evolved to distinguish “the contemporary” from the merely “modern.” For artists and curators and people who write about art, the contemporary demands “interrogation,” or at least consideration. What does it mean to be contemporary, beyond simply being now? It might sound like a dumb question, but it isn’t. And I would point out that the best book on art so far this year is called The Contemporaries.
If it is important for you to know what contemporary literature is, how it works, what makes it contemporary, or if you hope that fiction might help explain contemporariness as a condition: you’ll find yourself in a lonely place. Again, for reasons I don’t understand myself, the appendages of literary discourse simply do not bend toward questions of their own existence. What’s worse, now that a deservedly famous generation of literary theorists is comfortably engraved, it feels like we may never recover from this deficit of thinking about contemporary literature.
Or at least we should admit that we’re wasting a lot of time, that our anxieties about contemporary literature manifest in unhelpful ways — like considerations of how amazing books are and how great it is to like books, a formulation that describes countless articles published in a literary culture that has become weirdly self-congratulatory for how little work it actually performs. The whole thing reminds me of the words of the overwhelmed Russian Formalist Viktor Shklovsky, who wrote in Literature and Cinematography (1923) about the need to form a conception of contemporary cinema. “Soon the material will become boundless,” Shklovsky wrote. “It is depressing to think that we already know everything about the need to study contemporary phenomena in the history of art but never do anything about it.”
“This is not something I can do by myself,” he added.
In any case, we have to turn elsewhere to think about the “contemporary” in contemporary literature: we have to turn to the philosophy of art. And the best living writer I know on the subject of the contemporary is Boris Groys, a brilliant, Dracula-like thinker of paradox who is roundly misunderstood. Anyway, Groys has written extensively about the problem of contemporaneity in art, especially in his great book Going Public. Among his many useful ideas are two that describe Knausgaard’s My Struggle rather well.
The Loneliness of the Project
For Groys, the “contemporary” is defined by projects — planned and budgeted projects, art projects, campaigns, start-ups, failed projects, whatever. “The formulation of diverse projects has now become the major preoccupation of contemporary man,” he writes in “The Loneliness of the Project.” It’s hard to disagree with him.
Of course, every novel is a “project,” but it’s safe to say that Knausgaard’s My Struggle is the definitive project-work of recent times. In fact, much disingenuous criticism of Knausgaard is predicated on the project-ness of his project, a fact that he ironized in advance by naming the book My Struggle. If you can’t understand the argument this title makes against the work it alludes to — which was, by the way, preoccupied with hideous projects — then I don’t know how to help you. Not only does the title My Struggle claim for Knausgaard the agency to define his own project, it also points to the audacity of its own belatedness. In other words: part of the joy of reading Knausgaard is watching him elevate a version of his life, by will, into posterity, when it shouldn’t be possible — when stupid critics would police its possibility. The truth is that Knausgaard understands something his detractors do not: in the 21st century, the oeuvre is the soul. And now, to some great extent, he has the soul he wants because that was his project.
Groys also points out that, more than anything else, each project “strives to acquire a socially sanctioned loneliness.” The secret joy of any project, it has to be said, is the ability to dip away from the constant stream of obligation and communication required by daily life. With the exception of Elena Ferrante, a case which just proves the point, no living author cultivates this “loneliness of the project” more than Knausgaard. In many ways, My Struggle is about the loneliness of its own production, which in turn opens a wormhole to the loneliness of the reader, who reads, in part, in order to be lonely. It is fair to say that this transaction of loneliness is increasingly rare in our culture, and this rarity is secretly dramatized throughout the novel. In Volume 4, where Karl Ove commits himself to the practice of writing, we’re privy to the endless negotiations required of him to manufacture his own loneliness. And this loneliness, too, is compounded by his problems with premature ejaculation — which is nothing if not a non-metaphor-metaphor for the discipline required to be truly lonely.
Comrade of Time
While we’re on the subject of discipline: another important feature of My Struggle is that it was written at all. It may sound crazy to you to read this, but the Buddhistic discipline required to produce projects is a major theme in contemporary literature. In Tao Lin’s Taipei, which is basically just a less successful version of My Struggle transferred to America in a duplicitous third person, the protagonist Paul, and by extension Tao Lin himself, strive to reach what I once called “Siddhartha-lite” enlightenment, often through the ascetic use of drugs and the practice of writerly discipline. Likewise, Laszlo Krasznahorkai’s Seiobo There Below, arguably the other greatest novel of the last few years, is entirely about the ascetic discipline required to ascertain and produce great works of art.
It isn’t hard to see why discipline is so important. It requires precisely what we seem to lack: presence. And this sense of presence is, for Groys, what identifies the truly contemporary:
Being contemporary can be understood as being immediately present, as being here-and-now. In this sense, art seems to be truly contemporary if it is perceived as being authentic, as being able to capture and express the presence of the present in a way that is radically uncorrupted by past traditions or strategies aiming at success in the future.
In contemporary life, we crave this presence unabashedly. It’s what people search for in their various “practices” — yoga or art or anything else — all of the time. That is, unless they are searching for the opposite of presence, which is oblivion. And Volume 4 of My Struggle is characterized by the interchanges between presence and oblivion, between sexual desire and writerly practice. Just about any passage offers some mix of memorial presence and represented oblivion:
As always, alcohol gave me a strong sense of freedom and happiness, it lifted me onto a wave, inside it everything was good, and to prevent it from ever ending, my only real fear, I had to keep drinking more. When the time came Dad ordered a taxi, and I staggered down the stairs to the car that would take us the five hundred meters to Fregarten, and this time there was no question of there not being enough space. Once there we were shown to our table, close to the window in the big room which was otherwise completely empty. I had been drinking since ten o’clock, now it was six, and it was only by the grace of God that I didn’t fall through the window as I went to pull out my chair and sit down. I barely registered the presence of the others, no longer heard what they said, their faces were blurred, their voices a low rustle…
Yet there is another, more powerful way that My Struggle deals with presence and contemporaneity — by collaborating with time. Groys points out that being a “contemporary” in German just means that you are a “comrade of time” — a friend of time. No living writer is a better friend to time than Karl Ove Knausgaard, although Ben Lerner, with his Back to the Future-citing 10:04, is a close second. But what does it even mean to collaborate with time? It means
helping time when it has problems, when it has difficulties. And under the conditions of our contemporary product-oriented civilization, time does indeed have problems when it is perceived as being unproductive, wasted, meaningless. Such unproductive time is excluded from historical narratives, endangered by the prospect of complete erasure.
The reclamation of Karl Ove’s “wasted, meaningless” time spent on Earth — isn’t this is My Struggle in a nutshell? And it’s clear from any passage, from any volume of My Struggle, that Knausgaard’s project is about total friendship with time. Why else subject the time of your life, in volume after volume, to such scrutiny, with such presence, with so much care?
When critics compare Knausgaard to Proust, I’m not sure they know why, and this probably has something to do with how little we think about the “contemporary” in “contemporary literature.” Let’s be honest, too: Proust was probably the best pure writer of all the modernists, and Knausgaard’s style resembles his not at all. Nevertheless, both writers, in their respective masterpieces, cultivated the “loneliness of the project” and both were good friends with time — they helped it along, supported it, made sure it knew that it wasn’t meaningless or wasted. And this springs perhaps the final paradox. Now My Struggle is totally contemporary, and by being totally contemporary, by being a friend to time, it is timeless. Or as Karl Ove says about his suitcases on the first page of Volume 4, “they suited me and my style, the not-quite-contemporary, the not-quite-streamlined, which was what I favored.”