AT SIX VOLUMES and around 3,500 pages, without wizards or vampires, and bearing a title that will earn you some evil looks on the bus, Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle was an unlikely bestseller in his native Norway. But it’s a massive commercial success, with around half a million copies sold in a population of around five million. Its prospects here seem more limited. While it depicts, without changing any names, real events and people in Knausgaard’s life, it’s not exactly a memoir. It feels more like a novel than anything, and this is how Knausgaard refers to it. Despite claiming several times in My Struggle’s second volume, A Man in Love, that his memory is terrible, there’s a precision both to Knausgaard’s descriptions and recollections that renders its veracity suspect. The ambiguity that permeates the book (translated beautifully by Don Bartlett), the question of how closely it conforms to the reality that is its subject matter, isn’t, finally, a question of reportorial accuracy. Rather the microscopic attention Knausgaard devotes to everyday minutiae asks us to consider the novel form itself: whether we can continue to write novels and whether we can stop.
“Over recent years,” he writes, “I had increasingly lost faith in literature. I read and thought this is something someone has made up.” He finds in fiction, nonfiction, documentaries, and journalism the same dedication to telling stories until, “it made no difference whether what they told had actually happened or not. It was a crisis.” Fiction has so suffused the ways that cultures make meaning that the act of writing fiction, of making up stories, simply reproduces the same story over and over. Writing literature becomes just another way to erase the distinction between representation and reality, to negate the world-creating impulse that drives Knausgaard, and other novelists, to write in the first place. The lack of distinction between our way of describing the world and our way of creating it, what Knausgaard calls “the sameness,” is “mass-produced.”
Superficially, Knausgaard’s “crisis” seems like another version of ideas that have been kicking around for a long time: “the novel is dead” and “literature has been displaced by television” and “nonfiction has displaced fiction” and the rest of them. But My Struggle is something else. It is, in fact, one of the most ambitious and perverse attempts in our time to stop commodifying reality without ceasing to write about it. Rather than abandoning the novel in favor of ostentatious experimentation, My Struggle threatens to outpace its subject matter. Knausgaard wrote it quickly (the first volume was published in 2009, the last in 2011), and at times he must have been transcribing events into his book almost as they were occurring. It’s possible that the book could have continued on for decades and ended mid-sentence with an elderly Knausgaard dropping dead at the keyboard while rendering a stark but elegant portrait of his own heart attack.
A Man in Love opens a month after Knausgaard has finished writing Book One of My Struggle. He’s slogging through the summer heat with his three children, annoyed that he’s on vacation rather than working on his book, being chastised by his wife, Linda. For a book ostensibly about romance, Knausgaard begins in a black mood:
I would have left her because she was always moaning, she always wanted something else, never did anything to improve things, just moaned, moaned, moaned, could never face up to difficult situations, and if reality did not live up to her expectations, she blamed me, in matters large and small.
And yet the book’s title isn’t ironic. We see Karl Ove (as he’s referred to throughout) slicing his face with glass after being rejected by Linda, fainting after kissing her for the first time, welling up with emotion during the birth of his eldest daughter. Sitting at Linda’s 30th birthday party, he sees her, “filled with an inner light that made her beam and me proud: I was in a relationship with her. Proud and grateful, those were my feelings.”
Much of the book sees Karl Ove swinging from tenderness to cruelty, and back again. The rage he feels, the indignity of having to take his daughter to an infant sing-along, and his craving for solitude coexist with his admiration for Linda’s “all embracing” and “completely genuine” care for their daughter. Knausgaard refuses to reconcile the burning resentment he feels for his family and the equally intense love. There are no epiphanies, no moments in which the contradictions that drive and hinder Karl Ove crystallize into universalizable wisdom, and this is one of the book’s prime virtues. If there is any kind of realism in My Struggle, it’s not the realism of Balzac or Flaubert or Eliot or James or any of the other 19th-century giants of the form. It’s the realism of monotony and digression rather than plot, the realism of violent emotion that ends in just calming down rather than committing suicide, the realism of formlessness.
Drifting from a detailed account of buying some books, to going food shopping, to a rant about the state of literature, to a memory of separating from his first wife, Knausgaard’s prose renders everything on an equal plane. He addresses preparation of a simple dish of pasta with the same depth of concentration as he does questions about the ontology of the work of art. At one point, during a New Year’s Eve party, Knausgaard’s friend Geir says to him:
You can spend twenty pages describing a trip to the bathroom and hold your readers spellbound. How many people do you think can do that? How many would have done that if they only could? Why do you think people spend their time touching up their modernist poems, with three words on each page? It’s because they have no other option.
The modernist is a modernist because he can’t write, Knausgaard suggests by proxy, while his own freakish ability to write interesting sentences about any subject at all prevents him from experimenting. This might seem odd, but the ease with which Knausgaard churns out long, even-keeled passages of compulsively readable procedural description often rendered me insensate — in the midst of a sea of homogenously fine prose, there’s nothing to push back against.
Knausgaard’s epic has little in common with the minimalism Geir describes, but it is, in a way, a kind of reckoning with modernism. Knausgaard’s book asks us to consider the ways in which the very act of documentation transforms the raw material of life into art. Every one of his sentences, from a meditation on Paul Celan’s poetry to a description of a bowl of soup, seems to prod at its own enigmatic status, at once nonfictional and novelistic, infused with the continental modernism of Hamsun, Proust, Musil, and Sebald and yet profoundly skeptical of that same tradition. In a passage that sees Knausgaard wrestling with his desire to abandon the novel form for something else, he writes:
Stendahl wrote that music was the highest form of art and that all the other forms really wanted to be music. This was of course a Platonic idea, all the other art forms depict something else, music is the only one that is something in itself, it was absolutely incomparable. But I wanted to be closer to reality, by which I meant physical, concrete reality and for me the visual always came first, also when I was writing and reading, it was what was behind letters that interested me. When I was outdoors, walking, like now, what I saw gave me nothing. Snow was snow, trees were trees. It was only when I saw a picture of snow or of trees that they were endowed with meaning.
The world in itself is without meaning, tautological. Art, on the other hand, draws meaning from meaninglessness — the difference between a tree and a picture of a tree is not that of original to copy but that of void to plenum. And yet, the desire “to be closer to reality” in his writing — does that imply a desire to be closer to the tree itself, the meaningless tree that merely stands and gives nothing, or to the picture of the tree, which is rife with the artist’s meaning?
Knausgaard’s book continually poses this question. His preternatural facility for description, the dreamy thickness of his prose, speaks not only to the sheer pleasure his fiction affords, but to the philosophical stakes of that pleasure. For example, that bowl of soup:
She began to ladle soup into the bowls. Pale green rings of leek, orange slices of carrot, yellowy pieces of kohlrabi and large, gray pieces of meat, with reddish fibers in places, shiny, bluish surfaces on others. The flat, white bones it was attached to, some smooth like polished stones, others coarse and porous. All swimming in the hot broth, in the fat that would congeal as soon as the heat was gone, but that was floating around now like small, almost transparent, beads and bubbles in the cloudy liquid.
The fundamental incommensurability of language and the material world, the indeterminacy of the literary utterance, the infinitely regressive nature of the linguistic sign, any intellectual justification you might have for doubting language’s capacity to accurately represent the world — it all boils off in a bowl of Knausgaard’s soup. In moments like this, the writing almost seems to acquire something of the textures it describes. The uneven topography of flesh and bone, the waxen fate of a glob of fat, every detail suggests a sensuous reservoir that language cannot exhaust, and whose interest increases the closer we examine it.
My Struggle seems to serve as a vehicle for meditations of this sort. But it is fueled by sentences rather than ideas about sentences, and it holds itself together through line-by-line momentum rather than a sense that it’s on any particular trajectory. For a writer like Knausgaard, continually seesawing between a desire for the enclosures of sociality and family and a countervailing desire to be free from them, My Struggle holds itself aloft by striving to unshackle itself from the fictions of the novel and its compulsion to reproduce them. The struggle to write and to stop writing, to be with other people and to be alone, finds expression through an attempt to consign literature to the dust heap by transforming everything into literature. In this paradoxical investment and disinvestment in the literary project, My Struggle suggests a way both to continue it and overcome it.