Writing one's own life

The Norwegian author and pianist Ketil Bjørnstad is out with the first volume of a highly ambitious autobiographical work of great magnitude. Five more volumes will follow, each one covering a decade in the author’s life.

By Peter Henning, Deutschlandfunk 2019

In conversation with this reviewer in Oslo in 2015, shortly after putting his finishing touch upon the first volume of his gigantic project, the Norwegian author and pianist Ketil Bjørnstad confessed: “I have written something that has been an ambition of mine for a long time, namely the saga of my own life – evolving around questions like: Who was I? And what was this thing that I now refer to as my life, reflected in these decades with their political-historical events and entanglements.
Now, three years later, the opening volume The Sixties is here, skillfully translated into German by Gabriele Haefs, Kerstin Reimers and Andreas Brunstermann. And this book sets the standard for a truly ambitious literary project. Because Bjørnstad is aiming high. Over the course of 8000 pages, he will attempt to write the saga of the life he has lived up until today. Every decade gets one volume, and The Sixties, just out, marks the beginning.
‘This is the sixties. The yellow house in Melumveien where I grew up, the decade when I slowly freed myself from my childhood. My own little fight for survival, as the major events played out: The death of Camus, the execution of Chessmann, the U-2 scandal, the Cuba Missile Crisis, the Beatles, the war in Algerie, Marilyn Monroe, the Kennedy murders, the murder of Martin Luther King, the civil rights movement, the Grenade Man here in Norway, the hippies, the Vietnam war, all the movies, the music, the books. The borders crossed, which indirectly lead to me travelling to Paris, searching for love and for all the things that no one expected of me.‘

The struggle for existence
Interwoven with these historical events that flicker past us all, briefly outlined in the book’s introduction and then skillfully juxtaposed as the story plays out, is Bjørnstad’s own family story. In Oslo in the early sixties, the family is finding their place in the modern Norwegian society which has lived through the German occupation, the awakening of the social democracy and the first oil findings in the North Sea. In the midst of it all, the author himself, an emerging artist who gradually and in retrospect come into the reader’s view. The son of a politically engaged father and an artistic mother, he starts carving out his own way, a life devoted to music and literature, even if he initially rebels strongly against the musical career his parents have planned for him. His talent cannot be overlooked. In 1958 young Ketil gets his first grand piano – and shortly thereafter wins his first «Youth Piano Competition». ‘«Look at all the pianists making a spectacle of themselves», she says. «They think that emotion is displayed in their faces or in their arms. Do not turn into one of them.» Was that why I had won? Because my teacher had managed to rid me of my vanity and my bad habits? With my 260 pounds, my vanity had been replaced by desperation long ago.‘ Slowly, it starts dawning on the self-loathing boy which possibilities the future might hold. He understands that there is only one path to success, namely: ‘No distractions. Full focus on myself.’
Many years later, when he is known throughout the world as a pianist and author of existential novels whose plots more or less all derive from his own biography, he will state in an interview:
‘The I is the author’s only subject, as it is the pianist’s. The I, with all its problems, possibilities, conceptions. I believe that every work of art is an unspoken search for one’s self. And that which the reader might perceive as egoism, is, in reality a form of confession, a form of mercy. For in the author’s personal misery, readers can get a glimpse of themselves.

On breakups and dead-ends
«Writing one’s life» the swiss author Paul Nizon, who has resided in Paris since the seventies, has labeled the technique he has practiced from his prose debut Die gleitenden Plätze in 1959 until this day: a radical, autobiographical way of writing which constantly circles the self, and which constantly depicts one’s experiences in new ways and continues to question this self in anti-novels.
The result of this continued self-examination, the «autobiografischen Vorbei-stationierens» in Nizon’s own words, are innovative works of prose like Das Jahr der Liebe (1981), ‘Im Bauch des Wals’ (1989) or ‘Das Fell der Forelle’ from 2005.
The french author and literary critic Frédéric Beigbeder sees Nizons body of work as a significant predecessor to the books of Norwegian Karl Ove Knausgaard, who has described his life in six brick-sized volumes named My Struggle in a similar radical-egosentric way. But while Knausgaard (born in 1968) most of all sets out to cause an exhibitionist uproar with his carelessly conducted confessions, Nizons work was rather a type of self-presentation and permanent self-assurance through language.
During some lectures he held in Frankfurt in 1984, under the title Am Schreiben, he states: «My earliest writing was a desperate attempt to hold on to the things that happened to me. I found myself on a hopeless hunt, and the words and sentences were hunting dogs trying to capture it, to catch up with me. These were the first lines of the saga of my life.» Thus, Ketil Bjørnstad’s large scale work of autofiction finds its place between the shapeless, wild-growing descriptions of the life and suffering of his fellow Norwegian Knausgaard and Nizon’s far more subtle “«writing one’s life» anti-novels. And more than that. Bjørnstad’s recollection prose can be characterized as the literary amalgam of the two. In what way? As he cleverly ties his personal biography to well-known historic events transformed into literature – thus highlighting the influence the so-called large overarching history has on the smaller one.

His descriptions lack the exhibitionistic, disarming sharpness of Knausgaard’s confessions, who in an exorcist manner bring out every last secret including the stinking diapers of his family’s everyday life; but in strict literary terms, Bjørnstad’s text seem of far more importance. For where Knausgaard’s prose is shapeless, plump and straight-forward, Bjørnstad is tactful, accurate and beautiful.

A new aura to the well-known
And what pure pleasure it is to read, for instance, the descriptions of the events leading to the death of Albert Camus, The Nobel Laureate from 1957. For Bjørnstad is able to grant a new, fascinating aura to events seemingly long demystified and already thoroughly described. «The next day, on January 3rd, the 46-year old Albert Camus stops by the Renault garage in Loumarin to sign the owners copy of L’Etranger, according to Stephen Bailey. In his dedication he writes: «For M. Baumas, who has enabled me to return to beautiful Lourmarin so frequently. Then he returns to his own house, where a Facel-Vega HK500 awaits him and the Gallimard family who has also brought their skye terrier Floc. (…) Janine would later recall that in the moment before the accident, she heard no sound from the exploding tire, only Michel shouting «Merde!» The car had immediately started to reel. Then she had no recollecton of what happened until she found herself sitting in the mud at the side of the road, screaming in vain for Flo, who was gone forever. (…) He died momentarily, and it has taken the rescue team two hours to free the body from the wreck, where he had been found with his head under the trunk of the car (…) The name of the doctor who signed the death certificate was Marcel Camus.

In Camus’ briefcase they found the 144-page manuscript of Le Premier Homme, a school translation of Shakespeare’s Othello and a French translation of Nietzsche’s Frohliche Wissenschaft. And also, his unused train ticket to Paris. Camus had stated on earlier occasions that «the most stupid way to die, is to be killed in a traffic accident.».

Like this, stories are compressed in ever growing arches that flicker past us, from the description of Camus’ fatal accident, to a fascinating sixties panorama with all the historic events playing out in front of the reader – and the author’s memories and consequences attached to them.

Cassius Clay’s triumphant ascend to the greatest name in the history of boxing. The Vietnam War. The Eichmann-trial. The death of Marilyn Monroe. The assassinations on the Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King – accompanied by the sound of The Beatles and Rolling Stones and more indirectly also illustrated by the most prominent movies of these years, like Ingmar Bergmann’s at the time shocking portrayal of the Swedish soul or Goddards à bout de souffle, it is all here in this volume, condensed as in a nutshell. Bjørnstad brilliantly organize, narrate and transform his abundant material in such a way that it does not merely function as a diligent juxtaposition, but rather forms an atmospherically dense backdrop to an artist’s biography unfolding in front of it in exemplary fashion. The result is a book on life, written as a confession.