Karl Ove Knausgaard’s first two novels, Out of the World (Ute av verden, 1998) and A Time to Every Purpose under Heaven (En tid for alt, 2004), attracted admiring reviews and won prizes. ‘I was discussed,’ he told the Telegraph recently, ‘but as you discuss literature – in a kind of sober way.’ That changed in the autumn of 2009, when the first three books of My Struggle (Min kamp) – a six-part novelised autobiography narrated by the writer in his own person, which he’d embarked on, he said, as a ‘literary suicide’ – caused an epidemic of ‘Knausgård-manien’. Critics spoke of ‘an existential literary experiment without parallel in Norwegian literature’ and of the books’ ‘sensationally high literary quality’. Readers testified to their addictiveness – sales reached 200,000 in a population of under five million – and reporters laid siege to people he’d written about. By the time Book 6 was published, in 2011, Knausgaard’s first wife had made a radio documentary about him and his uncle had threatened legal action against his publishers. Hyperbolic reviews had also come in from Denmark, Sweden, Germany and Italy.
Knausgaard, who’d moved to Sweden in 2002, remarrying and starting a family, more or less sat out the Norwegian national debate about the ethics of his project. (After the outcry occasioned by Book 2, in which he wrote with – it’s said – brutal frankness of his marriages and the emotional strain of pushing a pram around Stockholm, he decided to concentrate on his early years.) The idea was ‘to empty everything, to have nothing left’: ‘I gave up all ambition, I didn’t try to be clever … I just tried to write as fast as I could.’ Yet Knausgaard has spoken of all his books – his fiction included – as a single series, and it’s clear that they all deal with personal material. Out of the World, which hasn’t been translated into English, concerns a young man called Henrik Vankel who falls in love with a 13-year-old while working as a teacher, a job Knausgaard did for a year after leaving school. It apparently devotes a good deal of space to Henrik’s parents and grandparents and his childhood in Kristiansand in southern Norway, where Knausgaard grew up. In My Struggle, Karl Ove runs the manuscript past his older brother, Yngve, who says: ‘I haven’t a clue whether it’s good or bad. But dad’s going to sue you.’
Henrik reappears in A Time for Everything, which was published in the UK in 2008 as A Time to Every Purpose under Heaven, translated by James Anderson. This unusual novel is an extended meditation on humanity’s post-Enlightenment estrangement from notions of mystery, beauty and the sublime. Most of it describes the life and work of an imagined 17th-century savant called Antinous Bellori, who devotes his life to the study of angels after coming across two of them gnawing a live fish when he gets lost in the woods as a boy. Bellori’s musings, expounded at great length by the narrator, are interspersed with occasional stories, the most substantial of which are novella-sized expansions of the fables of Cain and Abel and the Flood set in a primordial world resembling 19th-century Norway. Knausgaard writes as though it’s quite natural for characters from the Pentateuch to live near fjords, carry rifles and stock up on potatoes and smoked ham, and soon Cain lending Abel a jumper and a pair of socks seems unsurprising. The low-key domestic dramas and Knut Hamsun-like evocations of landscape make the book’s sudden outbreaks of violence – extra-biblical torture and infanticide on top of fratricide and mass death – all the more unsettlingly incongruous.
Knausgaard doesn’t go in for seamless transitions. Rather like the angels it describes (‘at one moment destroying Jerusalem, the next carrying hot soup’), A Time to Every Purpose under Heaven veers in a line or two from essay to narrative or from scriptural terseness to novelistic psychologising. Further destabilising an already disjointed structure, it closes with a first-person epilogue in which Henrik writes of his life on a remote Norwegian island, where he’s recovering from a shameful episode whose details he doesn’t disclose. He begins by remembering a fishing trip with his father, a strange and distant man whose suppressed emotionalism and intermittent efforts to get close to his sons ‘made his fits of temper seem even more sinister’. Henrik’s father is now dead,
and so violent were the circumstances surrounding his death that it not only altered our future, but also our past … The wildness of what he finally did had retrospective force, and now in some strange way is present in the whole of our childhood. A kind of coldness has spread through it, something solemn that we didn’t know about at the time, but which now colours everything that happened, even the most trivial and humdrum of the things we did. And it’s a disquieting thought that not even the past is done with, even that continues to change, as if in reality there is only one time, for everything … Nothing is ever finished, everything just goes on and on, there are no boundaries, not even between the living and the dead, even that zone is quivering and unclear.
Though he doesn’t quite say so, it’s indicated that Henrik wrote the novel we’ve been reading. He also indicates that he’s undergoing an existential-depressive crisis by musing on the futility of suicide – his epitaph, he thinks, would be: ‘He died to prove to himself that his feelings were genuine’ – and ending his story with a bout of masturbation and compulsive self-harming.
Henrik’s coda would make a useful introduction to Don Bartlett’s translation of the first instalment of My Struggle, which Knausgaard’s British publishers have called A Death in the Family. In addition to explaining the aura of mystery that surrounds Karl Ove’s father – who’s indistinguishable from Henrik’s – in the first half of the book, the coda would ease readers into Karl Ove’s style as a narrator, which is indistinguishable from Henrik’s in its freewheeling approach to chronology, heavy deployment of flashbacks and rapid shifts between storytelling and analysis. ‘For the heart,’ A Death in the Family begins, ‘life is simple: it beats as long as it can. Then it stops.’ (‘As far as the heart is concerned,’ Henrik says, ‘everyone is the same. All it wants to do, all it knows how to do, all it can do, is beat.’) Three of the book’s principal modes are then introduced. First comes a slightly wild-eyed essayistic passage: death is all around us, and we claim to accept that, so why do we take such trouble to keep corpses from view? Switching mid-paragraph from ‘we’ to ‘I’, Knausgaard re-creates an afternoon and evening from his childhood. After that he tells us that he’s writing the book at night, in an apartment in Malmö, with his wife and three children asleep.
The first 165 pages focus on Knausgaard’s adolescence: his early investigations of beer and girls and indie rock, his band’s disastrous gig outside a shopping centre, his closely observed non-adventures at a New Year’s Eve party. From time to time he broods on his thoughtless behaviour to other kids and his terrible 1980s haircuts, but it’s clear that he’s not really interested in the standard coming-of-age material. The level of detail is the main fictioneering touch, with notation of traffic conditions serving as a marker of verisimilitude throughout, but there’s a feeling that something portentous is lurking behind the accumulating descriptions of unremarkable events. Knausgaard’s father, a withdrawn martinet, is mostly shown recoiling from human contact; we’re shown few of his rages, though they’re mentioned occasionally. Of Knausgaard’s mother, who’s still alive, we learn little, though she’s depicted with more warmth. It’s only in the light of the book’s second half – in which Karl Ove and Yngve, now in their late twenties, clean up the mess left behind by their father, who became an alcoholic after divorcing their mother, and eventually drank himself to death in their grandmother’s house – that the languorous account of the years leading up to the parents’ separation takes on any kind of dramatic shape.
Knausgaard writes at length about the heaps of soiled clothing, the shit and blood-smeared furniture and barricades of empties among which his grandmother found his father’s body. He also describes his incontinent grandmother moving spectrally from room to room and asking if it’s time for a drink while he and Yngve scrub the place down. One night before the funeral they give in and get drunk with her. She tells them that the Occupation wasn’t so bad, that the departing German soldiers gave her some high-quality hooch. Karl Ove absentmindedly puts a vodka bottle on the windowsill. Everybody laughs:
In this house where we had always been so careful to prevent others from prying, where we had always been so careful to be beyond reproach in everything that could be seen, from clothes to garden, from house front to car to children’s behaviour, the closest you could come to the absolutely unthinkable was to exhibit a bottle of booze in a brightly lit window.
It’s not hard to see that Knausgaard is writing against a cultural current. He alludes several times to Aksel Sandemose, a Danish-born Norwegian novelist whose ‘Jante Law’ offers a satirical codification, from 1933, of small-town Scandinavian virtues: self-effacement, conformism, anti-individualism, outward respectability and so on. Such values, Knausgaard implies, were at the root of his father’s problems, and perhaps what remains of them goes some way towards explaining the excitement caused in Norway by his sprawling autofiction. (They might also have a bearing on the uncertain proportions of egomania, self-satire and punk rock-ness that he’s chosen to project by calling it My Struggle.) Reviewers there have spoken of the pleasure of recognising half-forgotten details from their own lives, and even non-Norwegian ex-teenagers and ex-students can share the feeling now and then. He’s good on being a bad guitarist aged 15 – the solemn debates about technique v. ‘feel’, the vast expenditure on effects pedals and the inability to keep time – and on the confused pleasures of reading the big names of theory as an underequipped undergraduate. On the other hand, outsiders might get less of a nostalgic thrill from his discussions of not liking lutefisk and 1970s lingonberry-picking outings.
In A Time to Every Purpose under Heaven we’re told that the student of angels – himself a version of Henrik, who’s a version of Knausgaard – ‘more closely resembled the obsessed young men … portrayed by Dostoevsky’ than a 17th-century man of letters. In My Struggle Knausgaard presents the self who’s writing as a similarly intense figure, ignoring the Adrian Mole effect that he gets from juxtaposing the teenage musician thrashing his way through a tuneless cover of ‘Smoke on the Water’ with the grown-up novelist who’s read Proust and Thomas Bernhard. As in the earlier book, he devotes many pages to his feeling that scientism, humanism and religion have conspired to enmesh the world in abstract thought, robbing it of an inexpressible ‘beyond’. His wish for ‘the world … to step forward and show itself’ seems admirably earnest and unhampered by postmodern hesitations, though he sometimes wanders over the line between defamiliarising the obvious and stating it (‘The moment life departs the body, it belongs to death’). The relentless piling of detail on detail in the passages dealing with his father’s death says more about the force of the non-abstract than he manages in the essayistic passages. It also brings his ruminations on corpses and the disembodied nature of contemporary life to an uncharacteristically shortwinded conclusion: you’ve got to see your father’s body to make sure the bastard’s dead.