Books

His Struggle Has Ended

When Karl Ove Knausgaard’s epic of the quotidian works, it’s majestic. When it’s about Hitler, it’s jaw-droppingly bad.

Karl Ove Knausgaard and his kids, in front of a dishwasher.
Doris Liou

So here we are, at the end of the carnival. The sixth and final book of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s vast and consuming diaristic novel My Struggle is out in America, and the burden of authorship shifts from him to us. Readers who believe that Knausgaard has done something remarkable now have to answer a question: What remarkable thing did he do?

His technical breakthrough was to give up. Knausgaard describes writing My Struggle at a heedless pace, 10 or 20 pages a day. He wrote the fifth of the six books in just eight weeks. “It hasn’t anything to do with courage,” he’s said. “It’s more that I was so desperate and so frustrated. The only way I could trick myself into writing was by doing it like this. By setting myself the premise that I would write very quickly and not edit, that everything should be in it.”

What’s driven many critics and especially many of Knausgaard’s fellow writers crazy is that this shouldn’t work. Richard Brinsley Sheridan observed that “easy writing’s vile hard reading,” Thomas Mann that writers are people for whom writing is harder than others.

Karl Ove Knausgaard.
Karl Ove Knausgaard.
Asbjørn Jensen

Yet the buzz about Knausgaard’s novels, as they have appeared in steady succession, each recounting a distinct phase of his life, was how unputdownable they were. “I fell into the first two books of My Struggle as if I were falling into a malarial fever,” Dwight Garner wrote in the Times. “I did little else for four days except devour them, leaving email unanswered, dogs unwalked, dishes piling up in the sink.” At the same time, ever since the first book came out in English in 2012, the people whose praise means the most in the world of literary fiction (Zadie Smith, James Wood) have recommended it with almost hieratic verve—not as a potboiler, but as art. In other words, he dissolved the obdurate distinction between reading for pleasure and reading for enlightenment.

By giving up, yes—but by giving up in a very exact way. The true innovation of My Struggle is that its author intervenes so little in his own memories. Particularly in its most captivating volumes, the first three, Knausgaard’s narrative consists almost completely of first-person facts and sensations, long descriptions of how Karl Ove and his friends play in the woods, for example, or the mingled boredom, and shame at that boredom, that he feels when he watches his own children.

This method omits, crucially, two of the novelist’s most important tools (and vanities): style and insight. Because My Struggle is purely descriptive, the quality of its prose and the quality of its thought become immediately irrelevant. It’s impossible to disagree with someone who tells you, “I felt embarrassed” or, “I opened a pack of cigarettes, lit one, and inhaled.” It’s only possible to listen.

That it was an innovation doesn’t mean it had to work. The sentence is how a writer bulletproofs himself, and insight, analysis, a special or heightened perception is what he would appear to be retailing. Knausgaard declined those protections. Laying himself bare in that way might so easily have failed; what happened instead, as Jeffrey Eugenides marvelingly put it, is that he broke the sound barrier of the autobiographical novel. Like life, his books are both boring and relentlessly interesting; like life, they seem somehow both very long and very fast. In other words, they’re like life. A second life, which the reader briefly lives in Knausgaard’s stead, prosaic, meaningless, yet of course also replete with the most serious possible meaning, replete with sad vastness, private infinities.

There’s something primitive and hungry in that experience—and for me, sometimes, something spiritual, close to the experience of grace.

Given all that, it may come as a surprise to some readers that the sixth, longest, and last book of My Struggle is primarily a biography of Adolf Hitler.

Not right away. Book 6 starts near the date of the first book’s publication, when Knausgaard sends his manuscript to the various people it portrays, including his family and his old friends. Most respond generously, but his uncle, Gunnar, works himself into a furor, threatening legal action over its depiction of his brother, Karl Ove’s father—the enigmatic brute whose spirit dominates My Struggle. Indeed, Gunnar’s irate letters are like a last childhood beating, somehow delivered decades into adulthood, years after Karl Ove’s father has died. “I felt like I did when I was a little boy and had done something wrong. I was afraid Dad was going to come and be angry with me. There was nothing worse in all the world.”

From this representative manner, though, Knausgaard then makes a sharp and truly strange turn (via a confused reading of a poem by Paul Celan) into his maddening, frequently fascinating account of Hitler’s early years. Its presupposition—leave aside Knausgaard’s choice to write it for the moment—is that Hitler was a human being. And indeed, perhaps the only human being genuinely inaccessible to us, because he represents too much. But of course there are facts about him. Did you know that Hitler’s guardian arranged an apprenticeship for him to be a baker? That his own father beat him, “on one occasion,” according to his brother, “so brutally he thought him to be dead”? Did you know Hitler’s professors thought he showed a gift for painting architecture but a queer inability to depict humans? How dark and telling that last data point seems, and unsurprisingly the best trait Knausgaard has as a biographer is his feel for detail.

Otherwise—I’m sincerely sorry to say—he’s a disaster.

What he has allowed himself is an absolute orgy of interpolation, of style, of insight (“insight”), as if he has expressly set out to recant the choices that made the prior installments of My Struggle unique. The trouble is that he seemingly hasn’t also recanted his freehanded method of composition—instead, he has turned it loose on the Holocaust, a subject that should demand of a writer heroic rigor, heroic precision.

In 1,200 pages, there’s room for an absolutely enormous number of bad ideas, and Knausgaard talks his way into every category of them. There’s the banal “Is the world anything more than our conceptions about it? Language has no life of its own, is not itself alive, but invokes life.” There’s the random declaration from on high: “Peter Handke, perhaps one of the world’s three best living authors … ” Above all, there’s sophistry on nearly every page: “Poetry tried to enter into the space between language and the world so as to stand before the world just as it was in itself.” Some poetry, sometimes, maybe?

But wait, there’s also pretentious historicizing from thin knowledge: “The frequent occurrence of the doppelganger motif in literature during the second half of the nineteenth century … ” And jargon—industrial quantities of jargon: “The boundaries of both the I and the we in respect of the it are fluid and unclear, but nonetheless they are real, for in the it-zones humanity is characterized by sameness.”

Maybe no passage sums up Knausgaard’s flaws as a theorist—his showiness, his lack of subtlety, his taste for proclamation—more succinctly than this one:

[That] is why Greek Antiquity has been such a point of reference in Western civilizations for more than two thousand years, and continues to be; so many of our conceptions about the world and about humanity were founded in that culture. History, philosophy, politics, natural science; everything comes from there. The only aspects of our own culture that don’t come from there are religion, which is Jewish, and the machine, which is our own.

This is reductive, incomplete, and wrong. Or really, as the physicist Wolfgang Pauli once sadly remarked about a paper, not even good enough to be wrong.

These missteps would be merely obnoxious if Knausgaard were writing about his life. But he’s writing about Nazism. When he sticks close to Hitler, he flashes perception—noticing, for instance, that Hitler had a “strong inner life, nourished by fantasies he goes to great lengths to preserve from any confrontation with reality.”

When he stumbles, however, it’s so bad that you get a sort of sick feeling. “Hitler recognized poverty as a major political problem,” Knausgaard writes, “and he was just as distraught about its inhumanity as Karl Marx and Jack London.” That’s a disgrace of a statement. What evidence do we have that Hitler could be distraught at the mental states of others? Isn’t it likelier that poverty offended his profoundly coherent will to German strength? And what a conclusion to draw from Mein Kampf, which of course states, 17 years before the Wannsee Conference, that “the final aim … must unshakably be the removal of the Jews altogether.”

My Struggle Book 6 cover.

Elsewhere, Knausgaard writes that “Hitler expressed what the average German thought but declined to say.” No. Hitler never won a fair election, and what makes this particular slip of understanding especially painful is that, elsewhere, Knausgaard cites the tragic, extraordinary diaries of the Jewish linguist Victor Klemperer, who specifically details how many ordinary Germans risked their lives to show signs of solidarity as he went into the streets of Berlin wearing his yellow star.

For a long time, readers have wondered why Knausgaard dared to title his book Min Kamp. His stubborn reading of Hitler’s life as a life insists in explicit terms upon the implication of the title and of the previous books that appeared under it, which is that we can only experience the world from a single perspective and that all institutions that pretend otherwise, including politics, including fiction, are stained by their denial of that. He understands the instinct to congregate but finds it impossible to place any faith in congregations. Only his personal experience is verifiable.

The tremendous irony there is how many readers have so completely identified with him, a random Norwegian halfway across the planet. The long and painful middle section of this book tries to make Knausgaard’s idea overt—or worse, perhaps, respectable—by departing from it, and moreover by taking a huge chance, by humanizing not just any figure, but Hitler.

There are traces of the muted humanity of W.G. Sebald in the attempt, but they’re disjoined from the remorseless clarity of Sebald’s intellect—or Roland Barthes’, or Claude Lévi-Strauss’, or Maggie Nelson’s, or Claudia Rankine’s, any of the writers who can distill meaning from a culture without leaving more questions than they answer. For the first time, Knausgaard’s least sophisticated accusers are right: This is the arrogance, grandiosity, and laziness of a loudmouthed white man who insists he’s worth 4,000 pages of your time.

There’s that perfect moment in The Great Gatsby when Tom Buchanan sneeringly tries to call Gatsby out in front of a crowd on his claims of being an “Oxford man,” only for Gatsby to present a perfectly reasonable explanation. “I wanted to get up and slap him on the back,” Nick says just afterward. “I had one of those renewals of complete faith in him that I’d experienced before.”

I felt the same way about 900 pages into the last segment of My Struggle, when Knausgaard departs Hitler for a sudden, glorious return to the style and tempo of the earlier books in the sequence. The subject matter to which he turns is painful: Karl Ove’s wife, Linda, has a mental breakdown, leaving him to watch their children alone and at the same time to deal with his jarring new fame (which so directly contravenes the single tonic note of the books, their sense of shame, linked, inexorably, to the author’s father).

But his description of this trying period has the purity and irresistible momentum of his finest work. It lies as ever in his willingness to be uninteresting. There’s something both ludicrous and amazing about a novel this long that can say, with 12 pages to go, matter-of-factly, “John’s third birthday loomed … ”

The whole trick is in those four words. What Knausgaard saw before anyone else, consciously or not, was that while it would be hard, indeed vanishingly unlikely, to write the best novel ever, almost anyone above a certain threshold of basic talent could write the truest one. The whole history of the realist novel has been based on the trick of managing detail to create verisimilitude (“solidity of specification,” Henry James called it). Knausgaard forces us to admit that this is in fact its own highly polished variant of falseness. For example, most novelists would omit—rightly!—the fact that their narrator had run the dishwasher. Knausgaard, however, not only says it, he writes, “With all the dishes put away, I filled the dishwasher again with what was left, sprinkled some powder in the little compartment, snapped the cover, closed the door, and put it on the sixty-degree program.”

This adherence to the kind of true realism Tristram Shandy satirizes is how we end up with Karl Ove’s mind-boggling number of Geirs—Gulliksen, Berdahl, Angell, all before he drops in “my oldest friend, Geir Prestbakmo”—and the great Knausgaardian sub-subpleasure, weird Scandinavian detail, e.g. when he eats “two slices of bread with liver paste and pickled beetroot.” Art is mostly about choosing not to describe that kind of thing. By removing the pressure of selection—the artfulness that characterizes art—Knausgaard has given us direct access to the part of us, whatever unmodified part lingers in us, that’s nature.

It is the same part of us that is strongest in childhood. Maybe no novelist has ever been superior to Knausgaard in describing the difference between the heightened clearness of purpose of childhood, even when it’s utterly wrong, and the murk of adulthood. As he writes, amid his endless trips to take his three children to get ice cream while Linda is ill, “What they had, and what I had lost, was a great and shiningly obvious place in their own lives.” If there is a unique magic to his work, it is the restoration of at least a glimmer of the great and shiningly obvious place that we might occupy in our own lives. Read Knausgaard from first word to last and it will change you. That is a promise that art makes, and rarely keeps, but a promise, as he has shown beautifully and bravely in himself over all these volumes, whatever their momentary imperfections, that nature always does.

My Struggle, Book 6 by Karl Ove Knausgaard. Archipelago Books.

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