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 favourably. Much praised, he’s also been rubbished as boring, pretentious and banal, criticisms that, while valid, ignore the quicksilver fluidity of his restless seesawing between kitchen-sink realism and cos-mic conjecture.
The level of detail is over-the-top, it’s true. “After I had eaten the hamburger I got undressed and went to bed,” runs a line midway through the series. But set against the boredom built into this access-all-areas approach are moments of drama worthy of any soap opera. For instance, in the second book, A Man in Love, he recalls cutting his own face with glass when, while married, he was rejected by Linda, another writer who would eventually become his next wife. Knausgaard doesn’t expose himself only. How could he? By committing to print the experiences that have affected him most, he learns the hard way how one’s own story always belongs to someone else too, as the perils of appropriation return with a vengeance.
At the start of The End, Knausgaard is anticipating the publication of My Struggle’s first volume, A Death in the Family, centred on his father. But there’s a problem: after reading the book in manuscript, his uncle Gunnar—his father’s brother—now wants to sue for libel on account of what he claims are its lies about Knausgaard Sr, whose dead body the author says he discovered at his grandmother’s house, surrounded by excrement.
Gunnar’s threat turns The End’s first quarter into a psychodrama of self-doubt. Was there really, as Knausgaard had earlier claimed, “faeces on the sofa” and “empties all the way up the staircase”? He’s suddenly unsure. Questioning his motives for having said otherwise, he admits that talking about his father’s death had always “made me special and perhaps interesting too.”
His ensuing agony finds an outlet—not untypically—in musing on the Holocaust and the Austrian writer Peter Handke, as well as in a sympathetic pep talk from his editor on the nuts and bolts of libel law. When Knausgaard questions his uncle’s need for “shame and concealment when what we are dealing with here”—death—“is basically the most human thing of all,” Gunnar’s solicitor hits back: “You can try and hide behind as much existential intellectualism as you like, to my mind it’s pretentious rubbish, so pompous it makes me feel sick just standing there listening to… your self-exalting and conceited claptrap.”
The impression of shapelessness in Knausgaard’s prose makes it easy to overlook just how vivid his scenes can be. At one point in The End he brings his children back from the playground to get the dinner on:
I’d only cleaned the kitchen the day before, now it was a mess again, and I decided to try and tidy up a bit while the dinner was getting ready, but managed only to empty the dishwasher before having to change John, he’d dirtied his nappy, and what usually took just a few minutes now turned into a performance, we’d run out of wet wipes again and I had to wash him down with the hand shower in the bath. He cried at the top of his voice as soon as I put him in the tub and kept trying to climb out again, I gripped his arm with one hand and showered him with the other while he howled.
“All finished,” I said once he was clean, and turned the water off. “That wasn’t that bad now, was it?”
Passages like this have put Knausgaard in the middle of debates about masculinity as well as fiction—but if you’re inclined to view My Struggle’s 3,600 pages as an oxygen-sucking feat of literary manspreading, you might well see its portrait of hands-on fatherhood as a way to mansplain what mothers have known forever.
The charged context in which he’s sometimes read doesn’t make it any easier to get the measure of what he’s actually up to in these books, which are stranger than they first seem. Take The End’s midsection, a long commentary on the life of Hitler, in which the author, triggered by the discovery of a Nazi pin among his father’s effects, gets to grips with the question of why he’s using the title My Struggle. After admitting in a typically comic aside that he had to ask a friend to buy him a copy of Mein Kampf (because he was worried about being associated with Hitler), Knausgaard starts reading the book, keen to debunk the notion that Hitler was born evil.
While he makes sensible points, you can’t help but suspect his uncle’s legal threats have sapped his zeal for chronicling matters closer to home. Perhaps this vast segment also serves to counterbalance Knausgaard’s vexed embrace of house-husbandry elsewhere—after all, what could be more manly than spending 400 pages setting Hitler’s biographers straight?
His commentary is dry, at times barely readable. Yet he has a knack for bringing your wandering attention back from the brink. Breaking off to recount a road accident he once witnessed in Stockholm, Knausgaard describes checking the next day’s paper for confirmation it really happened: “The fear of natural forces, inorganic as well as organic, has always needed to be assuaged, and since the human is what is known to us, and such forces are alien to us, they have been incorporated into the human sphere, still as alien, yet alien within our own domain.” This goes on, with reference to the writers Olav Duun, Hermann Broch and Knut Hamsun, for 10 more pages. Stay with it and the windy digressions are redeemed by a startling and persuasive reflection on death, contrasting its cinematic ubiquity with the hushed-up reality.
Ultimately he seeks to expunge shame as a cause of silence, a project that entails wholesale breaches of etiquette, not only in how he treats his family but in how he treats us, his readers. Taboo-busting, here, is as much about rejecting customs of “good” writing as it is about the need for the proverbial splinter of ice in the heart: in more ways than one, Knausgaard leaves in the things that other writers would keep out.
But must his struggle be our struggle? While anyone who stuck with the previous volumes won’t want to miss The End, curious observers unsure if they have the patience, or time, should look up his 200-page novel Spring (translated last February as part of a separate, smaller-scale series) about the birth of his fourth child. Anne. From his zoom-lens description of scraping the dirt from a poorly-washed dinner plate with his fingernail, to the morally questionable account of Linda’s hospitalisation with bipolar disorder, to his rambling chit-chat about Bergman movies, to the trademark pratfalls—driving alone with Anne, he runs out of baby milk as well as petrol before realising he can’t find his bank card, which leads him to ask a cashier to look him up online as proof of ID—it’s My Struggle in miniature.
Spring’s existence gives the lie to The End’s last line, in which Knausgaard says, having completed My Struggle, he’s glad to be “no longer a writer.” Whether or not he meant it, his fame in the English-speak-ing literary world has put paid to the idea. Novelists have always been unable to resist the public platforms afforded by their renown, and Knausgaard—sent by the New York Times to report from Russia, or watching neurosurgeon Henry Marsh operate—is no exception. It’s what we want authors to do; even the secretive Elena Ferrante has given the Guardian her view on Brexit. Just writing novels—about yourself or anyone else—never seems to be enough.
The End, Book Six of My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard, translated by Martin Aitken, and Don Bartlett is published by Harvill Secker, £25