knausgaardIn his talk with Karl Ove Knaus­gaard at a Guardian Live Book event ear­li­er this year, inter­view­er John Mul­lan elab­o­rates on «the impor­tance of cir­cum­stan­tial detail» in lit­er­a­ture – not just in Knausgaard’s auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal series of nov­els, but ever since the incep­tion of the British nov­el in the 18th cen­tu­ry. To con­jure up and cre­ate pres­ence Knaus­gaard resorts to details. James Wood, in How Fic­tion Works, comes to sim­i­lar con­clu­sions when he analy­ses Flaubert’s real­is­tic method – or rather: his arti­fi­cial real­ism. «Life is amor­phous­ly full of detail», he argues, «where­as lit­er­a­ture teach­es us to notice.» In oth­er words: «Lit­er­a­ture makes us bet­ter noticers of life; […] which in turn makes us bet­ter read­ers of detail in lit­er­a­ture; which in turn makes us bet­ter read­ers of life.»

The key to remem­ber­ing, for Knaus­gaard, is to describe the phys­i­cal world, and by writ­ing about and focus­ing on the past he finds access to a world that seemed for­got­ten or lost. This seems to work for his read­ers as well, or they wouldn’t find his nov­els addic­tive. How­ev­er, the ques­tion is: Are there too many – irrel­e­vant or dys­func­tion­al – details? Wood might answer yes, as for him «the arti­fice lies in the selec­tion of detail.» Or is Knausgaard’s just anoth­er (extrem­ist or exces­sive) form of con­ven­tion­al real­ism? Can such an abun­dance of detail achieve what Hem­ing­way – at the oth­er end of the spec­trum – tried to bring off by «search­ing for the unno­ticed things that made emo­tions», pur­pose­ful­ly leav­ing out «the under­wa­ter part of the ice­berg», as he apt­ly put it in his Paris Review inter­view 60 years ago?

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