Jeffrey Eugenides said that Karl Ove Knausgård “broke the sound barrier of the autobiographical novel” in his six-volume account of his life that is 3500 pages long, called Min Kamp, (Mein Kampf , My Struggle), and finished before he was 50. Eugenides’s comment is perhaps deliberately ambivalent: the series is either a tremendous achievement or over-the-top. Or perhaps it’s both.
I’ve just finished the second volume A Man in Love, and it did seem interminable at times. He made thousands of cups of coffee and changed hundreds of nappies, and each time described himself doing so. (Actually coffee is mentioned 100 times and nappies 23 times.) Why, I wonder, did I carry on reading it? I don’t have a wholly convincing explanation, and at least one writer has compared reading Knausgaard to taking a drug.
The Economist reviewed the first volume, which I’ve also read, and picked out for features that make the book special. Firstly, the energy of his writing. Secondly, his willingness to put everything in the book. Thirdly, the book has a sense of transcendence. Fourthly, it’s his father who provides the narrative drive and “a sense of menace.”
His “willingness to put everything in” is certainly a reason, but it’s also the cause of much of the tedium. But he writes about his every move and his every thought, including deeply negative ones about himself and others. Assuming that everything he writes about happened, then there must be a fair few people offended by what he has written about them. His disregard for them fascinates. He writes in the book about a conversation with a friend: “You went so far, put so much of yourself into it. That requires courage.’ ‘Not for me,’ I said. ‘I don’t give a shit about myself.’ He constantly disparages himself and seems to have low self-esteem, making it even more extraordinary that he should write so much about himself.
He also writes at one point about having a poor memory. You then wonder how he could remember making a cup of coffee 15 years ago. Then you begin to think that perhaps much of the book-and obviously the dialogue, of which there is a lot–is invented. And if it’s invented does that make the book a novel?
He writes as well in the book: “Everyday life, with its duties and routines, was something I endured, not a thing I enjoyed, nor something that was meaningful or made me happy.” Why then would he write so much about it and in so much detail? He answers this question later in the book:
Fictional writing has no value, documentary narrative has no value. The only genres I saw value in, which still conferred meaning, were diaries and essays, the types of literature that did not deal with narrative, that were not about anything, but just consisted of 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?
I like that definition of a work of art “the gaze of another person.” You undoubtedly see through Knausgaard’s eyes.
And anyway Knausgaard contradicts himself, as he does often, when he writes: “Everyday life, which could bear down on us like a foot treading on a head, could also transport us with delight.” In his book we feel the foot treading on our heads, but we are also at times transported with delight. After pages of nappy changing we come to passages that fascinate, which is why I’ve found that I’ve taken a great many quotes from the book (see separate blog:) His description in the first book of Rembrandt’s self-portrait in the National Gallery was an example and inspired me to go and look again at the picture: https://richardswsmith.wordpress.com/2016/08/23/face-to-face-with-rembrandt/
I wouldn’t describe his writing as energetic, but it does move along quickly. He’s often called “the Norwegian Proust,” and there are clear similarities: a very long account written in the first person of a man’s every move. But Proust is much more artificial and artistic, less direct; and Knausgaard doesn’t have the exquisite style of Proust. Indeed, the volume I’ve just read seemed filled with clichés and awkward phrases, which I thought (and a letter in the London Review of Books from someone who reads both Norwegian and English made the same point) might be due to a poor translation.
I don’t agree that his writing is transcendent, but I would describe it as hypnotic, which is not wholly a good thing.
His father, who dominates the first volume, which dealt with death, hardly features in the second volume, but there are these four sentences: “A life is simple to understand, the elements that determine it are few. In mine there were two. My father and the fact that I had never belonged anywhere. It was no more difficult than that.” It seems hugely ironic this his life can be explained with two elements but he writes 3500 words about the first 40 years of his life. But he might respond that he’s no trying to explain his life.
Although the book is about love there’s little of the transporting romantic love that usually dominates books that are about love. His love is a much more domestic love of his wife, children, and mother with all the everyday irritations that are part of such love.
What comes through most clearly in this book is that writing is everything for Knausgaard, the most important thing in his life. “I, for my part, never looked forward to anything except the moment the office door closed behind me and I was alone and able to write.” And: “ ‘But you must write, Karl Ove!’ And when push came to shove, when a knife was at my throat, this was what mattered most.” But again he contradicts himself: “Children were life, and who would turn their back on life? And writing, what else was it but death? Letters, what else were they but bones in a cemetery?” And: “Everything that can be said with words can be contradicted with words, so what’s the point of dissertations, novels, literature?” But his obsession with writing explains better than anything else why he would write 3500 words about his own life. “One thing I had learned over the last six months was that all writing was about writing.”
So will I read the other four volumes? I doubt that I will.