- My Struggle: Vol. 3. Boyhood Island by Karl Ove Knausgaard, translated by Don Bartlett
Harvill Secker, 490 pp, £12.99, March 2014, ISBN 978 1 84655 722 4
Does Karl Ove Knausgaard have a style? His sentences, while often long, are not elaborate; they can read like lists. ‘Infamously direct’, is how his English publisher puts it. He has a tendency towards cliché: news is always spreading like wildfire, and so on. The writing, precisely where it aspires to the literary, can be sloppy: ‘The warm, bright September days were summer’s last burst of energy before abruptly crumbling.’ Days are bursts that crumble? Extreme states of emotion or pain are sometimes rendered like this: ‘AAAAAAGGGHHH!! I screamed, OOOOOHHH … ’ But Knausgaard isn’t really quotable. There’s too much lengthy digression and extremely – at times almost absurdly – detailed description; one would have to excerpt pages and pages, not a sentence or paragraph, to give an accurate sense of the effect. Most critics attempt to demonstrate a novelist’s perceptiveness by providing examples of his eye for the significant detail. But part of what makes Knausgaard’s writing unusual is that he seems barely to adjudicate significance; he’s like a child who has taken Henry James’s injunction to novelists – ‘be one of the people on whom nothing is lost’ – literally; he appears to just write down everything he can recall (and he appears to recall everything). It’s easy to marshal examples of what makes My Struggle mediocre. The problem is: it’s amazing.
One sign that we’re having trouble accounting for Knausgaard’s power is that we keep likening his writing to a drug. ‘I need the next volume like crack,’ Zadie Smith writes. As the literary critic – and former junkie – Michael Clune has pointed out, we tend to reach for drug metaphors when we find ourselves taking pleasure in a book without being able to ascribe our interest to respectable literary values. Is Knausgaard, despite all the comparisons to Proust, more like reality TV – abject self-exposure from which we just can’t look away? Or perhaps, Clune suggests, people liken My Struggle to a drug because reading it can feel like consuming vast quantities of essentially undifferentiated material: all crack is the same, you just want more and more of it. 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? Differences break down when everything seems equally worthy of differentiation:
After she had put out a bowl and a spoon for me, and I had poured milk over the golden, somewhat perforated, irregularly formed flakes, I came to the conclusion that cornflakes were best when they were crispy, before the milk had soaked into them. But after I had been eating for a while and they were beginning to go soft, filled as it were with both their own taste and that of the milk, plus the sugar, of which I had sprinkled a liberal quantity, I changed my mind; that was when they were at their best.
Or was it?
I’ve been quoting so far from Volume 3 of the six-volume My Struggle. This volume is subtitled Boyhood Island and focuses on the narrator’s life between the ages of approximately seven and 13. But the childishness of what I’m quoting – the utterly earnest pursuit of the Cornflake Question, the strange evenness of Knausgaard’s attention – is typical of all three volumes that have appeared in English to date. Note how the passage describing the cornflakes itself becomes about the problem of differentiation: first there is the almost microscopic attention paid to variations among flakes – their irregular shapes, like snowflakes; then we have an account of the temporality of their taste; then Knausgaard attempts to establish a difference in quality between crispy and soggy flakes; finally, he abandons that distinction since both kinds of flake have their appeal. If my reading of the passage sounds ridiculous – they’re just cornflakes! – it’s a ridiculousness I think the dilation of Knausgaard’s description encourages. Regardless, I believe it’s the unusually equal weighting of experience that evokes both childhood and drugs. Childishness involves a susceptibility to absorption and enchantment that we associate with intoxicants in adults (when we don’t associate it with a mental disorder). ‘The child sees everything as a novelty,’ Baudelaire wrote, ‘the child is always “drunk”.’ And genius
is no more than childhood recaptured at will, childhood equipped now with man’s physical means to express itself, and with the analytical mind that enables it to bring order into the sum of experience, involuntarily amassed. To this deep and joyful curiosity must be attributed that stare, animal-like in its ecstasy, which all children have when confronted with something new, whatever it may be, face or landscape, light, gilding, colours, watered silk.
Or breakfast cereal. Or a new pair of tracksuit bottoms. Or a rubbish dump. Or Norwegian housing estates. Baudelaire’s examples of ‘whatever’ are rather too fine for Knausgaard. Baudelaire said that Constantin Guys, the ‘painter of modern life’, was a ‘man-child’: ‘a man possessing at every moment the genius of childhood, in other words a genius for whom no edge of life is blunted’ – not even the edge of a cornflake. What’s unnerving about Knausgaard is that it’s hard to decide if he’s just a child who stares at everything, who makes no distinctions, or if he indeed qualifies as a Baudelairean man-child, as a genius who can ‘bring order into the sum of experience, involuntarily amassed’. Another way to put it: does My Struggle ultimately have an aesthetic form? Or is it just one thing after another? I think it’s because My Struggle is both absorbing and can feel undifferentiated that you’ll find it being likened at once to crack cocaine and Marcel Proust. It’s why we can read it compulsively while being uncertain if it’s good.
Or, without being certain that it’s good literature. ‘It seems like a child has written it,’ Knausgaard told an interviewer. ‘There are childishness, stupidity, lack of wisdom, fantasies. At the same time, that’s where my creativity can be found. If I tried to control it and make it more mature, it wouldn’t be good at all. It’d be uninteresting, without any vivacity.’ I can almost hear Knausgaard going on to say: ‘It would merely be literature.’ My Struggle positions itself as an anti-literary project: it’s what Knausgaard writes instead of novels and it describes his increasing revulsion from fiction (broadly construed). If he were to write another novel, he says in Volume 2, ‘it would just be literature, just fiction, and worthless … just the thought of fiction, just the thought of a fabricated character in a fabricated plot made me feel nauseous.’ My Struggle is sometimes categorised as a novel – by its publishers, for one – but nobody expects us to believe that it’s fiction in any conventional sense, given the verifiability of the biographical details and the huge scandal caused in Norway by its exposure of his real relationships. My Struggle is the chronicle of Knausgaard turning his back on the genre of the novel, a six-volume Lord Chandos Letter intended to exhaust and extinguish all of Knausgaard’s literary ambitions. He has described the writing of My Struggle as an act of ‘literary suicide’: ‘There is nothing left; I can never again write something from the heart without repeating myself, but I wanted it that way. In Volume 6 I even wrote a couple of lines about future novels, stories I’d thought of, just to kill them off. The last sentence in that book is: “And I’m so happy that I’m no longer an author.”’
‘Literary suicide’ – a death both in and of literature. He’ll empty himself into a vessel, shattering that vessel: ‘I thought of this project as a kind of experiment in realistic prose. How far is it possible to go into detail before the novel cracks and becomes unreadable?’ Knausgaard presents his suicide attempt as anti-literary – I’m going to break the well-wrought urn of aesthetic form by filling it with more description than it can hold – but it’s also an attempt to take the problem of closure into one’s own hands. Suicide is, after all, one way ‘to bring order into the sum of experience’. Here I think it’s worth quoting a famous passage from Walter Benjamin’s essay ‘The Storyteller’:
A man … who died at 35 will appear to remembrance at every point in his life as a man who dies at the age of 35 … the ‘meaning’ of their life is revealed only in their death. But the reader of a novel actually does look for human beings from whom he derives the ‘meaning of life’. Therefore he must, no matter what, know in advance that he will share their experience of death: if need be their ﬁgurative death – the end of the novel – but preferably their actual one … What draws the reader to the novel is the hope of warming his shivering life with a death he reads about.
It might seem that I’ve moved abruptly from childishness to death, but at every point in My Struggle, particularly in Boyhood Island, we think of the young Knausgaard as a person who will ‘die’ at the end of Volume 6. We know (at least from Volume 2 on) that the end of My Struggle won’t merely be the end of a novel for Knausgaard, but the end of literature altogether. (This is part of why Boyhood Island – although childhood memories are also crucial in the volumes that precede it – must come after the promise of literary suicide; his earliest memories are saturated with what we know about his future.) My Struggle is a portrait of an artist who will turn his back on art, a Künstlerroman that is also a suicide note, and the method of suicide is in part to put everything down: a suicide by overdose.
I mean to emphasise the way the childishness of Knausgaard – the radical inclusiveness, the style-less style, the apparently equal fascination with everything – places a tremendous pressure on the end of the book, on closure as a moment when form is achieved and retrospectively organises the work. Because the book makes a bid to be radically co-extensive with a life – ‘there is nothing left,’ everything gets put down – closure has to present itself as a kind of death (unless the book is simply to break off, surrendering to formlessness, to unreadability). The problem of how My Struggle will end is both evoked and deferred across volumes – an effect amplified by the fact that English readers have to wait for each new translation – and that drama of the deferral of form is part of what keeps us reading. Indeed, there’s a sense in which the more inclusive, digressive – even boring – the book is, the more absorbing it becomes (‘Even when I was bored, I was interested,’ James Wood writes). This is because the felt problem of My Struggle’s ultimate form intensifies in relation to Knausgaard’s effort to ‘crack’ the novel by overfilling it with detail. How far will he go?
Breaking of the vessel of art, the renunciation of fiction, literary suicide – these are fictions, and they’re the devices on which the power of My Struggle depends. It’s obvious, for instance, that Knausgaard couldn’t remember his past in the degree of detail the books provide (Boyhood Island opens with an account of how much fiction is necessarily involved in Knausgaard’s acts of memory, especially of his childhood). But the cumulative effect of his descriptions is to suggest the possibility of total recall, a past citable in all its moments: each cornflake, each snowflake. Reading Knausgaard is like the first time one looks at Google Earth: from space you can zoom in on the continent, then the country, then the town where you grew up; you can click on ‘street view’ and walk up to the house where you were born. It’s all there, just keep clicking, you might even see, one imagines, your younger self climbing a tree or disappearing around the corner on a BMX. Perhaps it’s less that we identify with the particular experiences Knausgaard recounts than that his writing makes us feel we might be able to recall our own past, near or distant, with all the texture and urgency of an inhabited present. This is why the extreme inclusiveness of Knausgaard’s attention – and the flatness of the language in which it’s conveyed – is so important: it feels universal, less interested in the exceptional life than in the way any life can feel exceptional to its subject (even if it sometimes feels exceptionally boring). Much of My Struggle isn’t a story so much as an immersive environment.
Of course Knausgaard does leave things out (why, I wonder, is sex described in less detail than cornflakes?), selects among scenes and sentences, but we are caught up in the fiction that he doesn’t. Yet that childish sense of open-endedness, in which everything is equally interesting, is countered by another fiction: that the meaning of My Struggle will be revealed at its end, secured by the author’s death (at least his death qua author). The former fiction is a fiction of formlessness, the undifferentiated, an infinite verticality outside time; and the latter is a fiction that gives form, the imposition of shape on experience, a syntax of events. The constitutive tension of Knausgaard’s work, its internal struggle, is the push and pull between these two fictions. The former is the promise of an artless infinity purchased at the cost of structure; the latter is the promise of a unity purchased at the cost of death. Maybe it’s significant that My Struggle has six volumes while A la recherche du temps perdu has seven. Knausgaard doesn’t offer a strategy for ‘regaining’ time through the power of art; instead he attempts to achieve closure by sacrificing art itself.
The claim to be giving up literature has a long tradition within literature. It’s everywhere in poetry, for instance. As Aaron Kunin has written: ‘The January eclogue in The Shepheardes Calender ends with Colin destroying his instrument, the oaten pipe, and vowing to sing no more songs. In the first poem in his first collection, Spenser says farewell to poetry: hello, I must be going. The gesture is conventional – Spenser got the idea from Virgil.’ Actual Rimbauds are rare. And the claim to be destroying art has been a staple of avant-garde art since at least the First World War: the role of the painter is to abolish painting, and so on. But such assertions tend to be part of an artistic performance, not its overcoming, and there’s already anecdotal evidence that Knausgaard’s ‘suicide’ is theatre. Here is Evan Hughes in the New Republic:
Before I left, Knausgaard told me something unexpected. ‘I shouldn’t talk about this,’ he said, shaking his head and smiling a little. In interviews, Knausgaard has insisted that he meant what he wrote in the last line of his series: that he is through writing novels. But he told me he is working on a new one.
But what could be less ‘unexpected’? The prizefighter comes out of retirement again and again. Jay-Z returns to the studio three years after The Black Album, a record organised around his vow to record no more songs. Knausgaard’s renunciation of literature, whatever his conscious intentions, is ultimately a trope, a dramatic attempt to bring order to the mass of text that precedes it.
Even if Knausgaard’s ‘literary suicide’ is an enabling fiction, the association of death (particularly violent death) with the end of My Struggle is troubling. Here we must reckon with the long shadow cast across the volumes by the title. Are we supposed to think of Knausgaard as a failed artist whose violent will-to-order is somehow analogous to Hitler’s? English-language readers know from interviews that Volume 6 includes hundreds of pages about Hitler (and presumably about Knausgaard’s title) and also addresses the massacre perpetrated in 2011 by Anders Behring Breivik at a summer camp near Oslo. That the book – while deeply concerned with death throughout – comes to focus on mass murder as it reaches its own terminus (‘I am no longer an author’) is a way of declaring the inextricability of violence and closure. To put it reductively, Hitler and Breivik are two men – or perhaps two man-children, albeit in a much more sinister sense than Baudelaire’s – who responded to the value vacuum, the bad infinity, opened up by modernity with murder and murderous ideologies; they reacted to the terror of formlessness with the ‘false totality’ of fascism (though this might be overstating the coherence of Breivik’s worldview). Having only read the books that have appeared in English, I remain agnostic about the tremendous gamble of the title. But whatever one ultimately thinks of it, its significance is felt as a live issue across the books, intensifying the suspense around the problem of closure inherent to Knausgaard’s method. It makes the question of how the book will end inseparable from the question of fascism and its disastrous attempts to bring coherence to what it perceives as chaos.
The problem of form rising from formlessness, of how to bring order to the undifferentiated mass of experience, and the relation of that problem to death: this is the problem with which My Struggle began. The powerful first pages of Volume 1 describe life leaving a body in extreme detail (and ‘the enormous hordes of bacteria’ that advance on the corpse) before musing on ‘the collective act of repression symbolised by the concealment of our dead’: our hurry to hide cadavers, to make death disappear. But then, with very little explicit transition, Knausgaard moves from these relatively impersonal meditations to the first of his childhood memories. The young Karl Ove is watching news footage of the sea off the north coast of Norway where the previous night a fishing boat sank and its crew of seven drowned:
I am sitting alone watching, it is some time in spring, I suppose, for my father is working in the garden. I stare at the surface of the sea without listening to what the reporter says, and suddenly the outline of a face emerges. I don’t know how long it stays there, a few seconds perhaps, but long enough for it to have a huge impact on me.
He stares (‘with that stare all children have’) until a face is seen (or imposed) on the undifferentiated surface of the sea. Then he goes in search of someone to tell, and encounters his father (whose corpse he will confront at the end of Volume 1 in one of the elegant, large-scale formal symmetries Knausgaard’s digressiveness often works to obscure). Several pages later, when the face fails to reappear during the rebroadcast of the news, and when he hears his father laughing at his childishness, he feels his own identity beginning to dissolve:
The force of the sudden shame was the sole feeling from my childhood that could measure in intensity against that of terror, next to sudden fury, of course, and common to all three was the sense that I myself was being erased.
In such a condition, Knausgaard writes, ‘I noticed nothing. I know that the window in the stairwell must have been so dark that the hall was reflected in it, I know that the door to Yngve’s bedroom must have been closed … I know that mum’s bunch of keys must have been splayed out on the telephone table,’ and so on. Knausgaard catalogues the particulars he did not see as a way of restoring, in memory, the self that dissolved along with the phantom face. And then Knausgaard moves thirty years into the future, into the present tense of writing, and describes his own visage reflected vaguely in the window before him, as if in dark water. It is the face of the man-child as he embarks on My Struggle: a work of genius, a fictional farewell to literature.