SEPTEMBER 20, 2018
WILLIAM MAKEPEACE THACKERAY’S VANITY FAIR calls itself “A Novel Without a Hero”; My Struggle has a hero, of sorts, but one who finds himself in a novel without a plot. Instead, the book has a project: to tell the truth about its author, and thereby reveal the deeper meaning of seemingly trivial events. Now, after more than a million words, Knausgaard says that his project was, in a sense, doomed: “It has been an experiment, and it has failed because I have never even been close to saying what I really mean.”
How could anyone write such a massive autobiographical novel or “autofiction” without saying what they mean? One reason might be internal: the difficulty of finding a true language to describe what goes on inside people. My Struggle is a philosophical novel in search of the right words, seeking help from Shakespeare, Proust, Heidegger, and many other masters of expression. Then, quite differently, there are the external constraints, which exist because the novel is a legal and public document. Book Six opens with a bitter conflict between Knausgaard and his uncle Gunnar, who claims that Book One, A Death in the Family, is a tissue of lies about the death of his brother, Knausgaard’s father. Gunnar threatens to file suit for defamation of the family’s honor, and thus prevent Book One from being published.
Novelists have often got into trouble for turning people they know into fictional characters. Their first line of defense has usually protected them — in giving their models a different name, then adding the disclaimer about “no resemblance to living persons.” So Lady Ottoline Morrell becomes “Hermione Roddice” in Lawrence’s Women in Love, or “Priscilla Wimbush” in Huxley’s Crome Yellow. The victims can only lick their wounds, and vow to never again make friends with a novelist.
When Knausgaard cowers under his uncle’s threatening emails, his wife tries to console him by saying: “But it’s a novel, Karl Ove.” “Yes,” he replies, “but the whole point is it’s meant to be true.” If it’s true, then his characters must be given the same names that they have in real life. They are not independent creations who exist only between the pages of a book; rather, real names are supposed to make My Struggle a more solid work than almost any other novel written before it. Yet, under the threat of legal action, Knausgaard does end up changing the first names, and suppressing the family names, of all his father’s relatives — those who had been outraged by his depiction of his father as an incontinent alcoholic. He goes further: the great villain of Book One no longer has a name at all. He is just referred to as “father,” as if no name is better than a false name. But this turns A Death in the Family into a myth, about any father who inspires hatred in his son and is punished with a sordid death.
Whether or not under a true name, Knausgaard’s characters would be easily identifiable in a small country like Norway. So, he must fall back on the Rashomon defense: this is the way I remember it, and I can’t help it if you remember things differently. Was Knausgaard’s father found in the bathroom, or in his armchair, surrounded by empty bottles? Was he still alive when the ambulance came, or already dead? Did Knausgaard and his brother, Yngve, spend days cleaning the house afterward? Or had their uncle done most of the work before they arrived, and found only a handful of bottles?
Knausgaard ‘s ambition is to tell “the truth” about his family, but uncertainty keeps creeping in. Even with brute facts, like how many bottles were in his dead father’s house, different observers come up with different numbers. Knausgaard spent the ’80s as a student of literature and art history, immersed in the theory world of that time. But the commonplaces about relativism and the social construction of reality are no longer part of his foundations as a writer. My Struggle presents the world as it appears after the theory wave has receded, leaving Knausgaard gasping on the shore.
My Struggle may not have a theory that determines its message, but it is still more of a philosophical novel than a traditionally realist one. Observing his children, Knausgaard sees that “[w]hat they had, and what I had lost, was a great and shiningly obvious place in their own lives.” As they grow up, though, “meaning diminishes, or […] at least becomes less self-evident.” Living with small children — making breakfasts, going to the park, refereeing their squabbles — does not confer authenticity on their caretakers. It generates boredom and frustration rather than existential insight. Small children are creatures of passion: they don’t worry about meaning because they are too busy trying to get what they want, in the moment. One of Knausgaard’s virtuoso set pieces, in Book Two, is a 60-page description of a birthday party for Swedish four-year-olds. The parents spout every imaginable cliché about healthy eating, sharing your toys, et cetera, while anarchy reigns. Knausgaard has to admit that only a dogged sense of duty keeps him engaged with his little ones.
Novels used to have a formula for what makes life meaningful: climbing the social ladder, acquiring wealth, marrying Mr. or Ms. Right. Novelists like Dickens, Balzac, or Zola examined how the great social machine works, and perhaps how it might be improved. But My Struggle does not send a message through some kind of standard plot, nor does it have much to say about social issues (except for the origins of Nazism, of which more later). The popularity of “Scandinavian Noir” rests on its exposure of the dark underside of the Nordic model, but Knausgaard keeps quiet about Norwegian politics. Nor does he say much about two of the standard motives that give shape to novels — money and sex.
Knausgaard admits that he is awkward and impulsive about money; when he doesn’t have it he borrows, when he does, he spends it rashly. In a traditional perspective, it might be said that the plot of My Struggle is “obscure provincial writer succeeds in becoming rich and internationally famous.” Yet Knausgaard’s battle with life continues, just as intractably as before. He is not one of “those ruined by success,” as Freud described them, because he was ruined before and stays ruined afterward.
The other zone of silence in My Struggle is about sex: from Augustine and Rousseau onward, any confessional autobiography is expected to reveal the author’s sexual misdeeds. Knausgaard refuses to offend former partners by saying what happened in the bedroom; alternatively, he sends them the manuscript and invites them to cut anything they want to keep secret. The end result in either case is the same: sex may be at the root of Knausgaard’s struggles, but it is largely excluded from his novel. Still, in a novel that sets out to “tell all,” the reader is tempted to fill in some gaps. In Book Four, Knausgaard describes his uneasy relations with the teenage students he taught for a year in Northern Norway. In Book Six, he confesses that he had a “strong and secret desire” to sleep with one of them, a girl of 13. He did nothing to put that desire into action; but what is action? In his first novel, Out of the World (1998), the protagonist does sleep with the girl. My Struggle says that this was “a simple act that never took place,” but in the earlier novel a place is given to it:
The novel is a place where that which cannot be thought elsewhere can be thought and where the reality we find ourselves in, which sometimes runs counter to the reality we talk about, can be manifest in images. The novel can describe the world as it is, as opposed to the world it ought to be.
Plausible enough, yet it follows that My Struggle is not a true novel in these terms, because in it Knausgaard does not feel free to describe certain things he did, or even thought about doing. What fills the gap, in the first third of Book Six, are two parallel narratives. One is about Knausgaard’s negotiations with family members who want to rewrite his book or suppress it altogether. The other is about his children, who might control every moment of his life except for the hours when he can steal away and write.
Why should huge chunks of this novel be devoted to the doings of three toddlers? For a justification, Knausgaard invokes the Russian literary critic Viktor Shklovsky:
[W]hat the novel can do, and which perhaps is its most important property, is to penetrate our veils of habit and familiarity simply by describing things in a slightly different way, for example by being insistent with respect to some particular state of affairs, let’s say describing a child’s pacifier over a whole page, whereby the real child’s pacifier would subsequently present itself differently.
Shklovsky defines art as a technique of de-familiarization. The forces of habit, and our preconceptions about what might be going on, are always pulling us down into a state where we are only half-alive. Art exists to bring reality back into focus, or simply to wake us up. Starting with the raw materials of everyday life, art makes them seem new and fresh. It “makes the stone stony.”
A Rembrandt self-portrait may awaken us to the essence of old age, or a Kafka story to the essence of bureaucracy. But those effects are brought into being by style; and long stretches of Knausgaard’s novel seem to fall back on mere reporting of actions and reactions. “The novel is the form of the small life,” he says in Book Six. Yet it can be the form of the large life too; and even the story of a small life must offer more than mere documentation. In Knausgaard’s defense, one could say that he convinces us that, behind his small lives, something much bigger is hiding. From time to time, his plodding style changes gear, taking his readers up into the realm of the sublime:
I saw all this: people swarming on the long city beach and on the wide footpath behind it, with cyclists and roller skaters whizzing by, the row of concrete blocks from the 50s or perhaps the 60s, the city’s final bastion against the sea, that great light-catcher, which was in no way dramatic here in the strait facing Denmark. The couples and the families sitting all around us, summer-clad and tanned, the big sky above us whose blue had no end until evening, when it would fade to gray and the first stars would seem to emerge from the space beyond, making visible its enormous distances. My own children sitting on their chairs with their short legs sticking out in front, absorbed in their own little worlds; ice cream wrappers, dripping lollipops and ice cream cones. Linda, now and then wiping their mouths with tissues, her eyes almost hidden behind her sunglasses. I saw all of this, though as a film, something of which I myself was not a part, my thoughts and feelings being somewhere else.
Knausgaard mentions that this mundane evening at the beach takes place a few miles from Hamlet’s castle at Elsinore. It promises something beyond the deadly blankness of bourgeois life, even if it is impossible to escape that life completely.
Another way to situate My Struggle is to recognize that there is something that stands above it. “I had always,” Knausgaard writes, “from when I was nineteen […] considered poetry to be the pinnacle. What poetry was in touch with was something I was not in touch with, and my respect for poetry was boundless.” In Book Six, the pinnacle is the poet Paul Celan, a Romanian who wrote in German. Until he comes on the scene, My Struggle has been preoccupied with the family conflicts over the appearance of the first two books. Now these squabbles are set aside as Knausgaard plunges into the darkness of the 20th century: first with Celan’s two great poems about the Holocaust (where both his parents perished), and then with the predecessor of Knausgaard’s novel, Hitler’s Mein Kampf.
Celan, the victim, produced two poetic masterpieces: “Death Fugue” and “The Straightening.” Hitler, the perpetrator, produced a book that was, in literary terms, worthless. But Celan’s voicing of the sublime was not enough for his personal survival, and he drowned himself in the Seine in 1970. The noble man, poet, and genius, ended in despair. That prompts Knausgaard to seek understanding of Celan’s nemesis, the ignoble man who nonetheless set a nation on the march.
Is this turn in the novel a regrettable case of “Godwin’s Law”: that any protracted argument is bound to bring in the example of Hitler? Why should the middle third of My Struggle be a detailed examination of Hitler’s contribution to “autofiction,” set off by the incidental discovery that after one of Knausgaard’s grandfathers died a copy of Mein Kampf was found among his effects? Knausgaard says that the choice of My Struggle as a title was a friend’s idea. But once he had accepted it, he was under an obligation to explain the differences between his project and Hitler’s. Both might be considered obsessive egotists, but Knausgaard’s self-expression was an attempt at internal understanding, while Hitler wanted to recruit followers by exploiting “the longing to belong” and “the we’s need of a they.” Knausgaard makes a further claim: that it takes an artist to explain Hitler’s formative years, as opposed to a historian like Ian Kershaw, who simply sees Hitler as evil from the cradle.
Kershaw describes Hitler’s adolescence as an “indolent and purposeless existence […] [he] saw fit to do no more than dawdle away his time drawing and dreaming.” But Hitler did not lack for a purpose, Knausgaard argues: he wanted to be an artist, and he became embittered when he was twice rejected for admission to the Vienna Academy. European capitals were full of such maladjusted young men (and van Gogh was unusual only in that he belatedly succeeded). If not for World War I, and the chaos that followed, Hitler’s rise to power would have been inconceivable. Knausgaard does not say this to exonerate Hitler, but to show how a failed artist and homeless drifter managed to move to the very center of political life:
Only someone who stands outside the social world knows what the social world is; to those within it, it is like water to a fish. Hitler […] stands outside the we, and yet he longs for it, and it is this longing his audiences sense when he speaks, the longing for the we being the very foundation of the human. […] this is the truth of Hitler, his longing to be a part of the we touches something deep within that we itself. […] The simplest is the truest, and hatred of the Jews represents the simplest thing of all, the we’s need of a they, the basic mimetic structure of violence […] the sacrifice of a they in order that the we may prevail.
Hitler’s understanding of this dynamic came in part from Dietrich Eckart, an intellectual who became a mentor to him. Even before they met, Eckart knew the kind of person who could make Germany great again:
We need someone to lead us who is used to the sound of a machine gun. Someone who can scare the shit out of people. I don’t need an officer. The common people have lost all respect for them. The best would be a worker who knows how to talk. He doesn’t need to know much. Politics is the stupidest profession on earth.
Eckart wrote this a hundred years ago, and Knausgaard quotes him in 2011. Whether it might be relevant to populism in 2018 can be left to the reader to decide. What Eckart surely achieved was to make his rough diamond into someone acceptable in polite society, and to make Hitler’s dislike of Jews into an organizing principle for the coming Nazi regime. Knausgaard’s unwavering focus is on the emotional raw material that is exploited by politicians. Hitler explained it well, in 1922, walking home from one of his miniature rallies in Munich:
Herr Hanfstaengl, you must not feel disappointed if I limit myself in these evening talks to comparatively simple subjects. Political agitation must be primitive. That is the trouble with all the other parties. They have become too professorial, too academic. The ordinary man in the street cannot follow.
Hitler, Knausgaard suggests, was not just some sort of evil mutant. He grasped what millions of his countrymen wanted, and gave it a voice. Even paranoids have enemies, says the joke; what is not a joke is that even paranoids have friends — armies of them, in Hitler’s case. The longing for a “we,” a single body of authentically German “folk,” and the complementary need for a scapegoat, would have brought forward some other Führer if Hitler had not risen to the occasion.
Knausgaard’s inclusion of a detachable essay on Hitler in his novel must stand or fall on its merits. If an artist can provide a deeper insight into Nazism than a historian or sociologist, then the attempt can be justified. But having made the attempt, Knausgaard reverts in the final third of Book Six to trying to justify the moral status of his own project. Here he must strike even closer to home, by revealing how the construction of My Struggle coincided with the demolition of his marriage to Linda Boström Knausgaard.
Nancy Milford’s biography of Zelda Fitzgerald began a thriving tradition of presenting the wives or partners of male writers as victims of their husbands’ success — and just as often, as the ones who made that success possible. Knausgaard wants to do justice to his wife, but he has also pledged himself to telling the truth as he sees it. To be true, but fair, when describing one’s own marriage, is always going to be a near-impossible standard to meet.
Knausgaard’s first attempt to narrow the conflict is to say nothing about his wife’s father, and only a few innocuous details about her mother. But that only puts more weight on the central duel, between husband and wife; and Linda Knausgaard is not a happy helpmate to her talented partner:
“There’s so much contempt in you,” she said. “I know you look down on me.”
“Look down on you? I certainly do not!” I said.
“Yes, you do. You think I do too little. I whine all the time. I’m not independent enough. You’re sick of this life of ours. And of me. You never tell me I’m beautiful anymore. Actually I don’t mean anything to you. I’m just someone you live with who happens to be the mother of your children.”
Knausgaard may contest the letter of his wife’s diatribe, but he has to agree with its spirit:
The truth was that when I sat down to write the novel I had nothing to lose. That was why I wrote it. I wasn’t only frustrated, the way you can become when you live as a parent with small children and have many duties and have to sacrifice yourself, I was unhappy, as unhappy as I have ever been, and I was all alone. […] I often thought about leaving, sometimes several times a day, but I couldn’t do it.
And how does My Struggle reach its conclusion? With Linda Knausgaard’s utter defeat: first taking to her bed with paralyzing depression, then agreeing that she needs to be hospitalized for bipolar disorder (and not for the first time). The novel’s endless wanderings and digressions are now seen to converge on a simpler narrative: it is a book that begins with the death of a father and ends with the death of a marriage. After that, Linda Knausgaard’s vindication, if it can be called that, comes from the publication of her own novel, The Helios Disaster, which seems to be a reckoning with her own father.
In 1930, Henry Miller began writing Tropic of Cancer, a vanguard work of “autofiction.” He called his book “[f]irst person, uncensored, formless.” Knausgaard may have started My Struggle with similar ideas. But he found himself inviting others to censor what he had first written about them, and, more importantly, censoring himself. The “first person” turns out to be accountable to the opinions of second persons: he has to tell you how many diapers he changed, and how often he washed the kitchen floor (and that his wife told him he was doing it wrong). Then, the narrative isn’t really “free form” when much of the book resembles either a counsel’s closing plea for the defense, or a confession about how he failed to be quite as politically correct as his Scandinavian peers. Knausgaard’s giant book does not make him into a giant personality. Yet that is part of the book’s fascination: we keep reading — if we do — because Knausgaard gives such a complete and heartfelt portrait of the beleaguered masculinity of our time.