Reality Hunger: The Six Books of Karl Ove Knausgaard, Part I




 

Editor’s Note: Later this month Archipelago Books will publish, in an English translation by Don Bartlett, Book Four of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six-book autobiographical novel My Struggle (Min Kamp in Norwegian). For those readers still wondering whether to wade into this literary experience, and for those readers already committed to the hypnotic accumulation of everyday detail that is My Struggle, we this week feature William Pierce’s three-part look at the international phenomenon that is Karl Ove Knausgaard, a novelist whose belief that nothing is too trivial to go unremarked has sparked a kind of rethinking about how and why we are compelled to portray reality.

 

Part I: The Pleasures of Being Alive


It was like / A new knowledge of reality.

— Wallace Stevens, “Not Ideas About the Thing but the Thing Itself”

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JUST DAYS after finishing Book One of My Struggle, an unusual six-part novel, I took a train from Boston to New York to see if I could meet the author, Karl Ove Knausgaard. This was last June, after the release of Book Three. His New York Public Library appearance was sold out, but there were two other events scheduled, and the writers lined up to hold public conversations with him gave a hint of the excitement people were feeling: Zadie Smith, Nicole Krauss, Jeffrey Eugenides. In my duffel I’d packed Book Two, but already the first volume was enough to make the trip a kind of pilgrimage for me.

My Struggle — 3,600 pages in Norwegian, which Don Bartlett is translating at a rate of one book per year — sets out in astonishing and dispassionately forthright detail the struggles both large and incidental of a life: a boy, a young man, a father, navigating his days in Norway and Sweden. Knausgaard has a gift for analyzing precisely the self at the center of the narrative without in the least neglecting the pleasures of being alive. Rarely have I felt more gripped by a novel.

I arrived at Community Bookstore in Park Slope two and a half hours early, having mistaken the start time. Already there were people waiting. I left and came back. By then, with an hour to go, only a few seats were available. Two women stood up so I could climb past their chairs to an out-of-the-way bench no one had noticed. People were comparing how far they’d read, talking about the rave reviews, commenting on his good looks. In The New York Times ArtsBeat blog the next day, John Williams wrote: “About 30 minutes before the start […] people packed the entire space in a scene more reminiscent of the calm before an indie-rock storm than an author appearance. Ezra Goldstein, an owner of the store, approached a microphone. ‘Don’t get excited,’ he said. ‘This is just a sound check.’”

My imagination had constructed two not entirely unrelated images of who the writer might be: the taciturn, somewhat antisocial Karl Ove, the character from the novel (its protagonist shares Knausgaard’s name and biographical details), or, alternately, the dismissive hero suggested by the author photographs and some of the early reviews — an overnight sensation only accidentally literary, whose cigarettes, long hair, and sex appeal seemed to emphasize offhandedness. The first of these would be impossible to get to know, the second would be insufferable.

When he arrived, we applauded and caught images on our phones. He was more handsome and magnetic than in pictures, his silvery hair combed straight back, his public smile infectious. But during the ensuing conversation with Nicole Krauss, I was struck by how private the hour felt, how much Knausgaard seemed to think things through as he spoke rather than reciting paragraphs he’d delivered a hundred times before. He talked slowly, with his shoulders hunched, his hands alternately clasped and gesturing, his forehead wrinkled. He came across as modest, thoughtful — full of hurt and humor. Or maybe it was jetlag. I was as drawn to the man as I’d been to Book One.

The next night I waited for him again, at McNally Jackson Books in Greenwich Village. A line extended halfway down the block — 100 people or more — even after the lower level, where he’d be appearing with Zadie Smith, had filled. Some in the audience stood behind bookshelves, others sat on the wide steps, and still more listened from upstairs. It reminded me of accounts of Dostoevsky’s reception late in his life, when an adoring public thronged his dedication of the Pushkin Monument.

When the Q&A at Community Bookstore ended, the entire audience — maybe 200 people in a space designed for far fewer — transformed into a signing line. I hung back, watching and listening, hoping my friendship with his American publisher would give me license to meet Knausgaard at a quieter moment and join in for whatever was happening after. And that’s how it went. We sat in folding chairs on the back patio — me, the editors of Archipelago Books, the staff and owners of the bookstore, a representative from his Norwegian publishing house, and Knausgaard, drinking can after can of Dale’s Pale Ale, a few of us bumming Knausgaard’s Marlboros — and talking late into the night.

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I didn’t plan to write about it. I simply wanted to thank whoever had written those pages. But on the train ride home, when I turned to my iPad and the many reviews and responses I hadn’t read yet, the first I landed on was William Deresiewicz’s in The Nation. He writes of My Struggle, which was originally published in Norwegian from 2009 to 2011:

The book […] is not exactly a minute-by-minute account of the author’s life, with all the tedium that that implies, but it comes as close as you could wish […]. Volume I devotes some sixty pages to a New Year’s Eve the year the author turns 16: putzing around at home until it’s time to get going, smuggling beer with a friend, hitching to a lousy party, getting the brush-off from a popular girl.

Nothing “happens in the writing,” he tells us. And he quotes James Wood and Zadie Smith, big fans of Knausgaard’s, on such things as the transparency of the prose and the writer’s “apparent refusal […] to shape or select” — or, as Deresiewicz translates this, his “renunciation of art.”

For me this was akin to being told the emperor had no clothes when I could plainly see what he was wearing. During those New Year’s Eve scenes, I’d felt a particular tension to find out what happens next through all of the beer-smuggling and the ride-hitching. And what’s more, I felt Knausgaard giving and withholding information in a way calculated to lure me.

Even positive reviewers struggle to say how Knausgaard keeps us interested, as Hari Kunzru suggests in The Guardian:

The commentary on My Struggle tends to focus, as I have in these paragraphs, on the phenomenon of the book’s publication, rather than the writing itself. It is peculiarly difficult to get a grip on what makes the book so compelling, because much of it appears painfully banal.

The slyness of his word appears is wonderful. To the Lighthouse can appear banal, too, if you strip it down to what happens.

But many reviewers seem to have taken to heart Knausgaard’s formulation, which he repeats frequently, about putting everything into this one project, writing it all, as if My Struggle were a brain dump. If we decide the author has artlessly regurgitated what he remembers and by dumb luck the vast spill of it just magically works (or not), we can skip asking how the book functions. We can stop looking for what it’s about. We can believe, as Deresiewicz seems to, that it renounces meaning. And we can start making Knausgaard whatever we need him to be, or whatever the novel and our collective moment seem to imply he is.

When I was 12 and 13, I was in frequent fistfights at school. I hardly bothered to dream of being included in the social goings-on in town, not wanting to be picked on and get myself into more fights. So, using the excuse of distance — we lived miles outside the then-small town of Hershey, Pennsylvania — I spent weekends in the basement, organizing my collections of army gear, animal skeletons, rocks, beer cans, and HO trains, or reading Hardy Boys and then sci-fi and fantasy novels.

Maybe that goes some way toward explaining why I care instantly when Karl Ove wants to join a New Year’s party he’s not invited to. The plan is, he’ll go to a party where only his friend Jan Vidar knows anyone, and then, at midnight, when Norwegians take to the streets to celebrate, he’ll switch — if he dares — to spend time with his classmates. As he and Jan Vidar arrange to get beer, as he kills time at home, as he walks in the dark to Jan Vidar’s house, as they bus into town together, I want him to succeed. I also feel his anxiety, which in the narrative is expressed only in the drawn-out complexity of his preparations. The preparations bear his anxiety, and our attention bears ours, whether present or remembered.

For each of us, My Struggle seems to be a different book. Maybe Kunzru means that the surprise of My Struggle is not just how compelling it is, but how difficult it is to describe that compulsion in a way that seems to apply or transfer to other readers. Let enthusiasm beget enthusiasm — but each person’s addiction to My Struggle feels personal.

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Knausgaard has said he was experimenting with how far he could take digression, but the novelty here is that one reader’s digression can be another’s main thread. For me, the risk of boredom came only late in the book, as Karl Ove cleans his grandmother’s house after his father’s death. The details are exquisite, but the whole affair goes on disproportionately long. As James Wood points out in The New Yorker, this thoroughness immerses us in Karl Ove’s emotional transference, the enacting of his grief and embarrassment. While we can hardly mistake the suspense in a Tom Clancy novel — where it begins and what causes it — Knausgaard’s dramas are, like the work of another hero of mine, the Swiss novelist Robert Walser, of such consistently small amplitude that every footfall can either fade away or resound like an earthquake.

Book One opens not with narrative but with an extended consideration of how Westerners spirit away the dead. “What exactly it is that is being repressed, however, is not so easy to say. It cannot be death itself, for its presence in society is much too prominent.” A sensibility asserts itself immediately — curious, skeptical, matter-of-fact, dissatisfied with things-as-they-are, intent on finding less obvious meanings, but, especially, committed to giving voice to what others keep to themselves. “The way we remove bodies has never been the subject of debate, it has always been just something we have done […] if your father dies on the lawn one windswept Sunday in autumn, you carry him indoors if you can, and if you can’t, you at least cover him with a blanket.” This is a “collective act of repression.”

Soon enough, on page 11, a scene opens, and we are watching the child Karl Ove sitting alone watching TV. What he sees on TV surprises him. He goes off to tell someone, but the only person home is his father, a man he’s afraid of. With this, a trademark oscillation is established, from reflective essay to in-the-moment narrative and back again. The earliest scenes are set in the Norwegian town of Kristiansand, where the young Karl Ove lives with his parents and brother. Then — in another of the book’s oscillations — the story jumps forward in time, to the Swedish city of Malmö and the “present” of Karl Ove’s adulthood: “As I sit here writing this, I recognize that more than thirty years have passed.” Now Karl Ove is the father of three children. He is married and a writer. In the shift from essay to narrative, Knausgaard asserts the freedom to move thematically and associatively. In the shift from childhood to adulthood, he frees the book from expectations of chronology and builds in a reflective layer — the perspective of intervening years. Malmö represents the book’s temporal limit (My Struggle moves backward and forward, but rarely all the way to “now”) and gives the first signal that we might be reading memoir. Karl Ove — the boy who cries too much and has a stutter — declares that he’s the author.

Finishing those early sections, I felt I would follow the story anywhere, so addictive was the odd but familiar sensibility that gives the book its atmosphere. I craved the immediacy of it, the unrushed urgency, wanted access to that rebellious openness. The Malmö sections gripped me more personally: here was Karl Ove chafing against domestic life just as I was, questioning the decision to become a parent just as I did, loving his kids as I love mine. Simple identification maybe, but tuned to a particular range of the bandwidth. Whenever the narrative returned to Kristiansand, everything was pleasant anticipation for me, a digression that, page by page, amped up the sense that something big was coming. I read on.

The long arc of that suspense didn’t stop me from feeling other, shorter-lived tensions along the way, like those leading up to the New Year’s party, and I’m convinced this nesting of one set of expectations within another is not something I’m alone in experiencing with Knausgaard. The split-screen view — our mind’s eye looking ahead while also held by the present — reminds me of another celebrated storyteller, Queen Scheherazade in One Thousand and One Nights. Her stories are freighted beyond what happens in them — each is a lifeboat keeping her alive, but only as long as the story is absorbing enough to make us and Shahryar forget she has an ulterior motive.

With a novel that operates like the unstressed Japanese language, in which every syllable is given equal weight, Knausgaard achieves texture in part by empowering the reader’s imagination to impose its own emphasis. Again and again, I am like the reader of John Cheever’s “Montraldo.” Its narrator steals a diamond ring from Tiffany’s in the first paragraph — a setup so powerful that we stay alert and anxious through a quiet story in which thieving and its consequences never come up again. But in My Struggle, what suspends me, what keeps me engaged, may or may not be the same thing that propels another reader. In her Slate essay “Her Struggle,” Katie Roiphe reads Knausgaard for the novel’s takes on domesticity and child-rearing; my friend Rosamond craves the passages on cooking and food; another friend, Sumita, listens for Karl Ove’s outsized sense of responsibility, recognizing her own. Different readers are ignited by different reappearances and resolutions. As Francine Prose wrote in Harper’s: “It is Knausgaard’s structure as much as his subject that shades every moment, no matter how seemingly mundane, with significance.”

Knausgaard says he wrote My Struggle quickly. He says he was letting it all out and that he refrained from writing only what his body wouldn’t let him write. Of course, when a scene or image came to mind, he couldn’t necessarily write it straight away without interfering with the tale he was in the middle of. But I’d go further and say he made a fetish of holding in as much as letting out. His restraint shapes every page of the book. He alludes to this in an interview with Kyle Buckley at Hazlitt: “There’s one thing that I’m interested in in the whole book, or a couple of things, and everything else is excluded. […] So it’s very narrow, even if it’s 3,500 pages, it’s very narrow.” His urge to write each sequence to its conclusion — and yet, often, not to do it all at once but to braid in other narratives — is a structuring urge. The smallest moments are tributaries that lead to the larger streams and into the main current. Everything helps him tell what he’s telling, do what he’s doing — it all gives rise to, and supports, a larger point. Knausgaard is a composer who takes opportunities when they come, bringing back the French horn to recall an earlier passage, letting the piccolo reprise the theme first played long before by the oboe.

Everywhere, Knausgaard cultivates a parallel-worlds sense of what is through-line and what is digression — while I read for a parent’s chafing against domestic life, you read for ambivalence about a father. He suspends us but doesn’t micromanage what is the exhale and what the held breath. This is mastery analogous to the kind Julio Cortázar achieved when, with Hopscotch (1963), he gave us a book whose chapters could be read in different orders. Did he write the book you read if you encounter Hopscotch in an order that’s never been tried? Of course he did. Yet the possibilities are beyond counting.

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In its parts, and in the whole they form, this massive canvas has a meaning beyond its themes of childhood and childrearing, losing a parent and falling in love. With My Struggle, Knausgaard makes a bid — a huge, quixotic one — to restore the possibility of awe, which stems less from the length of the book or its focus on his life than in its colossal ambitions for what a novel can achieve.

In Book One, the narrator pauses to describe a shift in the history of Western art. Norwegian painter Edvard Munch represents the new mode:

Whereas man was subordinate to the Divine through to the Age of Enlightenment, and to the landscape he was depicted in during Romanticism — the mountains are vast and intense, the sea is vast and intense, even the trees are vast and intense while humans, without exception, are small — the situation is reversed with Munch. […] 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.

In Munch, the human infuses everything in the frame; every tree has become an expression of emotion. There’s a terrible loss in this: “Here we are in a world of images where the expression itself is everything, which of course means that there is no longer any dynamism between the outer and the inner. […] Everything has become intellect, even our bodies, they aren’t bodies anymore, but ideas of bodies.”

From the first pages of Book One, Knausgaard intends a corrective. He wants to tease aside emotion and leave only the ungraspable strangeness of what remains when we die, the radical otherness of material things. “Death,” as the narrator expresses it later, “is the last great beyond.”

Knausgaard brings back landscape and scale, he restores object and sequence: he attempts (and fails, sure) to re-achieve the sublime, to situate us in our true context of accident, coincidence, surprise, and mystery.

He aims to make the human small in the landscape, while also keeping the human where we know it has to be in our lives: at the center. He is resolutely if regretfully post-Freud, post-Derrida: every life is experienced from the vantage of a single consciousness, we’re all bounded by ourselves, held to the limits of our own perception. We can’t escape even the awareness of those limitations anymore. In this light, Deresiewicz’s charge that implication — and to a large extent this means emotion — figures less in My Struggle than in nearly every other novel becomes the description of a hard-won technique. Implications appear in the background, while objects and landscapes are situated in the foreground. In fact, they haven’t dominated this much since perhaps the novels of Thomas Hardy. Kitchens appear as kitchens, skies as skies, coffeepots as coffeepots. They do not figure as metaphors, they don’t mirror events or amplify our sense of a human drama. They don’t function as a carefully timed soundtrack. There isn’t a sudden thaw when someone’s happy, as in Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, icicles dripping in the sunshine. A cold day is just butt-cold, no matter how much pleasure or relief enters the frame. This attachment to the material, to everyday objects, shrinks the human even while the structure of the novel affirms at every moment that we’re helpless to witness anything except through the lens of our witnessing. Knausgaard paints a Constable using the palette of Munch.

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At times it might seem that Knausgaard isn’t fashioning much of anything. His style, or seeming lack of it, has been a subject of discussion — but what is it that constitutes style? I remember Michael Hofmann saying he’s no fan of Kafka because Kafka is not a stylist. I’m a fan of Kafka’s in part because he is. Dostoevsky certainly isn’t. There maybe everyone can agree. Russians tend not to give a damn about him anymore because, they insist, he was such a terrible prose writer. I love Hofmann’s translation of The Radetzky March by Joseph Roth. Roth is a stylist in the way of Saul Bellow or Thomas Mann — brilliantly exploring language while also limited by a traditional sense of what goes into a literary style. That kind of writing can feel ancient even when it’s brand new. Virginia Woolf, in her fiction at least, resists that kind of classicism. Her turns feel radically unexpected, from the sentence level to the whole. But where does the difference lie? Does her truest revolution take place in diction, syntax, rhetoric, figure, structure, or in all of the above?

Despite the lack of ornament, Knausgaard’s prose has a distinctive flavor. There are subtle shifts from book to book, yet the matter-of-factness, his drive to lay things out without ego or deference, gives the prose the same appealing flatness you hear in his speaking voice. Even as its timbre rises and falls, a deep monotone rides beneath, as in the background of Gregorian chant. There are exceptions — moments of goofiness, a memory of enthusiasm that colors the prose — but the baseline is the note of life forthrightly and unceremoniously considered, as if Knausgaard were looking back on the world after death, with a great fond tolerance, a highly interested disinterest.

Deresiewicz is underwhelmed by the plainness of Knausgaard’s seeing. He quotes what he takes to be a no-brainer of a comparison between two descriptions — one that works for him and one that doesn’t:

I happen to be reading Updike at the moment. Here is his description of a young woman in an unfamiliar surrounding: “She is serious, a serious small-faced animal sniffing out her new lair.” We don’t just see her; we see into her. Here is Knausgaard’s description of a girl he liked at age 11, his first serious crush, as emotion-saturated an experience as one can imagine: “She wasn’t very tall and she was wearing a pink jacket, a light-blue skirt, and thin, white stockings. Her nose was small, her mouth large, and she had a little cleft in her chin.” And that’s the first time that he catches sight of her, no less. I’m almost ready to fall in love myself.

For him the winner in this stylistic comparison is clear enough for mockery. And it’s true — there’s nothing in Knausgaard’s words here to mark them out as part of a literary masterpiece. But I don’t see Updike’s young woman at all. To me, in the description Deresiewicz quotes, she’s buried in cleverness.

Again and again, a split opens between what should work and what does. In Aspects of the Novel, E. M. Forster shrugs at the then fairly new orthodoxy, championed by Henry James, that point of view should remain consistent throughout a novel. “The whole intricate question of method,” Forster writes, “resolves itself not into formulae but into the power of the writer to bounce the reader into accepting what he says […]. Dickens bounces us, so that we do not mind the shiftings of the viewpoint.” Knausgaard, by analogy, bounces us also, yet for some critics a question has remained about whether it’s okay to let ourselves be bounced.

This recalls Kunzru’s canny formulation that much of Knausgaard “appears painfully banal.” In this, Knausgaard follows the audacious Flaubert, who starts his account of Yonville and the Bovarys by emphasizing how boring the town is. Madame Bovary mocks the falsely exotic — “pale landscapes of dithyrambic lands, that often show us at once palm-trees and firs” — and promises a deeper source of traction. If we don’t want to soak in a book’s atmosphere, then what’s the book worth? And if we do, who needs melodrama in far-off climes? It’s easy to forget how radically and consciously Flaubert was turning away from big plot, swashbuckling, political intrigue. We think of Madame Bovary as eventful. But the story is local, small-scale, domestic. While vowing to remove the author from the novel, to draw himself back to the point of absence, Flaubert saturated the book with a purified essence of himself, a sensibility that’s his alone. This is the reason the “boring” material of Yonville — this nothing of a small town, these unimportant people, a small-time doctor and his unfaithful wife — grips us even when it’s least eventful.

Flaubert’s direction was a new one, and now extends to Knausgaard. He doesn’t rely on literary floridries, carefully wrought surfaces, and he turns away from many of the common crutches, our palm trees — even from some that Flaubert not only retained, but also helped to develop as if in recompense for what he was giving up. And in the process Knausgaard shows that when nothing occurs beyond the ordinary — things like death and breakfast — and language is demystified enough to make Wittgenstein proud, the resulting quiet can open up space for a different kind of attention.

Above all, Knausgaard has dispensed with effusions of literary style. There is tremendous style here, endless moves that take brio and technical skill, but Knausgaard, rejecting embellishment, doesn’t let them declare themselves. On my trip to New York I met with novelist Sheila Kohler, who happened to be carrying Book One in her bag. A few days later she emailed me to marvel at its clever structuring: “The greatest of writers, of course, hoodwink us the best,” she wrote, “making us feel they are simply relating life. But if you look carefully they never are.”

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Read Part II of the series here.

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William Pierce’s fiction has appeared in Granta, Ecotone, and elsewhere. He is senior editor of AGNI at Boston University.


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