So Frank

Sheila Heti

Last year, I happened to meet the Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard. I had just read part of Book 1 of My Struggle, his six-volume autobiographical series, and in a scene that imprinted itself on my memory – a scene from his childhood, set on New Year’s Eve before he heads out with his friends – he steps into the family kitchen:

I got up, grabbed the orange peel, went into the kitchen, where mum was scrubbing potatoes, opened the cupboard beside her and dropped the peel in the wastebin, watched dad walk across the drive, running a hand through his hair in that characteristic way of his, after which I went upstairs to my room, closed the door behind me, put on a record and lay down on my bed again.

He and I hadn’t been speaking long when I asked him: ‘Was that a real memory – your mother scrubbing potatoes in the sink that night – or did you make it up?’

He said: ‘No no, I made it up.’

After that disappointing and confusing admission, I was unable to pick up his books for another year. To me, part of the great spell of the book had to do with how amazing it was that a writer – that anyone – could have such a photographic, such a novelistic recall of his own life, down to a detail like his mother scrubbing potatoes in the sink on New Year’s Eve twenty years ago. Knausgaard, it seemed, was a superman, his past as close to him as the present. It’s a large part of the thrill and wonder of his books: he appears to be giving an entire and precise account of his life, relationships, thoughts, feelings, what everyone says, and everything he encounters as he leaves his apartment and makes his way to the writing studio. His many readers believe that what he’s writing is the truth. But if the scrubbing of the potatoes was made up, are the books true, in the way we understand true to be? If they don’t have a faithful relationship with ‘what happened’, does it matter? Might they even in some ways be better?

Book 2 of My Struggle follows the first-person protagonist, Karl Ove Knausgaard, as he falls in love with his second wife, Linda, impregnates her three times, witnesses the birth of his first daughter, then abandons wife and baby to lock himself in a studio for several weeks where, in a state of inspiration, he writes a novel about angels, A Time to Every Purpose under Heaven. We see him accompany his children to another child’s birthday, self-hatingly pose for photographs for a newspaper, conduct a long conversation about his personality and ethics in a pub with his friend Geir, attend and throw dinner parties, and sit like a ‘feminised’ male with his daughter on his lap at a music programme for toddlers, aware that the attractive young woman with the guitar sees him as a neutered daddy, not as a man, loathing who he has become.

Scenes bracket scenes: he’ll digress for fifty pages into a memory about how he cut his face with a shard of glass in drunken agony when Linda rejected him at a writers’ conference, before returning to the digression that prompted that digression. We’ve long forgotten that what we were reading was a digression and not the central point, as if all thinking were a digression within a digression: even our lives are digressions in a larger story which we have lost sight of, imagining our own story to be the central plot, which it both is and is not. The same way there’s no stable frame around these volumes (such as a present to which he always returns, which is marked as more meaningful than points in the past) so, too, maybe life doesn’t have a stable point from which the future and past unfurl; so that the world just chaotically ‘spews out new life in a cascade of limbs and eyes, leaves and nails, hair and tails, cheeks and fur and guts, and swallows it up again’, as his books spew out cascades of digressive stories, then swallow them up again.

Knausgaard, in the first two volumes (the remaining four have yet to be published in English), is consumed with ambivalence towards fiction. At one point he imagines writing a novel about Native Americans, after discovering a painting of Indians in a canoe, but he hesitates: ‘If I created a new world’ to describe them,

it would just be literature, just fiction, and worthless. However, I could counter that Dante, for example, had written just fiction, that Cervantes had written fiction and that Melville had written just fiction. It was irrefutable that being human would not be the same if these three works had not existed. So why not write just fiction? Good arguments, but they didn’t help, just the thought of fiction, just the thought of a fabricated character in a fabricated plot made me nauseous, I reacted in a physical way. Had no idea why. But I did.

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