“There Was Something Stupid in This”

Karl Ove Knausgaard’s epic autobiography is narcissistic, indiscreet, and a remarkable work of art.

Illustration by Liana Finck

Sometime in the early months of 2008, Karl Ove Knausgaard, by then 39 years old and the author of two novels, invented for himself a new style of narration. It would dispense with the pretense of fictionality, and its defining characteristic would be the highest possible degree of authenticity: What fictional details were present wouldn’t be distinguished from what was real, and it would give the impression that everything, no matter how banal, was being told. Many of the rules of storytelling, some of them so basic to the way we tell stories that we hardly think of them as rules, would be discarded. Time and place would shift abruptly, and so would the mode of speaking, from a litany of humdrum household tasks on one page, to philosophical reflections and speculations on the next, to events of a high dramatic quotient on a third. The reader would have to be ready at any time for the author’s personal theory of art or his personal hygiene routine. Digressions would nest within digressions, for dozens of pages at a time. The writer, in the name of speed, of getting it all down, would abandon many aspects of literary artifice—first among them, what we might term “good writing.” Most of what he had to say would be telegraphed in plain language, and the majority of his lapses into the figurative would come in the form of clichés and mixed metaphors.

The result was My Struggle, a confessional outpouring that became a sensation and a scandal in Knausgaard’s native Norway. In Norwegian the title is Min Kamp, and in German Mein Kampf—the book shares its title, in other words, with the manifesto Adolf Hitler wrote in the 1920s. (Book Six reportedly contains 400 pages on Hitler, and how Knausgaard links this up to his own life remains a matter of some suspense for English readers.) The book sold roughly half a million copies in Norway, equal to about one-tenth of the country’s population. Bitter public disputes followed, particularly between Knausgaard and his estranged ex-wife—who made a radio documentary called Tonje’s Version, in which he participated—and his uncle, who attacked him in the press. Knausgaard’s second wife, Linda, to whom he is still married, relapsed into depression on the publication of Book Two.

In the Anglophone world, the response has focused less on the plight of one Norwegian family than on Knausgaard’s innovations. The publication of My Struggle in English has coincided with an autobiographical turn among younger novelists in North America, among them Tao Lin (Taipei), Sheila Heti (How Should a Person Be?), and Ben Lerner (Leaving the Atocha Station). These writers also make extensive use of essayistic digression. The roman à clef has been around as long as the novel, of course, and it has always been subject to a standard set of criticisms: narcissism, laziness, failures of discretion to the point of betrayal. Knausgaard has triumphed by committing the maximum of all three sins.

Despite the presence of the first-person singular pronoun in the title, My Struggle has been praised for its universalizing qualities. Its appeal is especially universal for middle-aged writers who also happen to be married parents. Knausgaard conveys the situation neatly early on in Book One:

I have always had a great need for solitude. I require huge swathes of loneliness, and when I do not have it, which has been the case for the last five years, my frustration can sometimes become almost panicked, or aggressive. And when what has kept me going for the whole of my adult life, the ambition to write something exceptional one day, is threatened in this way my one thought, which gnaws at me like a rat, is that I have to escape. Time is slipping away from me, running through my fingers like sand while I … do what? Clean floors, wash clothes, make dinner, wash up, go shopping, play with the children in the play areas, bring them home, undress them, bathe them, look after them until it is bedtime, tuck them in, hang some clothes to dry, fold others and put them away, tidy up, wipe tables, chairs and cupboards. It is a struggle, and even though it is not heroic, I am up against a superior force, for no matter how much housework I do the rooms are littered with mess and junk, and the children, who are taken care of every waking minute, are more stubborn than I have ever known children to be.

It is writing “something exceptional” that will give Knausgaard’s life meaning, and it is his family life that’s the main obstacle in accomplishing it. His solution is to make family life the content of his writing, its source of meaning. And the passage above shows the compromises Knausgaard the prose writer has made at the sentence level (the gnawing rat, that sand through his fingers), but also the velocity he achieves by heaping his (often very lengthy) paragraphs with unlingered-over detail. Note too the rather easy way he conceptualizes his children as a “superior force” that have descended to oppress him.

The first volume of My Struggle begins with an abstract but highly romanticized account of death conquering a human body, “enormous hordes of bacteria that begin to infiltrate the body’s innards,” followed by the child Karl Ove’s first glimpse of death in the form of a lifeless face floating in the ocean on a TV news report. It ends with a flashback-filled, 200-page account of the death of Knausgaard’s alcoholic father and the cleaning out of his senile grandmother’s home—a mess of medicine-cabinet refuse, dead insects, shit, and piss stains. In between much time is spent with the teenage Karl Ove and his adolescent passions—music, film, art, girls—as well as his own discovery of alcohol. A long digressive account of a New Year’s Eve displays Knausgaard’s trick of delayed gratification that ends up forgoing gratification altogether.

Karl Ove Knausgaard.

Photo courtesy Asbjorn Jensen

Knausgaard the husband and father is the presiding persona in Book Two, and here the stress falls more pervasively on the conflict between family and intellectual life. This is often expressed as a crisis of masculinity, and the humiliating details of child care, the ones usually kept private, perhaps for the children’s sake, are on full display. In the narrative’s foreground, Knausgaard is living in Stockholm with Linda and their children, and his best friend is a writer named Geir, author of The Aesthetics of the Broken Nose, about a Stockholm boxing club. In the boxing club, Knausgaard explains, “the values that the welfare state had otherwise subverted, such as masculinity, honor, violence and pain, were upheld, and the interest for me lay in how different society looked when viewed from that angle, with the set of values they had retained.” It’s certainly a different view from those where we most often see Knausgaard in Book Two: pushing a stroller or a grocery cart. His admiration for the values of an earlier epoch leads Knausgaard to think about “misology,” which he calls “the distrust of words,” and about which he wonders: “was that a way to go for a writer?” He continues: “literature is not just words, literature is what words evoke in the reader. It is this transcendence that validates literature, not the formal transcendence in itself, as many believe.” This emphasis on the content of literature, against or at the expense of its formal qualities, leads him to a statement about his own project:

The fact that paintings and, to some extent, photographs were so important for me had something to do with this. They contained no words, no concepts, and when I looked at them what I experienced, what made them so important was also non-conceptual. There was something stupid in this, an area that was completely devoid of intelligence, which I had difficulty acknowledging or accepting, yet which perhaps was the most important single element of what I wanted to do.

In light of remarks like these, and Knausgaard’s repeated calls in the first two volumes for an art that reaches back to a time before the Enlightenment—that does away with modern forms and psychologizing—it makes sense that Book Three of My Struggle adopts a more naturalistic mode. But this means doing away with some of the things that made the first two volumes so striking. After a brief introduction that situates the family in a new residence, a housing development called Tybakken on the island of Tromoya  in the early 1970s, the essayistic mode fades away, and Knausgaard’s adult authorial persona barely intrudes. With one exception: a brief passage midway through that splits the book, in which he wonders why his warm, loving mother is so much less present in his memories than his harsh (still pre-alcoholic) father. Gone, too, in this volume, are Knausgaard’s manipulations of time; with some telescoping, the book proceeds linearly through Karl Ove’s first school years on the island, breaking off when they move away to the town of Kristiansand. Many of the episodes in the third volume follow a distinct pattern: Karl Ove does something fairly innocent—turns on the TV without permission, begs not to be made to wear a floral shower cap to swim class, loses a sock at the pool—and incurs his father’s wrath (or, if he’s lucky, eludes it). The boy is always crying. Knausgaard enters into his childhood self thoroughly, and you start to miss his older self and his tendency to go on for pages about Dostoevsky or the Clash.

But you start to notice something else about My Struggle as a whole. Karl Ove’s youthful playmates in Book Three start to seem disposable (and many of them drop from the story, and return or not, without much fanfare). They accompany him here and there, tempt him and tease him, but it would be an exaggeration to call them characters. He has too little sense of his own perspective to see them that way. Similarly, his father is the sum of his cruelties, and his mother her kindnesses. Even his older brother Yngve emerges as not much more than a figure who alternates between taunting and encouragement. And this is true of the elder Karl Ove of the first two volumes, the “I” that isn’t Knausgaard the essayist: He’s always reacting, always crashing into the limits of his perception, and trying to escape from traps. There’s something feral about him. It’s there in him when he’s a boy defecating in the woods, and it’s there when he’s a man cutting up his own face after he first meets Linda and she rejects him. (He sheds that desperation within hours, takes his first wife to a Garbage concert, and declares it “fantastic.”)

This isn’t a shortcoming, but a goal, perhaps the goal, of Knausgaard’s art, the source of its authenticity. It accounts for the power of identification critics have noticed in My Struggle. Zadie Smith: “What’s notable is Karl Ove’s ability, rare these days, to be fully present in and mindful of his own existence … it immerses you totally. You live his life with him.” You imagine yourself as Karl Ove because it’s impossible to get inside anyone else’s head.

My Struggle: Book Three, by Karl Ove Knausgaard. Archipelago.

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