The Past Is Useless

By Ben ParkerAugust 17, 2015

My Struggle: Book Four by Karl Ove Knausgaard

THE NOVEL DOES NOT vanquish its rivals. It incorporates them, like an amoeba — diminishing and neutralizing its competition by a strategy of inclusion. Many novels therefore contain a spectral double, another book trapped within their pages. Sometimes an author launches a polemic against an existing work, as in the second part of Don Quixote, when Cervantes parodies a spurious sequel to his own part one, written by Avellaneda of Tordesillas. In other cases, the work generates its own antagonistic double, a kind of internalized ventriloquism and self-reflexive criticism. Probably the best known examples of this are The Key to All Mythologies, the doomed scholarly project of Middlemarch’s Mr. Casaubon, whose mania for connections and syntheses is also a parody of Eliot’s narrator; the family ledger in Buddenbrooks; and the Tristrapedia, the complete system of education envisioned by the father in Tristram Shandy.

In the most recently translated volume — that would be number four — of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s autobiographical novel My Struggle, we come across another curious work that has been swallowed up by the text we are reading:

Among the items Dad left behind were three notebooks and one diary. For three years he wrote down the names of everyone he met during the day, everyone he phoned, all the times he slept with Unni, and how much he drank. Now and then there was a brief report, mostly there wasn’t.

A sample entry reads:

Wednesday 7 January.
Up early, 5:30. Pjall.
The shower was cold.
Bus 6:30 from Puerto Rico. Took a quick swig here too.
At the airport. Bought a Walkman. Dep. 9:30. Delayed—Kristiansand 16:40.
Flight to Oslo 17:05. Problem.
The same in Alta. Met Haraldsen here. Via Lakselv (−31 °C) Taxi home. Cold house. Warmed myself on duty-free. Hard day.

The father’s diary is a distorted mirror of the very book we are reading. In place of the prolix description and anxious self-insertion of the son, we meet a sullen, hardboiled concision. But there is also a family resemblance. We recognize the documentary impulse, the abrupt handling of time, the parade of brand names and uninflected other persons, and above all the discomfort and loathing that seeps into every situation. “Problem.” “Hard day.”

There is an obvious irony in the perplexed response of Knausgaard fils upon discovering the diary.

I understand why he noted down the names of everyone he met and spoke to in the course of a day, why he registered all the quarrels and all the reconciliations, but I don’t understand why he documented how much he drank.

But if anyone could tell us why someone “documented how much he drank,” surely it is the author of My Struggle! Knausgaard’s project can seem like a record of getting drunk, blacking out, and staggering through hangovers. So, what is the son’s novel doing that the father’s diary is not? If both forms give a history of everyone the author meets, where he went, what was painful, and what he drank — what is My Struggle supplying that is not available in the father’s telegraphic mode?

To bring the reader up to speed on the story so far: The first two volumes of My Struggle burdened Karl Ove (as we will call the central character) with heavy responsibilities. In Book One, his father finally succeeds in drinking himself to death, and Karl Ove spends hundreds of pages cleaning up the mess he left, knee-deep in bottles and the other detritus left over from a wrecked life. Book Two consists in the responsibility and irreversible implications of being a father, the draining and inane routines that cluster around the fragility and vulnerability of children. The “struggle” of the title is his failure to make this mundane life his own, to find himself in these responsibilities: “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.” Book Three jumps back to Karl Ove’s childhood in Norway, from ages six to 13, and here, too, he is dominated by another kind of consequence: not responsibility, but the ever-present fear of being caught, of having been neglectful or mischievous, and then punished or shamed by his father. Because his father was always observing and rebuking his children for the most minor infractions — such that when Karl Ove loses one of his socks he elaborately conceals his bare foot as though hiding evidence of some heinous crime — the atmosphere is one of stifling surveillance.

Book Four, however, is a record of fucking up without consequence. Now 18 years old, Karl Ove is on his own for the first time. He has finished school and taken a teaching position in isolated Håfjord, on the northern coast of Norway. At first this looks like a zone of absolute freedom: “Here no one knew who I was, here there were no ties, no fixed patterns, here I could do as I liked.” In the early pages of a novel, of course, this is a statement of hubris in search of a comeuppance, and the constraints begin to pile up with some predictability. Karl Ove finds it only takes 15 minutes to walk around the entire village. Teaching is basically babysitting. He sabotages his relationship with a girl who falls in love with him. Before the end of even the first semester, he concludes that “freedom existed everywhere but here.” Once this year is up, Karl Ove departs Håfjord, still having failed to accomplish his one goal — to lose his virginity (more on this later) — but having collected enough “material” for what would become his debut novel, Out of the World.

In other words, a young man exhausts the real-life coordinates of an idealized “freedom,” but in the process turns this disappointment into art. This is hardly a new tale, and on its own would not justify the critical attention that the novel has received. But within this basic narrative there is a yawning chasm, opened up by Karl Ove getting blacked-out drunk. A 200-page flashback begins: “I had experienced blackouts like this, after which I remembered only fragments of what I had done, ever since I first started drinking.” That is, drinking is a structural principle in My Struggle, not only a theme but a way to organize blocks of time. Karl Ove’s experience of blacking out occasions a long narrative detour into the past, but this is something like the opposite of Proustian remembrance, since to be drunk is to obliterate “enormous tracts of time of which I remembered nothing.”

Blacking out drunk, forgetting the night before, would be bad, very bad, if Knausgaard’s art was about memory. Both James Wood in The New Yorker and Ben Lerner in the London Review of Books characterize the project as one of “total recall.” But is memory the point? Certainly, for Knausgaard the writing of My Struggle was the only way he could deal with his past — but not at all in the sense of “exorcising his demons” or some traumatic-cathartic approach. Writing is not about remembering, it is more like blacking out. In William Pierce’s essay on Knausgaard for the Los Angeles Review of Books, he quotes Knausgaard talking about his process of writing the novel: “I knew things were going well when the next morning I read what I’d written the day before and didn’t recognize it as my own.”

The past, as the past, is useless.

When Karl Ove learns about his father’s diary, his question is, why write this down? Another way to put this: What is the relationship between writing and drinking? The usual formulas we have for talking about this — writing is about attentiveness, sympathy, and imaginative projection, but drinking is about absenting oneself, retreat, and numbness — have no place in My Struggle, where alcoholism and writing seem to be colluding, sharing functions and an unspoken agenda. As when one is driving on a country road that is sometimes called Rural Route 18, sometimes Old Post Road, but the GPS is continually telling you to switch over to the road you are already on, alcoholism and writing follow the same turns and cross over the same tracks. But just as the quaint local name drops out somewhere, and the road reverts to some numerical identity, writing keeps going past the county line where drinking stops.

In My Struggle, descriptions of drinking belong to an argument about freedom, presence, intensity, and closeness. To be drunk is to have “no limits,” an “intoxicating state of total freedom.” There is a horrifying recognition when Karl Ove sees his father drunk at his own wedding:

He was too much, he was too loud, he interrupted in the wrong places, laughed at nothing, uttered inanities, didn’t listen. Took offense, went absent for a while, returned as if nothing had happened.

Too much presence, too much absence, too much out of place, too little distance. This is Karl Ove’s humiliation at his father’s drunkenness. It is also the clearest statement of Knausgaard’s aesthetic objectives. Art is not about freedom, writing is not about closeness. If I could summarize the novel in one formula: the goal is to put things in their right place.

My Struggle is an attempt to create distance and partitions, to police psychic boundaries. (For example, drinking is a “new subdivision in my life,” separated by a “garden-fence-like” border from his standard personality.) The textures and devices of the book are best thought of as neutralizing tactics — in line with Knausgaard’s image of life as “a boat in a lock: life is slowly and ineluctably raised by time seeping in from all sides,” where this “enclosedness” is protective, regulating. Nicholas Dames has remarked on the “immersive” quality of the world conjured by the writing; this is right only provided we understand that immersion is a kind of threat or unwelcome outlet. Instead, writing means monitoring proximity, regulating intensity, maintaining a proper scale and distance.

You know too little and 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.

The point is never understanding; it is always distance. More precisely, a safe distance. (The problem with drinking is that one may slip into the world of others, “allow it to swallow me up whole and no longer be able to see the difference.”) The much remarked-upon abundance of detail in My Struggle is not revealing, not sublime, not meaning-infused. The profuse description is only another distancing mechanism, a way the author pushes off. Knausgaard’s so-called “realism” is only the senseless, resistant substance he is hacking his way through. Where another writer would have made some illuminating discovery amidst the debris heaped up around his father at the end of his life, for Knausgaard it is the worst kind of closeness. In this form, the past is useless clutter, so many nauseating reminders. “So how could I keep this feeling at arm’s length? Oh, all I had to do was clean. Scour and scrub and rub and wipe.”

In Book Two, Knausgaard sets out the determining coordinates of his life: “In mine there were two. My father and the fact that I had never belonged anywhere. It was no more difficult than that.” All of the topics around drinking — separation, distance, belonging, presence, freedom — are therefore overdetermined, and have to be read in both directions. To put this another way: drinking is the most important intersection of these two factors, the place where all Knausgaard’s shame and discomfort coincide with his doomed attempts to get outside of himself. It has been said (by Homer Simpson) that alcohol is “the cause of and the solution to all of life’s problems.” In My Struggle, alcohol is such a nexus, but life’s problems always come down to visibility, salience, and trespass — the childhood experience of humiliation — that drinking removes, only to end by heaping up further.

I don’t mean to suggest that My Struggle (or even Book Four) is about alcoholism, in the sense of The Lost Weekend or A Fan’s Notes. Drinking is a constant in Knausgaard’s novel, but it does not drive the story, or lead to any great confrontations or consequences. I wouldn’t even know what to call the role drinking plays: A theme? A metaphor? A cultural constant? A mode of “bad” experience erected by the author to reflect on his character? None of these critical vocabularies seem right, because Knausgaard’s authorial self-awareness has anticipated and disarmed in advance any search for subtext or symbolism. In declining to collaborate with the reader in making meaning, My Struggle is an exemplary work of our times, precisely because it is not profound. So we have endless critical commentary about Knausgaard’s “process,” and tortuous descriptions of his descriptions. In this respect, Knausgaard (not only in interviews but in the novel itself) has proven his own best critic, as was inevitable once every question about what the author was “trying to say” converts into the topic of what he was trying to do.

Which brings us back to his confused reaction to his father’s diary: what was the older Knausgaard trying to do in documenting his life this way? Especially since the writing of the diary is a kind of anti-process, a self-abnegating minimalism rather than a confession. (And any answer will have to reflect on his apparent suicide by drinking in Book One.) Notwithstanding that Knausgaard has earlier said, “I still can’t say that I understand him or know what kind of person he was,” the aesthetic program of My Struggle demonstrates a basic objection to his father. Namely, that he tried to create distance by fiat, by detachment, and by drinking. The diary is a chronicle that holds experience at arm’s length, rendering it as compact as possible. The son’s novel also creates distance, but by the opposite means: distance cannot be merely affirmed with a sneer, and drinking is only a temporary and reversible means of producing it. “Distance, distance, I could never have enough distance,” he writes in Book Two. But distance has to be ground out by arduous labor — the enormous novel we are reading. My Struggle is not a work that redeems the past (as in Proust) nor an immersive “total recall” (as per its critics) nor a curt, bitter dismissal of experience (as in the father’s diary). The novel, or at least the writing of it, is more like the Haussmannization of experience — an immense construction project that is as much demolition as fortification.


Ben Parker received his PhD in English and Comparative Literature from Columbia University. His research focuses on novel theory, especially the work of Georg Lukács.

LARB Contributor

Ben Parker received his PhD in English and Comparative Literature from Columbia University. His research focuses on novel theory, especially the work of Georg Lukács.


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