Karl Ove Knausgaard concludes his autofiction epic
IT IS ONE THING to write down the shameful truth of what you really think about someone else; another to publish that shameful truth inside a novel. It is, perhaps, a third thing to use, within your novel’s pages, that person’s actual name, and a fourth to render it all in prose whose rawness will flatter no one. It is something else, however, if that person is your wife.
“Oh, I was so completely in the shit,” thinks Karl Ove Knausgaard in My Struggle: Book Six. This thought, which occurs on page 43, captures much of the spirit of the pages that follow, of which there are eleven hundred.
Book Six brings My Struggle, after 3,600 pages, to an end. And so it has been subtitled, ominously—“The End.” Here, the writer who writes (and writes) about himself must write about that experience, too, and we duly find out what dinner-table conversation was like at the home of that very determined Norwegian who, between 2007 and 2011, got up at 4:30 am every weekday, sat down to his desktop computer in Malm�, Sweden, and for a few hours did his best to mention in print all that was unmentionable about his life, stopping only when his three small children woke up and demanded he make them breakfast. Book Six tells this story: the struggle behind the Struggle. No one will be shocked to discover that all the prizes and praise have only brought Karl Ove more pain. There’s also the small problem of having linked his name for all time with you-know-who. “Turns out he’s read Mein Kampf,” as his then-wife, Linda Bostr�m, tells him of a new friend. “Hitler’s, that is.” She met her friend at the Malm� mental hospital. She went there voluntarily not long after reading Book Two, among whose radical aesthetic moves was a scene recalling the time Karl Ove got drunk and tried to cheat on her. “It’s always struck me that I was a sailor’s wife,” she tells him. “But now it’s the other way around. Now I’m the sailor.”
There’s more than one way to escape the burdens of being middle-class. An experimental autobiographical novel singularly immersed in its author’s psyche, in which all elegance is abandoned, tedious experiences are embraced, and the act of shitting is evoked, at one point, as “AAAAAAGGGHHH!!,” My Struggle was an instant surprise hit when its first installment appeared in Norway in 2009 (and where Book Six appeared in 2011); an estimated one in nine adults in that country now owns a copy. The success made Knausgaard famous, and in so doing rejuvenated “autofiction” as a form. It’s a form that can look a little formless, as Knausgaard’s fame can seem closer to infamy. In turning his life into literature, he landed himself in the tabloids. For this he may thank, in particular, his “Uncle Gunnar,” one of My Struggle’s few pseudonymous characters, who took exception to certain aspects of Book One. For instance, the part where Dad’s lying on the floor over at Grandma’s drunk and shitting himself: According to Gunnar, his nephew made up this incident, and many others. Can Karl Ove trust his memory of “the most important story in my life”? In Book Six, Gunnar’s emails start coming in at around the hundred-page mark. It turns out that Uncle Gunnar is a writer too. “The subject line said ‘Verbal rape.’ Opening it was out of the question.” Perhaps it isn’t autofiction until a family member threatens to sue you.
Book Six opens in 2009, with Book One in the final stages of prepublication. Its first scene is a literal nonstarter: Karl Ove, who has rented an Audi, can’t figure out how to switch on the ignition. It would be unlike him to just walk back inside and ask how: What if “they took the vehicle away from me once I had revealed such towering ignorance?” Much, much more like him to sit in the darkness of the garage contemplating his own futility, as he does. The failure to function in modern life is nothing new to these books, nor the yearning for machines that were simpler, or maybe not machines at all, and soon Karl Ove will be looking at a cruise ship in the �resund strait and attempting to pretend it isn’t there, to imagine his way back in time: “No, the seventeenth century wasn’t that long ago.” Alas, for the next four hundred pages Karl Ove will disappear all too often down that most modern of abysses—email.
It’s a technology that, in its mixture of the addictive (the new message) and the monotonous (the months, the years of new messages), mirrors something essential about My Struggle itself: so interesting to me as I read it, page by page, so not-that-interesting (I have been reminded) to other people as I talk about it. (Some Norwegian workplaces have supposedly instituted “Knausgaard-free days.”) Knausgaard has a knack for locating the drama that lurks within tedium, and it’s a tribute to his facility with the most recalcitrant of materials that these parts are never dull. There are even moments, metaphysically weird, where you wish Karl Ove would interrupt his own story and go check what’s in his inbox. The lawyers are emailing the publishers; the publishers are emailing him; and he must email all these characters from his past with his strange request: May I use your life for my art? There’s a message from his brother, Yngve, who’s just read the manuscript. The subject line is “Your fucking struggle.” “Just wanted to scare the hell out of you,” the message starts.
One surprise of Book Six is how accommodating just about everybody was of Karl Ove. It’s moving to read (the wholly unliterary) Jan Vidar, his sidekick from Book One, express his support for his old friend’s journey to the limits of self-exposure: “I must say the book knocked me out.” Jan Vidar read Book One in a peat hut in Finnmark. “The number of people we come close to during our lives is small,” Knausgaard reflects,
and we fail to realize how infinitely important each and every one of them is to us until we grow older and can see things from afar. When I was sixteen, I thought life was without end, the number of people in it inexhaustible. . . . But what I didn’t know, or rather had absolutely no conception of, was that every step I took was defining me, every person I encountered leaving their mark on me, and that the life I was living at that particular time, boundlessly arbitrary as it seemed, was in fact my life. That one day I would look back on my life, and this would be what I looked back on. What then had been insignificant, as weightless as air, a series of events dissolving in exactly the same way as the darkness dissolved in the mornings, would twenty years on seem laden with destiny and fate.
The transformation of the arbitrary into the inevitable, of the insignificant into fate: There is no more beautiful statement in all of My Struggle of its great theme. In its long, wandering sentences, in which so much that is unalike is swept up and suspended, the grammar seems to stretch to accommodate this contradiction: that details mean both nothing and everything. Geir Angell, Knausgaard’s best friend, comes to visit, and their conversations, rendered over pages, go everywhere: marriage, fascism, children, masculinity. It is less a meeting of minds than an emptying out of them. Or a dumping out of them. Karl Ove: “I’m an engineer of the soul.” Geir: “I’d say garbage man of the soul would be more accurate.”
Knausgaard has a winning way, in My Struggle, of making himself out to be the stupidest guy in every room. It helps explain why most people seem to have a soft spot for Karl Ove, in spite of his many issues, which he so lavishly documents: his laughter problem (he can’t laugh), his crying problem (he cries a lot), the fact that “my eyes made me look like I was glaring even when I felt most at ease.” (Neutral observers have summarized the Knausgaard face more simply as “so good-looking.”) In these little discrepancies between self and self-image Karl Ove can seem less like a conduit for Knausgaard’s thoughts than a character he’s made up, slightly ironized. It’s an impression that gains strength as Book Six picks up speed. The closer Book One gets to the printers, the more Karl Ove seems to shrink from its consequences. He can’t bear to look the people he’s written about in the eye, as he can’t bring himself to read Gunnar’s emails. “What other letters are there,” as he puts it, “but letters from reality?”
To shield yourself from an email in which you are rebuked for exposing a secret is, of course, not consistent behavior. And yet it is typical of Karl Ove as a character, whose intense shame at what he cannot help from blurting out (as he puts it to Gunnar) “torments me severely”: “Why couldn’t I keep all the badness to myself like other people did?” In this novel—in all of My Struggle—that is the million-dollar question. Indeed, it’s the question raised by all autofiction, this version of fiction without the fake parts, the made-up names and stories. It’s still a fake space that’s left at the end but now the people in it are real, and to have shattering insights into them and their lives is a little dangerous. When you look up from the page, they’re still there. Why name names and denigrate the dead and lay waste to your marriage and scar your children when, with just a little artifice, no one has to get hurt? Why dispense, as Knausgaard puts it, with “the ‘as if’ of art”?
MY STRUGGLE IS A midlife-crisis story: Having seen the death of his father, a man realizes his life has no meaning. So he decides he will match this meaninglessness in his prose. It’s an aesthetic decision, but it’s also a tantrum. The result is a book full of sentences like this:
I drained my drink and poured myself a fresh one, took out a Rizla, laid a line of tobacco, spread it evenly to get the best possible draw, rolled the paper a few times, pressed down the end and closed it, licked the glue, removed any shreds of tobacco, dropped them in the pouch, put the somewhat deformed roll-up in my mouth.
Zadie Smith has suggested that the attention to the small stuff of the Knausgaardian style (perhaps the word is fixation) is in fact the expression of a kind of “mindfulness.” Which, no doubt, it is. Say what will you about My Struggle’s lack of polish, Knausgaard writes prose you look up from and start to notice things about the world. And yet you could equally argue, as Knausgaard often seems to imply, that what is really going on is mindlessness. In Book Two he confesses that it is the visual arts, and not books, that above all inspire him. Particularly, the relief they provide from words: “There was something stupid in this . . . which perhaps was the most important single element of what I wanted to do.” Can stupidity be a literary strategy?
If you use a Nazi title for your autobiographical novel, as Chekhov might have put it, you incur certain dramatic obligations. Thus, in the center of Book Six, comes the 440-page book-within-a-book called “The Name and the Number.” It contains close readings of texts by such figures as Paul Celan, Giorgio Agamben, Martin Heidegger, Ren� Girard, and Emmanuel Levinas. Also Mein Kampf, “literature’s only unmentionable work,” which Knausgaard analyzes in a quasi-academic attempt to make sense of why Hitler, in the 1930s, was so incredibly appealing to the German people. He sees parallels in his own popularity. “The notion of life as a struggle was by no means confined to Hitler,” he writes. No quarrel there.
That a Norwegian hyperrealist would compare himself to the Nazi dictator, who ordered the extermination of six million Jews and started a war in which fifty million people died, is, on the one hand, arbitrary. It is almost funny. To go by the textual evidence—of which there exists, indeed, a superabundance—politics aren’t really his thing. While some Norwegians, presumably, must reckon existentially with an earlier generation’s Nazi past, Knausgaard’s grandparents did not serve in Norway’s collaborationist Quisling regime. He has even admitted, somewhat disappointingly (Knausgaard is the patron saint of the disappointing admission), that writing about Hitler wasn’t originally the plan. He was led there by his title. Which, he might as well further admit, wasn’t actually his idea. It was Geir’s. Knausgaard had been calling his work in progress Argentina.
In an alternate universe, do 440 pages exist comparing a tanner, mellower Karl Ove to Juan Per�n? Jorge Luis Borges? Diego Maradona? I would doubt so. Because while the Hitler stuff is, on the one hand, totally arbitrary, it is, on the other hand, inevitable. It is inevitable in the sense that Godwin’s pseudoscientific law (“As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Hitler approaches one”) says that it is. It is inevitable because to try to be serious is, in some way, to demonstrate that you don’t know what seriousness is. To write about the most evil man in history in the middle of the last book of the epic story of your life is indeed to suggest such a thing.
This uncertainty as to seriousness, of not knowing what the weight of experience is—the literary term is bathos—is My Struggle’s pervasive feeling. It’s the feeling, both thrilling and confusing, of encountering somebody who doesn’t know the unwritten rules. They are unwritten because they are deep inside us; they are the rules of society, which are part of our identity. On every page of My Struggle we are reminded of these rules, which human beings follow instinctively and as a matter of self-preservation, because Knausgaard disregards them. We feel viscerally that he shouldn’t be telling us what we nonetheless can’t stop reading because we know exactly what he means. It might be that this information is obscene, as in the shitting scenes of Book Three. It might be that it is embarrassing, as in the premature-ejaculation saga of Books Four and Five. Or it might be nearly criminal; you aren’t supposed to admit to your (unacted-on) sexual attraction to a thirteen-year-old girl, as Knausgaard does in Book Four. It might even be that it is unspeakably trivial. We aren’t supposed to talk about that either.
It comes down to a kind of manners, which society requires from us, and which Knausgaard the writer is unconstrained by. He isn’t rude or mean; he’s weirdly free. He is looking at humanity from a place most people haven’t been and probably can’t get to. “Only someone who stands outside the social world,” Knausgaard observes, “knows what the social world is.” Notably, he’s writing about Hitler here. He, too, said the unsayable.
Of course, literature also has manners. They go by the name of style. But Knausgaard spurns that as well. This aspect of the Knausgaard experience has been much commented on: his reliance on clich�s, his redundancies (“What a stupid idiot I was”), the metaphors that instead of bringing phenomena closer seem to widen the distance between them (“the sunshine . . . which hung like a veil of light over everything”). Ben Lerner, a writer with a lovely style, has wondered, semi-seriously, if Knausgaard in fact has no style. And in Book Six, Knausgaard sheds some light on this very point. For he writes that “style is little more than self-awareness.” Is it possible to write 3,600 pages about yourself without self-awareness?
Perhaps a lack of self-awareness is precisely what makes writing such a book possible. It requires a style cramped by nothing, not even literature itself, and a freedom that only cutting ties with others can truly bring. It’s well known that, not long after he finished My Struggle, Knausgaard and Linda, its dedicatee, divorced. “This novel has hurt everyone around me,” Knausgaard writes in Book Six. “It has hurt me, and in a few years, when they are old enough to read it, it will hurt my children. If I had made it more painful, it would have been truer.”
That the true is also the painful is a problem for which Knausgaard doesn’t offer a solution. He started writing My Struggle when he was enraged and in despair and by the end of it he felt bad in a new way. “Unfortunately it was me who had to go up,” he notes of winning the Brage Prize for Book One. “The statuette was as heavy as a murder weapon.” In Book Six, he quotes Henry James: “In art, the emotions are the meaning.” In Knausgaard, the meaning is volatile; these emotions will never rest. The exhilaration of confession becomes the angst of remorse, the drunkenness of setting it all down in print becomes the hangover of seeing the book in stores. My Struggle is a monument to candor with few precedents in human history, but then so is Keeping Up with the Kardashians. What makes My Struggle so compelling is that Karl Ove will never forgive himself for it. Is it the unforgivability of these books that makes them great art?