Knausgaard's six volume saga breaks taboos right up to the last. What comes next is another questionby Anthony Cummins / December 11, 2018 / Leave a comment
Novelists on both sides of the Atlantic spent the 2000s striving to meet the clamour for them to deal with the 9/11 attacks and their fallout. After the spectacle of John Updike and Martin Amis purporting to tell us how suicide bombers think, it wasn’t surprising that the old advice to “write what you know”—however prosaic—once more began to seem a likelier spur to literary creativity than, say, speed-reading Sayyid Qutb. When Jonathan Franzen let slip that he had, for research purposes, thought of adopting an Iraqi orphan, it revealed, among other things, the strange sense of duty felt by novelists of his rank.
In this decade the most talked-about authors write about themselves. If nothing else, the rise of so-called “autofiction” sidesteps an increased nervousness about cultural appropriation as well as imagining the lives of others, something novelists—not least those of the state-of-the-nation variety—once took for granted. Navel-gazing this may be, but for writers such as Rachel Cusk, whose recent “Outline” trilogy broke with the middle-class satire and straight memoir she had published previously, it’s preferable to the alternative: what she has called the “fake and embarrassing” business of “making up John and Jane and having them do things together.” (Unlikely plots and implausible characters begone!)
It’s in this context that Anglo-American readers fell for the Norwegian Karl Ove Knausgaard, whose multi-part autofiction My Struggle, or Min kamp, finally came to its conclusion in 2018 with the nearly 1,200-page translation of the sixth volume, The End.
Moving back and forth through the first 40 years of his life, My Struggle shows Knausgaard as a bullied son, an unfaithful husband and a harried parent who, reconciling his desire to write a magnum opus with the demands of raising three young children, turns himself into his own material. Little is off limits, from the breakdown of his second wife—after she’d read what he wrote about her—to the death of his father, a teacher who took to drink; as well as, in more abstract mood, philosophical speculation on anything and everything from how ostriches think to the worldview of far-right mass murderer Anders Breivik.
Among the different writers grouped under autofiction’s umbrella—Cusk, Ben Lerner, Sheila Heti, Elena Ferrante—it’s Knausgaard whose name has become shorthand for the genre, not always…