August 2013

Arts & Letters

Karl Ove Knausgaard’s ‘My Struggle’

By James Button

© Astrid Dalum

The Norwegian author delivers autobiography as Scandi noir

After Karl Ove Knausgaard finished writing his novel, he gave the manuscript to his wife, Linda. Apart from the writer himself, she was the main character. She was going to Stockholm, by train. Knausgaard waited; he had never been so afraid in his life.

After a while Linda phoned: “I don’t like it, but it’s OK.” An hour later she called to say that the book’s frank account of their marriage had killed all romance in it. By the third call she was crying.

Later, she wrote Knausgaard a note saying he was free to leave the relationship. Later still, she fell into manic depression, a condition she had not suffered from since her 20s, two decades earlier.

“And I was the one who triggered this,” said Knausgaard on stage (video) at this year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival. “I feel guilt for almost everything around this book. I was kind of autistic; I didn’t think of the consequences. I was ruthless. All writers are ruthless. I was saying, ‘My book is more important than your life.’”

The book is My StruggleMin Kamp in Norwegian – a novel in six volumes, the first two of which have been translated into English as A Death in the Family and A Man in Love. (The strange Hitler allusion may be partly explained in the sixth book, in which the author writes 400 pages on Mein Kampf.) Its protagonist, Karl Ove Knausgaard, lives in Sweden with a wife and three children whom he loves but whose demands oppress him at every turn. In Norway, his birthplace, he has a mother, a brother, an ex-wife and a dead father who was an alcoholic. It sounds normal enough, but families are only normal to those who don’t know them from the inside. Knausgaard’s book has turned his family inside out.

Although he calls it a novel, not a memoir, he sticks to the facts, and even the names, in most cases. He describes yearning to flee his first marriage, the furtive alcoholism of his mother-in-law, the boredom and frustration he can feel when around his children. Linda is depicted as sensitive and loving, but also needy, high maintenance and unwilling to do her fair share of housework. Knausgaard himself is tender with his children but driven, egotistical and self-obsessed. He takes up living in his office so he can finish his second book. His wife rages: How dare you do this? I’ll leave. Go ahead, I’ll do it anyway, he replies.

In the first book he and his brother go to their grandmother’s house, where their father over years drank himself to death. They find filth and stinking clothes in piles, a shower caked with mould, bags of bottles, human shit on the sofa. They find their grandmother groomed into alcoholism by her own son, and now demented and desperate for a drink.

After the second book was published, Knausgaard’s mother rang begging him to stop, for his children’s sake (and no doubt her own). His uncle denounced him in the press, and before publication of the first book threatened a lawsuit unless the names on his side of the family were changed. They were, but to no avail, since Norway has only one Knausgaard family. Journalists rang everyone who appeared in the books. Workplaces declared Knausgaard-free days to get people to talk about something else. The book sold nearly half a million copies, one for every ten people in Norway.

On stage in Sydney, Knausgaard was gentler and lighter than his self-portrait in print but still had an intensity that turned restlessly on the rights and wrongs of what he had written. Of his uncle, who no longer speaks to him, he said: “Who are you to stop me telling the story of my life and my father? No one can deny me that, even if you are his brother.”

To write in this way about the dead was one thing, but the living? He said it hurt him that his wife was still in great pain over the book. But it was actions, not words written about them later, that had the most power to do damage. He paused: “I would never know if someone would kill himself because of what I wrote. It’s very dangerous.” He smiled. “Don’t do this!”

It was riveting stuff. He had nailed the writer’s dilemma. You write best about what you know best. But if you tell the truth, people get hurt. When a writer is born a family dies, it is said. So people try their hand at writing novels, only to discover that the effort of concealment, of fabrication, puts a veil over the truth and dooms their project. So how did Knausgaard do this? Here is a seemingly normal man, who thinks of himself as kind, “always trying to please other people, wanting to do good”, who risked the happiness of the people closest to him for the sake of his book. Here is a writer whose monstrously narcissistic project – “it’s me, me, me, me, me, me” – has nevertheless inspired many other people to think again about how writing might describe reality in our time. Knausgaard said he wrote his book partly to save his life. He might also have helped to save the novel.

By definition, fiction is deception, though often for a high purpose. Albert Camus called it the lie through which we tell the truth. Novelists in earlier times saw no contradiction in inventing stories to tell the deepest truths. But something seems to have changed. Society has hardly grown less interesting, yet the novel no longer seems able to reflect it.

Literary fiction does not sell as it once did. People hunger for nonfiction, for fact. Philip Roth said the novelist’s imagination was beggared by the reality of modern American life. British novelist Ian McEwan confessed in a recent essay that his faith in fiction had begun to falter. Too many of its contrivances tired him now. “Teach me about the world! Bring me the cosmologists on the creation of time, the annalists of the Holocaust, the philosopher who has married into neuroscience, the mathematician who can describe the beauty of numbers to the numbskull, the scholar of empires’ rise and fall, the adepts of the English civil war. A few widely spaced pleasures apart, what will I have or know at the end of yet another novel …?”

Or maybe the problem is elsewhere. The 19th- and early 20th-century novel was the art form of the rising middle class, new to power and privilege, with time to examine its finer thoughts and feelings. Great novelists used this vehicle to explore what it was like to be a woman, a Jew, a working man trying to lift himself out of poverty by reading books. But the middle class is different now: larger, richer, more harried, beset by doubt about its purpose other than to raise happy and successful children. Life has become plotless – and that is the plot, such as it is, of My Struggle.

Though the book bemoans the sameness of the modern world, it has a fascinating strand on the many ways Norwegians differ from Swedes. Knausgaard rages against endless Swedish politeness and political correctness while Ethiopian immigrants are consigned to jobs in basement laundries. Swedish men wear black polo-neck jumpers, shave their heads to hide oncoming baldness and struggle to assemble flat-pack IKEA furniture. Knausgaard longs to be “a furious, 19th-century man” but is instead an “emasculated” 21st-century man, trapped between wanting to write the great novel and “life with baby food and baby clothes, baby cries and baby vomit, utterly wasted mornings and empty afternoons”.

He takes his daughter to Rhythm Time class at the library and sways “from side to side with Vanja in my arms thinking that this must be what hell was like, gentle and nice and full of mothers you didn’t know from Eve, with their babies”. The young woman who takes the class is very sexy and disturbs him. But she doesn’t seem to notice him and even if she did, Knausgaard is faithful and wouldn’t take it further. The pram in the hall is not only death to art but to male sex appeal, it seems. “When I came along with a buggy no women looked at me, it was as if I didn’t exist.”

Brooding on all this in a cafe, smoking as always, Knausgaard reads The Brothers Karamazov, and falls into a long and fabulous riff on the loss of God, why we have banished death to the TV news, and how human colonisation of every part of the Earth means that “where before man had wandered through the world, now it is the world that wanders through man” – until he wakes from his reverie to see that he should have been home an hour ago. “Shit. Fuck and bollocks.” He hurries home to his family, stopping at the boutique supermarket to buy mozzarella cheese, basil, olives and Serrano ham.

Like McEwan, Knausgaard had increasingly lost faith in literature. Everything he read felt invented, he writes in A Man in Love. “Perhaps it was because we were totally inundated with fiction and stories.” Not only books, films and DVD box sets but also documentaries and even reports in the papers and on TV were stories, “and it made no difference whether what they told had actually happened or not. It was a crisis. I felt it in every fibre of my body, something saturating was spreading through my consciousness like lard.” Fiction and nonfiction used identical techniques to achieve verisimilitude. It was all mass-produced. Everyone talked about uniqueness, but it was all – including the talk of uniqueness – the same.

The thought made him despair. “I couldn’t write like this, it wouldn’t work, every sentence was met with the thought: but you’re just making this up. It has no value.” The only genres he still saw value in were diaries and essays, the types of literature that had no narrative but just “a voice, the voice of your own personality, a life, a face, a gaze you could meet. What is a work of art if not the gaze of another person?”

By 2008 he had published two novels, Out of the World (1998) and A Time to Every Purpose Under Heaven (2004), a novel about the place of angels in human life. Both books had been well received, yet the second sounds a little strained and over-intellectual, as if it took a heavy beating of wings to get it off the ground. Certainly it seems to have exhausted Knausgaard. Next time, he would do something different.

The creative-writing course he had taken as a student taught him the standard lessons: write a draft and then start cutting, taking away. Show, don’t tell. The advice constricted him. He could not write more than a few sentences, polished but dead. One day, he turned the advice around.

He wrote five pages a day, then ten, then 20. He did not stop to edit. It was quantity over quality, he says. He wrote by pure intuition; he would start somewhere and see what happened. He rang the same friend every morning to read out what he had written the day before. It’s good, keep going, the friend said. Above all, he overturned the mantra of creative-writing courses. He resolved to tell, not show.

When he began My Struggle he was 40, the age his father had been when he left his schoolteacher’s job, wife and children, broke off all contact with them and began to drink. Knausgaard might also have left. Instead, he wrote his book.

It begins with his attempt to find out what happened to his father, a man he hated as a boy and “hardly thought human”. By the end of the second book it is still not clear, yet Knausgaard has recovered incidents in which his father’s abiding coldness lifted: when he came quietly to watch his son play football, or defended him against a hostile teacher. But the grief has no end. Knausgaard spends a week with his brother cleaning his grandmother’s house, “crying and cleaning, crying and cleaning”. It is as if he is scrubbing out all the bad stuff between his father and him, using Jif, Ajax, Klorin and Mr Muscle.

The detail is astonishing. Knausgaard writes about changing a nappy, taking money from his wallet to buy a ferry ticket, his shopping list. “The clock on the department store wall said ten minutes to three. Perhaps it would be best to have a haircut now to avoid having to rush it at the end, I thought.”

There are occasional clichés, clunky phrases and dull sections: I found one such passage on illicitly procuring alcohol for a teenage party a little flat. But most of the language is so precise, the detail so sharp, that observations of people in a street or a cafe can seem as gripping as if some great drama is about to unfold, although it never does. As a boy Knausgaard read a lot of adventure novels, and he says that he wanted to apply the tension of an Alistair MacLean novel to a man getting up from a chair and taking food out of the fridge.

Before Knausgaard sees his father’s corpse for a second time, he and the undertaker have a transactional conversation, recounted in full, about whether he will visit at 3 pm or 4. Then the son stands before his father. This time, unlike the first, he is not horrified. He merely sees the body’s lifeless state, no different from the table it is on or the power point under the window. He realises that:

humans are merely one form among many, which the world produces over and over again, not only in everything that lives but in everything that does not live, drawn in sand, stone and water. And death, which I have always regarded as the greatest dimension of life, dark, compelling, was no more than a pipe that springs a leak, a branch that cracks in the wind, a jacket that slips off a clothes hanger and falls to the floor.

This is the point of My Struggle, perhaps. Life has boring bits, sometimes long ones. Yet its very banality makes the moments of heightened perception all the more acute. Knausgaard has crafted a style to capture what it is like to be alive now, when all adventure is dead, other than the great one that goes on ceaselessly in our heads.

One night he and Linda have dinner with another couple. It all proceeds politely, although the other man gets in a sly dig at Knausgaard’s horror at women having elective caesareans, which the man thinks is pretty right-wing.

After the couple leaves, Linda and Vanja go to bed. Knausgaard sits drinking cognac, the trials of the evening still inside him. After half an hour he goes into the kitchen, drinks a few glasses of water, eats an apple, turns on his computer and escapes into Google Earth.

He finds the tip of South America and moves gently upwards, until he sees a fjord cutting into the land mass and zooms in. He sees rugged mountains on one side of a river, wetlands on the other. Knausgaard, his wife and baby asleep nearby, is exploring the outer edge of the world.

Then human life begins to appear, the world we know. He sees a town with broad streets and low buildings, then another, Puerto Deseado, with dead lakes and a refinery plant. In Buenos Aires he finds heavy industry, big ships at the docks, an eight-lane motorway. He tries to find the famous Teatro Cervantes, “but the image resolution was too poor, everything blurred into contourless green and grey, so I switched off, had a final glass of water in the kitchen, went to the bedroom and lay down beside Linda”.

Linda Boström Knausgaard was with her husband in Sydney. I saw them on a pier one evening as the sky turned red over the harbour. What was it like, I wondered, to have the black box of one’s marriage prised open for all to see? She is also a published writer, of poetry and short stories. What material is hers to use now, what does she write? What does he, for that matter? I had so many questions, but I kept my distance as they drank and smoked together, on the other side of the Earth from home, looking like any other couple but perhaps preferring, more than most, to be left alone.

James Button

James Button is a former Fairfax journalist and the author of Speechless: A Year in My Father’s Business and Comeback: The Fall and Rise of Geelong.

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