Thursday, March 12, 2015

Knausgaard Comes to Minnesota

Travel writing tends to be a litany of clichés and misapprehensions, but if the prose is sprightly and the impressions are fresh and vividly rendered, no genre is more fun to dip into. In any case, if we haven't spent much time in the places involved, we hardly notice the lack of depth and social insight. What's being described seems a lot like what we'd probably see if we were there.

Some travel writers know the regions they're describing well, of course. Lined up on my conceptual bookshelf of personal favorites are Michael Jacobs' books about Provence and Andalusia, H. V. Morton's classic descriptions of Italy and Spain, Lawrence Durrell's book about the Greek islands, and Norman Lewis's books about the Costa Brava and India.

Recent classics that leap to mind are Adam Gopnick's Paris to the Moon, Ian Frazier's Great Plains, Chris Stewart's Driving Over Lemons, Tom Piazza's Why New Orleans Matters, and Robert Sullivan's Cross Country.

When foreigners come this-a-way to offer their analyses of American life, things get a little dicier. Everyone quotes the nineteenth-century French observer Alexis de Tocqueville, and with good reason. Many have followed in his footsteps, Bernard Henry-Levy being among the most recent I can recall.

But modern-day visitors from abroad tend to search out the freak shows and truck stops, ghettos and reservations, Portlandias and Peorias. I guess that's where the stories are. But is that "America"?

On a Greek ferry heading to Santorini I once struck up a conversation with a young Swiss couple who'd been traveling the world.

"Are the small towns of America genuinely interesting?" the man asked me, with a good-natured but doubtful look on his face.

I thought for a moment before replying, "Not really."

Hey? What about Oxford, Mississippi? Taos, New Mexico? Point Reyes Station, California? Thermopolis, Wyoming? Cedar Rapids, Iowa? Price, Utah? Bayfield, Wisconsin? Bardstown, Kentucky? Stonington, Maine? Ste. Genevieve, Missouri? Durango, Colorado?

Yeah, well, you've got a lot of driving ahead of you.

*   *   *

The New York Times recently commissioned Norwegian novelist Karl Ove Knausgaard to take a driving trip from l'anse aux meadows in Newfoundland to Alexandria, Minnesota (the home of the Kensington Runestone) and write about the experience. It must have been a spur-of-the-moment commission, because Knausgaard didn't have time to do the slightest bit of research. In fact, he didn't even have time to renew his driver's license. I wouldn't have expected the rugged, chain-smoking Norwegian to make excuses, but he blames it all on a stressful Christmas.

As a travel piece, Knausgaard's account is worth little. He knows nothing and he sees nothing. His only connections to America seem to be musical—the blues and Kid Rock. He's read the Icelandic sagas but even when staring at archaeological remains of the Vikings' presence in North America he can't shake the notion that the tales are literary fabrications.

Knausgaard did go to the trouble to look up the Kensington Runestone, allegedly left by Vikings in what is now western Minnesota back in the fourteenth century. But it's evident he didn't read much of the Wikipedia entry he consulted. He seems to think they arrived in the Red River Valley by way of Cleveland.

" If the Vikings really had left their settlements up in Newfoundland and explored the continent by following the rivers and lakes westward, as the Kensington Runestone’s presence in Minnesota suggested, it was in a world completely different from the one we drove through. [Really? No shopping malls in fourteenth-century America?] I tried to imagine it, tuning out the sounds of the highway, the speed of the car, the concrete and the steel, but the place I then envisioned, a landscape untouched by man, was far too romantic to be true."   

Though Knausgaard is shy and doesn't like talking to strangers (not a good trait for a travel writer, I'm afraid) he finally connects with a long-lost cousin in North Dakota. From there it's a short jaunt down the freeway to Alexandria and the runestone museum.

He feels nothing in the presence of the stone itself, though he delivers the best line in the 20,000-word essay in response to it.

"I walked around it a few times, noticing that the inscription ran on, around one side. The runic inscriptions I had seen earlier, back home, were all short and pithy, whereas this was practically a novella."

But his response to the museum is entirely different.

The striking thing was how modest it all was, how insignificant the objects that were meant to represent the country’s entire momentous history turned out to be. How clumsily the paintings illustrating the various epochs were made. How awkward the overarching Viking theme was, from the winged helmet of the giant statue outside that beckoned to visitors, to the attempts to substantiate the theory that the Vikings actually came here, before any other Europeans, in the 14th century.
Yes, there was something homespun and makeshift and, frankly, childish about the whole thing.
And I loved it.
Knausgaard loved the museum because it cut America down to size. Though it was promoting a myth, it was a little one, and not the grand myth of America's exceptionalism. And it was promoting that little myth with domestic artifacts hardly different from the ones Knausgaard grew up amid.
It was liberating to see how small and insignificant each separate part of this history was, compared with our notions about [America's] grandness. It felt liberating, because that is what the world is really like, full of insignificant trifles that we use to blunder on as best we can, one by one, whether we happen to be 19th-century immigrants building a log cabin in some forest glade, cold and miserable, longing to sit motionless for a few hours in front of the fire; or a local museum director in a Norwegian children’s sweater; or a crafty Swede, carving runes into a stone and burying it in a field in an attempt to change world history.
Knausgaard had blundered on across America, taking baby steps and smoking cigarettes and looking out the window of a car he was reluctant to drive—because it had an automatic transmission! His observations are too often self-referential and almost invariably banal, but an element of defiant honesty somehow saves him in the end.

Last on his list of trifles that make up the life we live is "an inept Norwegian writer who has spent 10 days on assignment in the U.S. without discovering anything, apart from this."

*   *   *

Though I'm hardly an expert on Scandinavian-America travelogues, a few titles I've found illuminating over the years are On the Viking Trail: Travels in Scandinavian America, by Don Lago; Knut Hamsun Remembers America: Essay and Stories; and The Unknown Swedes: a Book About Swedes and America, Past and Present by Vilhelm Moberg. 

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