LIFE INUNDATING ART: KNAUSGÅRD BRINGS HIS LENGHTY STRUGGLE TO AN END
WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW, so the famous edict goes. And read? It’s said reading helps us to understand others. But what do we, as readers, make of a writer like Karl Ove Knausgård, who has taken the above advice on writing to the extreme, producing a work of labored personal observation? It’s not the Other we find in his work; at least not, if like me, the reader is Western, middle-class and male. It’s the Self with a capital S.
Knausgård’s candor is key to his work’s appeal. While his audacity may make some cringe, his honesty – or apparent honesty – also has the capacity to beguile. Reading this lengthy novel, coming in at over 3,500 pages and released in six volumes, is thus both an infuriating and compulsive experience. Yet to focus only on what Knausgård reveals limits the work, and lets him off too easily. It is not every wart, blemish and scar that recommends his multi-volume autobiographical novel, Min Kamp, translated into English as My Struggle, the final volume of which is now available in English; it is how he lines up each wart, blemish and scar side by side. Disappointment and elation, domesticity and carnality, literary ambition and adolescent lust, thoughts on literature, language and history – some displaying real intelligence and some, such as his discussion on Hitler and Nazism, less so – are all revealed in a matter-of-factness that prioritizes nothing, except perhaps the act of telling.
A number of forms, or approximations of forms, jostle over the volumes, which are almost self-contained works. There is a volume reflecting on death – namely his father’s; two that read as coming of age stories; another that is a love story of sorts, a künstleroman that only manages to portray the artist’s immaturity; and a meta-novel, though more realistic than ironic. Unifying the work is a style that is mostly unremarkable, though with occasional flares of brilliance. In one passage in the final volume, The End (2018), Knausgård reflects on his father’s destructive alcoholism with uncharacteristic passion. Adopting his father’s perspective – a rare move in a work so centered on its author – Knausgård writes, “People are small, but I’ll drink myself smaller.” The sentence pivots on the two meanings of small. The word can mean both “petty” and “an undersized stature.” The sentence elegantly switches from one sense to the other. It is a rare poignant gem among the strata of more everyday dirt.
However, the dirt may be the point. There’s certainly a copious amount of the stuff – figuratively, at least – in the following passage:
After a few hours of forests, lakes, vertiginously steep mountains and narrow fjords, farms and fields, a ferry and a long valley where the bus was high up a mountainside one minute and right down by the water’s edge the next, and an endless succession of tunnels, the frequency of houses and signs began to increase, there were more and more populated areas, industrial buildings appeared, fences, petrol stations, shopping centres and estates on both sides of the road.
Fredric Jameson was right to characterize Knausgård’s style as “listing.” On other occasions, in place of piles of detail, the tone is downright awkward, or at least it reads that way in translation. Knausgård could be commended for his skills of mimicry, for capturing the thoughts and speech patterns of his younger self, but lines like “As she moved away, I had a stiffy” raise the question whether perfect imitation is skill enough. This question becomes harder to ignore each time Knausgård clumsily expresses his sexual desires and flagrantly waves about his self-doubt, which he does insistently in Dancing in the Dark (2015) and Some Rain Must Fall (2016), the novel’s fourth and fifth volumes, respectively.
Yet despite this “dirt,” or perhaps because of it, the work is compelling. A significant part of that appeal lies in its unadorned narration. The scenes where we get to observe Knausgård’s children or his own childhood, when we get to listen in on Knausgård’s lengthy conversations with his friend, the writer Geir Angell Øygarden, draw us in with their open-ended depictions. None of them feel forced. They don’t read as though they’ve been “machined” to fit into his story. The work captures, as well as literature can, something of the lived experience. Knausgård’s children are sources of both elation and frustration, while his own childhood is marked by freedom, innocence and fear. His conversations with Øygarden touch upon the trivial and profound. The absence of varnish only draws the reader in more. The book reads like a “true” portrayal of his life and not a quote factory.
The “style-less” style can even set up moments that are truly elegiac. They are arresting for the simple fact that, until they appear, we haven’t been so focused on the writer’s inventiveness. Thus, when a passage becomes more expressive, conforming more to expectations of literary art, we can be sure it has come from an “honest” or “real” place. This effect is especially evident at the end of the first volume, Death in the Family (2012). After taking the reader through the (purported) squalor of his father’s last days, and doing so in a way that made the depicted filth seem strangely intimate, Knausgård reflects:
And death, which I have always regarded as the greatest dimension of life, dark, compelling, was no more than a pipe that springs a leak, a branch that cracks in the wind, a jacket that slips off a hanger and falls to the ground.
The clarity of the image, and its subtlety, make it one of the most arresting passages in the whole work. It seems to do exactly what literature should do, i.e., say something without speaking forthrightly, leaving the reader to do the work; work that in turn bestows a pleasure upon completion. The passage expresses a truthfulness we see and feel but could never prove, and wouldn’t dare to even if we could.
By The End (2018), Knausgård is calling this effect into question. He starts by comparing his depiction of death as inferior to that of the Austrian writer, Peter Handke, who wrote about his own mother’s suicide in A Sorrow Beyond Dreams (1972). Knausgård judges Handke’s work to be “truthful in its insight and the way that insight is conveyed.” Part of the truthfulness, for Knausgård, stems from the fact that Handke’s mother is not represented but only referred to. Moreover, Handke is commended for his lack of mercy in his depiction of mother’s life because, as Knausgård contends, without mercy Handke’s truthfulness can emerge.
Whether this is an accurate reading of A Sorrow Beyond Dreams is less important than how Handke’s novel is presented as a foil for Knausgård’s own. Knausgård admits to attempting to represent his father and make him “an object of the reader’s own feelings.” In assessing the passage above from A Death in the Family, he writes:
[It] was beautiful, it was something, whereas what it described was nothing, empty, neutral, as hopeless as it was merciless.
In other words, this passage displayed mercy. And mercy, for him, is found in beauty, which is in turn problematic because it “imparts a kind of hope.”
Readers may come to the same conclusion about truth and beauty without Knausgård’s intrusions. But there is much more going on, more that he is trying to say – and it may have little to do with truth. At one level, Knausgård’s self-referentiality and even his discussions on art and history can be viewed as a natural extension of his commitment to unsparing realism. Writing and thinking are as integral to Knausgård’s reality as are his trips to the kindergarten, grocery shopping, cigarettes, dinners and coffees with friends, and his marital strain. Beyond this, his determined, all-embracing realism offers insight into what he’s doing with language, a relationship that becomes clear in light of his assessment of the poet Hölderlin. Knausgård believes that, for Hölderlin, a world without language is utopian. The utopia springs from the lack of distinctions brought by language where everything “[stands] out in its own right.” He even connects, in the first volume, the formation of meaning to pain. While he recognizes that language is a shared phenomenon, he points to Nazism as an example of how evil can emerge from this collective way of being, from the “we” found in language. In typical fashion, he takes thousands of pages of language to develop these points.
But if utopia for Knausgård is a world without language, what does this abundance of words say about My Struggle? Is it a dystopia? Not exactly. Rather, Knausgård constructs a sort of anti-utopia in which both writer and reader are stuck in an endless state of searching for meaning in the world. Moreover, as he writes, that meaning isn’t to be found in the world; it is “not a property” of it, but rather something we attach to it. Taken together, it’s not hard to view this act of attachment as endless. If no true meaning is to be found in the world, then it must come from the individual’s endless creation of it. My Struggle in a sense performs this continual proliferation of language, pushing it as far as it can go. The novel breaks the world down, but is left with more world to wrestle over, in yet more words. Knausgård and his world have no final meaning. Nor does the novel.
For all his copious writing, other people, except for his father, don’t register much beyond names and lines of dialogue. Knausgård’s portrayal of his ex-wife, the poet Linda Boström Knausgård, and her mental breakdown, which Knausgård documents at the end of the final volume, feels flat. Amidst so much Self, the Other is obscured. His approach results not only in an injustice of sorts to all those in his life, it impacts the reader, too. Rather than being lost in the new, or swallowed up by the prose, wondering at the Otherness of the world, I found the clarity and directness made me compare the minutiae around me to those on the page. I was brought full circle, back to my own Self – even if only to wonder why, at times, I was reading this.
RYAN SCOTT is a writer and translator based in the Czech Republic.