Life Itself

Born in 1968 into an unexceptional middle-class family in southern Norway, he had an ordinary provincial childhood. His parents divorced when he was young; at eighteen, he spent a year teaching grammar school in a remote fishing village in northern Norway, after which he relocated to Bergen, on the country’s rugged west coast, to attend a small writing academy. He stayed in that city for fourteen years, during which he married and saw his first novel published to critical acclaim; eventually, his literary career having languished and his marriage fallen apart, he moved alone, without planning or preparation, to Stockholm, where he published a second novel, became involved with another woman, and started a family.

This, in brief, is the story told in Karl Ove Knausgaard’s curi­ously—indeed, well-nigh inexplicably—effective My Struggle, the six hefty volumes of which came out in Norway between 2009 and 2011 and the third volume of which appeared in English in May 2014 (with the fourth scheduled for June 2015).[1] This several-thousand-page work—which Knausgaard says is entirely autobio- graphical, but labels a novel—has been a spectacular success in Norway, its volumes selling a total of nearly half a million copies in a country of five million. The material, as the above summary suggests, is hardly sensational: during the four decades covered by My Struggle (at least until the end, when the reception of the first volumes actually enters into the narrative of the last volume), nothing terribly unusual happens to Knausgaard; in fact, his life appears, if anything, to have been a good deal less eventful than that of most European or North American literary types of his generation. Knausgaard doesn’t, note well, tell his story chronologically (life is sequential; memory is not). Volume 1 recounts various childhood episodes and the death of his emotionally abusive father, which occurred when Knausgaard was well into adulthood. Volume 2, subtitled in English A Man in Love (the original Norwegian volumes don’t have subtitles), opens in 2008 and introduces us to his life in Stockholm, then takes us back to his first days in that city. In Volume 3, subtitled Boyhood in the U.S. and Boyhood Island in the U.K., we’re in his childhood again. At the start of Volume 4, he’s eighteen and beginning his teaching year in the far north, but on page 112 we flash back to his schooldays and don’t return to his teaching year until page 316. Volume 5 recounts his years in Bergen, and Volume 6 finds him, in 2009, about to publish the first installments of My Struggle.

For readers in Norway, My Struggle represented a departure from pretty much everything they were used to in Norwegian fiction. We’re talking here about a country in which the typical literary novel these days is a claustrophobic, low-key, ennui-ridden narrative—most likely on the short side, and probably in the first person. Sometimes it can seem as if every second or third novel you pick up in an Oslo bookstore is about a man (a literary type, naturally) in late middle age who’s lived alone in some remote place since his divorce and who, one day in dark midwinter, is given a grim diagnosis by his doctor, after which he goes home to reflect on his life—his failed marriage, disappointing career, estranged children—and to contemplate stoically his impending death. In short, somber stuff, drenched in Scandinavian fatalism. Knausgaard, in My Struggle, provides the reader with the usual plainly autobiographical narrator but upends the fatalism, serving up instead what can seem, to Norwegian readers, a naïve, credulous, American-style enthusiasm about life. Whereas all too many Norwegian authors, moreover, ooze self-importance and patently view themselves as know-it-all sages, Knausgaard presents himself as an ordinary slob, rife with intellectual and social insecurities, who constantly worries that he doesn’t understand anybody or anything at all, including himself. He’s preternaturally uneasy around others, uncomfortable trying to adjust to societal expectations and congenitally suspicious of personal relationships, which, he frets, are “there to eradicate individuality” and “fetter freedom.”

Yet while these very traits may distinguish Knausgaard from your standard Norwegian-literary-elite type, they make him seem very familiar—and endearing—to rank-and-file Norwegians. Like most of his countrymen, Knausgaard is a matter-of-fact and unpretentious soul; although My Struggle does include a number of essayistic musings on life, death, and other grand abstractions, some of which go on at length (the last and longest one, in the final volume, fills over 400 pages), they read not like highfalutin poetry but, in good Norwegian fashion, like frank, intensely engaged, down-to-earth conversation of the sort you could imag­ine taking place over a few beers at some down-at-heels watering hole. For obvious reasons, Knausgaard has been compared to Proust (Time magazine even entitled its review “Norway’s Proust”), but he’s every bit as Norwegian as Proust was French, which is to say that while it came naturally to Proust to perpetrate elaborate, poetic, and witty prose, it comes just as naturally to Knausgaard to be blunt, straightforward, and prosaic—to spin out sentences so artless that they can read like excerpts from a hurriedly dashed-off letter. Knausgaard himself has said that he reveres Proust but has laughingly dismissed descriptions of himself as a Norwegian Proust, stating in an interview, quite sensibly, that the very concept is “a contradiction in terms.”

So Norwegian is he, indeed, that at one point, in what amounts to a summing-up of the so-called Jante Law—formulated in 1933 by Norwegian novelist Aksel Sandemose, by way of representing the manner in which almost all Norwegians are (or, at least until the last couple of decades, were) trained from infancy to think about themselves—Knausgaard tells himself:

 

Don’t believe you are anybody.

Do not fucking believe you are somebody.

Because you are not. You’re just a smug, mediocre little shit.

 

Coexisting with this deeply ingrained self-loathing, however, is a heady ambition—for Knausgaard makes no secret, in My Struggle, that he’s dreamt since early youth of literary fame; and surely few, if any, Norwegian novelists have ever exhibited any­thing like the audacity embodied in his attempt, in these six volumes, to reinvent entirely the genre of the novel. Which is not to say that this reinvention comes easily to Knausgaard or that he has much confidence at all, from one moment to the next, in what he’s up to. Throughout this work, on the contrary, we witness him puzzling over what he stubbornly sees as his calling: how, his younger self wonders in the first volume, does one write about life in such a way as to bring out its meaning? Everyday life can be boring; how to tweak it to make it glow? At one point he ponders the Norwegian novelist Dag Solstad’s influential 1969 assertion “We won’t give the coffee pot wings”—meaning, as Knausgaard parses it, “out with spirituality, out with feeling.” But Knausgaard isn’t buying it: My Struggle is chock­ablock with descriptions of the making and pouring and drinking of coffee, among many other quotidian details, and the implica­tion throughout is that such things do matter—and, indeed, matter a great deal, if in some less than easily apprehended way—and that if there is such a thing as the sacred, then, yes, something holy clings to these homely specifics.

As it happens, Knausgaard’s unwavering fixation on these details is his hallmark; the one observation made by everyone who writes about My Struggle is that it’s crowded with such particulars and that Knausgaard makes them all a good deal more interesting than seems humanly possible. One critic after another has proffered the paradoxical-sounding observation that even when Knausgaard is boring, he’s fascinatingly boring: a reviewer for the New Statesman praised his “transfixing boringness”; Zadie Smith, in the New York Review of Books, stated that “Knausgaard’s boredom is baroque”; Bookforum’s reviewer couldn’t figure out why, in My Struggle, matters that are boring in life are somehow “not boring on the page”; a Guardian reviewer admitted that it’s “difficult to get a grip on what makes the book so compelling, because much of it appears painfully banal.” As Knausgaard quotes a writer friend enviously telling him, “You can spend twenty pages describing a trip to the bathroom and hold your readers spellbound.” Granted, it may be next to impossible not to skim through some of the more mundane parts of this book; but somehow that skimming doesn’t seem a criminal offense, as it would if one were reading, say, Flaubert or Balzac—or, for that matter, Proust. With Knausgaard, somehow, giving less than one’s full, devout attention to every word of the occasional uneventful passage feels akin to half-tuning out, say, a dull conversation at a cocktail party: letting your mind wander doesn’t mean you don’t like the person who’s talking or aren’t enjoying the party; it’s just part of life. And that’s what this novel feels like—life. Indeed, it eventually occurred to me that the less scintillating parts of My Struggle are precisely what make the more thrilling parts work; they lull you into an unconscious illusion that this isn’t just a book but something closer to your own reality, with its own longueurs, so that when the stressful incidents come along, they strike you in something very close to the way such things strike you in real life, popping up abruptly, and without the usual novelistic foreshadowings, in the midst of everything.

When I was in college, my professor Louis Simpson, the great American poet and longtime Hudson Review contributor, who was an ardent admirer—far more than I was—of such naturalistic writers as Theodore Dreiser and Stephen Crane, made it clear that he drew the line at the famous nineteenth-century Goncourt brothers, whom he mocked for including in one novel (if I remember correctly) a complete shopping list. For him, this was mimesis at its most extreme—and most ludicrous. My Struggle includes not only a shopping list (it’s on page 262 of Volume 3), but also such materials as the entire text of a record review Knausgaard wrote in high school and a page-long schedule of his promo­tional appearances, as drawn up by his publisher’s publicity department. And yet he’s far from a naturalist. For one thing, he’s not—or at least not primarily or programmatically—a social critic; instead, he’s a romantic confessionalist who shares with us, as he shares virtually everything else about his life, his own reflections—half-formed and self-contradictory though he may know some of them to be—in the direction of social criticism. In other words, his social criticism, such as it is, is just one more part of the texture of his life and thoughts; and it’s that texture, that combination of coffee-making and errand-running, in-the-moment reactions to news stories and insipid TV programs, and ruminations about the meaning of life and art that can ramble on for scores upon scores of pages, that makes My Struggle so compelling. Granted, it’s doubtless more compelling for the kind of people who, like Knausgaard, spend their days at home writing or reviewing books than it is for people with significantly different kinds of lives. Knausgaard has never been to war or in prison, has never been seriously ill or, since he was very young, had a boss; anecdotal evidence suggests that such life experiences on the part of readers render them less likely to appreciate this book. For his enthusiasts, however, Knausgaard brings together the pieces of daily existence in such a way as to come far closer than any other living writer, perhaps, to capturing the way we ourselves feel, minute to minute, in our own lives, our own skins, our own ultimately, inevitably isolated selves—each of us facing our own daily struggle in our own version of Knausgaard’s flat in Sweden.

It’s important to underscore that the excitement of My Struggle doesn’t come from the usual places. Nowhere in these six volumes, for instance, is there any sign of a plot. There are, yes, tensions and conflicts aplenty, but they never really lead to the sorts of places you’d expect them to. Take Knausgaard’s account, in Volume 4, of his teaching year. Throughout it, we wonder: Will the constant friction between him and the school principal come to a head in some way? Will his friend­ship with the other new teacher crash on the rocks of differentness? Will his cultural foreignness in the north—this scrawny intellectual boy with delicate hands among these tough, foul-mouthed fishermen—lead to blows? Will his flirtation with some girl or other cause a scandal? Will one of his unruly male students —perhaps the especially recalcitrant one who towers over him—beat him up? But nothing earthshaking happens: the school year ends, and Knausgaard leaves the village forever, and suddenly all those questions are behind him, with new experiences lying ahead. Yet one is not disappointed. This is a novel—but it’s not a novel. It lacks even the remotest whiff of contrivance. And this is surely a major reason for this book’s appeal to writers and reviewers: many folks in the lit biz are, I submit, so jaded by the transparent artifice and familiar mechanics of conventional novels—the complications and foreshadowing, recognitions and reversals—that they find the sheer guilelessness of this book irresistible. What My Struggle offers is life, life itself; and life, it turns out, is, at least in Knausgaard’s hands, more than enough.

One thing about life itself is that it’s ideology’s antipode. I’ve mentioned Dag Solstad’s remark about coffeepots. It’s relevant here that Solstad isn’t just your garden-variety Scandinavian literary leftist but a onetime leading member of Norway’s now-defunct Maoist party, no less. Knausgaard admires the work of Solstad, who is probably the most respected figure on the Norwegian literary scene today, but rejects his politically rooted view of life and ideologically anchored aesthetics, asserting, with rather more assurance than usual, that “life . . . has no theory, only practice.” To a Scandinavian reader, at any event, it’s clear that Knausgaard’s very self-absorption, and his insistence on the importance of his (and everyone’s) identity as an individual, amount to a conscious, flat-out repudiation of the socialist ideology that suffuses Scandinavian letters. The same goes for his comments on life in Sweden, which, as it happens, is an even more lockstep leftist polity than Norway—its people, on the whole, a good deal more ideologically conformist, and more reflexively obedient to their political leaders and cultural-elite masters, than the more naturally independent-minded Norwegians. Norwegian authors tend to hold Sweden up as a social model, at least in part because they plainly envy the even more revered status enjoyed by their colleagues to the east. Not Knausgaard. He vents again and again about “this stupid, fucking idiot country.” The Swedish welfare state? It’s “subverted . . . masculinity, honor, violence, and pain.” The Swedish writers with whom he shares an office are so “full of radical-left goodness” that it’s impossible even to have a remotely realistic chat with any of them. He quotes his friend Geir’s observation that in Sweden, unlike Norway, there’s “a yellow line you mustn’t cross” in conversation, so for Swedes “it comes as a shock to read newspaper debates in Norway. What heated discussions they have! . . . That’s inconceivable here.” It’s all true, every word; and for a Nordic novelist to say it in public is gutsy and refreshing—in itself a not inconsiderable reason to admire the guy.

A word about the translation. With few (if any) exceptions, the critics in the English-speaking world who celebrate My Struggle either ignore the fact that what they’ve read is a translation or throw a few words of perfunctory praise at the translator. Don Bartlett has, let it be said, done a mostly fine job; but in a book like this, in which the author’s voice is so authentic, even the slightest false note is all the more conspicuous, and the fact is that Bartlett continually makes choices that are awkward or just a bit off—or, in a surprising number of cases, downright wrong. Too often, he cleaves too closely to the Norwegian text, reproducing its construction and punctuation when he would have better served the sense of the original by making a simple change or two. More than once, he forgets that while the Norwegian equivalents of “both,” “either,” and “neither” can precede lists of more than two items, the English words can’t. His translation contains innumerable errors that are minor but whose cumulative effect is distracting: he writes alright for all right at least a dozen times; repeatedly renders the word forfatterskap, in the sense of oeuvre or “body of work,” as “authorship”; writes “over the autumn” for “in the autumn”; refers to college course “points” instead of “credits”; and so on. He has Knausgaard saying things like “in forty years from now” and “small talk is one of the infinite number of talents I don’t master.” He commits ambiguities, moreover, that could easily have been avoided: when we learn that somebody has published a book containing “pictures of boxers,” it’s unclear whether he’s been photographing dogs, pugilists, or underpants.

As I approached the end of Volume 5, it occurred to me that all that appeared to be left for Knausgaard to recount was the writing of My Struggle itself. Could it be that the main topic of this work’s 1,100-page concluding volume would be the composition of the early installments of this very same novel? If so, it seemed like a bridge too far—too much self-absorption for even a fan to take. But, yes, the last volume is indeed about the writing and reception of its predecessors—and it proves to be more engaging than anything that’s come before. Facing the imminent publication of this megawork’s first three volumes, Knausgaard e-mails them to several friends and relatives whom we’ve encoun­- tered along the way—some of whom he hasn’t seen in half a lifetime and whom we haven’t heard about for thousands of pages—to ask how they feel about the way he’s portrayed them. His ex-wife signs off on his depiction of her; a girlfriend from his school days is touched that he remembers so much; his brother writes him an uneasy but affectionate letter (reproduced in its entirety in Volume 6) in which he reluctantly grants him permis­sion to go ahead. But his father’s brother, Gunnar, explodes with rage, presenting an account of the family’s history that’s almost entirely at odds with Knausgaard’s own version and accusing him of carrying out a vendetta against the Knausgaard clan on behalf of his mother, whom Gunnar describes as a cold, vindictive monster—a characterization that stuns Knausgaard. After receiving Gunnar’s missive, Knausgaard wrings his hands over it for hundreds of pages, discusses it with his wife, friends, and editors, and wracks his mind over the tormenting question: might any of Gunnar’s charges actually be correct? Could his own memory be so unreliable? Is his magnum opus the product of a prejudice of which he himself is unaware? If so, “then everything collapsed”; the possibility that his memory has betrayed him so thoroughly strikes at “the very premise of the novel”—and at much else besides, namely his own sense of himself and his world.

If this last volume proves to be the most interesting part of My Struggle, it’s because of the way that all this material takes us, Knausgaard’s readers, back to where we started, and because after all these hundreds of pages we feel almost as if we’ve been living his life with him—almost as if we are him—and, further­more, because Gunnar’s letter throws the whole novel into question in two distinct ways. First, what is the morality of writing such a book? Here we are, having had a window on Knausgaard’s entire life, and suddenly we’re confronted with the question: have we, as readers who have happily lapped all this stuff up, been party to an unethical act? Second, how true are Gunnar’s claims? We can’t expect that every little detail in My Struggle is entirely factual, but exactly how unreliable are Knausgaard’s memories and perceptions of the people he’s written about? One’s sense of identity with him, built up over all these long volumes, is so intense that it’s almost possible to forget that one is just his reader and not his friend; while Knausgaard is hanging on the phone with various intimates who try to console or cajole him out of worrying about his uncle’s e-mails, none of them says precisely what one is thinking: namely, that the reason he’s reacting so strongly to Gunnar is that Gunnar is psychologically tormenting him just as his father did; he knows where Knausgaard’s buttons are and he’s pushing them with sadistic relish; and Knausgaard, having escaped his father’s tyranny and sought throughout his life, and especially with this book, to jettison some of the emotional baggage with which his father’s bullying burdened him, owes it to himself—to his present self and his childhood self—not to let Gunnar replicate his father’s abuse. Seeing Knausgaard in distress, one wants to pick up the phone, call him, and spell it all out for him (and invite him out for a drink).

No, this is no ordinary novel.

Eventually, Knausgaard’s anxiety about his uncle’s accusations plunges him into broader philosophical reflections about the nature of literary creation, the relationship between the real world and the words that seek to describe it, and associated topics. “Why write?” he asks himself. “What is writing?” In these pages, My Struggle, which for most of its length has seemed to be the least meta of fictions (or nonfictions), dives deep into the postmodern end of the pool, and even for a reader who is usually turned off by excessively self-aware literary works, Knausgaard’s seemingly unpremeditated wandering into these parts yields passages that are nothing less than electrifying.

As noted, My Struggle has been immensely popular among Knausgaard’s countrymen. Yet although the dust jackets of its translations into various languages are emblazoned with the words “international bestseller,” all but a very few serious book buyers outside of Norway have in fact chosen to give it a pass—a subject about which the New York Review of Books actually ran an article in July, reporting that U.S. sales, at that point, totaled 32,000, and British sales 22,000. These aren’t bad figures for your average novel, but they’re surprisingly low given the nearly unanimous, ecstatic praise that’s been bestowed on Knausgaard on both sides of the pond. Detractors have been few and far between; among the most fervent is William Deresiewicz, the title of whose takedown, published last May, asked bluntly: “Why Has ‘My Struggle’ Been Anointed a Literary Masterpiece?” Amusingly (and not at all unjustifiably), Deresiewicz likened My Struggle to Norwegian state TV’s recent “minute-for-minute” broadcasts of a seven-hour rail trip and a days-long boat journey—shows that have been wildly popular at home but that would be mercilessly mocked by audiences almost anywhere else on the planet. Rejecting the assertion that Knausgaard draws one into his experience, Deresiewicz maintained that the book’s “method kept shutting me out . . . Who cares? . . . Who is he to think his life is worth this kind of treatment?” Deresiewicz was one of three dissenting writers quoted last May in an otherwise laudatory New York Times article about My Struggle, and it was interesting to notice that all three had slammed Knausgaard in left-wing organs—Deresiewicz in The Nation, John Crace in The Guardian, and Ben Lerner in the London Review of Books—and that their antipathy was clearly motivated in no small part by Knausgaard’s anti-socialist sentiments.

To be sure, Knausgaard’s critics make valid points; as Deresiewicz argues, he’s far more interesting on his adulthood than on his childhood and far more interesting, as an adult, when he’s with other adults than with his children. And, yes, there are undeniable parallels between this highly personal, tell-all novel and such contemporary pop-culture phenomena as reality TV and Facebook. And, yes, again, as Deresiewicz insists, it’s absurd to compare Knausgaard to Proust; I can’t imagine that even a passionate admirer would argue that he’s a stylist on anywhere near that level. Consider the very last sentences of Volume 3, when the teenage Karl Ove and his family are moving away from his childhood home, and we’re given this apparent attempt at a lyrical flourish:

. . . it struck me with a huge sense of relief that I would never be returning, that everything I saw I was seeing for the final time. That the houses and the places that disappeared behind me were also disappearing out of my life, for good. Little did I know then that every detail of this landscape, and every single person living in it, would forever be lodged in my memory with a ring as true as perfect pitch.

Reading this passage, one can’t help comparing it unfavorably not only with Proust but also with any number of distinguished memoirs—Marcel Pagnol’s My Mother’s Castle and Nabokov’s Speak, Memory were the ones that first came to my mind—in which the authors describe their early years in eloquent, richly evocative prose. By contrast, not only are the details here relentlessly generalized (“houses,” “places,” “person”), without a single specific image, but Knausgaard, by insisting on the vividness of these particulars in his memory, only underscores their lack of vividness on the page. (What, by the way, can it mean for a memory to be “lodged . . . with a ring as true as perfect pitch”?) So, no, he’s no Proust. But he’s not trying to be. He’s trying to do something very different, and very much his own. He’s stated explicity, both in My Struggle and elsewhere, that, as he sees it, that’s the only really important thing that a worthwhile novelist does: he comes up with his own way of rendering reality, to which any given reader may or may not respond. In the present reader’s view, he has succeeded at this task quite remarkably indeed.

 

[1]MY STRUGGLE, by Karl Ove Knausgaard, trans. by Don Bartlett. Archipelago Books. BOOK ONE. $18.00.  BOOK TWO: A Man in Love. $26.00. BOOK THREE: Boyhood. $21.60. (Also available from Farrar, Straus and Giroux: BOOK ONE, $16.00p. BOOK TWO, $18.00p.; BOOK THREE, $16.00p.)

HUDSON REVIEW, Winter 2015