Reality Hunger: The Six Books of Karl Ove Knausgaard, Part III
By William PierceApril 24, 2015
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 III: Everything Is Significant
all of it perforce ordinary because it […] happens, in different forms, to everyone.
In My Struggle, Karl Ove Knausgaard pays profound attention to things. He takes the side “of trying, and failing, to speak about the thing itself” (to quote the novelist Tom McCarthy about his own, very different project) “and not just ideas about the thing. Of saying ‘Jug. Bridge. Cigarette. Oyster. Fruitbat. Windowsill. Sponge.’” Readers of Book One will smile at the correspondences here. Cigarette. Windowsill. Sponge. The sublime that Knausgaard tilts at is reluctantly material: the physical world is what we have, yet we know it’s more than we can understand. If we look closely enough, long enough, and honestly enough, and resist imposing enchantments, we might yet find what otherwise remains invisible.
The difficulty is noticing, freeing repetition from automatism. In Book Three, the neighbors in Karl Ove’s housing “estate” light bonfires to clear leaves and other detritus from their gardens in spring: “Another world was revealed with the fire, and departed with it again. This was the world of air and water, earth and rock, sun and stars, the world of clouds and sky, all the old things that were always there and always had been, and which, for that reason, you didn’t think about.” Coming only once a year, these fires break through the skin of metaphor that we impose on the physical world and assert themselves as alien to human meanings. To produce this same effect in us, the narrative uses focus: everyday rituals that in most books are left out are atomized and repeated here — the things of our lives most familiar to us, yet most overlooked, ignored, habituated, are brought into balance with the rest, restored to the place they hold in our days, which in the context of a novel gives them hyperreal presence. When Karl Ove goes, as he often does, from his writing apartment to the bench across the street, we see his movements broken down step-by-step: he scoops the coffee, pours water over it, walks out, sits on the bench, and, as he smokes, watches passersby and notices the conditions of sky and snow. Cigarette. Teakettle. Spoon. Cup. Water. Clothes. Bench. Street. Like a curve chopped into enough segments that each piece looks straight, these objects float free from their uses. They appear nearly still-framed, the focus transferred from action to object, from purpose to materiality, from change to condition.
But the point, as the novel plays it out, isn’t pure thinginess. The point is the essential humanness of our tie to the physical. As so often in this profoundly literary work, the theme finds expression in a passage about reading. Karl Ove celebrates Tolstoy’s habit of narrating sequences of action for their own sake, seemingly inessential to the story he’s telling. “There are long descriptions of landscapes and space, customs and costumes,” as Karl Ove describes it, “a rifle barrel smoking after a shot has been fired, the report reverberating with a faint echo, a wounded animal rearing up before falling down dead, and the blood steaming as it flows to the ground.”
Then he turns to Dostoevsky, and the difference between the two echoes the earlier shift from the Romantics’ rearing landscapes to the emotion-drenched backdrops of Edvard Munch:
This preponderance of deeds and events for their own sake does not exist in Dostoevsky, there is always something lying hidden behind them, a drama of the soul, and this means there is always an aspect of humanness he doesn’t include, the one that binds us to the world outside us.
Books for Karl Ove are both things and portals, miniature big bangs that expand into space-times of their own. Before they gain a deeper significance in his life, books are matter-of-fact objects, sometimes to be hidden from his father like candy. They let him escape when he can’t leave the house, but rarely do we hear about what’s inside them; the young Karl Ove’s deeper fascination is with the records he borrows from his older brother. In Book Two we see a shift, initiated by uncle Kjartan, a poet. Kjartan’s immersion in the world of books seems almost neurotic, a severe dissociation from the things of the everyday world. For Kjartan it’s as if the actual and intellectual don’t coexist, which Karl Ove notices in a brilliant, funny passage:
It didn’t matter that it was Christmas Eve, that the mutton ribs, potatoes, mashed rutabaga, Christmas ale and aquavit were on the table; [Kjartan] talked about Heidegger, from within, without a single communicative link to the outside world, it was Dasein and Das Man, it was Trakl and Hölderlin, the great poet Hölderlin, it was Heraclitus and Socrates, Nietzsche and Plato, it was the birds in the trees and the waves in the fjord, it was man’s Dasein and the advent of existence, it was the sun in the sky and the rain in the air, the cat’s eyes and the plummeting waterfall. With his hair sticking out in all directions, his suit askew and his tie full of stains he sat there talking, his eyes aglow, they were really glowing, and I will always remember it, for it was pitch-dark outside, the rain was beating against the windows, it was Christmas Eve in Norway 1986, our Christmas Eve, the presents were under the tree, everyone was dressed up, and the sole topic of conversation was Heidegger. Grandma was shivering, Grandad gnawing at a bone, Mom listening attentively, Yngve had stopped listening. As for me, I was indifferent to everything, and above all happy it was Christmas. But even though I didn’t understand a word of what Kjartan said, and nothing of what he wrote, nor anything of the poems he praised with such passion, I did understand intuitively that he was right […].
The entire novel, seen in a certain way, is a record of that struggle between abstract idea-making and immersion in the real; it is the whole of which this passage is a holographic shard: My Struggle is a book, therefore bookish, yet its content is the mutton and stained tie as much as — really much more than — Heidegger and Hölderlin, the literary “cat’s eyes and the plummeting waterfall.”
With length and the narrative equivalent of patience, with a discovery of grandeur in the common surroundings and a structural insistence that everything is significant, Knausgaard infuses the ordinary with the epic. He does this also by giving each moment consequence in a fated forward spill, while, against the broader sweep, not remaining anywhere for long. (This seems strange to say about a book capable of holding for dozens of pages on a birthday party, but William Deresiewicz, writing in The Nation, notes it too.) My Struggle gives us the sense not that the lives in the novel are extraordinary, but that all of us partake of the epic, that ordinary life is where we should hunt for grails, that we should not turn away from majesty simply because we’re without dragons and kings — and angels. The epic lies in and around us, just as the physical world, ourselves included, is what’s left of the divine.
Don Quixote marks the great turning point in Western literature from the medieval to the modern, from the romance to the novel. The Man of La Mancha, having missed the memo, carries with him into the world the assumption of the heroic — but what he finds is everywhere resolutely the everyday, whatever he may make of it. As pun, artifact, philosophy, Don Quixote is a fulcrum between the extraordinary and the ordinary. It slings literature over the back of a nag and hauls it, comically resisting, toward the domestic and unremarkable. And yet … Don Quixote insists on the heroism of the everyday, using terms that he’s inherited and will not abandon. The neighboring farm girl is his lady Dulcinea, and any objection will be dismissed as piffle. The ignored is made central; the small, by means of attention, scope, and scale, is rendered epic.
In the series of lectures that became Aspects of the Novel (1927), E. M. Forster wrote as close to a set of rules for the novel as an art form can tolerate. He distinguishes between story and plot, describes some conventions of literary character-making — and then pauses to acknowledge that his loose “apparatus suited for Fielding or Arnold Bennett” isn’t enough to compass the likes of James Joyce, Herman Melville, Virginia Woolf, and Laurence Sterne. He classes these exception-writers as either “fantastical” or “prophetic.”
At first glance, Knausgaard doesn’t seem to fit into either of these categories. After all, Deresiewicz fears he’ll be “enthroned” as the “apotheosis of realism.” But then it starts to come clear: what could be more unlikely than the recovery of every lost detail from our lives? Forster writes: “The other novelists say ‘Here is something that might occur in your lives,’ the fantasist says ‘Here’s something that could not occur.’” Into this category Forster puts Virginia Woolf — even specifically To the Lighthouse, which, in the story it tells, feels resolutely true-to-life. He describes the category this way, writing about Woolf and Sterne:
They start with a little object, take a flutter from it, and settle on it again. They combine a humorous appreciation of the muddle of life with a keen sense of its beauty. There is even the same tone in their voices — a rather deliberate bewilderment, an announcement to all and sundry that they do not know where they are going.
“Novels of this type,” he adds:
have an improvised air, which is the secret of their force and charm. […] It is truer of them than of most books that we can only know what is in them by reading them, and their appeal is specially personal. […] I would rather hedge as much as possible, and say that they ask us to accept either the supernatural or its absence.
Even this hedging seems to prefigure Knausgaard, whose novel insists that the supernatural is absent, then aims at the super natural. Knausgaard told Bookforum: “I want to evoke all the things that are a part of our lives, but not of our stories — the washing up, the changing of diapers, the in-between-things — and make them glow.”
Then there’s the uncanny coincidence that the fabulism Forster mentions first, the hard-to-accept presence that can sometimes enter novels of this kind, is angels — as if these passages were written in anticipation of a Norwegian whose second novel is populated with them. Is My Struggle so different from the earlier book? As Kunzru puts it, “If a reader comes to [A Time for Everything], as I did, after My Struggle, its exotic subject matter seems like a skin over a familiar body.”
Knausgaard, as reader and writer, is drawn to fabulism, and his intent gaze in My Struggle on the world-as-it-is comes not as his only option but as an act of intention and willpower. We can see this clearly in Book Three, where he lets in the kinds of things a child believes that an adult no longer can:
The shadows that descended over the ground outside were so long and distorted that they no longer bore any resemblance to the forms that created them. As though they had sprung forth in their own right, as though there existed a parallel reality of darkness, with dark-fences, dark-trees, dark-houses, populated by dark-people, somehow stranded here in the light, where they seemed so misshapen and helpless […]. Oh, isn’t that why shadows get longer and longer in the evening? They are reaching out for the night, this tidal water of darkness that washes over the earth to fulfill for a few hours the shadows’ innermost yearnings.
These natural fabulisms of childhood are gradually lost to the adult, who then does best to look intently and unflinchingly, though with a childlike focus, seeing the world afresh. Knausgaard emphasizes this kinship between the novel’s attention and a child’s by juxtaposing the adult Karl Ove’s sequence of attention —
I forked the last bit of potato, yellow against the white plate, and raised it to my mouth. While I was chewing I gathered the remaining pieces of meat on my plate, loaded them onto my fork with the knife, together with some onion rings from the salad, swallowed and lifted the rest to my mouth. The man who had taken the chair was on his way to the counter with the older man, whom I guessed to be his wife’s father, since none of his characteristic facial features were recognizable in the older man’s more ordinary face.
— with his infant daughter Vanja’s: “She pointed to some pigeons pecking at crumbs under a table. Then she looked up and pointed at a seagull sweeping past in the wind.” Her focus is a smaller version of his, from the down-and-close to the up-and-farther-off, taking in patterns with a quiet, observant awe.
Knausgaard’s jagged mountain of words establishes its own “distance between reality and the portrayal of reality.” That is, wanting no distance at all, the novel attempts to substitute itself for reality: Pygmalion’s sculpture insisting it’s alive. And of course it fails, leaving us the measure of the distance that remains — the very space where we can begin to see the full incomprehensibleness of being. There’s a playful moment in Book Two, both defiant and accepting, when life and art face each other like two mirrors passing an image back and forth. Karl Ove plates a third lobster for dinner guests and
something about the consistency made me think it was artificial, like plastic. The red color, wasn’t there something unnatural about that, too? And all the attractive, intricate details, like the grooves in the claws or the armor-like tail shell: didn’t they look as if they had been forged in the workshop of a Renaissance craftsman?
Momentarily, life resembles art; reality doesn’t seem real. But of course this isn’t life. It’s not a lobster, it’s a craftsman’s depiction of one. The alien physicality of the thing asserts itself: once it can be seen beyond its usefulness as soon-to-be dinner, the animal shocks with ever-finer detail until it almost seems that someone must have made it. As in fact someone did, this “real” lobster that we find in words. The artificial can feel so entirely present. A quick mention of the Renaissance is enough to recall an earlier mode of art, those paintings that, as Karl Ove tells us in Book One, “always retained some reference to visible reality.”
The everyday turns epic precisely here — when its seldom-tapped capacity to take us beyond our knowledge systems, our “fields,” allows the grandeur of materiality to seep in, sublimely alien. Knausgaard generally rejects achieving this through metaphor, because he resists further mystifications. He doesn’t want, as so many have, to make the familiar strange, he wants to make it visible, allow us to see it again. Each cornflake. Each cup of coffee. Each shortcut through the woods. The foreignness arises naturally, just as when we repeat a word until it stops making sense and we can hear its sounds as if for the first time.
But it’s not so simple, those cornflakes that Ben Lerner singled out when he reviewed Book Three last year in the London Review of Books.
In his piece, Lerner asks, “If your attention as a writer is so egalitarian that your memoir describes a bowl of cornflakes and, say, your brother’s face with the same level of detail, how do we determine a hierarchy of value?” The question is penumbral in My Struggle; the book seems to ask it everywhere without putting the question directly. But the narrative also provides possible answers. We feel a spirit weight on places and objects. Those cornflakes, so plainly physical and unresponsive — they’re just cornflakes! — also carry the joy of Karl Ove’s first day of school and the heaviness of his fear of his father, another powerful emotional transference onto things and actions, as James Wood points out about the housecleaning in Book One. For Karl Ove’s sanity, the daily associations need to be, and are, stripped back, leaving the cornflakes so bare that it can seem the only point of the narrative is to gaze at those bumps and ridges, and to compare soggy and crunchy, as if those details had the same import as the shape of his father’s hand.
But just moments before, his father has yelled at him for joyously brushing his teeth, and sent him to his room. Will he punish Karl Ove for liking the cornflakes too much? The scene held me in suspense — I expected a sudden lashing-out. But Karl Ove, a compartmentalizer, sets aside his fear in favor of close inspection.
We first learn that Karl Ove’s father beats him only years and hundreds of pages after the fact, in dialogue, in Book Two, when the adult Geir (Karl Ove’s confidant) reveals it in an aside to their mutual friend Helena, in order to set his own father’s behavior in relief: “He never hit me in the face and he never hit me on the spur of the moment, like Karl Ove’s father did.”
I asked Knausgaard if these avoidances were intentional. In answer he said that as he was writing Book One his touchstone was Peter Handke’s book about his mother’s suicide, A Sorrow Beyond Dreams, in which, as Knausgaard expresses it in an essay, the mother is “not represented, only referred to.” This is exactly what I feel reading Book One — that Karl Ove’s father is more absent than present. By Book Three, fear is less the subject and the father emerges more fully; still, some of the biggest events happen off-stage — the emotions they stir suppressed by the comfort of presence, the thereness of what’s here, the world as it is.
There’s often an imbalance, especially in childhood, between the emotions we feel and the events that cause them. This becomes one of Knausgaard’s major themes early on. In the first volume, we see young Karl Ove’s terror, yet his father never turns violent. He mocks Karl Ove’s stutter on occasion, he isn’t warm, but the magnitude of the boy’s fear suggests something as yet unseen. Karl Ove hides in his upstairs room, spies down to see if his father is coming into the house, and we don’t entirely know why. Where is the event? Where is the action? His outsized inner life, his terror, is the acute drama of childhood, and Knausgaard enacts it in scenes that remain paradoxically quiet, teasing our expectations.
Knausgaard’s held breath plays powerfully here: what will he reveal and when? I had no idea from page to page how the father would react. The suspense of this never left me. It was only gradually — with some of the mistakes he makes as a parent, the maybe unwitting belittlements which as a father I always wish I could take back — that I realized nothing more dire would happen, and felt how skillfully Knausgaard had reproduced that almost inexpressible disconnect between childhood reactions and their causes, which, until now, novelists have succeeded mostly in writing about rather than writing, and which I would have called insusceptible to dramatizing.
Milan Kundera touches on this in The Art of the Novel, in which he writes that “knowledge is the novel’s only morality” — indicating not that novelists should tell all, but that the novel advances when it reveals elements of consciousness so integral to our seeing that ordinarily they themselves can’t be seen.
It’s time for me to give the author his name back. Karl Ove. By using his own name for the protagonist and saying he wanted to write everything, by emphasizing that he wrote 20 pages a day and changed nothing, Karl Ove encouraged myth-making. Plenty of other speculations and assumptions have developed on their own. I want to examine two of the most prevalent.
For his whole life and longer, Faulkner was misunderstood as unschooled in the tradition, ignorant of what had been done in literature, his books the accidental achievement of a natural. How he talked about his work — which had everything to do with how he situated himself in relation to it, allowing him to do what he did — fed that impression. Possibly some of Karl Ove’s talk makes us think that his is a dismissive approach. But, in reality, it’s a different kind of deep earnestness. In Norway, the conversation about Knausgaard, a friend told me after visiting there this summer, continues to link the popularity of My Struggle to a trend Knausgaard certainly benefited from. Deresiewicz describes it in the first paragraph of his Nation review:
In 2009, Norwegian state television broadcast “minute-for-minute” coverage of the seven-hour railway journey from Bergen to Oslo. The program was watched, at some point in its duration, by one-quarter of the Norwegian populace. In 2011, the ante was upped: 134 hours of continuous live coverage of the maritime Coastal Express. Half the country tuned in. Two years later came National Firewood Night: four hours of chopping, stacking and drying followed by eight hours of a live fireplace. The word of the year in Norwegian, it was announced that December, was sakte-TV, “slow TV.”
It’s true that — in Norway — Karl Ove inherited an audience prepared for length, atomization, the flattening of amplitude. In fact he was up to something very different from slow TV, but he planted My Struggle in the soil of that trend. And a myth arose like a beanstalk: all Karl Ove had to do was make coffee page after page and his success was assured.
Instead of resembling a lay person who suddenly performs open-heart surgery, Karl Ove is more like the surgeon who, having spent his life honing techniques in a standard operating room, does multiple surgeries in the backyard with whatever he can find. He’s horrified to think how much better it would have gone in the usual sterile field, with his accustomed instruments. But he’s convinced he had no choice. To the rest of us — even the other surgeons in the crowd — the thing has the look of happenstance mastery. The patients are thriving.
Sitting on a folding chair on the brick patio behind Community Bookstore in Brooklyn — exhausted after being escorted through a tight press of fans, talking into the clicks of cellphone cameras, giving an interview to The New York Times, and then signing books for a crowd that included people who’d been turned away from the reading — Karl Ove at 10 p.m. gave an impression more modest than assuming or offhand. He’s the kind of tall man who sometimes reduces his height for the sake of the people around him. His zip jacket with epaulettes was rumpled — long and narrow, yet still loose on him. He slouched back, sat forward, gazing in a hopeful and searching way. What he seemed to want most of all was to talk about other books, other writers, soccer, European politics, and the boiling situation in Ukraine.
The second great myth is that we meet Karl Ove the man by reading the books. In the audience at McNally Jackson, some people seemed to want the writer in front of them, the charismatic wizard behind the curtain, not to mar what they needed Karl Ove Knausgaard to be. He talked about his sadness — they worked in the Q&A to deny it. He talked about his need to escape from people — they questioned whether he was telling the truth. They were suturing him into the persona they needed him to occupy — not a solitary man, or miserable, not convinced of the middling quality of much of his book.
That night Knausgaard said, “It’s imperfect, my writing. It’s something very personal and very imperfect, and I’m showing myself as this stupid character. And then it’s very strange to be praised for the opposite. It’s impossible for me to deal with […].”
We Americans don’t say those kinds of things in public. It made some people uncomfortable. But unless I’m mistaken there was also hilarity in the room, and a feeling of “yeah sure.” Someone made a comment:
The things you said a few minutes ago, claiming misery, seem to gainsay some of the most wonderful parts of the conversation you had earlier, about horror and wonder going together. […] It seemed to me that one of the great accomplishments of these books is that they attain a kind of gratefulness for the sublime, a happiness that is also misery. I just wondered if you weren’t settling that polarity for the sake of comic hyperbole.
Karl Ove ignored the man’s conflation of author and work, saying:
When I just said it? That could be so, yeah. You know, for a cheap laugh.
But at the same time, it is true — but it’s very difficult to talk about, because if you talk about it, it is like you’re posing. “Look, I’m a miserable writer.” So what can I say? I truly am, you know?
He’d tried to be honest and not shirk the questions, but now it looked like he was answering for effect. He turned to Zadie Smith, asked her permission for something. She nodded, though it wasn’t clear she knew what was coming. “I was praising Zadie’s book On Beauty to her,” he went on, “and she said, ‘I hadn’t read that book in eight years, but recently had to, and I couldn’t find one page that didn’t make me want to puke.’ And that was On Beauty, an absolutely fantastic, amazing book, which is brilliant. There you go.”
It’s easy to feel we know who he is. Smith helped put him in that bind by accepting the drug that the book holds out to us. “What’s notable,” she writes in The New York Review of Books, “is Karl Ove’s ability, rare these days, to be fully present in and mindful of his own existence. Every detail is put down without apparent vanity or decoration, as if the writing and the living are happening simultaneously.” A remarkable thing to say about a man who retreated from his family for years to write 3,600 pages at more than a hundred a week. But then, look at the rest of us, we who can’t unlock from our screens, who layer our days with podcasts and music and other distractions from what’s going on around us.
In “Speaking in Tongues,” Smith writes of Cary Grant that he “seemed the product of a collective dream, dreamed up by moviegoers in hard times.” In this strange time of our dislocation from the physical surround, we take Karl Ove to represent immersion in the world because that’s what My Struggle seems to promise.
Ours is an era of Based on a True Story. We drool for that.
Karl Ove has said he wanted to incorporate everything that lives in him as a source, the wellsprings of any possible art. The only element of the novel that he planned from the outset, as he tells it, was the last sentence of Book Six, which goes something like: “And now I’m happy that I’m no longer an author.”
Behind Community Bookstore, over our cans of Dale’s after the crowd had gone, one of the small team from Archipelago talked about her love of Antonio Porchia, an Argentine poet. She and Karl Ove talked about another Argentine, César Aira. Then he brought up Polish novelist Witold Gombrowicz, one of his idols and touchstones. Gombrowicz did his best work in Argentina, he told us. The place seemed to draw it out of him. As soon as Gombrowicz left for Paris late in his life, it was over — everything else he wrote was crap. His prose fell apart completely, for the rest of his life.
One’s best — Karl Ove said coolly but emphatically — is often tied to a place that somehow seems to allow it or make it possible.
“Argentina.” His working title for My Struggle.
When he was asked at McNally Jackson the next evening, “Why ‘Argentina’?,” he didn’t mention any of this. Not a word about Gombrowicz or the idea that had so animated him the night before. He called Argentina “a dream country, a dream continent, a dream republic” — a place he’d longed to visit as a child, and thought he never would. “There’s a lot of longing in My Struggle and for me Argentina was the place the longing was directed.”
A man in the audience said “Argentina” wouldn’t have made a good title then, because the novel isn’t about longing for exotic climes. It isn’t about a desire to leave. It looks for satisfaction in the small, in the familiar — a homebody desire sooner than the bug to travel.
I’m reminded of Svidrigailov in Crime and Punishment, whose only aim is to go to America. He talks about it incessantly. He’s leaving soon, even if no one believes him. He is on his way. And then one day he gets ready and leaves for America — by shooting himself.
In answering the question about Argentina as he did, Knausgaard gave the audience one truth while hiding a still deeper one. His method is visible in this. My Struggle is not a confessional space — it is performative, a space where memory and imagination give rise to something new.
“Argentina” — I believe this is key — was a working title. It wasn’t a prospective actual title, it was a title for the writing of it. It created, by fiat, a place. “Argentina” was to Knausgaard as Argentina was to Gombrowicz, transforming the novel into its own talisman. How to consistently, day by day, overcome the old limiting desire to please people; how to calm the self-doubt natural to a wildly uncertain method? The right soil, the needed grounding, became internal to the project. Knausgaard could move from Norway to Sweden, he could return from Sweden to Norway, he could go anywhere — and always be in Argentina when he sat at his table. In the high-wire act of writing fast and hard and very very long, the only available safety net was an expedient trick of the mind.
A “literary suicide,” he has called My Struggle. What more is there to say?
William Pierce’s fiction has appeared in Granta, Ecotone, and elsewhere. He is senior editor of AGNI at Boston University.
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