Since the appearance of the first volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s autobiographical narrative My Struggle, the subject of authenticity in literary enterprise has once again lurched out of its crypt to spook us to attention. This critical discussion—which bears on Maylis de Kerangal’s new novel The Heart—dates to Plato and Aristotle’s opinions on the stories we should tell and how we should tell them and involves matters of vitality and utility. What are the essential qualities of literary art, and what means should be brought to bear to achieve them? In the case of Knausgaard, to distill down a lot of gassy talk, the idea has been that his six-volume, 3,600-page account succeeds because of a method of radical inclusiveness that ratifies the truthfulness of his undertaking.
Knausgaard takes as his project to write with the same tirelessness about everything, from child care to marital monogamy to forgotten bowls of corn flakes to remembered shits in the woods to unforgettable vomits in toilets to a range of inglorious sexual experiences—all the ejecta of the premodernist novel, stuff once thought so commonplace there’d be no point in including it. “In a novel, or a biography,” Ford Madox Ford’s narrator is given to say, in The Good Soldier (1915), “you take it for granted that the characters have their meals with some regularity.” Contemporary novels now teem with characters having their meals, so to say, and Knausgaard’s newness has much to do with his focus on ejecta to the exclusion of more typical narrative concerns.
“The only way I could trick myself into writing,” Knausgaard said, in an exchange with James Wood, “was by…setting myself the premise that I would write very quickly and not edit, that everything should be in it. Without that, I wouldn’t have been able to do it.”1 Knausgaard’s ability to “do it,” to compose some 1.2 million publishable words in three years, was a result of his decision to write prose he didn’t edit, prose he doesn’t like:
The whole time I was writing these six books I felt, This is not good writing. What’s good, I think, is the opening five pages of Book One, the reflection on death. When we were publishing that first book, my editor asked me to remove those pages because they are so different from the rest, and he was right—he is right—it would have been better, but I needed one place in the book where the writing was good. I spent weeks and weeks on that passage, and I think it’s modernist, high-quality prose. The rest of the book is not to my standard. [Laughter from audience.] I’m not saying this as a joke. This is true.
Knausgaard didn’t merely include “not good writing”: he all but excluded what he deems “high-quality prose,” a deficit he believes enabled the book’s virtues. This boast of purposeful mediocrity is made not merely by Knausgaard but also by his admirers. His readers consistently acknowledge how the not-goodness of the writing—the tendency toward cliché, flatness, childishness, sloppiness: artlessness tout court—serves the larger project. As Ben Lerner wrote in the London Review of Books:
Most critics attempt to demonstrate a novelist’s perceptiveness by providing examples of his eye for the significant detail. But part of what makes Knausgaard’s writing unusual is that he seems barely to adjudicate significance; he’s like a child who has taken Henry James’s injunction to novelists—“be one of the people on whom nothing is lost”—literally; he appears to just write down everything he can recall (and he appears to recall everything). It’s easy to marshal examples of what makes My Struggle mediocre. The problem is: it’s amazing.2
If style isn’t the engine that drives My Struggle, and if the candor of content isn’t radical, we’re left with the problem of pinpointing the decisive properties of the narrative’s form. As yet, an adequate accounting is impossible in English: we await the translation of the project’s final two parts. Even so, Knausgaard offers preliminary direction:
Before I wrote My Struggle, I had a feeling that novels tend to obscure the world instead of showing it, because their form is so much alike from novel to novel. It’s the same with films, with their attention to narrative structure. Most films, anyway. One thing I did while I was at work on the project was to watch the film Shoah, about the Holocaust. In the end, after you’ve seen these nine and a half hours, there is no form. Or it’s a kind of extreme form, which brings it closer to a real experience…. The traditional form of the novel wasn’t eloquent. I didn’t believe in it.
It’s easy to dismiss these remarks for obvious shortcomings, chiefly the suggestion of such a thing as “the traditional form of the novel.” Quite the contrary: the novel’s tradition is of formal change—the variety of ways that a novel can be utterly unlike another novel and yet be fully within the tradition. But Knausgaard is not speaking historically, I don’t think, so much as practically. How, Knausgaard seems to be asking, might one avoid writing a particular kind of bad novel: one that is formally haunted? How does one, instead, write a novel in which the necessary formal and aesthetic choices don’t extinguish the spark of lived life that ignites the urge to write it in the first place—the desire to produce something “closer to a real experience” than to a derivative aesthetic one?
Maylis de Kerangal’s The Heart—her eleventh book, fifth novel, and the first to be published in the United States—seems intent upon bringing the reader close to “real experience.” The experience in question is a heart transplant, the novel charting the migration from one character to another of an organ that the former can no longer use and the latter desperately needs. Much of the drama of the novel, which takes place within the bounds of a single day, consists of the detailed accounting that de Kerangal gives of the procedural and technical minutiae of organ transplantation, a chain of competence and consequence. Each of the novel’s short chapters is given over to a different character with governance over each next step in the process, the book handed, like the heart at its center, from the ICU director to the transplant nurse to the transplant surgeon to the heart surgeon himself who, at last, will convert the fraught variety of these maneuvers into a singular, durable act. The novel’s structure is therefore both chronological and characterological, a set of portraits, bounded in time, of the particular individuals who undertake intense, and very different, responsibilities.
The heart’s first owner is a healthy twenty-year-old named Simon Limbres. We meet him one frigid morning before dawn as he joins two friends to surf in 40-degree waters off the Normandy coast. “Everything around him is in flux: whole sections of sea and sky appear and disappear with each eddy of the slow, heavy, wood-like surface, like cool lava.” As Simon bobs in this elemental vastness, scanning the shifting surface for his first ride, the risk posed by the ocean looms:
His heart is beginning to slow down, in response to the cold, when suddenly he sees it, coming toward him, solid and homogenous, the wave,…and instinctively he positions himself to find a way in, to slip inside like a thief entering a safe to steal its treasure…to slip in through the back, into that twist of matter where the inside turns out to be even huger and deeper than the outside.
“That twist of matter”—“cette torsion de la matière”—an ingenious formula for a wave, is also indicative of the economical way that de Kerangal manages, while describing objects, to hint at her artistic preoccupations: here, the desire to reveal the “even huger and deeper” spaces that lurk, unseen, beyond the surface of things.
Simon survives the waves but, minutes later, the van in which he’s riding home collides with a pole and he’s hurled head-first through the windshield. From this moment forward, Simon becomes a cipher. De Kerangal doesn’t spend any energy imagining his shattered point of view, doesn’t dramatize whatever internal plight or battle he might, in his coma, be undergoing. Instead, she pushes her way into the ten people who, for a few hours, are focused intensely on what to do with what life in Simon remains.
De Kerangal favors in medias res introductions for these people, a cinematic style of cutting that moves the story forward in lurches from one discrete consciousness to another. There’s Cordélia Owl, the ICU nurse who watches over Simon during his final earthly hours, who we learn is exhausted after having been up most of the night with a man she hopes is as interested in her as she is in him; there’s Virgilio Breva, the surgeon whose hands will both remove Simon’s heart and deliver it from one hospital to another, and whose own paramour has just stormed out of his apartment enraged, hurling pizzas at a wall in violent, colorful parting. And there’s Thomas Rémige, the transplant coordinator, who will help Simon’s parents with the decision to donate his organs:
This Sunday morning, in a first-floor efficiency apartment on Rue du Commandant-Charcot, Thomas Rémige is making the strips of his venetian blinds vibrate; alone, and naked, he is singing. He began by standing in the center of the room—always in the same spot—his weight evenly distributed on his two feet, back straight, shoulders slightly thrown back, rib cage open in order to clear his chest and neck. Once he felt balanced, he started making slow circular movements with his head to relax his neck, repeating the same rotations with each shoulder, then focused on visualizing the column of air rising from the pit of his stomach to his throat, that internal ductwork propelling the breath and vibrating his vocal cords…. Watching this scene, it would be possible to draw an analogy with the sun salutation or the morning chants of monks and nuns, the same lyricizing of the dawn. You might imagine such a ritual to be aimed at the maintenance and conservation of the body—like drinking a glass of cool water, brushing your teeth, unrolling a rubber mat in front of the television to do floor exercises—but for Thomas Rémige it is something else altogether: an exploration of self—the voice as a probe infiltrating his body and transmitting to the outside world echoes of everything that animates it. The voice as stethoscope.
De Kerangal’s “watching this scene” isn’t incidental: her introductions to characters typically involve the sorts of dynamic tableaus through which people are often introduced in commercial films. The problem with many of her introductions is their familiarity: if you’ve seen Die Hard 2, alas you’ll recall that the film’s villain is introduced standing naked in his hotel room, pumping himself up for the day. I do not mean to suggest that de Kerangal is aware of that 1990 action movie, only that the imagination of the novel—its epigraph is from a forgotten film of the 1970s directed by Paul Newman—is very much attuned to a viewer’s experience of watching cinema.
This surface way of working would be fine if, once de Kerangal pushed into these twists of matter, the substance at which she arrives were substantial. Instead, the pith of these people tends to be flimsy, rarely exceeding the vivid two-dimensionality of their introductions or, if you like, the obviousness of their names: Nurse Owl, tasked with watching Simon, as befits a big-eyed bird, who wonders if she should, or should not, text the man she slept with the night before; Surgeon Virgilio, of the Dantean name, who will escort Simon’s heart through the dark woods of the night on its way to its Beatrice. None of these tidy arrangements is, itself, the problem; rather, it’s the formulaic nature of all of them put together. As most of de Kerangal’s characters are given these neat surfaces and tidily disordered interiors, we sometimes can’t but feel that we’d rather be hearing less about them and more about the technical stuff involving the transplant.
If the characterizations are flat, de Kerangal’s use of them in the form of her story is purposeful. Naked Rémige’s singing will bear on the plot: he sings later, consequentially, as the novel comes to a close. More than merely a way of readying the novel’s structure for resolution, de Kerangal’s narration comments on how we might wrongly interpret this scene—spiritual practice, physical self-care—before yielding the “correct” interpretation: his singing is “an exploration of self.” This, too, is a comment on de Kerangal’s method. For if many of her characterological choices are derivative of filmic narrative and imagination, her prose is without question her novel’s true, original engine, her novelistic voice a kind of stethoscope, one that, clause by clause, is pressed here to listen and then moved to press there, a kind of diagnostic palpation. Consider the book’s first sentence:
The thing about Simon Limbres’s heart, this human heart, is that, since the moment of his birth, when its rhythm accelerated, as did the other hearts around it, in celebration of the event, the thing is, that this heart, which made him jump, vomit, grow, dance lightly like a feather or weigh heavy as a stone, which made him dizzy with exhilaration and made him melt with love, which filtered, recorded, archived—the black box of a twenty-year-old body—the thing is that nobody really knows it; only a moving image created by ultrasound could echo its sound and shape, could make visible the joy that dilates it and the sadness that tightens it; only the paper trace of an electrocardiogram, set in motion at the very beginning, could draw the shape, describe the exertion, the quickening emotion, the prodigious energy needed to contract almost a hundred thousand times a day, to pump nearly ten pints of blood every minute, yes, only that graph could tell a story, by outlining the life of ebbs and flows, of gates and valves, a life of beats—for, while Simon Limbres’s heart, this human heart, is too much even for the machines, no one could claim to really know it, and that night, that starless and bone-splittingly cold night on the estuary and in the Pays de Caux, as a lightless swell rolled all along the cliffs, as the continental shelf retreated, revealing its geological bands, there could be heard the regular rhythm of a resting organ, a muscle that was slowly recharging, a pulse of probably less than fifty beats per minute, and a cell-phone alarm went off at the foot of a narrow bed, the echo of a sonar signal translated into luminescent digits on the touchscreen—05:50—and suddenly everything raced out of control.
The three hundred words that begin The Heart display a range of modes in combination, a hybridity typical of de Kerangal’s lively, motile prose: there is colloquial plainness (“the thing is”), metaphorical originality (the heart is a body’s “black box”), purposeful medical precision (“nearly ten pints of blood every minute”), purposeless technical precision (“a sonar signal translated into luminescent digits”), metrical solidity (“the joy that dilates it and the sadness that tightens it”), winking narrative self-consciousness (“only that graph could tell a story”), narrative omniscience (“as a lightless swell rolled all along the cliffs, as the continental shelf retreated”) and curious anti-omniscience (“a pulse of probably less than fifty beats per minute”), sentimentality (“no one could claim to really know it”), and thrillerish heavy breathing (“suddenly everything raced out of control”). Bound up in de Kerangal’s twisting syntax, these heterogeneous modes—some pleasurable, some dispensable—take on a coherent charge, an energy and rhythm that steadily and authentically build.
At least in the French they do, whereas in the English, they do, and sometimes do not. Sam Taylor, de Kerangal’s American translator, is absolutely to be commended for his sensitivity to The Heart’s choices. His prose is frequently evocative and memorable. But he is also to be faulted. The unit of de Kerangal’s style is the long sentence. Many of her paragraphs are single sentences longer than the one I’ve quoted. While Taylor does translate some at length, as often he divides them: one will become seven. Given that de Kerangal is often assembling a large idea through many small ones, building a sentence through assertion, qualification, amplification, and reversal; and given that much of the integrity of those assemblages is, in the original French, musical and metrical—for each of de Kerangal’s long sentences is indeed a kind of careful, precise, exploratory song—the bifurcating of the voice into Taylor’s fragmentary representations is unfair to the ambitions of the book, which are not fully represented in his version.
There is, however, a second translation of the novel by a Canadian, published in the UK. Jessica Moore’s version of The Heart—titled Mend the Living, a literal rendering of de Kerangal’s Réparer les vivants—is itself very close to literal: Moore retains de Kerangal’s clausal order and leaves her long sentences at their original length. This is a useful alternative to Taylor’s version, but Moore’s fidelity to that complexity also yields serial awkwardness in her English that isn’t present in the French. So while Taylor’s method manages the feat of bringing the book into more agile English, Moore is a better guide to what makes de Kerangal’s French so powerful. As such, neither translation is ideal on its own. Each translator would have been the other’s best editor.
Even so, if The Heart survives its migration into English, it’s mostly because of the novel’s eloquent form. The old Aristotelean unities—of time, of place, of action—serve de Kerangal’s venture, and are a rebuke not to Knausgaard’s method but to his practical fear of history: the nightmare of form from which the self-aware novelist is always trying, in each next novel, to awaken. De Kerangal’s novel’s weaknesses—the superficial limitations of cinematic appropriation, the shallowness of many of her portraits—are mitigated in French by her frankly joyous use of that language, a joy only hinted at in the English renderings.
In reading The Heart, I couldn’t help but hear, over and again, how Knausgaard’s utterly different project begins its work, with sentences translated by Don Bartlett—those five pages of “high-quality prose” that Knausgaard says should have been cut from My Struggle, for they were too good for the enterprise:
For the heart, life is simple: it beats for as long as it can. Then it stops. Sooner or later, one day, this pounding action will cease of its own accord, and the blood will begin to run toward the body’s lowest point, where it will collect in a small pool, visible from outside as a dark, soft patch on ever whitening skin, as the temperature sinks, the limbs stiffen and the intestines drain. These changes in the first hours occur so slowly and take place with such inexorability that there is something almost ritualistic about them, as though life capitulates according to specific rules, a kind of gentleman’s agreement to which the representatives of death also adhere, inasmuch as they always wait until life has retreated before they launch their invasion of the new landscape. By which point, however, the invasion is irrevocable. The enormous hordes of bacteria that begin to infiltrate the body’s innards cannot be halted. Had they but tried a few hours earlier, they would have met with immediate resistance; however everything around them is quiet now, as they delve deeper and deeper into the moist darkness. They advance on the Havers Channels, the Crypts of Lieberkühn, the Isles of Langerhans. They proceed to Bowman’s Capsule in the Renes, Clark’s Column in the Spinalis, the black substance in the Mesencephalon. And they arrive at the heart. As yet, it is intact, but deprived of the activity to which end its whole construction has been designed, there is something strangely desolate about it, like a production plant that workers have been forced to flee in haste, or so it appears, the stationary vehicles shining yellow against the darkness of the forest, the huts deserted, a line of fully loaded cable-buckets stretching up the hillside.
Beginning with the gentle irony of that first sentence in which that organ of enormous complexity is given to us anew as a thing of pure simplicity; continuing onto the short, sharp shock of the second in which, without complication, that organ’s simple work ends: in seventeen words, we get a thumbnail biography of every human heart. Knausgaard’s economy here is remarkable, has the directness of a koan, its paradoxical wink. There’s a reportorial clarity to the writing (“blood will begin to run toward the body’s lowest point”), as life cedes to death (“hordes of bacteria that begin to infiltrate the body’s innards cannot be halted”), the reportorial infiltrated by the metaphorical, hordes “advancing” like the army they are, seizing landmarks of the hidden human self (“the Crypts of Lieberkühn, the Isles of Langerhans”), one metaphor giving way to another (“a production plant that workers have been forced to flee in haste”), and with them inside, we are alone on a hill, the wreck of the body like the wreck of the world on the day our species itself vanishes, not long from now.
Knausgaard says it took “weeks and weeks” to write those sentences, by which we’re to understand that he found the interval discouraging. But why? I don’t mean that all good writing should be labored over, only that it should require labor. Why couldn’t My Struggle have been struggled over differently, such that the initial expression of difficult subjects that Knausgaard wished to broach were, themselves, forged into sentences worth reading as sentences, as real experiences in and of themselves, not merely as delivery devices for “real experience”? In French, that’s the very thing de Kerangal’s prose manages, and it’s something by which we readers of novels—Knausgaard among them—should feel encouraged.