Monthly Wrap-up – Jan 2016 – Top posts, a new book, watching Trump on-stage.

Copyright 2016, Dennis Mitton
Enjoying a nice vouvray – not easily found in my neck of SC.

My Selfish Gene started 2016 with a nice little pop. We had almost 1,200 pages viewed by almost 700 different people. Visitors and members hailed from 59 different countries and ‘Zika Pinheads’, a sad pejorative if there ever was one, was the top search term that brought folk to the site. I know that 700 visitors is a slow single day for a lot of blogs and websites but I am happy that this many people get some kind of joy out of what I appear driven by my molecular make-up to do.

Top post for the month was my Kreationist Korner post titled “How To Do Science Right – Neil Shubin and Tiktaalik”. I love this story. I put it under the header of Kreationist Korner because so many misguided folk argue that one cannot do experiments about evolution and if you can’t do an experiment then whatever you are doing cannot be science. Shubin turns this whole goofy idea on its head by showcasing the predictive power of the scientific method. Over the course of about ten years he and his team kept drilling down  with if this is true then this must be true and found the most exciting transitional fossil known to us at this time – the wonderful Tiktaalik. See the post here and, for the full treatment, read Shubin’s book Your Inner Fish, here on Amazon.

My Kreationists Korner posts don’t interest me as much as others but they are consistently popular with readers. Just to let you know, the next installment of Evolution in Sixty Posts (cf here) is on creationism. No, it’s not evolution but you can’t speak to American audiences about evolution without broaching the boring and brain-numbing topic of creationism. So tune in next Friday, Feb 12, for the post.

The second most popular post is another consistent winner and I am completely flummoxed by its popularity. It’s part of my Knausgaard series (cf here) titled “Duty or Privilege – Caring for your family”. In it I explore the last chapters of My Struggle where Karl Ove writes with anguished transparency about his physical revulsion at taking care of his grandmother after his Father dies. I actually found the chapters hard to read and can only commend him for his ability to tell the truth. I juxtapose this against the great privilege I felt in caring for my Father when he was dying. I don’t know where the different feelings come from and I don’ think either is necessarily right or wrong but I am happy that my experience with my Father was as wonderful as it was.

My favorite post for the month was on the Zika Virus that is coursing through South and Latin America and making it’s way to the US (cf here). It is not particularly dangerous for adults but can cause a deformity in babies known as microcephaly where the head fails to develop as a child grows. There are a host of developmental issues that evince along with the disease. Last year in Brazil over 100,000 Zika infections were reported with about 4,000 known cases of microcephaly. Compare this to 53 cases of microcephaly in 2014 and 4 in 2013 and you can see the concern. The virus is carried by a common mosquito and several countries – entire countries! – have asked women to postpone pregnancy for up to two years. I don’t know if this has ever been done before and I don’t know what changes to expect in two years. But this call pits the populations against the Roman Catholic Church who has a pervasive and pernicious presence in most South American countries. The RCC prohibits the use of contraception which the UN has advised in response to Zika. It’s unlikely in my mind that anything will change. The putative dangers of cultural pressure, the Pope, Jesus and Mary, and an eternity in hell are pretty persuasive for believers. I expect that instead, good Catholics will continue to have sex, continue to have babies, and most sadly, continue to have their prayers go unanswered for their children born with this preventable infection. I can’t add enough modifiers to say how sad this is.

Only in the South! Everyone needs a beef jerky outlet. I wonder, though, if this is out of date foodstuffs or do you buy in 100 piece quantities?

On a more happy note thanks to all for a great January. I am steadily moving forward with the Evolution series and will be coming back to Knausgaard in a couple of months. I’ve started a project that I call Southern Comfort that looks at the South through my Seattleite eyes, and have sent a couple of papers out for publication. And we’ll soon be collecting bugs here in South Carolina! Sweet.

Other Cool stuff

I have a lot of readers interested in evolution. Let me introduce you to the Society for the Study of Evolution and their journal Evolution. Regular membership is fifty bucks! Fifty bucks! Back in the eighties I think I used to pay about $500 for membership in the Art Historian Society and another couple hundred to have Science delivered to my door. This membership is far and away the best value that I know of anywhere for real, live front of the line reporting on Evolution.

I continue to enjoy the Stuff you Missed in History Class podcast. I have to do something on my forty minute drive to and from work so I podcast in the morning and do vocabulary at night if it’s light enough to see.  Un jour je pourrais apprendre le Français!

Other notes:

Fathers-CoverOne day I might get around to doing some indie marketing but I have published my Fathers and Sons series on both Amazon and Barnes and Noble. It was great fun for me to write and I’ve had a great response to the stories.

Last night Donald J. Trump, candidate for president, graced the good folks of my town with his presence. We drug the kids along with their requisite moans about how boring it would be but I think it’s important to learn how the world works and politics – for good or for bad – is a big part of the that picture. The most striking thing to me about Trump is his sense of unswerving, unshakable, and fully centered confidence. You can see it in how he walks and it resonates from every move he makes and from every word he speaks. He has complete ownership of where he his and what he is doing.  You can see how he reviles what he perceives as weakness. It’s the antithesis to his outlook.

Dad-Madi Trump
Gang signs? I don’t know. Madi and Dad at the Trump Extravaganza.

He hit all the main points of his ‘platform’ and garnered the expected shrieks and cheers. He is going to kill ISIS. He is going to build a wall and Mexico will pay for it. He swore like a, well, tame sailor with almost every phrase peppered with damns and hells and the crowd cheered just the same. He is going to rebuild the military and will start making new deals to make America great again! What do we get out of protecting Germany, Europe, France, and South Korea? Why shouldn’t we get something in return from Japan for promising to protect them from invaders. I haven’t checked a single fact but he said that in good times Saudi Arabia profits a billion dollars a day from oil and relies one hundred percent on the US for military protection. The crowd booed like high-schoolers when he said that we gave Iran 150 billion dollars that they spent buying non-US goods: 150 jets from Airbus and not Boeing. Military supplies from Russia. Machinery from Germany and France.

The whole evening was more tame than I was expecting but still entertaining. I think Trump actually believes what he says. I feel the same about Bernie Sanders and John Kasich. For every other candidate I buy wholly into the truth that when their lips move they lie. I hope other candidates come through town. I would like to see Hillary and Sanders and maybe Rubio. I would probably skip on Cruze unless I buy plenty of tomato juice first – I hear that’s the only way to get that smell off you.

We did have a teaching moment with one of the girls. Madi looked around and asked why there weren’t many ‘brown’ people there. (At school they’ve decided that everyone is the same -people are just different shades from light to dark)  We talked about how some groups of people feel that some presidents or leaders understand them more than others. I don’t know if she understood what I was saying but in the parking lot she said that if Obama isn’t president anymore she would rather have a lady. We’ll see if she gets her wish.

There you have it – another month in the bag. Thanks again!

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Book Excerpt – How I Learned to Judge a Man by the Content of His Character

In the series Fathers and Sons I took about a year to publish installments about how my Father came to be who he was and how he passed life lessons on to me. Since then I’ve published the series in a book, also titled Fathers and Sons, in both Kindle and Nook platforms. In this particular story – I write about how Dad taught me to judge a man by his character and not by the color of his skin.

Mom and dad were sun worshipers. They loved to grease up and bake. When I was maybe nine or ten they decided that we needed a pool. A real pool. A little slice of sunny Palm Springs plopped down in misty Tacoma. Maybe they beat Kevin Costner to it and thought ‘ifIMG we build it then the sun will come”. These were days before credit cards or home equity loans so dad decided to start a lawn care business. We had the nicest yard in three counties so it was a good fit. Dad bought a truck – a green 1963 Chevy – a few mowers, lifted me into the truck to carry buckets, and we were off.

Business was good and we were busy. Once we had a call from a guy who was hosting a family get together on the next Saturday. Could we come over Friday and clean the place up – make it shine? We showed up Friday morning to see that he lived on one of those odd lots in Tacoma where the road is cut right through a hill. Backyards are flat and large and front yards are cliffs. Over the years – these houses were built in the ‘30’s – owners have terraced most yards to make them manageable. But not this one. The front fell right to the road with a grass carpet growing about a foot high. No one had heard of weed eaters yet so dad and the owner – who was maybe the first Black man I ever shook hands with – agreed to hit the back yard hard for the party and worry about the front another time. They shook on a price and we went to work.

It was hot and sometime around mid-afternoon the guy came out of the house with lemonade. We stood around for a minute cooling off and he dropped the bomb. “Hey. When you guys make it around to the front yard can you…” Dad busted right in. “We’re not doing the front. We can’t do the front. We talked about it.” The guy blew up. “Why in the hell would I hire a guy to do my yard and not do the front? You expect me to pay you for ripping me off?” He was yelling loud and waving his arms and even I knew we had been had. Without a word of discussion dad yelled to the sky “Den! Load up the truck. We’re outta here!”

I don’t remember anything else about the guy. I don’t know if he stayed in the yard and yelled back but I started tossing hoes and prongs and buckets in the bed of the truck as fast as I could. Dad tossed in the mowers and emptied the wheelbarrow on the lawn before putting it away. “Get in the truck!”

He’s a jerk but you don’t have to be one too.

We sprayed a little gravel and sped off. It was surreal for me as a young kid. We were working, sipping lemonade, and enjoying the day and in an instant it all fell away in a fury of arms and shouts. We drove about a mile or two and – it’s weird how memory works – parked in front of the Tacoma Public Library. I probably wondered if I was in trouble too. We sat for a minute while Dad kind of gathered himself up. Finally he turned to me and said, “Den? I want to let you know something. That guy back there was an asshole. (Now we were swearing together like men!) You’re going to meet all kinds and jerks and asses. It doesn’t have anything to do with him being Black. Asses come in white, black, red, yellow. It doesn’t matter. You’ll meet lots of asses and lots of good people and none of it ever has anything to do with their color. It comes from what’s inside.

Then we drove off. It’s the last I ever remember talking about it but it was an expectation in our home that people were judged on what they did not on what they looked like.

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Tolstoy, Mother Earth News, and Can’t We All Just Get Along?

Copyright 2016, Dennis Mitton


Sometimes I think I should apologize to my friends and readers. Conventional blogging wisdom tells authors to select a topic, write about it widely and deeply, and provide usable and shareable content for readers. Besides the brute fact that I hate the very concept of content there are just too many things that fascinate me to limit my writing to one topic.  I tried running multiple sites one time and it was just too time consuming. And to tell the truth the topic that I’m most interested is a big ho-hum to most readers. That being said I saw this article in the NYT about life in one of the last Tolstoyan communes. Now I love me some Tolstoy. I’ve read most of his major writing at least once, took up Russian – Здравствуйте! – to read his books in the original (and have never done so), and whenever asked am happy to offer my opinion that Anna Karenina is the greatest novel ever written. It’s a little embarrassing but I even started dressing like the Great Man in his peasant smock once. Now that will get you some stares. So how did I miss the communes?

It’s well known among students of Tolstoy that he basically invented his own religion based on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. He rejected mystery, miracles, and the spiritual and considered Jesus to be a wise but very human teacher. He corresponded frequently with Gandhi about non-violence and pacifism and ate a vegetarian diet. He identified with the poor, setting up schools and eschewing a life of wealth and ease. He tried to forgo sex and was enormously exercised periods of ‘animal lust’ as Troyat outlines in his biography of the writer. In other words, he actually lived the way he talked. It’s unheard of today, even in religious circles, and certainly one reason for his appeal in a time of great tumult. In this respect I’ve always though his last novel, Resurrection , was biographical and that Rasputin was in every way like a modern TV evangelist more interested in girls and graft than god.

The Great Man Leo Tolstoy
Tolstoy and supporters working on famine relief.

Wiki says that there were Tolstoyan communes throughout the world and all adhered to principles of non-violence, non-resistance, and vegetarianism. Commune members lived simply and did not participate in government which they consider artificially propped up by threat of violent and hence corrupt. In similar philosophical straits as were British and American Shakers, Tostoyan Communities had a short history. Most attempted to be self-sustaining and we’re able to support themselves. Fellow citizens were often suspicious of non-violent neighbors who failed to understand that the best way to get along with enemies is to just kill them. Governments made life difficult on them. Finally, it’s hard to keep growing when you fail to propagate membership from within. Abstinence wasn’t a requirement but was highly regarded.

Tolstoyan tracts and booklets about the good life.

Tolstoy had mixed feelings about the groups formed after his name. He was happy to see people joining together to champion non-violence and simplicity be argued strongly he should never be propped up as a model and that every man should seek out his own answers within himself.

So maybe I can have a religion? As long as I don’t have to believe in divinity or miracles and can sit around writing great books – well – that sounds pretty nice to me.

See the NYT article here.

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Quickie – Reblog from Tolstoy Therapy – Tolstoy’s fav books at each stage of life

You know I love me some Tolstoy. Luckily so does Lucy over at her Tolstoy Therapy blog where she thinks that “literature is an incredibly useful tool to support good mental health”.  Beside Tolstoy there is plenty of good reading of all sort, all with an eye toward connecting good lit with questions about emotions, happiness, and the gamut of human psychological experiences.

Please go – here – and read and enjoy.

From Tolstoy Therapy – read the original here.

“Works which made an impression”: Leo Tolstoy’s favourite books from each stage of his life

Tolstoy, 1895. Published by Cassell and Co,
NY, 1911.

In 1891, a Petersburg publisher (who was undergoing the impressive feat of asking 2,000 influential luminaries for their favourite books) contacted Leo Tolstoy to ask about the books that had
influenced him.

Somewhat characteristically considering his love for lists, Tolstoy grouped his recommendations into the five stages of his life that he had covered so far, up to the age of 63. For each stage, books were also categorised as “great”, “v. great”, and “enormous”.

The result is the following, as included in R.F. Christian’s wonderful collection of Tolstoy’s Letters: Volume II (he has also published Tolstoy’s diaries in two volumes).

The letter opens with a disclaimer – “I am sending the list I began, but didn’t finish, for your consideration, but not for publication, since it is still far from complete” – and the heading, “WORKS WHICH MADE AN IMPRESSION”.

Childhood to the age of 14 or so

Tales from The Thousand and One Nights: the 40 Thieves, Prince Qam-al-Zaman
Pushkin’s poems: Napoleon

“V. great”:
The Little Black Hen by Pogorelsky

The story of Joseph from the Bible
Russian byliny folk tales: Dobrynya Nikitich, Ilya Muromets, Alyosha Popovich

Age 14 to 20

Tales of Good and Evil by Nikolai Gogol: Overcoat, The Two Ivans, Nevsky Prospect
The Conquest of Mexico by William Prescott

“V. great”:
A Sentimental Journey by Laurence Sterne
Nouvelle Héloise by Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Yevgeny Onegin by Alexander Pushkin
Die Räuber by Friedrich Schiller
Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol
A Sportsman’s Sketches by Ivan Turgenev
Polinka Sachs by Aleksandr Druzhinin
The Hapless Anton by Dmitry Grigorovich
A Hero for our Time by Mikhail Lermontov
Matthew’s Gospel: Sermon on the Mount
Confessions by Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Emile by Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Viy” from “The Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol”
David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

Age 20 to 35


Poems by F.T. Tyutchev
Poems by Koltsov
The Odyssey and The Iliad by Homer (read in Russian)
Poems Afanasy Fet
Phaedo and Symposium by Plato (read by Tolstoy in Cousin’s translation)
“V. great”:

Hermann and Dorothea by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Notre Dame de Paris by Victor Hugo

Age 35 to 50

Novels of Mrs. [Henry] Wood
Novels of George Eliot
Novels of Anthony Trollope

“V. great”:
The Odyssey and The Iliad (in Greek)
The byliny
Xenophon’s Anabasis

Les Misérables by Victor Hugo

Age 50 to 63

Discourse on religious subject by Theodore Parker
[Frederick William] Robertson’s sermons
“The Essence of Christianity” by Ludwig Feuerbach
“V. great”:Book of Genesis (in Hebrew)
Progress and Poverty by Henry George
Confucius and Mencius

All the Gospels in Greek
Pensées by Blaise Pascal
“Lalita Vistara” by Rajendralala Mitra
Lao-Tzu [Tolstoy read the French translation of S. Julien]
If you enjoyed a first glance at Tolstoy’s skill for lists, you might also appreciate his Calendar of Wisdom, or his collection of quotations that he believed to be his most important contribution to humanity. There are also his “Rules of life”, including “Visit a brothel only twice a month”

Like more of the same? Subscribe to the Tolstoy Therapy Newsletter and receive a round-up of the week’s articles every Sunday to enjoy with your coffee. Click here to subscribe or take a look at an example copy here.

Book Review – A Hero Of Our Time, Lermontov – Seminal Russian Lit – 4 Stars

Copyright 2015, Dennis Mitton
Mikhail Lermontov – The Byronic anti-hero who changed literature?

My mother talked about seeing Elvis at the Lincoln bowl in Tacoma. She was young and so was Elvis and she screamed for an hour straight. I could never figure it out. In those days of black and white television Elvis would periodically come on and the  family would gather ’round to watch. Mom and Dad for the memories and Jennifer and I for the popcorn. Really? That fat, sweaty old man? Haven’t you seen The Beatles? The Stones? Or – a few years later – Alice Cooper? Elvis? What’s the big deal? Now I look at new music and everything that was radical or crazy is passe.  Miley Cyrus closes the MTV Awards by staring into the camera tugging her shirt and asking Hey! Doyawannaseemytits? And Johnny Rotten is singing folk on the BBC. What was new becomes old.

There is some of this in Russian Mikhail Lermontov’s A Hero Of Our Time. First published serially and then as a novel in 1840 the book was scandalous, rewrote the rules of fiction, and codified a Russian anti-hero – Pechorin – who has become a staple in Western literature until today. All this from a book that for modern readers will be a little bit less exciting. The work influenced Turgenev, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and was translated in 1958 by Nabokov. Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard says of his novel My Struggle that he could have only written it when he did.  Culture and sensibilities would make it another novel in another age. Hero has similar elements. It was published during the waning decades of European monarchism. Instead of the spit-shined badge of honor and loyalty Pechorin moves through life in a sarcastic dare. He never fawns over women but taunts them. The more he avoids them, and the more he insults them, the more they desire him. He is an international man. He despises the Russian commoner, speaks frequent French, accepts Orientals and Muslims as they are and is, in many ways, a prototypical American, a self-made man weaving through the forest in his own way based on his own ideas of success. And, by the way, screw off if you disagree!

Lermentov's final home in the Caucasus
Lermontov’s final home in the Caucasus

The novel is composed of several parts with as many narrators. I struggled through the first two parts but was rewarded when I got to Pechorin’s diaries where the story focuses on introspection rather than description.  The translation seems wonderful. I read just enough Russian to know that it doesn’t easily translate word for word but  in this translation the prose flows easily.

There is controversy about how much of the book is biographical.  Lermontov was an accomplished rake and spent time in the Caucasus in military exile. He eschewed normal soldiery and was at home with poetry and painting and literature.  Whether or not directly biographical it’s clear that he based much of Hero on his own experiences.

The older Lermentov.
The older Lermontov.

A Hero Of Our Time  isn’t a book for every reader. Even with this fine translation the story as a whole is choppy and without a coherent plot. Descriptions are Victorian and long-winded. Pechorin’s views of women are something less than flattering. But it’s an important and maybe essential book for understanding the history of Russian literature. If you read the Russian greats then Hero is an obvious read. Even more importantly for general readers,  Pechorin embodies the qualities of many of our most famous actors, musicians, writers, and characters in all of the modern arts. Can we draw a straight line to Miley Cyrus?

Three stars for readability plus an extra star for the importance of the book.

What classic or seminal books have you read that were a little less than exciting. Do you make it through or give up? Should you make it through? Is there a rule that you must finish an important book? Chime in below?

A Hero Of Our Time
A Hero Of Our Time

A Hero Of Our Time at Amazon here
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My Goodreads profile here.

Duty or privilege? Caring for your famiy? Knausgaard’s My Struggle Part 5

[I am reading the six volume tome My Struggle written by Norwegian Karl Knausgaard. Many lit types laud the work as a modern classic and just as many are thankful for the expensive toilet paper. I’m posting as I read, dividing the work into roughly hundred page chunks for easy digestion. Please note that I am reading the English language version titled My Struggle, Book 1, translated by Dan Bartlett and published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.]

Copyright 2015, Dennis Mitton
Dad and I. That’s a good lookin’ sport coat I’m wearing.

It’s been almost ten years since my Father died. He called on Saturday morning when I was looking at stamps on Ebay. He had gone to the emergency room the night before with the worst pain he had ever experienced. He was diagnosed with diverticulitis – an infection of invaginations in the colon – but during the exam and analysis the doctors found evidence of lymphoma. He was scheduled to see his physician on Monday and then meet an oncologist to make a plan about what and how to proceed.

He was dead in three years.

His initial bout with lymphoma was easily handled and he went smoothly and predictably into remission. He felt great but was warned that his particular kind of lymphoma can return and he will likely need maintenance chemo treatments from time to time. There was a warning, too, that this can bring with it a kind of lethal leukemia. It’s rare and is even more rare to see it before ten or fifteen years of lymphoma.

After a short few months of remission Dad felt a BB sized nodule deep in his left shoulder. He called his best friend about it – a physical therapist on teaching staff at USC in Los Angeles – who said that he probably just strained his shoulder. He was wrong and the enlarged nodules were the first sign that lymphoma had returned. Surprising the doctors,  the leukemia that was rarer than rare showed up and Dad was given a death sentence. We did everything we could. Weekly blood transfusions. Stem-cell replacement therapy. Chemo. Radiation. But the two cancers proved too strong. He flagged slowly at first – you had to stop to catch it – and then quickly until it was daily and then hourly. He spent his last day on a visibly downward slope until life just slipped out and left him empty.

I spent almost every day of his last two years with him. It never ever occurred to me that taking care of my Father was a duty. A kind of tit-for tat. I always considered it a great privilege. I hold nothing against friends or family who didn’t participate. Death and dying is a nasty business and most people avoid it and I hold no grudge against them.

Karl Ove outside his writing studio.
Karl Ove outside his writing studio.

Knausgaard is enigmatic about his father’s death. He spends a hundred pages to mull over the clean-up of his father’s alcoholism and dying with little introspection. He writes page after page of work, work, work, clean, clean, clean, shit, shit, shit. He knew little nor seemed to care much about the details. What was known was that his father spent the last few years of his life alone, distanced or separated or divorced from any relationships, living with his widowed mother. He apparently drank himself into a stupor each day and each night. To button up the estate and bury their father the Knausgaard brothers spend a week at their Grandmother’s home where they are shocked at the squalid mess. Karl Ove, with a fist defiantly raised against his Father’s selfishness, or at least to prove that the son in a better man than the father, decides to clean his Grandmother’s house from top to bottom. To make it shine. To take back what his father destroyed. They will have a funeral dinner here and invite the family. They will remark about how the elder Knausgaard ruined the place and how the youngest boy brought it back to life.

Yngve Knausgaard
Yngve Knausgaard

Both boys are happy that their father is dead but Karl Ove still cries. All the time. He cleans and cries. He views the body and cries. He goes to town to buy a lighter and smokes and he cries. But apart from Yngve he doesn’t seem to cherish any relationship. He is distant with or mostly avoids his Grandmother. Even his wife, whom he remembers to call only once, pleads with him not to shut her out of his feelings. He doesn’t seem to cry over relationships or loss and never – at least in the book – explores the reasons. In fact a common literary critique of My Struggle is that the writer spends no time explaining his raw feelings or activities. He just lays them out for the reader to like or not. Who cares?

The family’s lack of care for his Grandmother is truly disturbing. For all of Knausgaard’s crying, and brooding, and fanatical cleaning he never cares for his Grandmother’s obvious physical needs. He makes excuses to leave the room when she comes in because of the smell of old and fresh pee and the shit stains all over her clothes and furniture. She lives in a squalor that would and should embarrass most people yet Karl Ove, Yngve, and even her own son, Karl and Yngve’s Uncle, pass her over with a pinched nose but no effort. That the family was outraged over the publication of this sad story isn’t surprising. That they aren’t in jail for neglect is.

I haven’t a clue what my parents did to give me the relationship I had with my father. (I’ve written about my Father here). Somehow I grew up never wanting to disappoint him. I lived for a pat on the back. It was never hard to be around him but I looked forward to the opportunity. Still, though, I hold no deep sense of rightness that people are morally bound to care for their family. I’m not sure at all that blood and genes put an onus on me to fulfill a familial role. But we are all connected – sunflower, dragonfly, chimp, human – and it makes me think that every living thing is worthy of some modicum of honor and respect and care.

Go here to read parts 1-4 of my Knausgaard series.
Go here to see my review of Tolstoy’s Death of Ivan Ilyich – All Stories About Dying are Stories About How to Live

After a brief break while I read some good old Russian lit I will begin posting about Knausgaard’s Book 2 of My Struggle called A Man In Love. To recieve notices of future posts of all types please click on the Follow This Blog By Email at the top right. Thanks!

And if you love evolution – and who doesn’t! – please follow my blog My Selfish Gene.

The Knausgaardian Cult? Part 4 – Who says what good writing should be?

Copyright 2015, Dennis Mitton

knaus2For those interested it’s well-known that literary critics of Knausgaard’s My Struggle fall neatly into two camps with little rope between them. Some laud his six-volume work of autofiction as the first great novel of the new century. Others are irritated at the expense and roughness of this Norse toilet paper.  I’m not enough of a literary critic to measure Knausgaard against all other writers and the shoulds and musts of authorship. But I am happily in the camp with those simple dolts who love to read and love to read Knausgaard. The reviewer’s blurb from the back cover of Book 1 sums it up for me:

I can’t stop. I want to stop. I can’t stop, just one more page, then I will cook dinner, just one more page…

I won’t say that the prose is wonderful. I touch on that question in Part 3 of my series on the work. But the story and details are captivating and fascinating to me. It’s a kind of photographic negative to Hemingway. What Hemingway writes in a line Knausgaard writes in two hundred. There is room for both on my bookshelf.

For anyone who can’t get enough of Karl Ove you can keep track of most of what he’s up to at The Knausgaardian at Tumbler. They even have a Knausgaard bingo game. That might be enough even for me.

PLease, Karl. Can you start over and revise that?
PLease, Karl. Can you start over and revise that?

There are plenty of critics who find this all rather chaffing. Rough on the skin and their sensibilities. Becca Rothfeld, writing for Hyperallergic, is one of these critics. In her essay titled What The Cult of Knausgaard tells Us About Critical Bias she says that she struggled through the first hundred pages of Book 1, closed the covers and took a nice nap with no plans to ever crack the spine again. She dismissed Knausgaard as dull and self-indulgent and wonders about his readers who line up for this pap. The Knausgaardian Cult. She dismisses as well fellow critics who “worship at the altar of Knausgaard because there’s something [they feel] very enviable about his unshakable belief in his own value”. She’s right in part. Knausgaard admits that his novel wouldn’t work in another age. He needs an audience of inwardly aware and self-indulgent readers to follow along with his story. I enjoy it because I see myself in the Scandinavian. I think about things when I take the garbage out. I can be irritated that between a job, swim team, and scouring shelves for the right kefir I can find it hard to find time to write. Knausgaard writes the inner dialogue of Edward Norton from Fight Club. So be it. But I think Rothfeld trips with this statement:

How nice it would be to be afforded the luxury of narcissism — the luxury of writing about experiences that are taken, prima facie, to matter. And yet the privilege of writing about oneself — of passing one’s vanity off as profundity — is reserved almost exclusively for male authors. It’s been said before, but it bears repeating: the likes of Knausgaard and Henry Miller get to prance around with cigarettes dangling out of their mouths, looking tortured and feeling congratulatory, because they’re men, and male sentimentality is “honest” and “vulnerable,” never whiny and egotistical.

She continues:

If you don’t believe me, compare the reception of My Struggle with the reception of Lena Dunham’s controversial TV series Girls. Say what you will about Girls’ execution and artistic merits — perhaps there’s much to criticize — but, at the very least, Dunham has the courage and critical capacity to draw on her personal life in order to caricature and parody it: she uses autobiography as a means of self-critique.

Thanks for asking but I don’t believer her that men get an automatic pass. Her argument that Dunham should a priori command the same following and respect as Knausgaard or Miller only because she writes in the same genre is no argument.  She scoots past questions of why one writer achieves a level of popularity that another doesn’t.  I like Dunham but don’t find Not That Kind of Girl nearly as interesting as Knausgaard. I like that she lives her life openly with scant regard for rules and convention but she’s just not as appealing to me. Should I feel badly about that? No. Let he go sell her books and movies. More power to her. I wish her the best. She’s just doesn’t strike me as that interesting and lots of people  feel the same way.

Rothfeld’s conclusion tacitly summarizes why so many enjoy Knausgaard. She sets herself up as gatekeeper. The person who holds the key. The person in charge of the shoulds.

If a work of confessional art is to succeed, it needs to make itself engaging and instructive for a broader audience — to serve as a point of commonality rather than a point of divisive exhibitionism.

Knausgaard has written off the shoulds. He’s torn out the page about SEO and crafting content for your audience.  Knausgaard’s appeal is in not caring. Not caring about how taking out the garbage fits into a cultural existential gestalt. Not caring that he has to craft sentences like this or like that. Not caring that he must please critics to get a seat at the table.

And I like it. Thanks for asking.

See my series so far on My Struggle:

Part 1, A Hundred Pages In
Part 2, Using Fiction to Tell the Truth
Part 3, Those Long Sentences