A review of the second volume of Karl Ove Knausgård’s epic exploration of the everyday, in all its glorious meaninglessness
Warning: Any conclusions that follow are premature. That’s because it is currently only possible for English-language readers, along with most of the non-Nordic world, to enjoy a maximum of 1003 pages of Karl Ove Knausgård’s six-volume novel My Struggle—and yet, after finishing the second installment of Don Bartlett’s translation from the Norwegian, I am very close to believing that the complete work will not only match sales in Norway, where the total copies sold equal a tenth of the population, but also become the sort of thing you see old people reading on the subway, freshmen using to bookend their dorm-room shelves, and house husbands discussing at the laundromat. Should this come to pass, Knausgård would not only become one of the most famous Norwegians in history—joining the Asgard of Hamsun, Munch, and the man who discovered leprosy—but, given the confessional nature of his project, one of the individuals we know the most about overall, certainly more than any other living author, quite possibly more than we know about our parents’ childhoods, the inner lives of our friends, the day-to-day of our husbands and wives.
If by some chance I happen to be in the ballpark regarding My Struggle’s unusual crossover potential, a big part of its appeal will rest upon Knausgård’s willingness to do many things one is not supposed to do, among them write long prosaic sentences, emphasize commonplace objects and unremarkable events from the existence of a not-untypical middle-aged writer, and name his book after Hitler’s. And yet the “controversy” mentioned in every account of My Struggle’s original reception appears to have more to do with a frank exhibitionism that is at odds with Norwegian standards of privacy but which, given the ubiquity of reality television and tell-all memoir in the States, hardly strikes an American reader as scandalous. What’s more provocative is the form this autobiography takes, a mélange of personal essay, first-rate storytelling, and compulsive philosophy that winds up feeling truer and more artful, if you can believe it, than even the finest these capacious genres have to offer. Nor does this tension between the banal and sublime elude Knausgård, who throughout My Struggle’s second book returns to artifice’s role in shaping a consensual reality. It’s not always an uplifting thought. Norway may enjoy a high standard of living, but the other side of social harmony is stultifying gridlock—and what, Knausgård seems to wonder, is the point of producing art if we’re all feeding from the same trough?
We have access not only to our own lives but to almost all the other lives in our cultural circle, access not only to our own memories but to the memories of the whole of our damn culture, for I am you and you are everyone, we come from the same and are going to the same, and on the way we hear the same on the radio, see the same on TV, read the same in the press … Even if you sit in a tiny town hundreds of kilometers from the center of the world and don’t meet a single soul, their hell is your hell, their heaven is your heaven, you have to burst the balloon that is the world and let everything in it spill over the sides.
There is much spillage in this second volume, even compared with the first, which effectively consisted of two extended set pieces bookended in youth and death: first, a formative New Year’s party from the author’s youth in the country and then his coming to terms, as an adult, with his father’s death from alcoholism. It’s harder to bind the content of Book Two to any given theme, though it is subtitled A Man in Love and spans roughly the period of six years during which Karl Ove meets his second wife, a poet named Linda, relocates to Stockholm, has two children, writes his second novel (A Time For Everything), and retreats to the smaller city of Malmö. But each milestone is embedded in dozens of episodes—a children’s birthday party, occasional brushes with a cranky Russian woman who lives in the same building—so commonplace that I hesitate to even call them scenes. Here, swathed in rumination, speculation, and conversation, much of which is with Karl Ove’s intellectual friend Geir, these minor incidents add up to something unlike a book and more like a hypnotically sustained feeling: a sprawling sleepwalk that takes us deeper the more it creeps into the borders of Karl Ove’s consciousness.
Perhaps naturally for a writer, who is obliged to give a great deal of thought to what he does and does not aspire to, Knausgård’s characteristically lucid insights often emerge out of aesthetic judgments. He also seems to be taking instruction, as much of what he says of Monet or Dostoevsky can be said of My Struggle. In the sparse domestic dramas of Ibsen (somehow neglected in my earlier list of famous Norsemen), he observes that “a kind of boundlessness arose, something wild and reckless. Into it disappeared plot and space, what was left was emotion … the very nucleus of life, and thus you found yourself in a place where it no longer mattered what was actually happening.” He praises Tartovsky’s films with their all-seeing eye
which changed the world into a kind of terrarium, where everything trickled and ran, floated and drifted, where all the characters could melt away from the picture and only coffee cups on a table were left, filling slowly with the falling rain, against a backdrop of intense, almost menacing green vegetation, yes—then the eye would also be able to see the same wild, existential depths unfold in everyday life.
Most of all, Karl Ove returns to painting, art without words, “an area that was completely devoid of intelligence, which I had difficulty acknowledging or accepting, yet which perhaps was the most important single element of what I wanted to do.” The novelist’s usual pathways into our sympathies seem closed off for the late-30s Knausgård, though this realization does not come without some self-admonishment. “So why not just write fiction?” he wonders, “The truth did not, of course, have a one-to-one relationship with reality. Good arguments, but that didn’t help, just the thought of fiction, just the thought of a fabricated character in a fabricated plot made me feel nauseous, I reacted in a physical way.”
Here is where Knausgård differs from Proust, whose mention has been compulsory in the advance reviews of My Struggle. Knausgård is less interested in memory in itself than he is in how objects incubate certain moments in time and language determines environments. This trust that everyday life most reveals the forms that wear us down and, by and by, transfigure us explains Knausgård’s comprehensive approach. Take a scene late in the book when, jostled on the metro, he drops his phone and only realizes after the fact that it had fallen into a woman’s open purse. His friend Geir suggests he send a text to the lost phone, which is found by the woman’s fiancé, who agrees, after an only slightly suspicious phone call, to return it. The encounter is certainly thematic, as the adjacency of strangers comes up again and again in Book Two. But let’s get real: Not only is the cell-phone situation laughably extraneous and pretty much devoid of obvious narrative purpose, it’s also told all the way through twice verbatim, just as, if it happened to you, you’d probably tell the story before you forgot all about it. But to leave it out would be to surrender to the petrified standards of modern literature: “When the movements art cultivated became static that was what you had to avoid and ignore. Not because it was modern, in tune with our times, but because it wasn’t moving, it was dead.”
If My Struggle is a world removed from Proust, it resembles traditional memoir even less, where one’s experiences are massaged into the shape of a guiding narrative. Instead, Knausgård takes himself as representative of both modernity and the welfare state, without giving in to the illusion that either is responsible for identity or can account for the differences between human beings. No, to find the cracks of difference along which our oppressive similarities are arranged, everything must be weighed and considered, everything must be placed in its correlative relationship with regard to everything else, for “it is not the case that we are born equal and that the conditions of life make our lives unequal, it is the opposite, we are born unequal, and the conditions of life make our lives more equal.” Improbably, Karl Ove comes across in this six-volume collection of encyclopedic autobiography as almost indifferent to himself, making note of his reactions and desires as though transcribing readouts from a kind of phenomenological existing-machine.
As for the past, Knausgård confesses to being less interested in his own than in the past, history itself, with the 16th and 17th centuries being particular fixations: “Admittedly, that world was rough and wretched, filthy and ravaged with sickness, drunken and ignorant, full of pain, low life expectancy and rampant superstition, but it produced the greatest writer, Shakespeare, the greatest painter, Rembrandt, the greatest scientist, Newton, all still unsurpassed in their fields, and how can it be that this period achieved this wealth?” Perhaps because “death was closer.” For Knausgård, it’s death, not democracy or humanism, that is the contract that both unites us and makes the past a foreign language. Meanwhile, the present is meaningless. Accustomed to nearly every possible experience, we no longer ascribe to things the same significance as in our past, when they were new. In Book One, the difference between a child’s reality and an adult’s was sharply delineated by the quenching of youth’s sensitivity “with the taste of salt that could fill your summer days to saturation, now it was just salt, end of story.” But in Book Two, it’s not the end of the story—when he kisses Linda, he catches the taste of salt on her lips.
If it is death, and the knowledge of death, that renders us undifferentiated and eventually indifferent, love is what sets us apart and individualizes—to a point, at least. Linda and Karl Ove’s early days trace often destructive highs and lows. Early on, he slashes his face with a broken glass after she briefly rejects him; in Stockholm, Linda threatens to leave over small matters while Karl Ove navigates his separation from his first wife. They behave, in other words, like children. And still, the world is a changed place that lives again with the intensity of childhood:
If someone had spoken to me then about a lack of meaning, I would have laughed out loud, for I was free and the world lay at my feet, open, packed with meaning, from the gleaming, futuristic trains that streaked across Slussen beneath my flat, to the sun coloring the church spires in Riddarholmen red in the nineteenth-century-style, sinisterly beautiful sunsets I witnessed every evening for all those months, from the aroma of freshly picked basil and the taste of ripe tomatoes to the sound of clacking heels on the cobbled slope down to the Hilton Hotel late one night when we sat on a bench holding hands and knowing that it would be us two now and forever ...
Of course, love too can be a matter of pragmatic routines—it too is subject to the sublimating undertones of modern life. But the love that surrounds even the most debasing rituals of family life in Book Two (I’m thinking of a “Rhythm Time” class Karl Ove is obliged to participate in with his daughter) makes this volume more uplifting than the first, where the realities of death were the main concern. In love, Karl Ove is “cast back to the time when my feelings swung from wild elation to a wild fury … and the intensity was so great that sometimes life felt almost unlivable, and when nothing could give me any peace of mind except books with their different places, different times and different people, where I was no one and no one was me. That was when I was young and had no options.” Knausgård argues that we are most unalike as children and most similar when dead. In the middle, love restores the madness we are born with and gradually cured of.
Life is not literature, for nothing lies beneath it. Knausgård’s struggle is not a search for meaning or lost time, nor is it even really the story of his journey as a writer. It is an attempt to be, simply and calmly. Knausgård doesn’t, as the cliché goes, wring meaning out of everyday life, he frees everyday life from the responsibility of having to seem meaningful. It is what it is. That isn’t to say that he doesn’t go some ways toward satisfying our craving for conflict and resolution (“Will Karl Ove finally lose his patience with the old Russian in his building?”). But the concerns of narrative or art or identity fall away in the moment, and the moment is what Knausgård is after. After a canon built on thinking and feeling, here is an authentic 21st century masterpiece dedicated to existing, existence being perhaps the briefest state of all and therefore the one hardest to be exhaustive about, even given six books to say, in essence, “there I was.”
There I was, walking through the crowds beneath the darkening sky, through falling snowflakes, past shop after shop with illuminated interiors, alone in my new town, without a thought as to how things would be here, because that made no difference, it really didn’t make any difference, all I was thinking about was that I had to get through this. ‘This’ was life. Getting through it, that was what I was doing.