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. Read Part I here.
Part II: The Absence Takes a Shape
I remembered every detail of the day when [Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme’s] murder had been made public. What I had been doing, what I had been thinking. It had been a Saturday. Mom had been ill and I had caught the bus to town with Jan Vidar. We had been seventeen years old. If the Palme murder had not taken place, the day would have vanished, as all the others had. All the hours, all the minutes, all the conversations, all the thoughts, all the events. Into a pool of oblivion with everything else.
— Karl Ove, My Struggle, Book Two
Thinking about Karl Ove Knausgaard and form — his frustration with the ready-made configurations of the novel — reminded me of the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset writing on handshakes. In Man and People (1957), he goes on about handshakes with the same atomizing tenacity that Knausgaard brings to descriptions of making lunch:
I did not invent [the handshake] or think it on my own account, I copy or repeat it from others, from everybody else who does it, from “people.” […] I, a human being, find myself executing an act that lacks two of the indispensable characteristics of every strictly human action — originating intellectually in the subject who performs it and being engendered in his will. […] Very well — but who forces us? There is no doubt about the answer. It is usage. […] Usage [is] custom, and custom is a certain mode of behavior, a type of action which has become customary, that is, habitual.
I want to quote Ortega a little further, but taking the received or conventional forms of the novel to be the subject instead of Ortega’s handshakes: “They were genuine human experiences which, so it seems, became survivals, human petrifactions” by dint of being repeated without reference to their original purpose or meaning. They were “not lived experience, but only its slough, residuum, corpse, skeleton, or fossil.” What developed from the needs of individuals — writers, in the case of the novel — becomes formulaic, imposed where it doesn’t naturally belong.
David Shields famously grew tired of the same old, same old and gave up on writing novels, opting instead to mash up other people’s words and then complain that he had to give them credit. Knausgaard arrived at a similar dead end, as he told Bookforum: “It seemed to me that fiction was everywhere — TV-news, newspapers, films, and books all provide a flood of stories, a continuous dramatization of the world. So what I did, naively, was to try to take the world back. That’s why I describe all these details in My Struggle.” Unlike Shields, he neither gave up on nor inveighed against the novel, but took the braver step of dispensing with everything that felt ossified and restrictive to him. His advance was to trust that a writer versed in the techniques of narrative does well to subvert his self-editor — not as a writing exercise merely, or to free himself from block, but to reach yet deeper instincts for what to tell and how to tell it.
Here we have two different kinds of reality hunger. One is a hunger for reality as the word is used in “reality television.” Shields named his manifesto Reality Hunger — but mash-ups are stagings, manipulations, falsest where they pretend to be real. The other is a hunger to probe and prod reality, to turn it up like fresh soil, to let it take a shape as close to organic as possible. It presses against the real in such an insistent way that we begin to sense the contours of an irreducible “distance between reality and the portrayal of reality,” as Karl Ove has it, describing his favorite pre-Impressionist paintings:
It was doubtless in this interlying space where it “happened,” where it appeared, whatever it was I saw, when the world seemed to step forward from the world. When you didn’t just see the incomprehensible in it but came very close to it. Something that didn’t speak, and that no words could grasp, consequently forever out of our reach, yet within it, for not only did it surround us, we were ourselves part of it, we were ourselves of it.
This is a challenge to memory and imagination. It seeks what can’t be portrayed, the hyperpresence or thereness of every real moment, by coming so close to it that the absence takes a shape.
I loved hearing Knausgaard insist at Community Bookstore that his approach, too, would lose immediacy and come to feel as conventional as what it refused to imitate. Every gesture “dies as it’s being born,” as Ortega has it. Which is why — Knausgaard went on — art has to change from generation to generation: not out of any blind or merely experimental urge toward newness, but because we need, time and again, to break through the shell that forms and find something that elicits or holds or seems to reproduce the artist’s truest self.
As I’ve mentioned, the protagonist of My Struggle, who speaks in first person, is “Karl Ove Knausgaard.” Karl Ove hints in Book One that he’s terrible at understanding other people. In his high school days, he tells us derisively,
I actually regarded myself as a sound judge of character. I had a gift, or so I had deluded myself into thinking, it was something I was good at. Understanding others. While I myself was more of a mystery.
How stupid can you get.
This is the tangled truth of what happens inside a head: how we overestimate ourselves, how we ridicule the beliefs we’ve outgrown. It may even — who knows? — express how Knausgaard the author (sometimes?) views himself. But that doesn’t mean the narrator Karl Ove is speaking accurately about himself or the author.
What all of this implies is a matryoshka: the narrator Karl Ove’s thoughts about his younger self might or might not be accurate about that younger self; might or might not apply to the adult Karl Ove; might or might not, if they apply, be accurate about him. They might resemble the author Knausgaard’s thoughts now, or years ago, or thoughts he’s only imagined thinking. When I consider how tangled the heart is, how often a feeling arrives with its opposite, I wonder how we could see any expression of ourselves as a fair facsimile of who we are and what we think, even at a given moment. I take Karl Ove to be one of many specters of the author. I’d say the same thing about the characters in just about every book I love.
Simplicity and concreteness were not a given for Knausgaard, but a praxis. His writing can be dense, over-synapsed with implication. But not in the first three books, at least, of My Struggle. He chooses straightforwardness.
In Book Two, Karl Ove describes two “worlds” — one in which we live, where the seasons change and gnats land in our eyes, and one in which we think, a world filled with “secondary phenomena” and organized into “fields.” Knausgaard reverses the usual relationship between the actual and the intellectual by subordinating the world of abstract ideas to the world of the domestic and everyday. The essays are not an attempt to analyze the life lived in these pages. They don’t theorize truths that arise from the scenes. Instead, the scenes give us the sensibility, and the sensibility gives us the essays: the scenes dramatize the growth of the self that ends up thinking in those ways. There’s a disconnect, then — of the left-brain, right-brain sort — between the ruminations in the book and the actions, but very little feeling of separation … maybe because we recognize the split from our own lives. Knausgaard found a means of letting us watch a life while also hearing the thoughts that the life gave rise to, without artificially binding the two.
The simplicity of the prose leaves the field open for a rare effect, when suddenly the language turns gorgeous. Just when its quiet has brought us to a new receptiveness, as if not only our skin but now the finest cilia are engaged, the volume rises. The spare sentences bloom, turn figurative. Color and valence shift, and we find ourselves moved by the smallest effects.
In the first paragraph below, the narrator considers the way his grandmother has just spoken to him:
Something in her tone made me look at her. She had never spoken to me like that before. The strange thing was that it didn’t change her as much as it changed me. That was how she must have spoken to Dad of late. She had addressed him not me. And that was not how she would have addressed Dad if Grandad had been alive. That was the tone between mother and son when no one else was there.
I didn’t think that she had mistaken me for Dad, only that she was talking out of habit, like a ship continuing to glide through the water after the engines had been switched off. […]
Grandma whistled and drummed her fingers on the table. She had done that for as long as I could remember. There was something good about seeing it, for so much had changed about her otherwise.
The narration in the first paragraph is basic, reflective. It works like a rubber-band propeller, gently twisting for the release to come in the paragraph that follows it — the grandmother like a ghost ship, having recently lost her son, Karl Ove’s father. The third is, in terms of syntax and image, very simply written, but it brings a surprisingly strong emotional clench. These paragraphs come after a long, remarkable section, one of the great triumphs of Book One, in which vodka brings the grandmother back from seeming dementia, almost in the manner of L-dopa in Oliver Sacks’s Awakenings, and sets her to telling stories, giving Karl Ove and his brother an evening of her true company again. The next day, only a trace of that familiar self remains — this whistling and drumming. His grandmother’s habit soothes Karl Ove, he’s happy to grasp onto it, but it also sets a baseline, marking the gulf between the relative lightheartedness of then and the confusion and near-oblivion of now. Alcohol refueled her briefly, but now she is switched off again and drifting away, with only a drumbeat left unchanged from the past.
In her essay “Two Directions for the Novel,” Zadie Smith describes her frustration with lyrical realism. “Everything must be made literary,” she writes of Joseph O’Neill’s “perfectly done” novel Netherland. “Nothing escapes. […] Even the mini traumas of a middle-class life are given the high lyrical treatment.” As if in reaction, Knausgaard’s style avoids phrase-making. It insists that nothing should be lost to a writer’s anxious attempts to say whatever’s said just so. This is not anti-literary — just as a tea lover isn’t bound to choose doilies and tea cozies.
As I’ve said, one of Knausgaard’s themes is our tendency to subordinate and tame the world beyond ourselves, reducing it to metaphor, which is to say humanizing it, and taking that imposed new skin to be its essence. Karl Ove describes this with an edge of sarcasm: “The limits of that which cannot speak to us — the unfathomable — no longer exist. We understand everything, and we do so because we have turned everything into ourselves.” Perhaps surprisingly, given what some have said about the egotism of the project, Knausgaard resists doing this. He doesn’t claim to understand everything, doesn’t curl everything into the dimensions of his own knowledge. He opts against drawing out implication, just as William Deresiewicz argues in The Nation. “Understanding the world,” Karl Ove narrates skeptically, “requires you to take a certain distance from it.” And distance prevents the engagement that brings meaning. “Meaning requires content, content requires time, time requires resistance. Knowledge,” on the other hand, “is distance, knowledge is stasis and the enemy of meaning.” My Struggle hopes — it’s almost a form of prayer — that attentiveness might be enough.
The confusion about genre in My Struggle comes up for reasons both obvious and not so obvious. It comes up because the main character’s name is Karl Ove Knausgaard. It comes up because this Karl Ove, like Knausgaard, studied in Bergen and grew up on the island of Tromøya and then in the town of Kristiansand. He wrote a debut novel called Out of the World and an angel-obsessed second novel called A Time for Everything. But maybe most confusing is the diary element in My Struggle. Karl Ove at times narrates what’s happening as he writes books that we recognize as Knausgaard’s own.
A world in which novels can appear as nonfiction allows for a beautiful slippage, such as the one that had people reading Daniel Defoe’s Memoirs of a Cavalier as the memoirs of an actual cavalier for more than 40 years after the author’s death. It’s tempting to let My Struggle pass, likewise, as nonfiction. What are J. M. Coetzee’s Boyhood and Youth? What is Thomas Bernhard’s Wittgenstein’s Nephew? But I care too deeply about the novel’s ability to reinvent itself, and we can only decide it has happened again here if we agree that My Struggle — never mind the layers of fact it contains — is not a memoir.
In cases like W. G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn and other books that lie on the cusp between fiction and fact, the conversation is often about dispute and indeterminacy. With Knausgaard, though, there has been a naive acceptance, a sweet ingenuousness about the nature of the project. Hari Kunzru describes this phenomenon in The Guardian, but then seems to join in: “Many critics treat My Struggle straightforwardly as memoir, praising it as some kind of unusually neutral transposition from life into art. In Norway it was published as a novel, a small provocation that the English-language publishers have dispensed with.” James Wood, whose 2012 essay in The New Yorker introduced Book One to the English-speaking world, writes: “My Struggle is not really a novel but the first book of a six-volume autobiography.” His essay is called “Total Recall.” Lerner, in London Review of Books, writes that Knausgaard “appears to just write down everything he can recall (and he appears to recall everything).” The key, as when Kunzru describes the seemingly “painfully banal,” is that word appears.
Knausgaard says he considered My Struggle a novel all through writing it. His Norwegian publisher, he told me, wanted to call it a memoir, but he felt that his approach — what he wanted to do and to convey — could only be sustained in a novel. At McNally Jackson he spoke similarly:
I did exactly the same thing as in my two other novels. […] It’s not about representing myself, it’s not about telling about my life, but it’s more like a search into it like a novel will search into something. And it’s looking for something other than my own life, something in my life. And in doing that I used all the tools of a novel.
What was it, then, that Knausgaard couldn’t stomach when he grew “tired of fiction”? In the Bookforum interview, he classifies TV-news stories and newspaper articles with films and books as fiction; the distinction for him is not whether something happened, but how the account is packaged or structured. In Book Two, Karl Ove has the same concern: “It was a crisis, I felt it in every fiber of my body. […] [A]ll this fiction, whether true or not […] saw the same.” He was bucking not against the novel as such, but against a certain kind of story-formation, a particular structural expectation, a “continuous dramatization of the world” (Bookforum). This distaste for pre-commodified shapes freed him to create what Ben Lerner has called an “immersive environment.” “What is a work of art,” Karl Ove goes on, “if not the gaze of another person?”
So in what way is My Struggle fictional? The answer comes in the form of a paradox. Karl Ove tells us his memory of childhood is worse than spotty:
Apart from one or two isolated events that Yngve and I had talked about so often they had almost assumed biblical proportions, I remembered hardly anything from my childhood. That is, I remembered hardly any of the events in it. But I did remember the rooms where they took place. I could remember all the places I had been, all the rooms I had been in. Just not what happened there.
And yet events from his childhood are reproduced with a rare degree of detail. In other words, the fidelity here is not to the particulars of a life as they happened, but to something else.
Whether Karl Ove’s memory resembles Knausgaard’s, having Karl Ove say he forgets his childhood serves a powerful technical purpose. It is MSG for our imaginations, amping up the feeling of lifelikeness by making every detail seem not remembered but lived — not the resurrection of a (forgotten) past but the attentive inhabiting of a (bygone) present. It puts us back there, in a time the adult Karl Ove doesn’t remember.
Through it all, we get the same piercing specificity. Karl Ove wavers between what he thinks he remembers (in Book Two, “I held grudges, and every single one of these incidents over the last year lay somehow stored inside me”) and what he thinks he doesn’t remember (“From my own childhood I remember only a handful of incidents”). Yet never do we read even a slight hesitation like her shirt might have been blue. Instead it’s: “The clock on the department store wall said ten minutes to three. Perhaps it would be best to have a haircut now to avoid having to rush it at the end.” Life is now. We are with Karl Ove in the moment, and our understanding that this present is also the past gives the added jolt that now feels eternal. Nothing is lost.
All the while, memory loss runs alongside as a theme. In Book Two, Karl Ove meets his best friend, Geir, at college in Bergen (Francine Prose, in Harper’s, mistakenly treats the Geir from his childhood as the same person), but they don’t grow close until Karl Ove leaves his first marriage and arrives in Sweden, where, after 12 years apart, he stays with Geir. “The only scene I remember with him,” Karl Ove tells us, thinking back on college, “was in the bar at Fekterloftet in Bergen. Him laughing and saying: You’re an existentialist!” In this section — Karl Ove’s first days in Sweden — the action is almost exclusively taken up by their long conversations, two men just getting reacquainted. Their different ways of thinking, depicted in long bouts of dialogue — the turns in Geir’s rhetoric, the contours of the back-and-forth — form a landscape as particular as the buildings and streets of Stockholm, but evanescent. Geir seems to be a better repository of Karl Ove’s past than Karl Ove himself (and here we see another sly instance of the paradox):
“I don’t remember a thing from then. And I’ve burnt all the diaries and manuscripts I wrote in those days.”
“Burnt?” Geir questioned. “Not thrown away but burnt?”
“Dramatic,” he said. “But then you were like that when you were in Bergen, too.”
“But you weren’t?”
“Me? No. No, I wasn’t.”
This is not the sparring of two friends remembering the past differently. It’s the openhanded questioning of a man who, waiting for Geir in the train station just minutes before, wasn’t sure he’d remember what his long-ago acquaintance looked like. That it appears in what for Knausgaard would be a meticulously remembered years-old conversation is a wonderfully comic provocation — it brought me to laughter as I read. Geir says to Karl Ove later, “There’s no safer place for secrets than in you. […] You forget everything. Your brain’s like Swiss cheese without the cheese.”
At one point while Karl Ove is in Kristiansand cleaning his grandmother’s house, he takes a walk through town. “Above me,” he tells us,
the entire sky had opened. What a few hours earlier had been plain, dense cloud cover now took on landscapelike formations, a chasm with long flat stretches, steep walls, and sudden pinnacles, in some places white and substantial like snow, in others gray and as hard as rock […].
A black Golf was parked by the bus stop beside the newsstand, and the driver, a young man in shorts, clambered out, wallet in hand and darted into the shop, leaving the car idling.
Such details as these would not be remembered 10, 20, in some cases more than 30 years later. Agreeing, a memoirist friend said that Knausgaard meant only to evoke a kind of thing, as if to say, “It was like that, this is how it felt.” But the more I’ve read and reread Knausgaard with my friend’s corrective in mind, the more I’m convinced that My Struggle, even in the sections that most read like memoir, such as for example the greater part of Book Two, is a very different case. Not just the clothes and passersby, but the actions taken and words said — the conversations about particular books, described as happening years ago — are mostly minute details of the kind one might forget the next week. That is, if all of the details ranging from who was in the room, what was discussed, what food was cooked, and what people wore represent just “the kind of thing that happened,” then none of it happened as it’s written. Knausgaard has constructed a deeply convincing simulacrum of days, which can fool us into thinking he lived those days and in that order.
The semblance of completeness gives readers a myth to embrace: we can fantasize that, if Knausgaard remembers his entire life exactly as it happened, we can recover ours too. Maybe we’ll denature old sadnesses and humiliations by controlling them, discovering the minor events that caused such big feelings to linger. Maybe we’ll have the power to re-own, reoccupy, relive the good moments — even the small good moments in otherwise bleak days. Knausgaard’s method suggests that the past might still exist.
How do we choose the songs we seem to hum at random? Why, around a campfire, do we tell this story instead of that one? The husband in Anne Tyler’s novel Breathing Lessons is constantly giving himself away by whistling. As I remember it, he doesn’t talk much, but his wife can figure out what he’s thinking by recalling the lyrics of the tune on his lips. By the same sure instinct, or quiet design, Knausgaard too is always telling to a purpose. His attentiveness is not simple.
At the start of Book Two, a man sitting in the kitchen at a child’s birthday party reminds Karl Ove of a man at an earlier party, shortly before Vanja, his first child, was born. The subject up to this point is parenthood, the rewards and humiliations of being a deeply involved father. As soon as we meet him, we leave the mysterious man at the kitchen table. Was he there at all? The jump to Micke the boxer at the earlier party feels associative. Two men, two parties, the happenstance of a similar build, and suddenly in a flashback an incident is being narrated. Linda, Karl Ove’s wife, gets stuck in a bathroom — even the locksmith called in to free her can’t do the job; he says the door needs to be kicked in. But the bookish Karl Ove can’t bring himself to try. He is reduced to asking Micke, who comes over, readily splits open the door to free her, and returns to his conversation by the window. The helplessness and inconsequentiality Karl Ove feels suddenly extend the theme of smallness-in-the-landscape beyond parenting and recall the humiliations of Book One.
After a brief return to the birthday party (the mysterious man makes Karl Ove see himself “as the weak, trammeled man I was”), Karl Ove’s ruminations take us to his oldest daughter’s daycare, referred to in Don Bartlett’s translation, which tends to use British forms, as a “nursery.” Again it’s easy to feel in the flow of the prose that these leaps are motivated by Karl Ove’s irrepressible urge to tell. Vanja doesn’t go to the nursery anymore. Now her younger sister, Heidi, does. But the point isn’t the nursery itself: as with Micke the boxer, a particular incident is being called up and told at this moment because of its resonances and implications. Meaning builds from juxtaposition. This placed alongside that. At a meeting of the parents’ cooperative that runs Vanja’s school, again the theme is smallness. Karl Ove suffers along with his wife: “I had no idea what to think about the matter under discussion, and it was Linda who, with a faint blush, weighed the pros and cons on behalf of the family, with the whole assembly staring at her.”
Back at the birthday party the girls are playing, and what happens between them, with no express note of the connection, is about assertion of self or its failure, the navigating of relative strength. Vanja has learned to copy rituals or reactions she doesn’t understand, and her friend Stella makes fun of her for it, calling her a parrot. A description of Stella takes us back to the nursery, and in another flashback we see Karl Ove negotiating power dynamics with Stella, who kicks his calves again and again. This leads to a further digression; like Jacob’s ladder they seem to spill forward, but in this second volume the theme of power relations, negotiating power, attempting to preserve stature and self-respect while not threatening that of others, remains a constant — how to balance self and otherness, the inner and the outer, the personal urge and the social demand. Karl Ove has a facility for the required cooperative nursery duty: “I had worked a lot in institutions before.” And two of the boys in Vanja’s cohort love his company. “A third boy, on the other hand, the oldest one there, immediately discovered one of my weak spots by taking a bunch of keys from my pocket while we were at the table eating.” We’re once again in the territory of Micke the boxer. It’s bad enough that the boy asks if Karl Ove is an adult. But then a member of the staff and finally his daughter step in to help him, just as Micke did. He doesn’t ask for help this time, but they see he needs it. And he wonders how. “Drank some water, feeling my face strangely flushed over such a tiny matter. Was that what Olaf, the head of the nursery, saw?”
In the midst of a flow as natural and irregular as a brook’s, Knausgaard returns us to the birthday party with such a visceral apprehension of fault lines and tensions that they don’t have to explicitly reappear for us to feel their influence. Karl Ove retreats to the bathroom: “Met my eyes in the mirror, so dark and in a face so rigid with frustration I almost started with alarm at the sight.” The tumbles from scene to scene masquerade as associative. They are casual, often conversational; they are a trope. And behind them: the suspended breath that puts a party on hold to return to it richer, complicated by the ever-deepening history of the tangled relationship between Karl Ove and Linda, the two who form the center of this volume.
If we think of My Struggle as a transcript from life, we miss some of its playfulness and some of its pleasures. In the middle of Book Two, Karl Ove narrates what happened on an evening many years back. He and Linda are hosting a dinner party, and after their guests leave, Karl Ove sits at a computer and flies, by means of Google Earth, to Argentina — the first substantial mention of that country in a novel whose working title was “Argentina.” He spies on a small town, Rio Gallegos, then moves up the coastline of what he suspects is Patagonia to Puerto Deseado, until we’re touring the port and river in Buenos Aires, finally reaching its city center and looking for the essence of literature there, the namesake theater of the great progenitor of the modern Western novel: “I zoomed in on where Teatro Cervantes ought to be, but the image resolution was too poor, everything blurred into contourless green and gray, so I turned off the computer.”
This artful arrival brings him to Cervantes, the progenitor of all epics of the everyday. Don Quixote is an ancestor to My Struggle — another multi-book novel that sets a quest or struggle in the ordinary. Don Quixote jousts against windmills thinking them knights, as if he could restore the concept of honor; Karl Ove, thinking them exemplars of something beyond ourselves, tilts at diapers and cleaning supplies and meals around the table as if he could rediscover the conditions of the sublime. He looks to Cervantes, but the precedent offers no guidance, the quest is too personal: “I zoomed in […] everything blurred […] I turned off the computer.”
At Community Bookstore, I asked the last question. This was before Knausgaard and I had met. “You’ve said you don’t have a good memory for your childhood.” “No — I don’t,” he said, shaking his head. I’d addressed him as if he were the character Karl Ove, not knowing whether the man himself had said any such thing. But there he’d gone and confirmed it. “And yet the childhood in the book is written with such detail. How did you think about memory while you were writing this book?” In response, Knausgaard described entering a trance state as he wrote. He said, “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.”
It was a fascinating confession. Rereading didn’t put him back in old remembered days. It gave him a shock of discovery. In the Hazlitt interview he seems to extend the thought: “For me it’s obvious that this isn’t about remembering things, this is about staging or re-staging something that I have inside of me.” It may just be that the question of adherence to fact is altogether beside the point.
Read Part III of the series here.
William Pierce’s fiction has appeared in Granta, Ecotone, and elsewhere. He is senior editor of AGNI at Boston University.