We’ve got an intellectual bounty for you this week, folks, with deep dives into part three of Ali Smith’s “Seasonal Quartet,” Oliver Sacks’ final essays, and Karl Ove Knausgaard’s study of the art of Edvard Munch.
In her fascinating New York Times review of So Much Longing in So Little Space: The Art of Edvard Munch, acclaimed author (and child of Norwegians) Siri Hustvedt explores how Knausgaard “wrestles with the mute language of the canvas and the difficulty of translating his experience with it to the page.”
Over at NPR, Heller McAlpin sings the praises of Ali Smith’s Spring, writing of her love for Smith’s “clever wordplay, her insistence on the life-enhancing possibilities of love and decency, and her ability to compose artful literature that sings of both humanity’s heart and heartbreaks.”
Meanwhile, in her Vulture essay on Philippe Besson’s erotic coming-of-age novel, Lie With Me, Hillary Kelly considers the line between truth and artifice: “Besson’s method sucks you in as an accomplice to this kind of necessary self-delusion, and offers a tantalizing third way of considering our own pasts: not as true or false, but collected and restrung, like beads on a necklace.”
We also spotlight Katy Waldman’s New Yorker review of Afternoon of the Faun, James Lasdun’s murky, compelling tale of a journalist plunged into a series of deepening crises when old friend is accused of rape (“Faun might be an act of exorcism or masochism or dark curiosity, an alternate history of an incident whose truth can never be known”) and Daniel Meneker’s warm look at Everything in Its Place, the final collection of essays from the beloved scientist and storyteller, Oliver Sacks (“Life bursts through all of Oliver Sacks’s writing. He was and will remain a brilliant singularity”).
“Lie With Me is designed to tempt you with such questions. Is it autofiction? A lightly fictionalized true story? A manipulative ruse designed to bond reader and novelist? Whatever it is, the story—imbued with the sprightliness of youth, the nostalgia of age, the deep internal echoes of regret—is all true, even if it’s not true. The ‘trick,’ whatever it might be, need not be vivisected … While the starring peach of Call Me by Your Name was the perfect metanym for that lush and gauzy tale, Lie With Me unpeels like a springy orange. The boys’ relationship is bare but segmented, each encounter entirely isolated from the others, with only a thin membrane to keep all that tart juice from bursting out. Lie With Me is single-minded in its focus, spare but lucid in its descriptions…The intimacy is ripe on the page; this is a novel is horny for itself … Did this really happen? The question that so irritates novelists clearly titillates Besson…But Besson is never as transparent as Rachel Cusk or Catherine Millet. Lie With Me is closer on the metafiction scale to far more playful works like Pale Fire. It’s slightly saner than Muriel Spark’s The Comforters and a little less narcissistic than Roth’s Indignation. By concealing the line between artifice and truth, Besson preserves it, and goes a step further (or a step backward, depending on your interpretation) from traditional metafiction. His narrator talks directly to us, but whisks a broom over his own tracks, erasing the certainty of his claims … Ultimately, these games are not a distraction from the romance and nostalgia but very much the point. Think about it: How much of our own teenage years do we invent? How much is cobbled together from other people’s stories and shellacked with a glaze of who we’ve become, rather than who we were? Probably … a lot. Besson’s method sucks you in as an accomplice to this kind of necessary self-delusion, and offers a tantalizing third way of considering our own pasts: not as true or false, but collected and restrung, like beads on a necklace.”
“…from the beginning, [Knausgaard] wrestles with the mute language of the canvas and the difficulty of translating his experience with it to the page … After the preamble, Knausgaard’s essay becomes an elastic exploration of Munch that combines three elements, each of which is freely woven into the text: details about Munch’s life and painting; the writer’s private and public experiences with the art…and finally, philosophical musings about art and literature … He also notes rightly that ‘The Scream’ has been lost to viewers. He doesn’t say that the canvas is so famous that people around the world may recognize it without knowing Munch painted it, but that is the truth. As with the ‘Mona Lisa,’ whatever it may have meant to those who first saw it, the canvas has been buried under layer upon layer of cultural excrement … Knausgaard’s response to the varying opinions of those he encounters is at once measured, insightful and tinged with comedy … The irony may be that Knausgaard has been ‘forced’ into the very ‘channel of consensus’ he recognizes so clearly, a consensus that has elevated him to a status that, if not autocratic, is surely heroic. The fact that the consensus arrived with the publication of My Struggle, a voluminous novel of automatic writing, may have had its dangers. Its many strengths do not lie in its intellectual rigor. That said, Knausgaard never underestimates the painter’s labor and study, and this book stands as a sincere, often lyrical and penetrating attempt to enter the world of another artist.”
–Siri Hustvedt on Karl Ove Knausgaard’s So Much Longing in So Little Space: The Art of Edvard Munch (The New York Times Book Review)
“Lasdun’s writing spreads implication like condensed flavor crystals that dissolve in water. By the end of the novel, he has examined every corner of the narrator’s conflicted psyche and surveyed an ever-shifting social question without once resorting to cliché. The book achieves a state of suspension that is at once fascinating, draining, and dismal—one imagines oneself, along with the narrator, vacillating forever, doubting, arguing both sides, weaving and unweaving webs of justification and delusion … At times, Faun feels squarely in the space of Karl Ove Knausgaard, Rachel Cusk, Sheila Heti, and others. But here, Lasdun marries autofiction to the more obviously stylized genre of the psychological thriller, deploying cliffhangers and the trope of the unreliable narrator. This is a neat idea: autofictional garnishes on a suspense novel can create a sense of claustrophobia, or become an eerie extra quotient of human consciousness, as if another pair of eyes were watching … As the Marco-Julia saga illustrates, authors and men who prey on less powerful women share in common the privilege to determine the final, ‘official’ version of events. In the last accounting—I won’t spoil the book’s ambiguous, twisty ending—Faun might be an act of exorcism or masochism or dark curiosity, an alternate history of an incident whose truth can never be known.”
“Among my favorite contemporary authors, Ali Smith leads the parade. I love the brassy blast of her outrage at the world’s injustices and the drumbeat of her passion for the arts. This Scottish writer gravitates naturally to outsiders and really understands loss and grief. She takes a genuine interest in old people and what we can learn from them, but also sees hope for the future in smart young people. I love her clever wordplay, her insistence on the life-enhancing possibilities of love and decency, and her ability to compose artful literature that sings of both humanity’s heart and heartbreaks … Each volume [of the Seasonal Quartet] revolves around different characters, so it’s fine to read them individually, or in no set order. But you’d risk missing the swell of Smith’s moral fury and the deliciously subtle through-lines and connections she plants in each book … Spring uncoils strikingly, like a vernal fern. It feels fresh even though Smith returns to so many of her familiar themes: the bleak contemporary political landscape, loss of a soul mate, fractured families, nature’s seasonal clockwork, and references to a real artist (Tacita Dean this time) and a Shakespeare play (Pericles of Tyre, or as Richard quips, Pericles of Tired). Postcards crop up in this book like signposts, no mere ephemera. The initially puzzling inclusion of off-putting anti-immigrant rants will become clear with time. About such bloviating, Smith reminds us: ‘Hot air rises and can not just carry us but help us rise above.’ So can her novels.”
“Everything in Its Place: a lame title. Especially since the topics here are actually a wonderfully odd lot, despite the worthy effort to group them into sections … there is an argument being made now that our increasing appetite for stories about the human element in medicine and science proceeds, at least in part, from the erosion of mythology and religion as convincing schemas for understanding the human condition. This suggests that there may be something bardic about these modern writers/doctors—Sacks, Ofri, Atul Gawande, Daniel Kahneman, James Gleick, Jerome Groopman, Abraham Verghese, Rebecca Skloot, even Mary Roach. They are searching for meaning and coherence within particular lives touched by random afflictions and the dizzying advances in science, rather than in any form of divine providence. As Sacks himself has said, ‘I would hope that a reading of what I write shows respect and appreciation, not any wish to expose or exhibit for the thrill … but it’s a delicate business’ … Life bursts through all of Oliver Sacks’s writing. He was and will remain a brilliant singularity. It’s hard to call to mind one dull passage in his work—one dull sentence, for that matter. At the end of this book, and very near the end of his life, in ‘Filter Fish,’ he even manages to give gefilte fish, of all things, a wonderful star turn: ‘In what are (barring a miracle) my last weeks of life—so queasy that I am averse to almost every food and have difficulty swallowing … I have rediscovered the joys of gefilte fish. … Gefilte fish will usher me out of this life, as it ushered me into it, 82 years ago.'”
–Daniel Meneker on Oliver Sacks’ Everything in Its Place: First Loves and Last Tales (The New York Times Book Review)