Itemised

Fredric Jameson

A well-known writer came over. We said hello, I was embarrassed, I knew he didn’t like what I wrote. He had mentioned this once and been ironic, which made this even harder. But he didn’t want to say just hello and congratulate me, he wanted to talk, and he spent at least five minutes refining his attitude to me and my books, he couldn’t say straight out that he didn’t like them, that they were bad in other words, but nor could he not say that, so what came out of his mouth was impossible to grasp because I didn’t understand the basis.

Can I read this before reading the other five books in the series?

A. Yes, because this one begins with the publication of the series and people’s reactions to it, and so it takes place on a higher, more self-conscious level, so to speak. It also recapitulates some of the material in the earlier books, particularly the father’s death in Book 1. Actually, if you want to begin here with Six, maybe you ought to read Book 1 first.

Q. Is this fiction or autobiography?

A. I don’t know. He uses both words, and sometimes calls it a novel. Indeed, sometimes he seems to think of each individual volume as a separate novel, which may give us a clue. As for autobiography, he does use real names, which is part of the uproar over this volume. He is accused not only of involving real people in his own personal story but of revealing potentially embarrassing personal facts about them as well, such as his wife’s depression. ‘Have you considered the consequences of writing about your children? … How will it be for them when they grow up?’ his mother-in-law asks. Meanwhile his uncle is planning to sue him (this is the story part of the first few hundred pages of the novel, which has about 1100 of them, incidentally).

Q. Is it anything like Proust?

A. Not at all, except that as in Proust all the characters from the earlier parts of the novel reappear at the end. Here, though, they reappear as readers of what he wrote about them, they complain, write to the publishers, publish damaging newspaper exposés, hate him, or else assure him they don’t mind at all (which is yet another, more unusual way of marking their changed relationship to him).

Q. Does anything happen in it?

A. Mostly he takes his three kids to school, goes home to write, sits on the balcony and smokes, picks them up in the afternoon, shops and buys them ice cream. But each volume has some overriding theme, such as the death of the father, or here, the fallout from the publication. These segments do generate a certain narrative suspense in their own right, such as waiting to see what the uncle will actually do, besides writing vicious emails. So in fact, if you really want to know what happens in this book, what happens is that Karl Ove writes, or is distracted by his family from writing, or has to get away for a few weeks to write, etc. We know what he wrote, of course, because it is in the other volumes; but here we do not yet know what he is writing, if you see what I mean. Spoiler: much has been made of the last sentence of the six volumes of My Struggle (Min Kamp in Norwegian), ‘Afterwards we will catch the train to Malmö, where we will get in the car and drive back to our house, and the whole way I will revel in, truly revel in, the thought that I am no longer a writer.’ This is in fact the conclusion of a book about how writing takes you away from your family and maybe from life itself, and how it is there to fill up time and to distract you from your boredom and potential misery (and maybe also from the burning wish to ‘become a writer’). In any case, the person whose name appears on the cover has published several books since this one so the question of whether, like Rimbaud, he plans to stop writing altogether is a misunderstanding of this final sentence.

Q. Will I like it better if I start with this volume and go back and read the others afterwards or should I start with them and work my way up to it, in which case by that time I may have started to get bored with it?

A. These questions seem to be getting less and less productive.

*

I will add, however, that whatever bother he has caused his family and his friends, he has also made trouble for his reviewers, who cannot deal with this the way they deal with an ordinary book (whether it is a famous masterpiece or a worthless paperback). Actually, the truly most frequently asked question is: do I have to read this, is it any good? A question to which there may or may not be a satisfactory answer, but which can at least be smothered by the information that people do seem to be reading it and that it has been translated into more than thirty languages around the world and has sold hundreds of thousands of copies and become a literary sensation, on the order of Roberto Bolaño or Elena Ferrante (both also somewhat autobiographical, it should be added). So the more satisfactory response would be to take a poll (preferably worldwide) and find out what its readers think. I believe the result would be that they cannot tell you whether they think it is good or not either, but also that they all agree it exercises a certain fascination that keeps you reading. This fascination is what a proper reviewer would have to analyse. Otherwise, you are reduced to the status of the art teacher, moving from pupil to pupil and saying, this part is really good, there is something wrong with the anatomy of this figure, there’s something missing in the lower left part of the picture, that part has an interesting colour combination, etc. I’m afraid I will have to do that too, since I agreed to review this book.

At any rate, the parts with the children are quite delightful, it is good there are three of them for variety, and we look forward to a daily life with them which is not an event but a lively routine (at least until, at the end, their mother, Linda, starts to have the problems I have mentioned). The writing is, however, undistinguished, at least in translation: only Norwegians will know how it really feels, and indeed where it belongs in their culture, literary or otherwise. You do not read it for the style, except for the conversations, which are often unobtrusively witty and entertaining. Here is some banter between Karl Ove and his best friend, Geir Angell Øygarden:

‘You’ve done nothing wrong,’ said Geir.

‘But I have, obviously,’ I said. ‘I’m trying to live with it.’

‘Your dad’s dead. Your grandma’s dead.’

‘And your empathy’s dead.’

‘Look who’s talking.’

‘Imagine there’s a life after this,’ I said. ‘If we take that thought seriously. Only the body dies. The soul lives on in the world to come, in whatever form. What if it’s true? I mean, really true. It struck me the other day. What if there is life after death? It’d mean my dad’s out there somewhere waiting for me. And he’s going to be angry as hell.’

Geir laughed.

‘You can relax. He’s dead as a dodo.’

‘Gunnar isn’t, though.’

‘But what can he do? OK, he can sue you. But for what? Defaming your father’s name? He wasn’t exactly Jesus, was he?’

‘Gunnar says I’m a Judas. In which case he must be Jesus, since he’s the one I’m betraying.’

‘If he was Jesus, that makes your grandmother the Virgin Mary. And your grandfather was Joseph, the carpenter. Besides, Jesus didn’t have a son to betray him.’

‘I wonder if it was actually Brutus he meant. He was a kind of son. Brutus Juliussen. Et tu, Brute? No, I only ate one.’

‘You don’t have to say everything that comes into your mind, you know. Kids do that. Adults can put their utterances through quality control first.’

‘I remember crying when I read about Julius Caesar. His death. I always did whenever I read biographies. Because of course they all die. Thomas Alva Edison. Henry Ford. Benjamin Franklin. Marie Curie. Florence Nightingale. Winston Churchill. Louis Armstrong. Theodore Roosevelt.’

‘You read Theodore Roosevelt’s biography when you were a kid?’

‘I did, yes. There was a series. About twenty of them, I suppose. One on each. Most were about Americans. A lot of presidents. Walt Disney, I remember him. Robert Oppenheimer. No, I’m joking. But Abraham Lincoln, at any rate. And when they died, no matter how, I always cried. But in a good way.’

‘Because it wasn’t you!’

‘No, no – it wasn’t that. It was more that they’d overcome all this injustice in their lives and eventually succeeded in what they wanted to do. It would have been a lot sadder if they died before achieving what they were meant to. Like Scott. Scott was bad, I was out of it for days.’

‘He probably wasn’t happy about it either.’

‘Whereas Amundsen’s death was a bit more ambiguous. He did what he set out to. And then there was something decent about him vanishing while trying to save someone else.’

This is distinctive dialogue, interesting, the characters talk with style but are not mannered. It makes one wonder whether dialogue isn’t a place where some originality can still be achieved. If you think of DeLillo’s transitional novels, for example, the weirdness comes, he tells us, from the transcription of the private languages people invent when they are alone together. Maybe this is where invention goes when the plots of modernism become familiar, conventional and boring. Plays are not prose, Gore Vidal observed; and to be sure, dialogue in the novel is not yet drama. But Beckett’s plays (and maybe even his novels) come out of a private kind of dialogue (or monologue); and his period, the breakdown of the modern, was certainly also a glorious moment in the theatre, across the world. And then one thinks of the electrifying impact Hemingway’s stories must have had on readers in the 1920s and 1930s: people’s voices talking to each other like that. So Knausgaard is probably right to cling to his characters’ exchanges, as one place at least in which you can tell the truth (one of his obsessive ambitions) and keep on being a real writer.

*

What about the rest of it? Can you tell the truth by listing what you buy in the store? (Would it be lying if you left something out?)

I … turned to the shelves of fresh-baked bread. They had seven rolls for ten kronor, so I took one of the paper bags meant for loaves and put the rolls inside, scrunched the top end together and dropped it in the basket, then moved on to the milk and dairy, grabbing a packet of coffee and a one-and-a-half litre of Pepsi Max on the way.

Now it would be dishonest to leave this passage without saying that it includes history, that it is preceded by the memory that there were once at least five or six kinds of bread with their own names, and followed with a memory of the supermarket of his childhood and what that was like, before it returns to the present day as he picks up a carton of milk etc.

But I want to situate this passage, a scoop out of a seemingly endless and relatively homogeneous stream of detail, somewhere in the history of writing. ‘Surface writing’ (designed for ‘surface readers’)? That’s already too visual, and besides, we really are not seeing these items. The second-by-second account of muscular and gestural movement, frame by frame, as we find it in Wyndham Lewis, early Peter Weiss, the Beckett of Watt (the turn of the century Germans even had a word for it: Sekundenstil)? But it is not analytic; it does not break conventional gestures, conventional acts and names (‘I took a carton of milk’) into the ‘neural unconscious’ of the instinctive flexing of joints and muscles. Stream of consciousness? Mr Bloom would have been embarrassed to have navigated a store like this in so literal and impoverished a state of mind; and as for Proust and childhood memory, n’en parlons pas. Naturalism and Zola were the high point of that ‘description’ against which Lukács railed; their ‘thick’ accounts wanted to show the way things worked as well as where they came from (and everything else they may have stood for symbolically); their American descendants (Nabokov among them) would have looked into their brand names, as the latter began to populate just such supermarket shelves in the 1950s.

None of that here. What about more recent cultural diagnoses? A greater hunger and thirst for reality? An increasing disgust or impatience with the fictional? An appetite, not for realism (which remains fictional even when it is its opposite), but for the Real itself wherever we can still find it? Not autobiography: that is far too retrospective and tarted up by wish fulfilment, false memory, or even regret and remorse. But something else: a different combination of ingredients maybe (the French decided to call it ‘autofiction’ at one point) – one which at a pinch you might call on to explain the fascination of Ferrante as well, of Bolaño, or Sebald – where ‘experiment’ is no longer a matter of novelistic form but of its raw material, of ‘experience’ itself? But what I am trying to put in doubt, with all due respect, is whether this is really experience either; or rather, what kind of experience it is if daily life (a new existential category, only current since the Second World War) is not the right term for it.

I will call Knausgaard’s kind of writing ‘itemisation’. We have, in postmodernity, given up on the attempt to ‘estrange’ our daily life and see it in new, poetic or nightmarish, ways; we have given up the analysis of it in terms of the commodity form, in a situation in which everything by now is a commodity; we have abandoned the quest for new languages to describe the stream of the self-same or new psychologies to diagnose its distressingly unoriginal reactions and psychic events. All that is left is to itemise them, to list the items that come by.

So it is not only the objects Karl Ove buys and uses that are itemised here: it is the people, the emotions and feelings, the thoughts, that are itemised as well. This is why the innumerable sentences in these thousands of pages – varied as they may be – fail to pass the supreme test of any postmodern aesthetics, which is the achievement of heterogeneity (virtually the magic key word in our current situation). Variety being the spice of life, we have to conclude, regretfully, that these pages do not quite enliven the palate. Here is the distilled quintessence, as Witold Gombrowicz, one of Knausgaard’s great masters and forebears, put it in his own diary:

Monday

Me.

Tuesday

Me.

Wednesday

Me.

Thursday

Me.

Karl Ove too is locked up inside his own identity; but it does not take this form. Nor does it take the form of the boredom with self either – that great peerless theme of David Foster Wallace’s in his last book, The Pale King (2011).

Q. Does anything happen in these books?

A. Yes, but not where you think. Let’s first follow a certain consequence of itemisation to its conclusion. There are feelings and emotions in these volumes and they are the usual ones – love, grief, apprehension, inferiority, anger etc. But they are not expressed; they too are itemised. There are personal relations and tense interpersonal situations; but these too are not exactly dramatised, they are simply listed, and noted down.

As for thoughts, well, there we must open a parenthesis (without, for all that, going into a lengthy theoretical digression on the novel of ideas, if there is such a thing). I find myself growing impatient when, instead of going on about his children, his friend Geir, his wife, other family members or meetings in the street, Karl Ove stops to give us some thoughts. They offer his ideas about life and death, about human relations and political relations, about art, about books and writers too, contemporary as well as classical. Indeed, those are often the most interesting moments: the long and admiring pages on Handke’s A Sorrow beyond Dreams raise the question of truth and fiction far more profoundly than I have done here and can stand as a memorable testimony to this ostracised writer. The thoughts on the visual arts are for me even more striking: the secret of painters, if not of viewers as well.

What does it mean to see? With the Impressionists, the question is: what does it mean to experience seeing? … One doesn’t have to think too hard to understand … the reason that painters and sculptors spent all their time during their crucial formative years of youth copying others or mechanically reproducing models of objects. They weren’t doing it so they could learn to copy reality … They were doing it so as to learn how not to think. This is the most important thing of all in art and literature, and hardly anyone can do it or even realises it is the case.

And there is much of interest on Celan as well as on Kafka. But just as he wavers between calling his own book(s) novels or autobiography, so here too he occasionally uses the word ‘essay’; and it is here that we must draw the line, at the four-hundred-page ‘Hitler essay’ which interrupts the story of Karl Ove’s own publications and takes us, with much intelligence and erudition (there is a bibliography at the end) through the life of the young Hitler before the fateful departure for Munich. This is ostensibly a reply to the first volume of Ian Kershaw’s now canonical biography, and quite rightly takes issue with a literary and formal problem raised by biography in general, and Kershaw’s in particular – viz the inevitable projection backwards onto the youth of what we know about the man. (Recall the story by Raymond Roussel of his discovery, in a dusty provincial museum, under glass, of the skull of Voltaire as a child.) For Kershaw, who knows the outcome, everything the young Hitler does is tainted in advance: not an act, not a feeling or an interest, a watercolour or a musical enthusiasm that is not sinister (Wagner!), or at the very least mediocre (failed artist etc). Here too, Karl Ove is raising a form-problem (among other things) and implicitly rethinking his own written life, Min Kamp, in a discussion of its eponymous predecessor, which is also juxtaposed with one of the foundational works of his own national literature – to wit Knut Hamsun’s Hunger, about a similarly desperate youth. At least he does not go as far as his unhappy Danish contemporary, Lars von Trier, who effectively ostracised himself by observing that he could sometimes understand Hitler (as though anyone could understand!).

But all of this – the essay or essays scattered throughout this enormous final volume, where it might be argued that he ought at least to be allowed to draw a few conclusions – is not to be judged on the basis of its interest (some of it is interesting, some jejune or embarrassing, some simply conventional) but rather on generic (I won’t say aesthetic) grounds; and this, however much you are willing to sacrifice on the altar of heterogeneity, is a value I also personally prize. But these essays are not narrative, they are opinion – that doxa the Greeks so sharply distinguished from episteme or ‘knowledge’. I am willing to argue that this opposition has its literary and formal version, and that there is, in fact, something we may call narrative truth. Knausgaard’s accounts of his own opinions are not the narrative of someone thinking, arguing, discovering plausible or pernicious ideas; they are simply a collection of his own personal thoughts, which he might better have projected in a truly rhetorical and literary form, i.e. the essay. There have been remarkable essays in which an author effectively tells the story of his own opinions. Here, however, we already know what Knausgaard is doing, and where the flaw lies: he is itemising them. He has already discovered and thought them through; now he is listing them for us, no matter how elaborate the entries.

*

So let’s reverse the argument, though it wasn’t necessarily wrong, for there is something rather different running through all this, which is a kind of thinking, even if one cannot quite call it a thought: it is the constant preoccupation with the pronouns, the ‘I’, ‘we’, ‘it’, a kind of ‘you’ … The ‘he’ and ‘she’ get absorbed in the narrative; on the abstract level Heidegger’s ‘das man’ fights it out with Levinas’s Other; the ‘I’ gets lost in ruminations about identity; the ‘we’ becomes the collectivity of Nazism: ‘an extreme reinforcement of the we, and the attendant weakening of the I’, a kind of banal philosophical psychologising which leads the author to rather sterile personal dead ends (‘Personally I have never felt myself to belong to any we’) and disquisitions on the permanence of death and war that become interesting only when one thinks of them as a matter of daily life and how one narrates that (the death of the father or the sordid, littered and messy rooms left after his death).

The form – the format – dictates the overriding impression of someone locked into his own subjectivity and desperately peering out of the window; but this is Karl Ove’s mistake (and Gombrowicz’s), if not our own. Karl Ove is perfectly normal, a good deal more ‘normal’, one would say, than most writers and certainly than most first-person writers. The mistake lies in not understanding that there is no ‘normal’ and that everyone is a neurotic: neurosis is the very structure of human subjectivity, of Dasein. Only other people are ‘normal’, at least some of them. Knausgaard has here hit on the great reality, the great mystery, of the world, which has little enough to do with nature, death, or whatever other grand metaphysical themes I’m forgetting here. It has to do with the hapless attempt of a biologically incomplete being to claim some mental or spiritual completeness; as well as with the inevitable failure of a group of these beings, a group of any size, to constitute some kind of whole. The ‘I’ and the ‘we’ stand for those two failures, those two structural impossibilities: the Centred Self and the General Will, or the Dictator and the Family, if you prefer. I would not say that his book agonises over this dilemma; rather, it finds itself, by some lucky historical accident, in the very crosshairs of it, wriggling between its two horns.

Oddly enough, however, none of this leads us to the centre of this dispersed and seemingly random meditation which is the absent ‘you’ itself. The real ‘you’ here is not the ‘you’ of the characters, not the ‘you’ of the relationships with the lovers, the best friend, the children, the family. If I wanted to be melodramatic about it, I would say that we get closer by deducing that the real ‘you’ in this book is, as with Hamlet, the uncle: for it is the uncle who, reading Book 1 (just published at the beginning of this one), flies into a rage, denounces Karl Ove’s lies and distortions (his brother was not a drunkard, there weren’t empty bottles all over the apartment he shared with their mother – indeed, shared for many more years than the nephew claims), the uncle who writes letters to the publishers, denounces the writer and his own hostile mother, threatens a lawsuit; constitutes, in fact, that ‘ideal reader’ of whom the great critics have talked so much.

This is, then, the concrete emotion that courses through these pages and stands in sharp contrast to the feelings and emotions so conscientiously itemised along the way: the writer as victim, the writer as ‘someone in danger of losing his independence, a person held captive and paralysed by the power of another, who fawningly acts like him, pale, bloodless and ghostlike’. That other is the Karl Ove of the novel, about whom the narrator writes and who is supposed to be the narrator. Then there is the more philosophical ‘I’, the ‘I’ of Gombrowicz and ‘immaturity’, the Sartrean ‘I’: ‘Perhaps because I have always had such a weak ego, always felt myself inferior to all others, in every situation … I am inferior to the female assistant in the shoe shop when I go in to buy shoes, she has me in her hands, so to speak, full of an authority to which I yield. But the worst for me are waiters, since their role is so obviously to serve and be there to please.’

Yet the waiters who secretly judge you are at least ‘there’. The uncle (who was ‘there’ and whom the novel-reminiscence of Book 1 portrayed quite differently) is no longer present, even though he still very much exists. What about those who judge you without being there at all, without even existing (in that sense); what about all those others to whom you are incomprehensibly opening yourself, submitting, recounting your every thought and daily action, without those things being in the least bit guilty, so that your telling of them, as in Rousseau, becomes a ‘confession’? Or maybe, as Paul de Man thought, it is the act of telling them that makes them guilty and that turns the telling itself into a confession avant la lettre?

But is it really guilt at all? Is this really a confession? Toril Moi has suggested that what troubles Knausgaard (without perhaps his having any great awareness of the distinction) is not guilt but shame. Guilt demands expression and above all confession; but the openness which Moi sees as the therapy for shame is not a redemptive act of that kind but rather a stance towards life itself, one which is fulfilled in the attention to details of everyday life unassociated with the ostensibly shameful matter as such. This is, no doubt, as demanding a life-discipline as confession, but here it is fulfilled, not so much in conduct, ethical or not, but in the aesthetic, in the voluminous pages which itemise the day’s content and that of the life itself.

But to shift levels for a moment, and to abandon the aesthetic for the ethical, Knausgaard’s is perhaps less a therapy than a solution to the problem of what to do with himself and his life – namely, to write it down item by item. This no doubt involves memory (although the truth he seeks doesn’t lie in memory but in what Moi, perhaps drawing on Hölderlin and Cavell, calls openness, in telling everything rather than in telling the truth in some classical juridical context). And since despite everything Proust is always the reference here, let’s point out that it is precisely here that we can glimpse the ultimate contradiction in the Proustian enterprise too, a contradiction of which he is almost aware, and which he certainly evades as swiftly as possible. I’m thinking less of my readers than of my book, he tells us. ‘For they would not really be my readers, according to me, but rather the readers of themselves, my book being little more than one of those magnifying glasses offered by the optician of Combray; my book thanks to which they would be offered the means of reading themselves.’ But what do Proust’s experiences (and Knausgaard’s) offer us, who have had different ones? The universal? We have to understand the premise of both writers: it is not introspection they offer, or reading either, but writing. And Proust’s rather hapless apologia suggests that the lesson both writers offer us is simply, go and do thou likewise, write out the book of your own life the same way we do. I must confess that I do not find the prospect of a utopia in which everyone is diligently scribbling down his or her experiences – daily or life-long – terribly appealing. When would we have time to have any experiences in the first place? As if there were not enough books in the world already, with many more to come from all around an awakened and literate, self-conscious, publishable world.

At any rate, the ‘you’ here, the judge, the absent other, is the reader yourself (or in this instance myself): this ‘being-for-the-reading-other’ makes for a new kind of otherness, a new kind of interpersonal relationship quite unique from a literary perspective and which is also quite different from the psychological discoveries of a Dostoevsky or a Henry James, the discovery of new kinds of feeling and emotion or reaction. As readers we are closer to Karl Ove than in any ordinary novel or autobiography, where in any case the ‘I’ of the first-person narrative pushes the reader further away than the conventional third person (with whom we have ‘empathy’). The new intimacy is stranger and stronger than those because the author is aware of our presence in his mind and of our inevitable judgment on him, just as the reader is aware at every moment that he is expecting our judgment, anticipating a condemnation even more fateful and inevitable than that of Josef K., even if the judgment claims to be positive. This is, of course, the real story of this particular novel: how will the people talked about in it react, since they cannot but react in one way or another (and the uncle’s reaction is actually a kind of relief). More crucial for Karl Ove himself is the reaction of his wife and eventually, when they grow up, of his children. But the reaction that is most important for me, the reviewer, is what he will think of my reaction, of what I will do with our newfound intimacy. It is a situation which has either never before been staged by literature, or else has existed (as my being-for-others) at every moment of everyone’s life.

I believe that this is a unique and as yet untheorised human relationship: not new certainly, but unnamed, and not subsumed under any of our pronominal categories – not ‘I-you’, or ‘them-us’ or ‘we’, but a peculiar absent presence of an otherness which is neither the big Other nor the crowd of eyes; and its shame is permanent, its openness an ever possible vulnerability to some unknown consciousness which is not an entity and can never really be reached by us in any active way. Knausgaard’s achievement is to have foregrounded this immeasurably strange relationship which is there all the time but to which we so rarely attend directly.

Q. Does anything happen in this novel?

A. Well, this is what happens in it – writing – and as for its events, they are not really to be found in the observations (or, as we have seen, in the ‘thoughts’), but rather in what Karl Ove does after he takes the children to school and before he picks them up, in between the cigarettes and coffee on the balcony during what is literally a coffee break – that’s to say, the writing of the sentences themselves. A lot of literary ‘thinking’ was devoted, especially in the 1960s, to writing about writing, to the production of textuality, to sentences whose content was the sentence itself; and a lot of self-designating or auto-referential literature thereby generated which we can now thankfully consign to secondhand bookshops, if we can still find any. What Knausgaard is doing is not the ‘production of text’ in that sense; or maybe it actually is: the real thing itself, which the 1960s were dreaming of but could not really imagine.

*

And this is then, finally, the fascination that Knausgaard, maybe unwittingly, ends up exercising on his readers. We do wonder why we take such satisfaction in the notation of all these daily things: the people who pass by in the street below the balcony, the things we have to buy in the store, the chance exchanges at the kids’ school, or what we see on the occasional trips, at lectures or at conferences … It is what a different postwar theoretical philosophy called redemption; all these insignificant moments of an insignificant daily life are here redeemed, by the ordinary, undistinctive sentences which write them down. They have not been transformed, or lent some higher meaning; they remain what they were before, transient and of no particular interest. Nor are they lifted into the timeless eternity of classical literature, posterity and the canon: you can dip into them wherever you like and they will not be any more quotable or Virgilian; they will, in fact, remain quite as nondescript as before. But Knausgaard has written them, and written about writing them, and this is the story, not of his own experiences, but of the writing of these non-reflexive sentences, about which we do not even feel his writer’s cramp or his aching shoulder, his blurred vision. We just feel them being written as we continue to read, and do not even have to be told (as he has told us) that he never rewrites or corrects anything. Nor is he more than very occasionally conscious of this continuity:

Always and yet never the same. When I see the image in my mind’s eye I am transported there, and with all my being I am aware not only of my own existence but of my own self, for a brief moment it floods my consciousness, and in those few moments I am quite oblivious to my own problems, the things I have done or need to do, the people I know, have known or will know in the future, and everything that connects me to the social world is gone.

So even if I cannot advise you to read it, I can certainly advise rereading it, as one might leaf through a journal or a diary and follow a few paragraphs before putting it down again. And for what ought to be the most frequently asked question, I would have the answer ‘Yes, it has a happy ending, which might run something like this’:

In the bus going home Vanja slept with her head in Linda’s lap while Heidi sat limply on mine dozing. Her little body registered all the bus’s jerks and jolts as at first we drove from traffic lights to traffic lights through the town, then onto the motorway along the coast where the blazing sun hung above the dark blue sea.

Happiness wasn’t in my nature, but happy was how I felt.

Everything was light and airy, my emotions were lofty and uncomplicated, the mere sight of a bulging wire fence or a stack of worn tires outside a garage opened my soul, and a rare warmth spread through my insides.