Rumpus Exclusive: “Crumbs of Life”


June 2, 2019

Dear Knausgaard,

Again, it’s cold! June, and everything still feels brittle. Damp. At least my friend Julie is here. She arrived yesterday, and is working in the bedroom upstairs right now. I can occasionally hear her up there humming little snippets and walking around in her clogs. Maybe she’s pacing as she thinks. She’s a composer. She’s writing the music for an opera for which I’ve written the libretto. My job is to be a kind of sounding board and make any changes to the text she might need as she goes along. But most of the time I don’t have a lot to do.

Of course I brought up a bunch of books to read, but once I got here none of them seemed very appealing, so last night Julie lent me her copy of Christa Wolf’s The Quest for Christa T., which I started before going to bed. There’s an interesting line in the second chapter that made me think of you. Christa T. has recently died and the narrator, her friend, has wound up in possession of her childhood diary. On the cover of this diary, Christa T. wrote a long time ago, “I would like to write poems and I like stories too.” The narrator ponders this phrase:

Write poems, ‘dichten,’ condensare, make dense, tighten; language helps. What did she want to make tight, and against what did it have to be resistant?

I understand this impulse to tighten and make resistant. It’s a common inclination. Writers everywhere seek to do exactly this in order to convey the essence of things, and it’s a much–admired quality when done well. But you seek to do just the opposite. Instead of tightening, you loosen. Instead of reducing, you expand, open things up. “Open,” in fact, is a favorite word of yours—an almost sacred touchstone. But what exactly do you mean by “open,” I’ve often wondered? Something that isn’t closed, I suppose. That’s clear enough. But what does that mean? Something like a mouth, perhaps, or an eye? Or something full of pores, like our skin? In other words, something that lacks a definitive inside and a clear-cut outside, something permeable? Or do you mean something more straightforward, like a door swinging on its hinges?

Come on! Into the open, my friend,” Hölderlin urges you in Book 2, and your goal in My Struggle is to heed this advice, to follow the scent of openness, like a psycho bloodhound, wherever you run across it. In the passage immediately preceding this quote, you catch a whiff of it in Italo Calvino’s The Baron in the Trees and in Carl-Henning Wijkmark’s The Draisine, both of which, you explain, you read while visiting your in-laws at their house, deep in the woods. You read these books while lying in a bed where the stars were “visible through the window above, surrounded by darkness and silence.” You also read Thomas Bernhard’s Extinction in this bed, but say that the experience did not provide the same “fantastic” feeling. In fact, everything in Bernhard’s novel felt to you “closed off in small chambers of reflection,” which, you explain, repelled you because you wanted “to be as far from that which was closed and mandatory as it was possible to be… But how, how?” And just then, in the very next paragraph—how relieved I was to see it!—you provide the answer:

I sat down on the chair by the window. A pot of meat broth was steaming in the middle of the table. A basket of fresh homemade rolls beside it, along with a bottle of mineral water and three cans of folköl, Swedish low-alcohol beer. Linda put Vanja in the baby seat at the end of the table, sliced a roll in half, gave it to her, and then went to warm up a jar of baby food in the microwave. Linda’s mother took over and Linda sat down next to me…

Your answer, in other words, is your calling card, your fetish, your claim to fame—almost every reviewer has remarked upon it—your bizarrely plodding yet compelling attention to detail. Or no, not just detail. What you point to involves detail but is not limited to it; it’s more like attention—to everything, all the little crumbs of life, remarkable or unremarkable as they may be. It hardly matters which, because openness, freedom, the experience of breaking though the constriction of all that is “closed and mandatory,” is to be found only in immediate sensory experience and its unpredictable, ever-present shadow: emotion. Yes, only by paying attention to your own actual concrete physical encounters with that aspect (and only that aspect) of the world immediately surrounding you can you outwit your own contextualizing, conceptualizing mind and be, as you like to put it, an idiot. Any popular Buddhist text will reference this same idea: the pulse of life, the true vitality of life, the feeling of life unfurling constantly, though at its own slow, dark pace, is located in our actual—and only in our actual—interactions with the world and only precisely now. It hides everywhere, in boredom as much as in ecstasy, but it is perhaps easiest to recognize in the kinds of details we used to absorb as young children, before our minds became overgrown with abstract knowledge.

If I squint a little, I can see it, for instance, in the wood of the table on which my laptop rests as I type these words: a medium brown oak (I’m pretty sure it’s oak) with hairlike striations of grayer and blonder browns running through it, all overlaid with blackish nicks and scars that have built up over perhaps a century of use. These look in some places like manic bird scratchings and in others like thin crescent moons. On this table there’s a little bowl of salt and I can see it there, too, in the tiny grains that are curiously unluminous, like dry, very fine granular snow. I’m pretty good with detail but not as good as you, so I’ll embarrass myself no further. I’m just saying that I recognize, in part because of your many reminders, that it’s here—all around me and also inside me. It is, perhaps especially, where what’s around me and what’s inside me intersect, which is unpinpointable because I am in fact open, or at least porous. I can feel this porousness in my right foot, which I’ve had crossed over my left leg for so long it feels almost drunk, woozy after its extended conversation with gravity. I can also feel it in the burn on my left forefinger—a tough, linear, white blister about an inch long—which I got earlier today while feeding a log to the stove and stupidly pulling the lid shut with my bare hand instead of using a rag. I can feel it in my sinuses as well, which are swollen (I have a cold), and in my nose with every breath, especially my right nostril, which is clearer than the left and which feels a little raw as I draw the air—which I cannot see, but which I trust implicitly—into my lungs before releasing it once more into the world.

As always,
Kim Adrian


Rumpus original art by Dmitry Samarov.


Excerpted from Dear Knausgaard by Kim Adrian. Copyright © 2020 by Kim Adrian. Reprinted by permission, courtesy of Fiction Advocate.

Kim Adrian is the author of the memoir The Twenty-Seventh Letter of the Alphabet. Her first book, Sock, is part of Bloomsbury’s Object Lessons series. She edited The Shell Game: Writers Play with Borrowed Forms, an anthology praised by The Millions for “offering a sense of hope about literature and its capacity for evolution and change.” More from this author →