Karl Ove Knausgaard aims to capture “the tedious, repetitive and microscopic” aspects of life – and he has done so in a six-volume, 3,500 page novel in Norwegian called My Struggle. Pram-pushing, nappy-changing and the school run are some of the subjects on which he lingers. So too, the entry of bacteria into the heart, certain English rocks songs, and the impact of milk upon breakfast cereal. This week Thomas Meaney reviews the third part of the whole to appear in Don Bartlett’s “superb work” of English translation, making the preliminary judgement that its “extreme artlessness creates a far more intense realism than we might have thought possible, a confessional novel that outdoes most confessions”.
For the Emperor Vespasian the contents of a baby’s nappy would have been a potential new income source. As Greg Woolf describes, urine provided some of the essential chemicals for cleaning and brightening the woollen cloth that Romans used for togas and other uniforms of their day. The fuller’s trade was essential and profitable if little sung in history and literature. The phrase pecunia non olet (money has no smell) is attributed to Vespasian as a response to a fastidious complaint from his son and successor, Titus, about so unsavoury an addition to the tax take.
The smell of money is a matter of concern, sometimes akin to desperation, for those seeking to punish the rulers of Russia and Ukraine for the problems of Crimea. Confiscating the dirty assets of oligarchs would be one of the easier sanctions if one could sniff out what and where they were. John Lloyd, reviewing two books about supporters and opponents of Vladimir Putin, describes the depth of the new corruption and its links to the “centuries old norm” of survival that requires enriching those above one in the hierarchy as flagrantly as one enriches oneself.
Few of our literary critics have been as consistent sniffers out of the decadent rich as the Oxford professor and Sunday Times reviewer John Carey. D. J. Taylor praises the memoir of a writer and scholar who never found much to like in the Bright Young Things.