Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle and the “Knausgaarding of Literature”
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The other day I got into a minor Twitter spat with the culture writer of a major magazine. He was complaining about “the Knausgaarding of Literature” — the trend of plotless, “boring” novels.
Why do people love to hate the Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard? As the six-volume, three thousand plus page, Hitlerian-titled, autobiographical novel passes the midpoint of its publication, has Knausgaard fatigue set in? Who has time to read a book that long, even in serial form?
For the uninitiated, My Struggle is, at its root, an examination of a single man’s life — that of Karl Ove Knausgaard. Book One focuses on the death of Knausgaard’s alcoholic father, weaving from the present back through early teenhood. Book Two takes on his early adult life, marriage and birth of his children. Book Three jumps back to his early childhood in rural Norway. And being published in English this week, Book Four, focuses on Karl Ove’s year spent teaching in northern Norway as an 18 year old and his epic quest to get laid (or more aptly his epic quest to not prematurely ejaculate).
Hating Knausgaard, or more circumspectly, hating his novels for their alleged boring nature where nothing ever happens is to completely miss what Knausgaard sets out to accomplish. His themes — the mundanity of life, the exploration of shame, the circular nature of family and time — are written in contrast to the modern desire for literature that provides a mindless reading experience, aka books like television.
“…nothing ever happened! Nothing happened. It was always the same. Day in, day out! Wind and rain, sleet and snow, sun and storm, we did the same…
What was it all about?
We were friends, there was no more than that!
And the waiting, that was life.” [Pg. 180, Book Four]
Of course, people can take Knausgaard as they like. But to simply write him off as boring is a mistake. His books are filled with moments of drama, the drama of daily life, of a boy in love with a girl in his class, of a father preoccupied with his daughter making friends at a child’s birthday party. Book One opens with an audacious seven page meditation on death:
“For the heart, life is simple: it beats for as long as it can. Then it stops. Sooner or later, one day, this pounding action will cease of its own accord, and the blood will begin to run toward the body’s lowest point, where it will collect in a small pool, visible from outside as a dark, soft patch on ever whitening skin, as the temperature sinks, the limbs stiffen and the intestines drain.” [Pg. 1 Book One]
I met Knausgaard once, briefly, last year in New York City at the restaurant where I worked. He came in for dinner after a reading and conversation with the British author Zadie Smith to promote Book Three. He was tall, grey-bearded, yet hunched over, as he describes himself, always trying to hide the fact that he is much taller than others around him. Surrounded by Zadie Smith, Hari Kunzru and a veritable Algonquin table of prominent authors and artists, he barely spoke a word the whole evening. Only in a quiet, shy voice from time to time would he ask me for another beer. When ordering, he politely nodded and ordered the first things I pointed out to him on the menu. He truly is shy in public, as attested to by author Jeffrey Eugenides, in his recent review of Book Four in the New York Times Book Review, where he recounts the silence that befell the two prominent authors when they met for lunch.
At the end of the evening I leaned in to Knausgaard and told him how much his work meant to me as a young writer. His eyes came alive as the others at the table laughed in shock that even their waiter had read his books. He asked if I’d read the new volume yet and when I said no, pulled out a copy and personalized it to me.
There is a passage in Book Four that stands out, as Karl Ove struggles to describe and understand how one transfers internal thoughts to external words. He says:
“I moved to the sofa and started writing my diary instead. ‘Have to work on transferring the moods from inside to outside,’ I wrote. ‘But how? Easier to describe people’s actions, but that’s not enough, I don’t think. On the other hand, Hemingway did it.’” [Pg. 360 Book Four]
And later on:
“When I washed my hands I stared at my reflection in the mirror. The singular feeling that arose when you looked at your own eyes, which so purely and unambiguously expressed your inner state of being both inside and outside, filled me to the hilt for a few intense seconds, but was forgotten the moment I left the room…” [Pg. 372 Book Four]
“Perhaps the gulf between the person I usually was and the one I became when I drank was too great. Perhaps it was impossible for a man to have such a wide gulf inside himself. For what happened was that the person I usually was began to draw in the person I became when I was drinking, the two halves slowly but surely became sewn together and the thread that joined them was shame.” [Pg. 360 Book Four]
And this, ultimately, is the point of My Struggle: To stare into the depths of our internal humanity and dissect it to its very core. Interest in Knausgaard has perhaps waned. To be honest the first two Books of My Struggle seem to hold a greater urgency than the next two. One can only look so far into the past for so many pages without a bit of fatigue setting in. But fatigue, in literature, as in life, is just a part of the struggle. What I am curious to see, what keeps me reading Knausgaard’s My Struggle, is what keeps us all going: the desire to see what will come to pass, what is possible, before the final sip of pumping bloods, stasis, unbound, finally comes to rest.
by Karl Ove Knausgaard