by Lee Klein
The original Norwegian editions of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six-volume My Struggle series, presented in thick ~500-page installments, have purportedly sold more than a half-million copies and won lots of prizes. If rumors of such critical and commercial success are true, even if only in Scandinavia, it’s good news for humanity, since these volumes lack traditional plot, let alone anything approaching bondage, vampires or wizards. Maybe it helps that Knausgaard, a respected author of two novels before he’d even started My Struggle, has a bold, sensationalist, attention-grabbing title appropriated from Hitler’s polemical autobiography, which forces readers to contrast his representation and impressions of his writing/family life with the Führer’s concerns? Or maybe the series has stormed across Scandinavia because its scope and approach suggest Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, but instead of tracing the past in rapturous, velveteen, serpentine effusions – every passage suffused with chrysanthemum dust – My Struggle presents something comparatively without affectation, a steady, solid, quotidian, flinty (albeit likely to burst into tears, like squeezing water from a rock) representation of and insight into what it’s like for one man to be alive.
In Fall 2012, both my mother and a grad school friend recommended the first volume to me, saying it sounded “up my alley.” They were right. It was way up there, in approach, accessibility, unpredictability, unexpected humor, and heft. For a few years I’ve been saying that fiction that feels like fiction is not my favorite sort of fiction. I’ll turn on a novel for an overwrought simile comparing a Gatorade cap to a crown of thorns. Maybe it’s just me, but I prefer fiction that feels unlike contemporary literary fiction. I’m not necessarily a fan of experimental or explicitly unconventional fiction, either. Turns out I just seem to prefer fiction that feels real. Twain said something like the difference between fiction and non-fiction is that fiction must be absolutely believable. Thomas Wolfe (the guy who wrote Look Homeward, Angel, not the guy in the white suit who wrote Bonfire of the Vanities) said that fiction is fact, selected, arranged, and charged with purpose. Both of these assertions apply to Knausgaard’s recent work, except I don’t think the author, at least as he presents himself in the My Struggle series, charges his selections and arrangements of fact with an explicit purpose other than trying to get as close as he can to the core of life. No conventional plot therefore, yet nevertheless engaging, consistently insightful, and almost recklessly sincere.
This series is a multivolume masterpiece of sincerity. It’s epic literary autobiography, worthy of the traditional and more recent meanings of the modifier epic. A Norwegian living in Sweden may have written it but it fulfills David Foster Wallace’s prophecy about post-ironic fiction in the United States: “The next real literary ‘rebels’ in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of anti-rebels, born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles. Who treat of plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction.” By now, at least as Knausgaard presents Sweden in this volume, the notion of “U.S. life” can be expanded to include Western Civilization’s so-called First World, including Scandinavia. Like DFW, Knausgaard covers significant territory across apparently infinite pages but he doesn’t do it in a look Ma no hands backflipping with a smile sorta way. All the formal elements of traditional fiction are in place, sans gimmickry. No attention-getting footnotes or images or power points or graphs or numbered lists or Danielewskisms. No masturbatory flights of language en route to the celestial sublime. No silly set pieces or big dance numbers at the end. No talking pieces of poo. Nothing included for a joke. No excessive modifiers or anything that feels like it’s not part of the author’s attempt to stay as close as possible to what he perceives as the core of things, the honest truth of life. He also realizes that such a project may seem megalomaniacal, and he addresses this more than once, never mythologizing himself, always his worst critic, always forcing himself to submit to humility.
What happens in this engrossing, readable, plot-less stretch of 543 beautifully formatted pages published by Archipelago? Mostly child care. Instead of the mythologized image of the author of the past, we find a 21st century house husband, considering himself feminized compared to how fathers once raised children, living in a homogenized culture thanks to international influence (as in Murakami, American fast food joints are name-checked, including Burger King and Subway): “Europe . . . was merging more and more into one large, homogeneous country. The same, the same, everything the same.” Karl Ove is a thirty-something Norwegian who’s left his first wife and moved to Stockholm, where, despite this sense of sameness, he can’t read clues revealing minute social gradients as he can in Norway. The author’s good friend Geir, another Norwegian writer living in Sweden, rants about the differences between Norway and Sweden the way some in Philadelphia may occasionally rant about the differences between Philly and New York. (Sweden is essentially more orderly. In Norway people bump into each other on the street. Norwegian academics don’t dress so well.)
The first volume ended with the author cleaning up the mess his recently deceased alcoholic father made, literally and figuratively. As with the second volume, it started in the recent past and presented a surprisingly fresh vision of the author with young children, at playgrounds, struggling with plastic contraptions meant to convey children across town. As in the first volume, these opening sections create a sympathetic image of a manly, cigarette-smoking Scandinavian author overrun by three children, loving them deeply, trying to control them, aware that this image of a father who gets down on the floor and plays with a rattle with his kids is relatively recent and yet by now pervasive:
What once had irked me, walking through town with a stroller, was now history, forgotten and outlandish, as I pushed a shabby carriage with three children on board around the streets, often with two or three shopping bags dangling from one hand, deep furrows carved in my brow and down my cheeks, and eyes that burned with a vacant ferocity I had long lost any contact with. I no longer bothered about the potentially feminized nature of what I did, now it was a question of getting the children to wherever we had to go, with wishes for an easy morning or afternoon. Once a crowd of Japanese tourists stopped on the other side of the street and pointed at me, as though I were ringmaster of some circus parade or something. They pointed. There you can see a Scandinavian man! Look, and tell your grandchildren what you saw!
His own upbringing had been strict, his father distant and scary, and so Karl Ove struggles with his father’s spirit inside him. He has a history with drink, too. In one riveting recollected scene in which he drinks himself into a world that’s narrowed to a dark tunnel, after the woman who will become the mother of his children humanely rejects him, he smashes a glass and uses its largest, sharpest shard to shred his face.
In both volumes, this opening fatherhood gambit won me over, made me willing to follow him wherever he went. In the first volume, it’s teen years playing in a terrible band and looking for a place to drink on New Year’s Eve. In the second volume, it’s his first days in Stockholm and the story of how he met his wife, Linda, the woman who helped him become who he is today: prize-winning successful novelist pushing around three young children in a stroller.
The central struggle in this volume is achieving a balance between family and art. He wants a family, three children like a little gang, but he also wants to be left alone to write. He has an “all or nothing” mentality, so this conflict drives the story. It’s all pretty deceptively simple:
For me, society is everything, Geir said. Humanity. I’m not interested in anything beyond that. But I am, I said. Oh yes? Geir queried. What then? Trees, I answered. He laughed. Patterns in plants. Patterns in crystals. Patterns in stones. In rock formations. In galaxies. Are you talking about fractals? Yes, for example. But everything that binds the living and dead, all the dominant forms that exist. Clouds! Sand dunes! That interests me. Oh God, how boring, Geir said. No it isn’t, I said. Yes, it is, he said.
David Foster Wallace’s 1990 essay “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction” concludes with questions about what will come after postmodern irony: “Real rebels, as far as I can see, risk disapproval. The old postmodern insurgents risked the gasp and squeal: shock, disgust, outrage, censorship, accusations of socialism, anarchism, nihilism. Today’s risks are different. The new rebels might be artists willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists, the ‘Oh how banal!’”
To which Knausgaard might reply: “For me it was trees and leaves, grass and clouds and a glowing sun, that was all, I understood everything in the light of this.”
An elaborated elegance makes this series what it is. Its patterns and formations feel organic and humble yet troubled and in no way understated. The form in the first two volumes at least suggests something like quiet majesty. It’s only as complicated as it needs to be, with simply dramatized scenes with plentiful short bursts of dialogue, summarized scenes, stretches of essayistic exposition, all in rotation in a way that I comfortably anticipated over time. Yet, despite what’s essentially a not very experimental form, the project itself as a whole seems unconventional, almost unhinged. Three thousand pages of literary autobiography about a middle-aging Norwegian writer and his wife and kids and friends and family? You kidding me? His kids don’t even suffer from Marcusian language pathologies? No empathic immersion in the presentation of other lives? No specific canonical biggie (despite the title and physical similarity to Proust’s multivolume masterwork) providing explicit formal and thematic support?
Of the young writers I had read there was only Jerker Virdborg I liked; his novel Black Crab had something that raised it above the mist of morals and politics others were cloaked in. Not that it was a fantastic novel, but he was searching for something different. That was the sole obligation literature had, in all other respects it was free, but not in this, and when writers disregarded this they did not deserve to be met with anything but contempt.
By the time of the second volume’s action, Karl Ove has written one well-regarded novel but the money is running out. He hasn’t written much of anything for four or five years. He’s included in an article about writer’s block and authors who’ve only written one novel. But he’s searching for something different, a way out. After seeing Bergman’s production of Ibsen’s “Ghosts” with his future wife, he has a model for the sort of work he wants to do in the future. The play offers a bright horizon for the author, and a guide to the book in the reader’s hands:
Everything was raised, higher and higher, the intensity increased, and within the tightly set framework, which in the end comprised only mother and son, a kind of boundlessness arose, something wild and reckless. Into it disappeared plot and space, what was left was emotion, and it was stark, you were looking straight into the essence of human existence, the very nucleus of life, and thus you found yourself in a place where it no longer mattered what was actually happening. Everything known as aesthetics and taste was eliminated . . . the details disappeared into the state they evoked . . . that was where I had to go, to what I had seen that evening. Nothing else was good enough, nothing else did it. That was where I had to go, to the essence, to the inner core of human existence. If it took forty years, so be it, it took forty years. But I would never lose sight of it, never forget it, that was where I was going. There, there, there.
This inner core of human existence manifests as conversations with friends, dinners at home, fights with a Russian alcoholic neighbor who blasts music in the middle of the night, irritation with his wife’s inability to pitch in around the house and thereby force him to do all the shopping, cooking, and cleaning, all of which gracefully revolve in the present, interspersed with non-linearly proceeding backstory. This sort of structure after a while feels like associative telescopic stargazing into the past, the present naturally filled with expanses of history. Inclusion of non-linear backstory makes the whole story feel real and alive, its edges open and scalloped instead of straight, orderly, contrived, and fictional, since memories tend not to appear in order:
Everyday life, with its duties and routines, was something I endured, not a thing I enjoyed, nor something that was meaningful or made me happy. This had nothing to do with a lack of desire to wash floors or change diapers but rather with something more fundamental: the life around me was not meaningful. I always longed to be away from it. So the life I led was not my own. I tried to make it mine, this was my struggle, because of course I wanted it, but I failed, the longing for something else undermined all my efforts.
A half-million Scandinavians might like Knausgaard in part because this longing for something more meaningful, his attempts to find meaning and beauty in the banalities of life, his struggles at home and with his artistic ambition, are the mark of a conventional protagonist whose obsessive desires are ceaselessly impeded by obstacles. It’s a double-bind in Knausgaard’s case: art impedes family and family impedes art. Like Homer Simpson’s famous revelation about alcohol, art and family are the cause of and cure for all his problems:
After I came home from Idö I realized that this was all or nothing, I told Linda I was moving into the office, I would have to write day and night. You can’t do that, she said, that’s not on, you’ve got a family, or have you forgotten? It’s summer, or have you forgotten? Am I supposed to look after your daughter on my own? Yes, I said. That’s the way it is. No, it isn’t, she said, I won’t let you. OK, I said, but I’ll do it anyway. And I did. I was totally manic. I wrote all the time, sleeping two or three hours a day, the only thing that had any meaning was the novel I was writing.
In the second volume, there are two exaggeratedly extreme acts: the drunken face-cutting when younger and the manic immersion that produces his second novel, A Time For Everything, risking his family for the sake of his art. So often I sympathized with the author’s situation. I read passages aloud to my wife involving discussions about day care so similar to discussions we’d just had. She began referring to the thick squarish hardback as my new best friend. As a father of a three-month-old daughter, a writer learning to balance family and art, this volume was even more up my alley than the first one about teenage drinking/bands and the death of his father. Yet, despite convergences, I would never go at my face with a shard of glass and I would never leave my family to live in an office for weeks to write a novel. Of course, it’s possible that neither of these extreme actions ever happened. It’s possible that these semi-sensationalist moments are straight-up fiction. But it feels wrong to type that, as though it betrays a trust established between writer and reader over more than 1000 pages at this point.
I don’t want to make it seem like this series was written only for me, since most likely its revelations about self, its honesty with itself and with the reader, bring the project close to more readers than one. But still, it’s a rare expanse of recently published prose that opines about Thomas Bernhard in the context of the narrator’s search for what he would do after his second novel: “No space was opened up for me in Bernhard, everything was closed off in small chambers of reflection, and even though he had written one of the most frightening and shocking novels I had read, Extinction, I didn’t want to look down that road, I didn’t want to go down that road. Hell no, I wanted to be as far from that which was closed and mandatory as it was possible to be. Come on! Into the open, my friend, as Hölderlin had written somewhere. But how, how?”
The clear answer to the preceding question is the book itself, a non-annoying narrative loop-de-loop. By the time the above quotation appears on page 409 we have a pretty good idea of how he’ll write his way out. I don’t in any way want to suggest that the book runs cutesy metafictional macros on the reader. It’s more like the second volume begins to catch up to the point in recent history when he began the project. Whereupon I foresaw an ending in which Knausgaard makes it to the absolute present, completely caught up with himself, writing about writing the sentence he’s writing . . .
Early on in the second novel he states that the work is its own reward. Sitting in a room alone working on what he’s writing is all he really wants. There’s something inexplicitly East Asian about his project, his interest in naturally occurring patterns, as though writing is not about creating another form of narrative entertainment or gaining an audience of readers but a meditation that produces text as traces of where his mind traveled whenever it achieved the solitude he longed for. As such, the primary enlightenment Knausgaard offers involves humility and endurance, presented in uniquely formatted short bursts followed by hard returns, amounting to the volume’s thematic climax on page 501:
If I have learned one thing over these years, which seems to me immensely important, particularly in an era such as ours, overflowing with such mediocrity, it is the following:
Don’t believe you are anybody.
Do not believe you are somebody.
Because you are not. You’re just a smug, mediocre little shit.
Do not believe that you’re anything special. Do not believe that you’re worth anything, because you aren’t. You’re just a little shit.
So keep your head down and work, you little shit. Then, at least, you’ll get something out of it. Shut your mouth, keep your head down, work and know that you’re not worth a shit.
This, more or less, was what I had learned.
This was the sum of all my experience.
This was the only worthwhile thought I’d ever had.
Again, part of the struggle for the author is to triage eventual criticism that he’s a self-serving megalomaniacal freak. He’s successful in this. He wins the reader over thanks to what seems like sincere introspection throughout. But also through well-phrased contempt for unnamed examples of the sort of self-serving mediocrities he’s afraid he might be or become:
How can you sit there receiving applause when you know that what you have done is not good enough?
I had one opportunity. I had to cut all my ties with the flattering, thoroughly corrupt world of culture where everyone, every single little upstart, was for sale, cut all my ties with the vacuous TV and newspaper world, sit down in a room and read in earnest, not contemporary literature but literature of the highest quality, and then write as if my life depended on it. For twenty years if need be.
But I couldn’t grasp the opportunity. I had a family and I owed it to them to be there. I had friends. And I had a weakness in my character that meant that I would say yes, yes, when I wanted to say no, no, which was so afraid of hurting others, which was so afraid of conflict and which was so afraid of not being liked that it could forgo all principles, all dreams, all opportunities, everything that smacked of truth, to prevent this happening.
Which pretty much sums up his struggle and suggests something hopeful about humanity if such a project has been so well-received in Scandinavia (and most likely will be in this country over time). Knausgaard succeeds in presenting the particularities of his conflict with such steadiness and clarity that it appeals on a deep level to a large readership. There are very few sensationalist details or betrayals of confidence that trigger voyeuristic impulses in readers. There’s very little sex, for example, and when it occurs it’s procreative, on a couch after watching a crappy movie. Ultimately, the sense you get from reading this series, the mental and emotional state achieved when silently immersed in its pages, is of connection with another human being, a man from a distant yet familiar place, like yourself in some ways but not in all ways, a man concerned with achieving existential fulfillment, stability, peace. In the end, the project itself seems like proof that he’s achieved a productive balance. There’s a sense that he’s able to write this My Struggle series while maintaining his family. Wikipedia says he’s still married to Linda and they live with their three children, and he’s clearly lived up to manifesto-like spiels about fiction in My Struggle:
Over recent years I had increasingly lost faith in literature. I read and thought this is something someone has made up. Perhaps it was because we were totally inundated with fiction and stories. It had got out of hand. Wherever you turned you saw fiction. . . . It was a crisis, I felt it in every fiber of my body, something saturating was spreading through my consciousness like lard, not the least because the nucleus of all this fiction, whether true or not, was verisimilitude and the distance it held to reality was constant. In other words, it saw the same. . . . I couldn’t write like this, it wouldn’t work, every single sentence was met with the thought: but you’re just making this up. It has no value. Fictional writing has no value, documentary narrative has no value. The only genres I saw value in, which still conferred meaning, were diaries and essays, the types of literature that did not deal with narrative, that were not about anything, but just consisted of a voice, the voice of your own personality, a life, a face, a gaze you could meet. What is a work of art if not the gaze of another person? Not directed above us, nor beneath us, but at the same height as our gaze. Art cannot be experienced collectively, nothing can, art is something you are alone with. You meet its gaze alone.
I suppose just because a purported half-million Scandinavians have read Knausgaard’s series doesn’t mean I should lump them together. But a great novel seems to bring its readers together, those who’ve shared an experience, each similar yet unique. There’s no question that this volume continues a remarkable series that I expect will have long-lasting influence, at least on me as I gulp down the remaining 2000-plus pages as they appear in English over the next few years. If Knausgaard’s project influences a generation of literary autobiographers, in theory, for now, it’s fine with me. I’d love to see more fiction that feels unlike fiction because it consists of fact selected, arranged, and charged with the purpose of presenting itself as real. Not hyper-real reality or semblances seen through the scrim of tasteful artifice, but as real as it gets, raw, unadorned, and awesome.
Discussed in this essay:
My Struggle: Book Two: A Man In Love by Karl Knausgaard. Translated by Don Bartlett Archipelago. 2013. 543 pages. $26.
Lee Klein’s writing has appeared in Agni, Barrelhouse, The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2007, The Black Warrior Review, Canteen, Full Stop, and many other sites, journals, and anthologies. Since 1999 he’s edited Eyeshot.net and in 2006 he earned an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He lives in the Cheesesteak Gardens neighborhood of South Philadelphia with one wife, one newborn daughter, two cats, and lots of books.