Dear Karl Ove,
I’m sorry it took me so long to get back to you, but as curious as I’ve been about your work, I had to overcome my suspicion and jealousy resulting from the onslaught of critical praise and (though I wish I could ignore such things) rock-star photographs of your L’Oreal hair and heavy smoking habit. In any case, with the understanding that the third volume of My Struggle (Boyhood Island) was recently published in the U.S., I just finally finished the first one (A Death in the Family). I have to admit, I was impressed by the opening section. Your meditation on the decay of a human body and the ensuing memory of the narrator (also “Karl Ove”) as a young, sensitive boy, who in the course of watching a news report sees a mysterious face emerge above a choppy sea, were mesmerizing. When, in the next scene, your father mockingly asks if you had seen Jesus, before telling you to forget about it, his aloof disregard of your excitement seems monstrous; in just a few pages, you had established the conflict of a lifetime, and I looked forward to being immersed in its slow resolution.
Granted, the next few hundred pages were not quite as exciting as you meandered between episodes of teen partying, heterosexual groping, and playing in bad cover bands, but the strategy is understandable: A 450-page book cannot always be on fire. Thankfully, you returned to form when, as an adult character, you took us to your grandmother’s house, where your father, having divorced and fallen on hard times, had been living in squalor before dying of a heart attack. Your unresolved anger toward him, along with your growing ambivalence for your older brother — whom you once revered — and your grandmother, an alcoholic who wavers in and out of sanity, was rendered with insight and, at moments, harrowing detail.
Karl Ove, in the spirit of honesty, I must tell you that, despite my genuine admiration for the above, I also had some real problems with this book that I would like to address with you now, with the hope that you (or perhaps one of the many reviewers who failed to bring this same concern to light) can respond to me. To put my objections in plain terms, your book made you seem like a bigoted, macho asshole — someone who on one hand purports to revere an entire roster of great homosexual artists and writers of the past century (but without ever mentioning their homosexuality), while on the other castigates homosexuality in a winking, assumed manner that has long been the bane of the worst kind of Hollywood movies. No surprise (since homophobia and misogyny are so often conjoined): Your understanding of gender seems equally rigid, and made me wonder if you are aware that not everyone falls into the same Tarzan/Jane dichotomy with which you view the world, and are all that much happier as a result.
Let’s take a look at a few of the offending passages I marked in the course of reading your book.
• “I could control myself. She had a nice body, but there was something boyish about her humor and manner that seemed to cancel out her breasts and hips.”
• “Nor could I ask [my friend] to open the bottle for me, that was too homo.”
• “I could open bottles with my teeth, perhaps it wouldn’t seem so homo.”
• “We never hugged. We weren’t the sort of guys who would hug.”
• “What was more important was that the embroidered blouse and the Sami shoes were not [my father]. And that he had slipped into this, entered this formless, uncertain, almost feminine world.”
• “He twisted his neck and patted some hair into place. He had always had that mannerism, but there was something about his shirt and those trousers, which were so profoundly alien to him, that suddenly made it seem effeminate.”
• “[Going to an adult video store] was incompatible with everything a normal life entailed, and most of those who went there were normal men…[but] I had no idea, this was foreign territory for me…”
•Even though the suitcase was heavy I carried it by the handle as I walked into the departure hall. I detested the tiny wheels, first of all because they were feminine, thus not worthy of a man, a man should carry, not roll. [Something I can’t find about the fear of sleeping in the same bed as your brother — as if you might wake up and find yourself fucking him — but at least having a separate duvet; this fear is similar to what we call “gay panic” in the United States, which still crops up now and again as a murder defense. “Your honor, that faggot winked at me and I had to kill him!”]
What’s remarkable about these passages, Karl Ove, is not that you hold such views (which, of course, are depressingly common), but that you seem to assume — since you show no contrition in relaying them — that your readers will understand and even condone them; that we will relate to you because we, too, want to live in a world of men who don’t kiss/hug/fuck other men and where all of the women have big breasts, wide hips, and live in “light, perfumed rooms” with “flowery wallpaper” and an “embroidered bedspread.” Let me be the first to say that I do not live in this world, nor would I ever want to; moreover, I find it seriously upsetting and demoralizing (though not exactly surprising) that someone like you, who does, has been the toast of the literary establishment.
Karl Ove, I was discussing my reservations about you with a former friend of mine, a non-homosexual (and BIG fan of yours), who said that I was being “too sensitive,” given that some of these scenes — notably the ridiculous bottle-opening one (which for the record I have done myself, even though I regularly enjoy homosexual relations) — occurred when you were an ignorant teenager. My response to this kind of argument is that you didn’t write the book as a teenager, and — as far as I can tell — you made no attempt to disavow or explain or even layer any of your language as an adult. You didn’t, for example, say, “Nor could I ask [my friend] to open the bottle for me, that was too homo, which in my uneducated state was the worst thing you could be.” Nor did my ex-friend have any response to my point about how many of the other passages reflected the thinking of the “adult” Karl Ove, as opposed to the adolescent one. This same ex-friend also told me that before I could criticize you, I “needed” to read Volume II — A Man in Love — because apparently there’s a scene where you express remorse about your inability to kick down the door behind which your pregnant wife is trapped (meaning you’re not as “manly” as you once thought) and your regrets about the “feminizing” aspects of child-rearing (similar to the suitcase/wheels problem, I guess). Also because you get a foot massage from another (male) writer or something. I don’t know, Karl Ove, I don’t really see how any of this bolsters your case; to the contrary, it seems to reinforce archaic views about the “traditional” roles of men and women, all of which were pretty happily discarded circa 1972 with the release of Free To Be You and Me (which, btw, I highly recommend for you.) Granted, we may have taken a few steps back since that golden era of first-wave feminism and sexual liberation (there was the whole AIDS thing too), but literature — unless you see yourself as the next Ayn Rand — should tear down the walls that constrain us, not reinforce them. (At least as I see it.) Like every non-heterosexual, I take enough abuse as it is, Karl Ove: I don’t need to suffer through 600 more pages of you whispering your kneejerk, hateful, conservative bullshit into my thoughts to offer my opinion.
If your book were just marked by homophobia, I wouldn’t really care; I mean, there are ten thousand similar books and movies and television commercials and news reports to get angry about every day. What’s most offensive — and frankly, disturbing — is the juxtaposition of your anti-homo remarks with the name-droppy admiration of homosexual artists. You tell us you “imbibed” Proust; you discuss Genet, Visconti, Rimbaud, Foucault, Frankie Goes To Hollywood (lol), but without ever discussing the fact that any of these artists were gay, or how their homosexuality influenced you. Karl Ove, you cannot seriously expect a homosexual like me (and you may be surprised to know that there are literally millions of us around the world!) to read so much unacknowledged name-dropping of my people without taking offense, can you? What you are doing is effectively appropriating — even annexing — a tradition to which you do not belong, for your own mercenary purposes. By all means, talk about Proust and all, but don’t completely ignore the fact that they’re gay; it makes you look stupid or possibly worse, given your fear of “homos.” Do you see the hypocrisy in what you’ve done here? It’s really no different than if you had written (after lauding the work of, say, Ralph Ellison and Zora Neale Hurston), “I don’t like hip hop, because it’s darky music.”
Karl Ove, there is a regrettable record of homophobia in the modern literary era: You can either recognize in yourself and then espouse these increasingly archaic (if entrenched) views or reject them; at the moment, I have no reason to believe that you would choose the latter, more honorable (and literary, in the best sense) route. Instead, you seem to have taken a position more akin to another European sensation, Milan Kundera, who just a few years ago in a collection of essays called The Curtain went on record, while discussing Proust, as a fellow homo-hater: “I myself lost the privilege of that lovely ignorance,” he wrote, “when I heard it said that Albertine was inspired by a man, a man Proust was in love with. But what are they talking about! …. [O]nce I’d been told that her model was a man that useless information was lodged in my head…. A male had slipped between me and Albertine, he was scrambling her image, undermining her femininity. One minute I would see her with pretty breasts, the next with a flat chest, and every now and then a mustache would appear on the delicate skin of her face.” He concludes: “They killed my Albertine,” without specifying who “they” are. (Although I am happy to be included among their ranks.) Milan Kundera could not be more wrong about Proust, Karl Ove, and given your failure to acknowledge Proust’s homosexuality — in spirit or style — you are walking in Kundera’s ignorant shadow. You can’t have it both ways: either embrace the enlightened world or reject it.
On the subject of Proust, there are some other things I’d like to say, given that his work — at least on the surface — seems to provide a template for yours, which is something many shallow-minded reviewers have picked up on in the course of relentlessly comparing you to the French master. True enough, like Proust, you have written hundreds of thousands of words that include many autobiographical memories — with the ocean scene clearly designed to function as a kind of madeleine (although it lacks the “involuntaire” quality of Proust’s most famous memoire) — and some lengthy philosophical digressions that probably fall safely under the “Proustian” umbrella. Like him, you have even reordered the events of your life in manner to make them seem almost fated, as if they were meant to happen, meaning that you — and we, your readers — can (in theory) achieve some insight and understanding about our lives from the artistic examination of yours.
But Proust represents much more than a torrent of memory; though you completely fail to mention this, he was foremost a homosexual novelist (itals mine, because “pride”) who helped to establish what must be understood as a homosexual tradition, in much the same way that, say, Toni Morrison is regarded as an African-American writer (and is all the more important to the tapestry of great literature for this reason; I’m sorry if this sounds like “Diversity and Literature 101,” but it’s time you knew that gays were recognized in this class). For Proust, his attraction to men helped to define an aesthetic viewpoint or “style” that infuses his work; true, he spends much time discussing homosexuality in the most vile terms, but this a Proustian trick. Because of the culture in which he lived — possibly even more homophobic than ours, at least outside of the literary establishment — he chose to express an overwrought, exaggerated, and, at times, almost campy abhorrence for homosexuality as a means to discuss it (relatively) openly, which — along with the transformation of (some of) his memories into a work of art — is the great theme of his work. Think of his obvious admiration for the brilliant but tragic masochist Baron de Charlus, or the short section on closeted men in Sodom and Gomorrah, which remains one of the most exhilarating pieces of gay writing ever put to the page; even a century later, it’s a more accurate description of the truth of our society — and the underlying despair felt by so many non-heterosexuals — than the news photographs of the happy gay couples getting married at the courthouse. (Not that I have anything against marriage equality: I myself am married to a man.)
This question of Proustian/homosexual style is not a small one in relation to your book, Karl Ove, given that you are not shy about expressing some interesting opinions on that very subject, which, at least as I see it, do not square with your interest in Proust. You state, “writers with a strong style often write bad books.” While you don’t specify exactly where you view Proust on this spectrum, I think 99 percent of the reading public would agree — whether or not they enjoy his work — that Proust had a very strong style; in fact, we might even go further and say that he had a very “gay” style; his prose — like so many great gay writers (and artists) who have followed in his wake — is expansive, oneiric, and ornate as he expounds on thoughts and feelings in a language as complex, nuanced, and frankly beautiful as the ideas he conveys, with sentences sometimes lasting for pages, broken up only by commas and dashes. (Unlike Stephen King, Marcel Proust is not afraid of “unmanly” adverbs.) The outlandish beauty of his prose must be considered a facet or element of his homosexuality; like so many who are scorned by conventional society, he retreated into his own world, where his God was Art.
By the same token, you seem to imply that your book is “good” because it lacks style. I mean, you didn’t say, “writers with a strong style often write bad books, as you can see here.” The problem here, Karl Ove, is that your logic is once again specious; like every writer, you have a style, it’s just that yours, except for the few scenes such as the ones noted above, is one marked by perfunctory observation — “She had fantastic eyes [period]” — clichés like “fat as a barrel,” (twice!) “lay of the land,” “eggs in one basket,” “I got into hot water,” “head over heels,” “the drop of a hat,” and so on, interrupted here and there with a long-winded, convoluted lecture, such as when you explain why all of the paintings you like were made before the 1900s, “within the artistic paradigm that always retained some reference to visible reality.” (I realize I’m criticizing a translation, but my understanding is that the effect is similar in Norwegian.)
My point is that you have a style, Karl Ove, which — unlike that of Proust, for example — is ill-suited for many of the topics you describe. Life is often complicated, which is why it requires complicated language to dissect it, whereas great art may or may not be simple, but good criticism never relies on pretentious Orwellian/corporate doublespeak like “artistic paradigm.” I often wished that your approach could be “inverted” (to use a very loaded Proustian term); for example, I would have been much more pleased if you had told me that a particular painting was fantastic and that your wife’s eyes had established a new artistic paradigm. Where your actually-quite-strong but cliché-ridden style really inhibits you is in the arena of love. “For Hanne,” you write about a high school crush, “I was a nobody and would remain so. For me, she was everything…. I wanted to see her all the time, be with her all the time, to be invited to her house, to meet her parents, go out with her friends, go on holiday with her, take her home…. “ Then a subsequent conversation with your mother about this same girl: “I’m in love,” you say, before unleashing yet another cliché, “Hook, line, and sinker.”
I hate to be so critical about a topic as sensitive as teen love, but it’s arrogant to think that such a banal description offers any insight to your readers; as a result, I kept wondering if you were trying to dupe us into thinking that you have suffered when you have not. Nor does it help when later in the book you offhandedly mention your adolescent resemblance to the Swedish actor Björn Johan Andrésen, aka “the most beautiful boy in the world” after he was cast by Luchino Visconti as Tadzio in Death in Venice (a visual masterpiece of unrequited and forbidden homosexual love, and an almost-perfect adaptation of the book about the same topic by the great German non-heterosexual Thomas Mann). Karl Ove, I hope you understand me when I say that straight, white boys who look like teen idols generally must make a more nuanced case for unrequited love than you have done here. Nor did your descriptions of love in this book make me want to jump into 600 pages of A Man in Love; there are limits to my masochism.) I would rather think about Proust’s (or, really, his narrator’s) adolescent infatuation with Gilberte Swann — the prelude for his even greater infatuation with Albertine — and how thrilling it was for both him and his readers when he first glimpses her behind the flowering hawthorns, and how he subsequently pursues her, all rendered in exquisite, operatic detail, because she is essentially someone he views, at least initially, as unobtainable.
I was informed by my ex-friend that you, in interviews, have described yourself as the “anti-Proust,” which perhaps would make some of my objections meaningless, except for the fact that you make no such claim in the book itself. You didn’t say, for example, “I imbibed Proust and then decided to disgorge six volumes of tedious, banal, cliché-ridden un-Proustian prose, effectively making me the anti-Proust.” Instead, you name-dropped about ten other gays and then slyly referenced your fear of homos. You have given me a new dream, Karl Ove, and it is to be the anti-Knausgaard, someone capable of discussing the artists I love without stripping them of what made their art (and their lives) compelling.
You are younger than Milan Kundera, Karl Ove, which is why I still have hope for you, and why I want to assure you that there’s another way. Granted, you can’t rewrite what you’ve already published, but perhaps you can make amends going forward; you can issue an apology or offer to make amends or reparations. You are now a rich man: There are plenty of nonprofits devoted to helping gay and transgendered teens to whom you could donate a small percentage of your profits. These are kids who genuinely struggle, but — if they don’t literally get killed — are often resilient. Next time you’re in New York City, we can take a walk along the Christopher Street piers, where I can introduce you to this world, which is so different than the one described in your book. At the very least, you can write for a future that recognizes humanity instead of belittling it.
I recently finished a novel that wasn’t nearly as popular as yours, but it filled me with hope. It’s called The Autobiography of Daniel J. Isengart and was written — in the manner of Gertrude Stein’s similarly titled novel about Alice B. Toklas — by an artist named Filip Noterdaeme, a New Yorker, by way of Belgium. Like you, Noterdaeme offers many memories of his life, in his case describing New York City during the 1990s and 2000s, where he and Isengart lived and worked. Isengart is a cabaret performer, equally comfortable singing in the guise of Marlene Dietrich as Elvis Presley (he creates a show called “The Importance of Being Elvis,” a reference to the Oscar Wilde play, in case that wasn’t clear). Both Isengart and Noterdaeme are obsessed with acknowledging the history of art in their own work, albeit in what is often a surreal or absurd manner. (Noterdaeme makes paintings called “Egg on Schiele” and “Francis Bacon with Extra Bacon.”)
Noterdaeme, who is a denizen (and critic) of the art world, where he works for many years in gift shops and giving tours, becomes disillusioned by the corporate expansion of New York City museums in the 1990s and eventually starts his own — The Homeless Museum of Art (or HOMU) — which he and Isengart set up in their apartment. Like so many museums, theirs possesses a complex bureaucracy, complete with a Staff and Security Department (housed in their bedroom), a Membership Department (with forms stored in the freezer, instructing members to pay their fees to the homeless), and so on. He also writes “open letters” to his fellow artists and museum directors, much in the way I am now writing to you.
Like you, Noterdaeme sometimes employs lists, except he always delivers his with at least a few words of context. “[T]he homeless,” he writes, when considering the concept for his museum, “were more dramatic than Hannah Wilke, more Zen than John Cage, more happenstance than Alan Kaprow, more cunning than Andy Warhol, more vulgar than Jeff Koons, more abstract than Ad Reinhardt, more thrifty than Joseph Cornell, more repetitive than Daniel Buren, more preachy than Barbara Kruger, more obsessive than Louise Borgeois, more angry than Penny Arcade, more foul than Paul McCarthy, more banal than Julien Schnabel, more rigid than Martha Graham, and more manipulative than Lars von Trier.”
Perhaps you can see how much more effective this list is than your many eye-rolling lists of bands and books: “I had been listening to bands like The Clash, The Police, The Specials, Teardrop Explodes, The Cure, Joy Division, New Order, Echo & the Bunnymen, The Chameleons, Simple Minds, Ultravox, The Aller Værste, Talking Heads, The B52s, PiL, David Bowie, The Psychedelic Furs, Iggy Pop, and the Velvet Underground.” Or how as a student you read, “Adorno… some pages of Benjamin… Blanchot for a few days… a look at Derrida and Foucault… a go at Kristeva, Lacan, Deleuze, while poems by [wtf, ELEVEN poets] floated around,” or the books in your office: “Paracelsus, Basileios, Lucretius, Thomas Browne, Olof Rudbeck, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Albertus Seba, Werner Heisenberg, Raymond Russell, and the Bible, of course, and works about national romanticism and about curiosity cabinets, Altantis, Albrecht Durer and Max Ernst, the Baroque and Gothic periods, nuclear physics and weapons of mass destruction, about forests and science in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.”
As readers, we might not be on intimate terms with every one of the artists mentioned by Filip Noterdaeme, but even if we’re not, we appreciate his wit; he is not just offering names. Thus he remains on solid footing whether discussing his hero, Marcel Broodthaers, or his “careerist” enemy, Marina Abramovic. (“The Museum of Modern Art could be renamed the Museum of Marina Abramovic” he says at one point, after his friend Penny Arcade notes that Abramovic’s most famous show, in which she sat across from people and stared at them, should have been titled “The Artist Is There” instead of the “The Artist Is Here.”)
The book isn’t all laughs: like you, Filip Noterdaeme recognizes the importance of being the historian of his own life (to borrow a phrase from the great homo writer J.R. Ackerley); he just renders his memories in a more enlightened manner. He seeks out the strange and the unconventional, which is so often the basis for great art, because it challenges us to see things in a new way. He celebrates individuality instead of constraining it.
Noterdaeme knows that his fight is a difficult one, and we sense that he’s probably doomed to exist on the fringes of the world (at least as it exists now), but as readers, we appreciate his fight. Near the end of the book, Noterdaeme and Isengart take jobs guiding German tourists from their hotel to MoMA. “When I saw Filip Noterdaeme, the director of the Homeless Museum of Art, an as yet insufficiently known institution of which he is the founder, stand outside in the cold for two hours in a cheap rented tuxedo and holding up a signpost pointing towards the Museum of Modern Art, I must confess I began to cry.” (Remember, this is Noterdaeme writing in the first person as Isengart.)
Here is another “struggle,” one defined by a man’s search for artistic identity. “I have not… survived in New York for 20 years to become a human signpost,” he says late in the book before resolving to keep his museum open, regardless of its popularity, and soon after finds himself talking to hundreds of New Yorkers (or tourists) who make their way past his booth at the High Line, engaging these passersby in a way that feels important for the future of art, as he breaks down the walls of the traditional, corporate museum. “In short,” Noterdaeme writes about himself, “he learned the art of losing himself without getting lost.”
It’s an art of honest engagement with yourself and others that you, Karl Ove, would do well to emulate.