Spring, Paris: A Letter to Karl Ove Knausgaard
by Jody Kennedy
Dear Karl Ove,
I'd been trying to keep quiet about the fact that I made the trip last March from Provence to Paris to see you at Shakespeare and Company bookstore for the reading from your then latest book Autumn. You know how memories of certain experiences seem to come around again and insist on being recorded? Well, that's the reason I'm writing now (a year and some months later). As you might remember, George Saunders (another favorite author), was at Shakespeare and Company a week before on his Lincoln in the Bardo tour and since I couldn't arrange time off for both readings, I chose yours. But why try to hide the fact? For one, I didn't consider myself an official fan and for two, I didn't want you to think that I was stalking you. (Isn't there a really fine line between devoted groupie and stalker, anyway?) Perhaps more oddly, I still hadn't read any of your books, though just before the event, I bought a copy of My Struggle Book 1: A Death in the Family and started it that day on the train to Paris. Obviously I'd heard of you (like anybody who's kept up even slightly with literary goings-on) and having dreamt of you about a year and a half prior to that March 2017 reading, I laid out the dream (aptly titled “My Dream”) and promptly (after a twenty-year absence from submitting anything) sent the story to The New Yorker's “Shouts & Murmurs” (ahem) and The Paris Review (who both passed on it because well, regardless of the writing, who the hell was I?). I'm happy to report the story was picked up by Electric Literature and published that coming fall.
Another thing: despite being a life-long bibliophile (Bookworm of the Year in 6th grade, for example), I don't recall attending any other readings except those given by (the beloved) Allen Ginsberg, Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, and Ronald Wallace, my then undergraduate writing director at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. (There'd been a couple of poetry slams at a local bar but I'm not sure they count.) That is to say, I'd mostly kept to the outer edges of literary circles (especially academic ones), for reasons of shyness or social awkwardness or lifestyle changes like getting sober and not writing for a long time because I was afraid those inner demons would be triggered and lead me back to drinking. I bring this up because one of the reasons I was attracted to you and decided to come to the reading in Paris (aside from your physicality, which mirrors a certain past archetypal pattern of mine), was a feeling of isolation and insulation in Provence (writing community-wise) and it still gives me courage to think of you tapping away up there in your little Swedish town, not Stockholm, not London or Paris (Europe, okay), not in America, not in New York City or Chicago, not even in one of my oldest and most-loved stomping grounds, Minneapolis-Saint Paul.
The Maison Eymard, a monastery where I'd reserved a room a day before your reading, was in the 8th arrondissement. I took the metro to the closest stop (Charles de Gaulle-Étoile) and with about an hour to kill before checking into my room, found a spot on a bench near the metro entrance. Paris, here I am (I thought). I'd loved Paris long before I first arrived (twenty years ago to live in a Catholic monastery) and had been happy in Paris the many times since but something felt different this time, like my coming had been a mistake. But how could I have known that unless I'd come? I'm sure that's happened to you, that moment when something unexpectedly shifts inside and you know that things are never going to be quite the same again in that particular situation (like traveling to Paris alone). I didn't belong in Paris by myself anymore. It was suddenly as if all of my travels alone up until then had been one big distraction against stopping long enough to look terror (a.k.a. my fear of death) in the eye and laugh. My place, it seemed, was back home with my husband and kids and trying to stay present in the day to day.
I dug an apple out of my backpack and took a bite. I took a bite of Paris and of the cars speeding around the Arc de Triomphe (just behind me) and of the constant hum of voices and the tourists taking selfies (against the backdrop of the Arc de Triomphe) and the pigeons gathering underfoot. Paris, here I am (I thought again), I'm going to try to make the best of it. And that's when I noticed an old man, gray-haired and slightly stooped, who looked exactly like I imagined my father would have looked at that age. My father (gone twenty-four years already), a man I once hated more than life itself and who I'd often wished dead; a man whose unhappiness I blamed for my own, and who was now passing in front of me. Was he a devil or an angel? I set the apple down and started to cry (grateful for my sunglasses to hide behind). “I miss you, old man,” I whispered and put my hands up to my cheeks to catch the tears. “We're cut from the same cloth (you and me) but I learned that too late. I'm sorry.” I was grateful for the kindness of time and how it’s softened those memories of my father and of our shared alcoholism/mental illness and once sadness.
Room 304 (Bâtiment B) at the Maison Eymard was small and sparingly furnished: two single beds, an old-fashioned chair, a desk, a sink, and a nice courtyard view. Though I wasn't a by-the-book Catholic anymore (after being baptized and confirmed when I was thirty), I still loved the silence and simplicity of the monastic environment, still appreciated prayer and Mass, though I was equally comfortable at a Buddhist meditation or reading the Bhagavad Gita. I dropped my bags, and began unpacking (like I usually did) as a way to set anchor: camera, your book, light green spiral-bound notebook, six-pack of candy bars, mostly empty Evian bottle, rice cakes, salted peanuts, three (more) apples, laminated Paris map, tiny make-up bag (though I didn't usually wear much make-up), telephone and telephone charger.
After calling my husband (I missed him) and visiting the Maison Eymard chapel, I left by the building's back door (Rue Balzac), and made my way to and across the Avenue des Champs-Elysées and turned onto Avenue George V, passing the American Cathedral (with plans to attend a recovery meeting there the next day) and finally stopped at the Flamme de la Liberté, where a spontaneous shrine had been set up for Princess Diana after her death in the Pont d'Alma tunnel (just below) on August 31, 1997. I remember the day she died. I was thirty-one-years-old and staying at a monastery in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Still struggling to keep a vow I'd made to remain single and sex-free, I’d just met a married man to whom I would end up giving in to and (regretfully) sleep with, just before leaving for the Paris monastery that following spring.
Crossing the Pont de l'Alma, I took a picture of the Eiffel Tower for my kids and found an unoccupied bench near the floating gardens on the Promenade des Berges de la Seine. I loved the Seine, it's muddy currents always reminding me of the Mississippi River near Trempealeau, Wisconsin, where I used to spend summers as a kid at my grandfather's old cottage. I read your book for a while, talked on the phone with my kids (who were then home from school) and eventually packed up and strolled east along the river taking photographs along the Quai Anatole France before passing the Musee d'Orsay (one of my favorites), quitting the Left Bank for the Right and getting back to my room at the Maison Eymard just after dusk.
Tuesday, March 28 (the day of the reading): I spent the morning wandering around the Left Bank. The Luxembourg Gardens, the church of Saint-Sulpice where I'd already been and gone again with my husband and kids some years ago and how that trip and subsequent trips en famille have been difficult for me. My husband was done with Paris (he'd grown up there, and his family still lives there), and our kids were still too young to really appreciate the city's many offerings. (I don't know how you do it with four of them, Karl Ove.) So our time was mostly spent doing child-centered activities: the Tuileries, the zoo and natural history museum, the library. A couple years ago, the kids and I did have a good time at the Centre Pompidou (another favorite) and one of the last times we were there together, my daughter came along to a René Magritte exhibition, but once inside she grew impatient and we cut the visit short. Paris with my husband and children wasn't Paris anymore, but Paris now without them didn't seem like Paris anymore, either.
I always seemed to end up at Saint-Gervais (the church connected to the monastery where I'd gone to live those twenty years ago) at some point on my trips to Paris. A freshly baptized and confirmed Catholic, I arrived at the monastery with (what I imagined were) sincere hopes of leaving those sex and love troubles behind and living happily ever after as a nun. But as was my pattern back then (always a boyfriend, affair, or infatuation on hand), I got a crush on an auburn-haired priest and fled the monastery early after making a big mess of things with the nuns (but that's another story). The church was almost empty (as usual) which was something I appreciated—a reprieve (like at the cemeteries in Paris) from the noise and frenetic movement of the city. Always camped out in the same place in the church (the nave, middle left, facing the altar), I ate a couple of candy bars (trying not to let stray chocolate pieces fall onto the jute floor covering) and wrote for a while. Even though I'd made progress with meditating over the years, there always came a moment of restlessness and a need to get up and do something. So it was—and as I was packing to leave, I recognized a nun, the soft-spoken Polish one, coming in. I ducked behind a column and hurried out the front door. I'm sure she probably wouldn't have remembered me (it was so long ago and I'm not that important) but I didn't want to take a chance. Why? Though I'd done a lot of work on forgiving my past, there was still a small part of me that was deeply ashamed of what had happened with those French nuns.
Leaving Saint-Gervais and the Marais neighborhood, I found myself on Île Saint-Louis at the church Saint-Louis-en-l'Îl, where I said a prayer for Jack Kerouac (one of the writers who once shored me up) in front of the statue of St. Genevieve, patron saint of Paris. I'm not sure if you've read Satori in Paris but Jack was hot to visit Saint-Louis-en-I'Îl because the church where he'd been baptized in Lowell, Massachusetts, had the same name. That trip to Paris (and Brittany) didn't go so well for Jack who was eager to get back to La Floride, USA, after finding Paris (especially) too noisy, too worn out, and too drunk on beer and cognac. (“O Balzac, O in fact Nabokov.” O Jack—I still love you, you puffy, old drunk—Lebris de Kérouac!)
My next stop: the public restrooms near Notre-Dame, and from there, it would be only a short skip over to Shakespeare and Company. As I was crossing the Pont Saint-Louis on my way to Notre-Dame (Yes, another bridge, but Paris wouldn't be Paris without the Seine, right?), I noticed the musician busking up ahead was a young guy I knew from a Buddhist meditation group I sometimes attended back home. I was aware that he'd relocated to Paris but what were the odds of seeing him? Except there he was, beautiful French-Peruvian soul, performing the Getz-Gilberto version of The Girl from Ipanema (a song my father, a jazz musician, loved passionately) in Portuguese. How small the world is if we just get quiet long enough to listen.
I have an image burned into my consciousness of Ernest Hemingway standing in front of the original Shakespeare and Company (where Ezra Pound once helped build bookshelves) at 12 rue de l'Odeon with Sylvia Beach and two other women. Ernest is leaning against the glass storefront, wearing a dark, semi-crumpled suit and tie, with a heavier jacket slung over his left forearm, his forehead wrapped in a wide bandage and his hair slicked back. But the thing that always stands out the most for me is his grin and how sweet and boyish and happy he looks.
Maybe 4 pm was too early to get to the bookstore for your 7 pm reading but I figured I'd already come that far and could at least try to get a seat close up. So I poked my head in the front door and happened to overhear a young woman with an English accent asking a store employee when folks might start queueing up. To which the employee laughed (if I remember correctly) and suggested coming back in two hours. I caught the young woman as she was leaving and asked what she planned to do. She was going to have a glass of wine next door, she said, and be back in an hour. A good idea to me (minus the wine), I went off to peruse nearby gift shops in search of Eiffel Tower replicas for my kids. After way too much looking, I finally found a deep pink and a bright blue one at a magazine stand just over on Rue de la Cité. Afterward, I coveted a bench (yes, another bench) at the nearby Square René-Viviani and waited until around 5 pm.
The young woman with the English accent (let's just call her Mollie) arrived at the bookstore at the appointed hour and we joined (numbers 5 and 6, respectively) the newly forming line. Mollie, a little tipsy from her glass of wine, was in great spirits and very chatty. I was grateful since I often appeared overly reserved especially in groups of strangers (worse now without the cushion of a few drinks). So one of my patterns was to always find women who liked to talk so I wouldn't have to, which made me a great listener by default. Mollie was probably in her early thirties, wearing a dress and cute shoes, with fingernails the color of Málaga wine. I had just turned fifty-one (two years older than you, Karl Ove) and made an effort with mascara, but none with the hot pink nail polish I'd chosen to offset my usual boyish ensemble: charcoal gray hooded sweatshirt, long sleeve T-shirt (normally black, this time navy blue with white stripes), blue jeans, and gray Converse All-Star low tops. I sure felt my age, standing next to Mollie.
Mollie had flown in from Edinburgh, Scotland (where she was teaching), and it became immediately clear that she was absolutely smitten with you. She reminded me of my teenage self always falling hard for famous and not-so-famous musicians. Mollie had read all of your books. I didn't have the courage to tell her I was only so many pages into A Death in the Family. She shared intimate details about your life and mentioned making a pilgrimage to Bergen, Norway, where you'd gone to the university. She found the cafe where you used to hang out and write (I wasn't sure which one, since I hadn't gotten that far in the series yet), and she'd also heard a rumor that you and your wife had recently split (I didn't know about that) and she wistfully speculated on becoming your new wife. I pictured her then, dressed in light blue babydoll lingerie, skipping across the lawn to your study, bringing you coffee, lighting your cigarettes, all the while giggling like a sweet and lovely schoolgirl.
But following you to Bergen? That seemed a bit extreme, but wasn't there a little hero worship going on with me, too? Otherwise, why hadn't I gone to the Saunders reading instead (I'd at least read some of his books.) Weren't Mollie and I like those lanky girls in A Death in the Family who rode their bikes out past your house trying to get a glimpse of you? Hadn't I followed Hemingway to Paris? Hadn't I staked out F. Scott and Zelda in and around Saint Paul? So, I preferred stalking dead writers instead of living ones. Was there a difference? I'd been obsessed with plenty of real-life men too, like that assistant English professor at the university during my time as an undergraduate. I'd strategically park myself in his path over lunch break and even looked up his address and done a drive-by of his house (feeling ashamed all the while for having let it go so far). And how could I forget the crush on the auburn-haired priest? How I'd wanted so badly to win him over, to steal him away from the Holy Virgin Mary and the Catholic Church (an obvious manifestation of my own then buried and still unhealed Electra complex).
“I fear you close by; I love you far away,” Friedrich Nietzsche said. It wasn't until those ghost lovers turned into hauntings that I realized how lonely and one-sided the whole thing had been. I doubted that Mollie had reached that point yet, but I wanted so badly to tell her that chasing (and obsessing over) a man is exactly not the way to catch a man, well, not a man (if he went along) who was worth catching, anyway. But I kept quiet about that and instead mentioned the story I'd written about you based on a dream and how it would be published that coming fall. I didn't give her any details about the dream, though. I didn't want to tell her that you and I had made love and that it was one of the most intense sex dreams I'd ever had. I didn't want to tell her I would have been one of those girls who’d have lifted my shirt for you and offered my breast, who would have unbuttoned and unzipped and wiggled my hand down your jeans (and then given you all of me). One of those girls the boys loved but never took home to meet their mothers. Mollie was happy for me and made a note to look for the published story that fall. There I was, standing next to Mollie (one of your biggest fans and possibly future wife), feeling like the other woman, like Eve with her shiny apple, a Siren on her feathery nest compared to the sweet and good Mollie. And so there you have it (in a nutshell), one of my most enduring struggles, that existential war between good and evil, light and dark, angel and devil.
Actual sighting of you: I'm not sure who noticed you first, but you seemed to appear out of nowhere (maybe you'd come on foot or had been dropped off by cab) just across from the bookstore. “He looks like a rock star,” Mollie whispered and began to swoon. She was right. Who could miss you with your imposing frame, thick gray hair and matching beard, Ray-Ban Wayfarer sunglasses, black T-shirt, black jeans, and dark sports jacket? I didn't catch your shoes, but I wondered if Mollie and the rest of us would still love you if you were shorter, balding or slightly overweight. Or if your clothes were mismatched, out-of-date or unduly preppy. Were we in love with you specifically or were we in love with an image we'd created of you? Had we found in you our doppelgänger, our twin flame, our soulmate? Or had we, without even being aware, sought our own face, our own self in you, and therefore had not ever really seen you at all?
You took a last puff on your cigarette, ran your fingers through your hair, and strode quickly past us without so much as a smile (just like in my dream) before being whisked away through a door directly behind where we were standing. I wondered if you'd noticed my shoes, and Mollie, exaggeratedly fanning her cheek with her hand, said, “He's so tall and did you see how big his hands were?” “Yes, I did,” I said, but what I didn't say is that your hands (not at all like my father's hands) reminded me of the hands of a man I once loved with the fierceness of fire.
Waiting in the queue, Mollie and I talked about Edinburgh. I told her I hoped to visit someday: the Scottish National Gallery to see (among other artworks), Sandro Botticelli's painting The Virgin Adoring the Sleeping Christ Child and also to follow in the footsteps of the writer Muriel Spark—my father's doppelgänger, twin flame, and the subject of his 1973 Ph.D. dissertation, “Unresolved Dualities in the Novels of Muriel Spark.” Mollie surprised me by saying she'd known Muriel Spark's son, Robin, an artist who’d lived in Edinburgh and passed away a year prior. All I knew about Robin was that Muriel had left him in Africa with his father (her ex-husband) when he was an infant just like my paternal grandmother (who I never knew) had left my father.
Mollie and I were excited to find ourselves in second row seats, surrounded by books and directly in front of the small raised stage where you and the Shakespeare and Company interviewer would sit. You seemed nervous coming in, sipping your water and shuffling your notes. (How do you manage away from your mother tongue?) You started reading from Autumn: the ultrasound of your then-unborn daughter, the births of your other three children, about naming and lightness and family. And your study across the lawn, a little house with two rooms and a loft and two plum trees (one you planted last summer). The color red, capitulation, blood, green grass, the door, the floor, the water tap and the garden chair. (Applause.) Later, the interviewer brought up a quote by journalist, Evan Hughes: “...reading My Struggle is like opening someone else's diary and finding your own secrets.” And you said something like, “There is no catharsis in the writing and there must be a distance and detachment to get to a more selfless place.” After an hour you ended by reading from your then-upcoming book Winter: the communal toothbrushes, their bristles up like flowers in a vase, plastic, and synthetic fibers, pink, light blue, gray, white (take your pick). Four horses peering over a fence and the winter you turned ten and the not brushing your teeth came to represent freedom but now as a result how you only smile with your mouth closed and usually hide your laugh behind your hands.
Post-reading: I understand book signings are part of a published writer's life, but since I haven't experienced them as an author and to a limited extent as a reader (except for an event flyer signed by the Russian poet, Yevgeny Yevtushenko), I'm sure there's a certain symbiotic give and take. As Mollie readied a small stack of books for you to sign, I wished her well and instead of joining her in the line, said goodbye. Why? I had my copy of A Death in the Family along but since I hadn't finished it yet, I felt like an interloper and a phony as I imagined bringing the book over to be signed. Yet closer to the truth was a fear that you wouldn't see me, that I'd just blend and merge and quickly disappear into the swelling crowd like “petals on a wet, black bough.” So I left Shakespeare and Company, the sun having just set, and turned west following the Seine (crossing at Pont Neuf)—it's color now a deep, inky blue reminding me of hidden folds in the auburn-haired priest's habit and of the Mississippi River near Trempealeau, Wisconsin, at twilight.
During my last few days in Paris (assuming you'd probably left by then), I finally made it to the Musée Cluny where I'd hoped to piggyback on Rainer Maria Rilke's impressions of The Lady and the Unicorn tapestry (a tapestry I admired) from The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. But I wasn't inspired to write anything, so I took photos instead, and afterward, finished my last apple while sitting on a bench in the museum courtyard. The Musée de l'Art Moderne was a disappointment except for the big, fat, beautiful, blue Matisse, The Unfinished Dance, 1931. I missed the Bibliothèque nationale de France and the cemetery Montparnasse (where I’d planned to say hello to Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, Susan Sontag, Serge Gainsbourg, Man Ray, and Baudelaire). Had a nice lunch with my husband's ninety-four-year-old godmother at her small apartment in Montmartre, made it to another recovery meeting at the American Cathedral, and another one at the church on Rue Madame which just so happens to be only a short walk from the Luxembourg Gardens and Gertrude Stein's old place on Rue de Fleurus.
Back in Provence, life picked up its usual pace: preparing meals, doing dishes, grocery shopping, trying to keep our tiny apartment clean, helping the kids with homework, laundry, hikes around the Mont Sainte-Victoire, one-year post-op mammogram and oncologist visit, recovery meetings, coffee and movies with friends, swims in the sea and carving out time for writing (and trying not to feel guilty about it). And as you probably remember, two weeks after the reading, Shakespeare and Company posted the video taken from that evening. As I watched (appreciating the fact that there was a permanent archive), I noticed my image in the lower left-hand corner of the video. How strange, I thought, that I (being one of those folks who don't like being photographed) appeared on the screen and not Mollie (who would have been thrilled to be captured in those frames with you). But there I was instead: light sometimes reflecting off the sunglasses perched on my head, charcoal gray hooded sweatshirt, blue jeans, hands folded neatly in my lap, hot pink nail polish mostly indistinguishable.
A few months after seeing you in Paris, I finally got around to reading My Struggle Book 2: A Man in Love while on vacation in the Midwest (finishing it while lounging on a deck chair at a cottage overlooking a small lake in northern Minnesota). I'm reading Autumn now (a year and two months after your Autumn event at Shakespeare and Company). My Struggle Book 3: Boyhood Island is next up in my e-book queue and luckily just in time for my annual summer visit to the US (where I like to imagine I might finish reading it while lounging on a deck chair at a rustic cabin overlooking Lake Michigan near Ellison Bay, Wisconsin).
The Edinburgh International Book Festival is coming up this August and in their latest update (I happen to be on the mailing list), I noticed you're scheduled to launch the English (translation) tour of your final book in the My Struggle series (Book 6: The End). Tickets go on sale at the end of June but as of today, I don't plan to go. I'm afraid if I went, I'd end up missing my husband and kids and feeling like going had been a mistake like I'd felt in Paris. I've only been to one book festival (in Aix-en-Provence a couple of years back) except I'm not sure that counts because I attended just a single event (an interview with the author, Arundhati Roy). If I did go to Edinburgh, I could trace the footsteps of Muriel Spark and visit the Scottish National Gallery and Botticelli's The Virgin Adoring the Sleeping Christ Child. But the festival itself might be difficult, I wouldn't know anyone and without any booze to cover my shyness, I'd have to find someone chatty to pal around with, someone like Mollie. Speaking of Mollie, I know she'll be there (barring any catastrophe). Just look for the young woman wearing a light blue dress and cute shoes with fingernails the color of Málaga wine. She'll be one of the first in line and maybe a little bit tipsy and praying even more fervently to catch your eye (since you and your wife are divorced now), the faithful and lovely Mollie.
I feel kind of silly writing this letter to you now (but what the hell). See you soon on Boyhood Island and even sooner (I'm about a half-way through) in Autumn.
Jody Kennedy's writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Juked, DIAGRAM, Tin House Online, CutBank's Long Way From, Long Time Since and The Woodshop, Electric Literature, and elsewhere. She lives in Provence, France. More at her website: jodyskennedy.wordpress.com
Visit Jody Kennedy’s previous work at CutBank:
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Referenced in the text:
“O Balzac, O in fact Nabokov.” Jack Kerouac, Satori in Paris (Penguin Books, March 2012), 100.
Link (in French) Joia Musique (the musician who was busking on the Pont Saint-Louis). <https://joiamusique.wordpress.com/about/>
Evan Hughes interview with Karl Ove Knausgaard in The New Republic.<https://newrepublic.com/article/117245/karl-ove-knausgaard-interview-literary-star-struggles-regret> [April 8, 2014]
Ezra Pound. In a Station of the Metro. <https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/station-metro>
Link (in French) to the Museé Cluny and La Dame à la licorne (The Lady and the Unicorn). <http://www.musee-moyenage.fr/collection/oeuvre/la-dame-a-la-licorne.html>
Link to Karl Ove Knausgaard reading at Shakespeare and Company on March 28, 2017. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kUUxj3tL7uA>