Karl Ove Knausgaard had already written two prize-winning novels before he began My Struggle (Min Kamp), which runs to a Proustian six volumes and more than 3,500 pages. It was called a “novel” in his native Norway but deliberately given no label (neither novel nor memoir nor autobiography nor creative nonfiction) by his publisher in the United States. An enormous success in Norway, My Struggle was purchased by approximately one of every ten Norwegians. In Europe at large it has done very well also. Almost certainly its sales were helped by the controversy surrounding it. First, there is the issue of its title, the same Hitler chose for his own autobiography and ideology. Second, members of Knausgaard’s family (and his ex-wife) publically resented being represented in the book, and some resented their particular representation. (We remember the outrage Truman Capote’s friends expressed when they found themselves in his books.) I have read only the first volume (Archipelago is going to be publishing at least some of the others), so I cannot judge what offenses reside elsewhere, but it seems to me that the only character whom one is likely to judge harshly here is the writer’s father, a bias that begins to take shape after reading the first pages. And even then, we don’t learn a great deal about the father. Why he is cruel, why he is so angry and contemptuous, and why he drinks himself to death remain mysterious. Knausgaard doesn’t analyze him (it’s possible that, because of their estrangement, the writer doesn’t have enough information, either); he merely presents the facts of their interactions.
In this country we are used to people revealing the intimate details of their lives, and others’ lives, on television, on radio, in print, on Facebook. In Norway, not so. An incident late in the book makes this clear. The writer, his older brother, and their grandmother sit in her kitchen, all drinking multiple glasses of vodka. The father has just died, and the cleanup job in the house, where Knausgaard’s father also lived (indeed he had essentially barricaded himself and his mother in), is Herculean and stomach-turning. Presumably the alcohol is a much-needed release. But the writer, without thinking, places the bottle in the kitchen window, and both the grandmother and the brother are shocked and upset—not because they are drinking so soon after the father’s death, not that they are imbibing the thing that killed him, but simply because the neighbors will know they are drinking.
The passages describing the elimination of all traces of the father’s destructive end in “the house of death,” as Knausgaard calls his grandmother’s house, occupy many pages of the book and are some of the strongest parts of it. What we are shown is not just evidence of disease—alcoholism promises an ugly death, sans dignity, sans consciousness, almost sans humanity—but also evidence of moral decay. But it seems to me that the power of this section of Knausgaard’s book is that it nonetheless rises above morality: his presentation of death is grave, awful, intensely and relentlessly physical, and yet also, paradoxically, unknowable, the final Other. It is possible that Knausgaard’s father, a stern, demanding, hypercritical, unforgiving, unsentimental man, might approve of this one thing, at least, that his son has accomplished. For the reader, there is something salutary in the writer’s refusal to deny death its terrible dominion.
My Struggle is a work about a boy’s and then a young man’s attempt to become someone other than who he is: to become older, accomplished, attractive to women, respected, an artist. The young Karl is sensitive, insecure, nervous, frightened of his father, full of dread, inclined to cry, sometimes filled with self-loathing, particularly during his adolescence; he is physically healthy but not emotionally strong. From his mother he learns what he can about how to relate to other beings, but still he regards emotional “closeness as a necessary evil.” The book, which some have described as a work of hyperrealism (which is fundamentally opposite to magical realism) presents in great detail the minutiae of his life, minutiae we sometimes call “the real world,” even down to the stray, meaningless sounds we make in conversation, such as “hmm” and “um.” Because Knausgaard’s adolescence is much like any boy’s adolescence (except for the peculiar nature of his fraught relationship with his father), the first half of My Struggle sometimes becomes a struggle to read, unless one is really captivated by the countless mundane details of living; of this sort of thing, less really is more. This exhaustive presentation of the surface of life, as if it somehow captures the reality of life, is a mistake and the reason why realism (whose impetus was largely to reject romanticism), when rigorously practiced in literature, was and is unreadable. (Art is as much about excision as it is about creation; meaningful order rather than chronology.) Fortunately, this approach (which is powerful if the details involve degradation, death, and decomposition) is not the only thing we find in Knausgaard’s book. There are occasional lyrical descriptions of nature; the writer captures the fears and anxieties of childhood, its internal realities, quite well; he has some very interesting things to say about art; and there are some provocative philosophical remarks to be found as well.
Why Knausgaard devotes as much time and language as he does in this fairly long novel to the “realistic” aspects of his enterprise (the mundane, the prosaic) is an important question. Two passages in the novel suggest an answer. One morning he sits on a bench in subzero weather, taking a break from writing My Struggle and observing the comings and goings of people in his new neighborhood. He reflects that once he knows the neighborhood better, he will cease to notice it. About anything, if “you know too little . . . it doesn’t exist. You know too much and it doesn’t exist. Writing is drawing the essence of what we know out of the shadows. That is what writing is about. Not what happens there, not what actions are played out there, but the there itself. There, that is writing’s location and aim. But how to get there?”
And in another, much longer passage, which I shall abbreviate here, he reflects on art. He prefers art created before the twentieth century (Constable can move him to tears), though he recognizes that it belongs to the past, when there was still a sense of the “great beyond,” often simply called the Divine. For the Romantics, Nature was the repository of these categories of apprehension. But in the last century, Knausgaard writes (and signified by the paintings of his fellow Norwegian Edvard Munch), “for the first time, man took up all the space. It is as if humans swallow up everything, make everything theirs. The mountains, the sea, the trees, and the forests, everything is colored by humanness. Not human actions and external life, but human feelings and inner life.” There is more than a note of loathing here, and indeed self-loathing of a peculiar kind: loathing of being human.
What he himself aims at (ironically in an autobiography) is to remove human feelings and inner life from the there. I think Knausgaard has hit upon something, as far as the visual arts are concerned. Fortunately, however, literature cannot be stripped of the human. We have to be there, heart and intestines, mind and spirit; even when trying to shrink our dominion over the world, we must comment on our intention and reveal our anguish.
The first sentence of My Struggle is “For the heart, life is simple: it beats as long as it can.” Knausgaard then segues to a clinical description of death’s attendant processes moving through the body, which reads like a depiction of water flooding a strange, allegorical landscape. His work ends with death too: he returns to look at his father’s corpse in the funeral parlor once more. After days of weeping, which neither he nor his brother can account for—so hated was their father—he claims to feel nothing. There is, he says, no difference between his father’s body and the table it is lying on or the electrical socket in the wall—and, more important, he implies there never has been. The language of the last sentences is startling and beautiful (which I will not spoil here for the reader) but the entire book has worked to show that human beings are not just another life form, any more than life is simple for the heart.