April 24, 2015
I am writing on MobyLives about Jeffrey Eugenides writing in the New York Times Book Review about Karl Knausgaard writing about him in the New York Times Magazine
by Alex Shephard
“’The last time I was in New York,’ Karl Ove Knausgaard wrote recently in The New York Times Magazine, in his account of traveling through the United States, ‘a well-known American writer invited me for lunch. . . . I tried desperately to think of something to say. We had to have something in common, we were about the same age, did the same thing for a living, wrote novels, though his were of considerably higher quality than mine. But no, I couldn’t come up with a single topic of conversation. . . . When we got back to Sweden, I received an email from him. He apologized for having invited me to lunch, he had realized he never should have done it and asked me not to reply to his email. At first I didn’t understand what he meant. . . . Then I realized he must have taken my silence personally. He must have thought I didn’t find it worth my time talking to him.’ Knausgaard doesn’t reveal the identity of the American writer he had lunch with. But I will: It was me. I may be the first reviewer of Knausgaard’s autobiographical works who has appeared in one of them. Therefore, I’m in a perfect position to judge how he uses the stuff of his life to fashion his stories. Ever since Knausgaard turned me into a minor character, I have an inside track on what he’s doing,” Jeffrey Eugenides wrote recently in The New York Times Book Review, in his review of Knausgaard’s forthcoming My Struggle: Volume 4.
Now I am writing about it for MobyLives!
Anyway, there was some speculation about which author Knausgaard, a weathered satchel, made uncomfortable, and now we know it was Jeffrey Eugenides, a vest with a pirate goatee.
I, like many, hoped it was Jonathan Franzen, an NPR pledge drive tote bag, but I’ll settle for this.
Here’s what Eugenides had to say about the encounter:
There is nothing factually incorrect about Knausgaard’s account. But, on reading it, I saw what he was doing. Knausgaard wanted to draw a distinction between Scandinavians and Americans when it comes to small talk. In fact, the reason we couldn’t talk to each other had less to do with cultural differences than with the fact that we are both nervous people with self-esteem problems who were uncomfortable in each other’s presence. That didn’t fit into Knausgaard’s argument at that point in the article, however; and so, like any professional writer, he used the part of the story that served his need.
Presumably, Knausgaard would declare Eugenides’s willingness to further humiliate himself—the nervous, low self-esteem, uncomfortable bit—in an attempt to own the narrative as being particularly American, but I’d have to check with my therapist first.
If nothing else, Eugenides’s review gives us a glimpse of the future. Knausgaard will write about Eugenides in My Struggle: Volume 317 and then the New York Times Book Review will write about that, ensuring a beautiful, infinite, meta-loop that will continue until our fallen planet is engulfed by the Sun in 7.5 billion years.*
*I am assuming that Knausgaard is immortal and that each volume of My Struggle is a horcrux—or at least that he is unkillable until Jonathan Safran Foer is able to destroy the books, pieces of Knausgaard’s withered soul.
Alex Shephard is the director of digital media for Melville House, and a former bookseller.