The opening lines of A Death in the Family perform a small but calculated bait and switch. ‘For the heart,’ it begins, ‘life is simple.’ The phrase instantly wraps us in the warm comforting embrace of romantic cliché. Yes, one thinks, the heart is simple. It is foolish fond, it leads us where it will, it cannot be reasoned with, it wants what it wants. But this is not the simplicity Karl Ove Knausgaard has in mind. He strokes us with the idea that the heart is the home of the sentiments, then slaps us with a blunt literalism: ‘For the heart, life is simple: it beats for as long as it can. Then it stops.’
The passage that follows considers death not as a metaphysical mystery but as a physical reality, describing the pooling of blood that has ceased to circulate, the cooling and stiffening of the body, the infiltration of the bacteria that begin the process of decomposition. Why, wonders Knausgaard, do we turn away from this natural and inevitable event? Why do we act so swiftly to cover the dead, move them out of sight? A teacher who dies of a heart attack in the school playground can safely be left where he lies until the caretaker removes the body that evening. ‘What difference would it make if a bird were to alight on him and take a peck?’
It is, on the face of it, a deeply unsentimental beginning, one that positions the author as an enemy of mystification. It announces that A Death in the Family will confront its subject without flinching, without squeamishness. Yet there is a fundamental conflict alluded to here. For Knausgaard is not the dispassionate materialist he seems. He is very much preoccupied with the ‘heart’ in the metaphorical sense of the word – a heart whose agonies and desires are not at all simple. The profession of his schoolyard cadaver is not casually chosen: his father, whose death is the book’s defining event, was a teacher, and the subtle allusion, unobtrusive yet deliberate, gives the hypothetical scenario a personal edge; it is a small example of Knausgaard’s attention to detail – an indication of just how purposefully he has shaped his material, how carefully he has considered his imagery and symbolism. But it also anticipates the way in which A Death in the Family and its sequel A Man in Love dramatise the tension between the author’s desire to understand himself, to be rational, to see the world with disinterested clarity, and his vulnerability to grief, shame, anger, boredom, lust, irritation and all the other ungovernable emotions that colour his perceptions.
At the centre of these books, then, is the paradox of a man trying to be objective about his own subjectivity. The paradox is inherent in any autobiographical endeavour, but there are a number of factors elevating Knausgaard’s intimate revelations above the common run of first-person narratives. The most obvious is the ambitious scale of the project. A Death in the Family and A Man in Love are the first two volumes in a series of six novels, collectively titled My Struggle. Knausgaard has set out to anatomise his life in exhaustive detail and the frankness with which he has written about his family and friends has been a source of controversy in his native Norway, where the final volume was published in 2011. Whether or not a writer is justified in appropriating the experiences of his loved ones for his literary ends is an interesting ethical question, but there is no doubt that the investigation into the nature of modern selfhood that beats beneath the surface of these novels is utterly ingenuous. For it is not only the case that Knausgaard’s ‘struggle’ to be reconciled to his day-to-day existence is fused to his creative struggle to write about it; the personal nature of that struggle to recover a lost sense of meaning, the longing to recapture something of the wonder and enchantment he feels has disappeared from the world, becomes the basis of a claim to a wider relevance – one that drags these intense, self-involved novels into an argument with what Knausgaard considers the nihilistic implications of the modern understanding of the world.
This is their deeper paradox and the source of their restless metaphysics. The subject of the first book is death because, as Saul Bellow put it, death is the dark backing a mirror needs if we are to see anything. In rendering life finite, it makes every moment valuable, makes the way we inhabit and remember each irreplaceable moment of vital importance. At the same time, however, it confirms the essential futility of our existence, which can arrive at only one possible end. A Death in the Family concludes with Knausgaard viewing his father’s body in the funeral parlour for the second time, having somehow convinced himself that a mistake may have been made and his father might still be alive, and finally realising that ‘there was no longer any difference between what had once been my father and the table he was lying on, or the floor on which the table stood, or the wall socket beneath the window, or the cable running to the table lamp beside him.’
It is a moment of acceptance that brings the novel full-circle, the culmination of its at times agonising dissection of their relationship. And in that tense relationship is the origin and essence of My Struggle. Throughout A Death in the Family, Knausgaard catches glimpses of himself in mirrors – a conventional enough symbol for an autobiographical artist – but these moments acquire a more complicated resonance by virtue of the fact that father and son are also reflections of each other. Knausgaard’s habit on seeing his image is to run his fingers through his hair, a gesture his father also makes when he catches sight of his reflection, and the book allows us to recognise the obvious parallels between Knausgaard’s enthusiastic drinking and his father’s alcoholism, between his tendency to be impatient and ill-tempered with his children and the fearful view he had of his father when he was growing up. His observations are often structured in a way that emphasises this uneasy doubling. He watches his father through windows and doorways: they inhabit separate but connected realms. His father is a distant figure, an inscrutable and forbidding presence, yet he is unnervingly (and of course literally) familiar.
‘Understanding the world requires you to keep a certain distance from it,’ Knausgaard writes near the beginning of A Death in the Family. And it is his early memories of his father that open up that distance, at the same time as they invite a kind of retrospective intimacy:
My picture of my father on that evening in 1976 is, in other words, twofold: on the one hand I see him as I saw him at the time, through the eyes of an eight-year-old: unpredictable and frightening; on the other hand I see him as a peer through whose life time is blowing and unremittingly sweeping large chunks of meaning along with it.
This conscious doubling, which is also a doubling-back, is encoded in the narrative structure of these books and is part of the reason why, I think, they warrant the label ‘novels’, despite their transparent basis in autobiography – though it is something of a testament to Knausgaard’s literary achievement that they render the distinction between fiction and memoir largely uninteresting. Near the beginning of A Death in the Family, he describes himself sitting down one evening in February 2008 after his wife and children have gone to bed and writing the opening pages of his autobiographical epic, the pages we have just been reading. At the end of A Man in Love, we see him gathering the early drafts of what we know will become A Death in the Family. He is often found brooding in the office where he goes to write. Both books contain extended passages that set out his reasons for writing and his views about art and literature. This foregrounding of the process of writing and the intellectual foundations of the project makes My Struggle, among other things, an account of its own creation. And via this process Knausgaard enacts a kind of creative destruction, an overthrowing of literary form that is in fact a rediscovery of form and expression:
For years I had tried to write about my father, but had got nowhere, probably because the subject was too close to my life, and thus not easy to force into another form, which of course is a prerequisite for literature. That is its sole law: everything has to submit to form. If any of literature’s other elements are stronger than form, such as style, plot, theme, of any of these take control over form, the result is poor. That is why writers with a strong style so often write poor books. That is also why writers with strong themes so often write poor books. Strong themes and styles have to be broken down before literature can come into being. It is this breaking down that is called ‘writing’. Writing is more about destroying than creating.
Many of the experiences Knausgaard records are unremarkable in themselves. The first book describes his early fumbling sexual encounters, his underage drinking, his inept high school rock band. The second, which has as its central event the birth of his first child, immerses us in the mundane duties of parenting – the children’s parties that must be suffered through, the dismal family outings that make everyone tired and irritable. But rather than lead us on a chronological trudge through his life, Knausgaard organises his account around the fact that, though life must be lived chronologically, that is not how it is remembered or understood. This is perhaps the most brilliant aspect of My Struggle. The emotional drama of his experiences is overlaid with the intellectual drama of his puzzling at their significance (or lack thereof) and his dismay at the often foolish behaviour of his younger self. Each book has its explicitly stated thematic heart and is quite purposefully arranged, particularly A Death in the Family, which is a masterpiece of control (the architecture of A Man in Love is a little creakier); yet the writing somehow manages to convey the impression that the books are loosely organised and capacious, that their reflections are unfolding organically, associatively, in a way that captures the natural ebb and flow of Knausgaard’s thoughts.
Knausgaard has described himself in an interview as a ‘classic Proustian’, alluding to the French writer’s celebrated distinction between ‘voluntary’ memory – what Proust terms ‘the memory of the intellect’, which is incapable of truly recapturing the past – and the expansive and palpable summoning of a past experience via a sensory encounter with a material object. Lest we miss the literary precedent, early in A Death in the Family Knausgaard describes how he ‘nigh on imbibed’ Proust’s great novel sequence, In Search of Lost Time (1913-27). There is a touch of chutzpah in the invited comparison. Knausgaard’s rough-hewn prose certainly has none of Proust’s refined elegance of style. What compels in his writing is its directness, its plain-spoken articulation of a powerful mind grappling with its contradictions, and the hints of fervency and genuine anguish that have been well captured in Don Bartlett’s natural-sounding translation. But Knausgaard does share with Proust a neo-Romantic belief that reason alone cannot grasp the mercurial, sensuous nature of lived experience. Late in A Death in the Family, there is a passage in which the smell of Klorin brand cleaning fluid and the sight of its blue bottle, the design of which has not changed since his childhood, returns Knausgaard’s thoughts to the 1970s and prompts him to consider the way that particular sounds and tastes and smells can provide a tangible link to the past. Yet it is his simultaneous sense of loss that defines his ‘struggle’. There is, he recognises, something missing from these encounters: ‘The sole difference, which is the difference between a child’s reality and an adult’s, was that they were no longer laden with meaning … The world was the same, yet it wasn’t, its meaning had been displaced, approaching closer and closer to meaninglessness.’
This displacement is, in part, the waning of a child’s natural wonder as the world ceases to be new and surprising. But it is also a manifestation of Knausgaard’s frustrated idealism: a symptom of the instinctive romanticism that makes him wish his life was more interesting than it is, that generates his dissatisfaction and his desire to be liberated from dull reality. In A Man in Love, he writes:
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 … the life around me was not meaningful. I always longed to be away from it, and always had done. So the life I led was not my own. I tried to make it mine, this was my struggle, because of course I wanted it, but I failed, the longing for something else undermined all my efforts.
This quotidian aspect of My Struggle has been the source of a note of bemusement if not incredulity in some critical responses (along the lines of: ‘feeling embarrassed about having to attend a playgroup and shake a rattle with your baby daughter – that’s your struggle?’). But the way in which Knausgaard seeks to expose the dark, regressive aspects of his own character within the context of a life that is, in most respects, quite ordinary is precisely what allows these books to transcend their narrowly personal foundations.
The fact that casts the darkest shadow across Knausgaard’s memories in these early volumes of My Struggle is the shocking manner in which his father dies: he drinks himself to death. Knausgaard suggests that this was not a tragic case of a terminal alcoholic who had become a slave to his addiction, but that it was, on some level, a deliberate course of action. His middle-aged divorced father turned his back on the world, moved in with Knausgaard’s grandmother, and set about obliterating himself with a terrible sense of purpose.
Most of the second half of A Death in the Family is an account of the aftermath. Knausgaard and his older brother, Yngve, return to the house where their father spent his final days and confront the wreckage he has left behind. The squalour beggars belief. Every room is overflowing with bottles and garbage. The floor has urine stains; there is shit on the furniture. An enormous pile of shit-soiled laundry is rotting in the garage. And still living in the midst of this appalling filth is Knausgaard’s incontinent grandmother, who is too old and frail to do anything about the chaos that has engulfed her, who could only watch helplessly as her son trashed her house on the way to killing himself in a deliberately undignified manner, and who has herself taken to drink.
His grandmother’s confused recollections mean that the precise circumstances and cause of his father’s death remain unclear. (‘What did he die of?’ Knausgaard asks his brother when he hears the news. ‘I don’t know,’ Yngve replies. ‘Probably heart.’) But the sketchiness of the details is overwhelmed by the unambiguous evidence that Knausgaard’s father’s rejection of life was violent and comprehensive. Knausgaard and his brother spend the latter part of A Death in the Family cleaning up the mess, and behind this extended encounter with the material consequences of such a ghastly act of negation lies the fearful idea that gives his struggle against meaninglessness its urgency. For it is not only the case that Knaugaard’s confrontation with his father’s mortality is an indirect confrontation with his own mortality; his father’s death is also a particularly horrifying example – and one that is uncomfortably close to home – of what can happen when a man turns against himself, places himself beyond all help.
In A Man in Love, Knausgaard thinks back to the sermon the priest gave at his father’s funeral:
he said that you have to ground yourself in the world, by which he meant that my father had not done this, and he was absolutely right. But it was several years before I understood that there were also many good reasons for loosening your grip, not grounding yourself at all, just letting yourself fall and fall until you were ultimately smashed to pieces at the bottom.
What was it about nihilism that could draw minds to it in this way?
‘Struggle’ has become a devalued concept, something it is easy to belittle or dismiss. To speak of a battle with one’s personal demons as if it were of existential significance is to make oneself seem callow and self-indulgent. ‘Dostoevsky has become a teenager’s writer,’ Knausgaard laments in A Man in Love, ‘the issue of nihilism a teenage issue.’ Yet this is the void over which Knausgaard feels himself suspended. When he writes of life moving toward chaos and dissolution, he means to show that these are not abstract concepts. There can be ‘good reasons’ to destroy oneself; it can be tempting to give up, stop struggling with everyday pettiness, and let go. His father’s death was not merely grotesque: it is horrifying because it is so readily comprehensible.
Prior to the My Struggle books, Knausgaard had published two novels, only one of which – his second, A Time for Everything (2004) – has been translated into English. The difficult labour of researching and writing that book is referred to on several occasions in My Struggle, where the title is rendered A Time to Every Purpose Under Heaven (this is the title of the British edition, which has the virtue of making the biblical allusion overt). Knausgaard indicates that he was not happy with the book, and that his dissatisfaction was one of the motivations behind his decision to cast aside the techniques of his early fiction and write in a direct, unfiltered, nakedly autobiographical style. And A Time for Everything is indeed a strange, cumbersome and frequently tedious novel. Its tale of a sixteenth century theologian named Antinous Bellori, who has an encounter with angels as a young man and goes on to write a learned treatise on the subject, which in turn leads him to heretical thoughts about the death of God and the blind materiality of the universe, is interspersed with extended retellings of Old Testament stories – Cain and Abel, Noah, Lot – and hairsplitting essays about the relationship between the human and the divine.
A Time for Everything is an explicit attempt to understand the historical moment when the modern view of the world began to split from the pre-modern view: the point at which science and philosophy began to disentangle themselves from the theological mindset of the Middle Ages. The scientific view that now predominates, argues Knausgaard’s narrator, achieved its decisive victory in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. But to encounter what he calls ‘the real struggle’ it is necessary to go back to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, to imagine a time when the distinction was less clear: ‘There it is harder to decipher, as the different attitudes, which seem to us like complete opposites, and totally incompatible, could exist side by side.’
The theological and historical dimensions of A Time for Everything would seem to be distant from the secularised and personalised world of My Struggle. But the earlier novel anticipates some of the latter’s concerns, even if it approaches them from a very different direction. The connecting thread is a coda, which returns A Time for Everything to a modern setting and the life of its narrator, a young Norwegian man named Henrik Vankel. In the final 50 pages, in which Henrik describes his tense relationship with his ill-tempered father – there is a particularly chilling moment when his father shines a torch in his face and says, ‘Are you scared of me?’ – one encounters the genesis of Knausgaard’s autobiographical project. This is not only because Henrik resembles his author and many of the scenes are versions of incidents in My Struggle; it also because he inhabits a world that has ceased to have any meaning beyond itself. The coda has Henrik living alone on an island (that Knausgaard lived through a similar period of self-imposed exile is alluded to in My Struggle) and his isolation, which both reflects and reinforces his feelings of alienation, makes him vulnerable to a form of poisoned idealism, which renders him incapable of separating his personal sense of shame from reality. The universe becomes indistinguishable from the contents of his head:
The next few days I trudged around the island with head bowed, blind to everything but my own despair, and so powerful were these emotions that they even encompassed the landscape as well: when I sat on the sea rocks in the evening and stared at the sunset in the west, it was as if this, too, were merely one of my thoughts. That the sun was going down inside me. That it was my gleaming reflection the sea washed over. Even the starry sky, which was clearer here than anywhere I’d ever been, was no longer a thing out there, that, too, I’d turned into myself. Perhaps this all sounds rather grand, as if by containing the whole world I’d deified myself, but the opposite was the case; the condition stripped everything of its beauty, because what I saw became as inferior and senseless as I was myself.
This is the voice of My Struggle: anguished and sincere; inward-turned and shamefaced, yet oddly beseeching. It is the voice of an intelligent man who knows perfectly well that it is ridiculous to conflate reality with his state of mind, but who feels trapped within himself. And because Knausgaard’s experience of reality is similarly determined by his state of mind, the nature and the meaning of that reality is unstable, unresolved. Evident throughout My Struggle is a constant process of overturning, whereby a world that can seem in one moment to be beautiful and vibrant can seem in the next to be stale, flat and profitless. The world offers its symbols, its luminous moments of clarity and joy, only for them to crumble or vanish. Late in A Death in the Family, there is a passage in which Knausgaard observes that the shapes of clouds mean nothing. They are symbols of the emptiness of the world’s symbols: ‘what they looked like at any given juncture was based on chance, so if there was anything the clouds betokened it was meaninglessness in its purest and most perfect form.’ Yet in A Man in Love, in the middle of a description of the early days of his love affair with the woman who will become his second wife, as if to mock his earlier pronouncement, a cloud in the shape of a heart floats by.
The seagulls that circle overhead in My Struggle are perhaps the most conspicuous example of Knausgaard’s complex and ambivalent symbolism, and the way in which his apparently unaffected confessions can spill over into something more self-consciously literary. Their frequent appearances lead to a kind of running joke based on the allusion to the angelic ‘seagull’ of Chekhov’s play, which is itself a dramatisation of an argument about the difficulty of capturing the essence of life in art. When a semi-tame bird appears at his grandmother’s house after his father’s death and pecks at the window, an intrigued Knausgaard asks Yngve if he has seen the seagull. Yngve shoots back: ‘play or film?’ In the second volume, Knausgaard notes that his daughter – the one with the rather Chekhovian name Vanja – likes to point at seagulls from her stroller. But when his wife asks if he has read Chekhov, he says ‘no’.
Yet these teasing references do not necessarily undercut the genuine symbolic significance of seagulls in My Struggle, a significance that can also be traced back to A Time for Everything. On a crab-fishing expedition with his father and brother, Henrik comes across a dead seagull, which he shows to his father, who tells him that seagulls were once angels, then lifts its wing to show him a withered arm beneath. Again, there is perhaps a wry joke in the way that the symbolic seagulls from Knausgaard’s unsuccessful earlier novel insist on following him around. But in A Man in Love Knausgaard refers to his early failed attempts to write this story, and his memory of the crabbing trip that inspired it is evoked repeatedly in a way that emphasises not only the inchoate and deeply personal emotional resonance of the scene, but its evocative conjunction of elemental symbols – the earth, the vastness of the sky, the heaving unconscious of the adjacent ocean – which dwarf the father and his sons communing over their bucket of scuttling crabs, while seagulls circle above them, shrunken secularised angels, condemned to screech and squabble and scavenge their way through an impure world.
The complexity of the symbolism, the ambiguous status of the symbolism itself, and the way in which the moments Knausgaard describes acquire their symbolic qualities in the crucible of his memory are all reflections of the indeterminacy of his beliefs and the grandly unsystematic and often contradictory nature of his philosophising. The overtly religious symbols and references that are evident throughout these books – which extend to a pattern in the wooden floor of his office that resembles the face of Christ, ‘half averted, as though in pain, eyes downcast, a crown of thorns on his head’ – need to be understood in this context. There is a definitive and uneasy sense of irresolution about Knausgaard’s attitude to religion. At the beginning of A Death in the Family, he describes his eight-year-old self as a Christian. His father mocks him for it. By the time he is a teenager, he has become a ‘fervent anti-Christian’ and ‘a materialist in my heart of hearts’. Knausgaard was part of a committee that oversaw a recent translation of the Bible into Norwegian and he remains fascinated with its stories, not for their spiritual abstractions, but for their corporeality.
The climactic scene in A Man in Love is a long, wide-ranging and drunken conversation between Knausgaard and his friend Geir, who acts throughout these books as a good-humoured foil to the brooding author. Stepping into the role of full-blooded Dostoevskian interlocutor, Geir delivers an extended and very shrewd assessment of his friend’s contradictory character. Knausgaard has ‘a one-to-one relationship between life and morality’ that makes him ‘ethically unassailable’ and incapable of dissembling. He is an ‘arch-Protestant’ who is unable to feel satisfaction, and an example of that which the modern world deems impossible: a person who is intelligent and knowing, yet somehow retains an irreducible core of innocence and purity. He is drawn to the gestural purity of renunciation and asceticism in a way that resembles a Catholic saint. His attitude to life is fundamentally religious. And yet he is an atheist. Alluding to an earlier scene in which Vanja is baptised (a ritual that leaves Knausgaard typically conflicted), Geir remarks that his friend is ‘the only person I know who can take communion despite not believing in God and not commit blasphemy’.
In Geir’s insistence that Knausgaard embodies these contradictions – that his friend is a peculiar kind of secularised religious figure, someone whose moral reactions to the world are instinctive and independent of any socially constructed framework, whose pervasive sense of shame is an innate, precognitive, physical response to reality – one begins to see the truly audacious aspect of My Struggle. For in laying bare his life in all its confusion and ignominy, Knausgaard is offering himself, if not exactly as a representative figure, than at least as a kind of sacrificial figure: a living demonstration of the paradox that in the modern world the individual is everything and nothing. He presents himself as a person who has internalised the warring intellectual currents of modernity – its religious and secular tendencies, its rationalism and its romanticism – and then invites us to see his emotional turmoil as a reflection of these encompassing philosophical conflicts. In one of A Death in the Family’s many reflective passages, he writes:
Chaos and unpredictability are essential characteristics of both life and its end, the one impossible without the other, and even though almost all our efforts are directed towards keeping the end at bay, it takes no more than a brief moment of despair before we live in its light and not, as now, in its shadow. Chaos is a kind of gravity, and the rhythm you can sense in history, of the rise and fall of civilisations, is perhaps caused by this. It is remarkable that the extremes resemble each other, in one sense at any rate, for in both immense chaos and in a strictly regulated, demarcated world the individual is nothing, life is everything. In the same way that the heart does not care which life it beats for, the city does not care who fulfils its various functions.
The leap from the most intimate of revelations to the grandest of scales, from the fear of death and the spectre of personal despair to the rise and fall of civilisations, from a blindly beating heart to the impersonal hive of a functioning metropolis, is breathtaking in its casualness. It is also entirely characteristic. Throughout these two books, Knausgaard insists that human beings are merely material objects in a material world, that the collective life force that is constantly shaping the world is impersonal: not only larger than our petty individual concerns, but utterly indifferent to them. He admits to the ignorance that comes with the knowledge that he has no measure of understanding other then himself. He insists on these points as if exhorting himself to accept what he knows to be true. The great contradiction of My Struggle is that it resists the idea of inconsequentiality in its very conception. Fashioning one’s life into a vast literary monument hardly speaks of an absence of authorial ego and ambition; nor does the habit of extrapolating general principles from one’s personal experiences.
Yet one of the most remarkable things about My Struggle is its lack of even implicit self-congratulation. Quite the opposite: these books are savage acts of excoriation. Knausgaard makes a point of recording his personal humiliations, from small stupidities and trivial moments of social embarrassment to his most shameful and unworthy thoughts and actions. And he punishes himself for these failings. Late in A Man in Love, there is a passage in which he writes of the vanity of authors, a quality he has detected in himself, which leads to this extraordinary outburst:
If I have learned one thing over these years which seems to me immensely important, particularly in an era such as ours, overflowing with such mediocrity, it is the following.
Don’t believe you are anybody.
Do not bloody believe you are somebody.
Because you are not. You’re just a smug mediocre little shit.
Do not believe that you’re anything special. Do not believe that you’re worth anything, because you aren’t. You’re just a little shit.
So keep your head down and work, you little shit. Than at least you’ll get something out of it. Shut your mouth, keep your head down, work and know that you’re not worth a shit.
This, more or less, was what I had learned.
This was the sum of all my experience.
There is, even here, an element of exhortation (‘keep your head down and work’), but the passage is notable for the brutality of the chastising, crushing, paternal voice of Knausgaard’s superego – a voice that is present throughout My Struggle in varying degrees, but which becomes more and more apparent in the second book, where his self-lacerating tendencies become, quite literally, physical. In one of the key scenes in A Man in Love, he attends a writers’ course where he meets an attractive young poet named Linda Boström. Though he is, at this point, still married to his first wife, Tonje (a marginal presence in these early volumes), he is instantly smitten. Over the five days of the course, he drinks, observes Linda, drinks some more, and convinces himself that the attraction could be mutual. On the last evening, he gets himself good and drunk and musters the courage to declare his feelings. Linda rebuffs him. Humiliated, he retreats to his room where he smashes a glass and sets about cutting his face with one of the shards.
At the end of A Time for Everything, Henrik Vankel stands before a mirror and mutilates himself in a similar fashion with a shard of glass, an act that evokes the barbaric medieval practice of scourging, in which the sinful flesh is mortified as a means of purifying the spirit. ‘Pain has something to do with eternity,’ Henrik states: ‘not the slight, short pain, but the pain that throbs and churns and keeps on.’ In the absence of God, however, such an act is merely masochistic: it becomes a ghastly self-administered punishment for Henrik’s intense feelings of shame. This is part of the complex meaning of Knausgaard’s foolish, horrifying gesture, and the source of its archetypal resonance. Cutting himself makes his emotional pain physical, but more important is the fact that in attacking his face he also renders his shame visible: ‘I couldn’t hide it. Everyone would see. I was marked, I had marked myself.’
With this cry, Knausgaard evokes the biblical figure who shadows the complex psychological drama of My Struggle: it is Cain, the first murderer, whose ‘countenance fell’, whose crime was motivated by the shame and resentment he felt at not being looked upon with favour, who was marked by God, not merely to set him apart from the rest of humankind, but to prevent him from being killed in retribution. As Henrik observes in A Time for Everything, Cain’s fate is to continue living in ignominy ‘without ever finding peace … Sentenced to life, that was his punishment.’
The most problematic and puzzling, and perhaps ultimately the most telling, of the many literary references in My Struggle is the fact that the collective title – Min Kamp in Norwegian – is the same as Adolf Hitler’s autobiography, Mein Kampf (1925). Knausgaard addresses this issue at length in the final book in the series, so anglophone readers will have to wait to find out what exactly he thinks he is playing at, but it is clear enough from the first two volumes that the allusion is of more than incidental significance. The title makes a number of details jump out. Late in A Death in the Family, in the middle of the chaos created by his father’s death, there is a scene in which Knausgaard and Yngve get drunk with their grandmother, who mentions in passing that during World War II she was friendly with the occupying Germans and that she ‘went down to visit them after the war’. Hundreds of pages later in A Man in Love, during a conversation about controversial Norwegian authors, Geir mentions Vidkun Quisling, the Norwegian politician whose name has become a synonym for collaborator.
Allusions to this ignominious chapter in the nation’s history also taint Knausgaard’s literary inheritance as a Norwegian writer. There is a scene in the second novel in which Knausgaard and Linda have some friends around for dinner. The conversation turns to childbirth and, with a few cognacs under his belt, Knausgaard blurts out some ill-informed objections to women having caesarian sections. One of the guests begins to tease him for being a ‘genuine reactionary Norwegian’ and for the remainder of the evening calls him ‘Hamsun’. The name irritates Knausgaard, as well it might: Knut Hamsun was a brilliant and influential writer, a giant of Norwegian literature, but a strange, arrogant, insecure, resentful man and a controversial figure, who supported the German cause in World War II, gifted his Nobel Prize medal to Joseph Goebbels in admiration, wrote a glowing eulogy on the occasion of Hitler’s death, and only escaped imprisonment for treason after the war because of his advanced age.
Earlier in the same book there is mention of another major Norwegian author, the poet and diarist Olav H. Hauge, who is the subject of one of the lighter sections of A Death in the Family, which describes the young Knausgaard’s attempt to interview the elderly writer – an opportunity he comprehensively botches. The embarrassment and dismay with which he relates this episode is a good example of the way in which Knausgaard is able to work the circumlocutions and repetitions of his prose until they becomes dryly self-mocking: ‘he said something enormously charged and meaningful about death, the tone was resigned and laconic, but not without irony, and I thought I will have to remember this, this is important, I’ll have to remember this for the rest of my life, but by the time we were in the car on our way along the Hardanger fjord I had forgotten.’ Hauge’s extensive diaries, which Knausgaard finds deeply consoling, are flagged in A Man in Love as another of My Struggle’s literary antecedents, but the historical taint touches them too. When Knausgaard mentions that he is considering writing an essay about Hauge, Geir points out that Hauge once described Hitler as a ‘great man’. Hauge is mentioned again later and Geir makes the same point, and this time Knausgaard responds that he can understand
that need to rid yourself of all the banality and small-mindedness rotting inside you, all the trivia that can make you angry or unhappy, that can create a desire for something pure and great into which you can dissolve and disappear. It’s getting rid of all the shit, isn’t it? One people, one blood, one earth. Now precisely this has been discredited once and for all. But what lies behind it, I don’t have any problem understanding that.
Whatever else he may be, Knausgaard is no fascist. His politics, such as they are, would seem to be indistinct: a matter of temperament rather than ideology. There is little indication in these novels that he is interested in politics and current affairs in their day-to-day manifestations. At one point, he describes the act of reading a newspaper as ‘like emptying a bag of rubbish over your head’. In A Death in the Family, he observes of his teenage self:
I was on the side of the soft ones, I was against war and authority, hierarchies, and all forms of hardness, I didn’t want to do any swotting at school, I wanted my intellect to develop more organically; politically I was way out on the left, the unequal distribution of the world’s resources enraged me, I wanted everyone to have a share of life’s pleasures, and thus capitalism and plutocracy were the enemy. I thought all people were of equal value and that a person’s inner qualities were always worth more than their outer appearance. I was, in other words, for depth and against superficiality, for good and against evil, for the soft and against the hard.
In that deadpan phrase ‘for good and against evil’ – who among us is not? – there lurks the metaphysical conundrum that connects Knausgaard’s struggle with banality to the darkness he detects within himself. He has said that his books are anti-ideological. This would appear to be true, though not in any straightforward manner. To the extent that these early volumes are concerned with ideology, it is in the general sense in which ideology overlaps with idealism. Their grounding in everyday reality is a way of resisting the temptation to detach oneself from that reality, to embrace an abstract notion of purity, to allow one’s countenance to fall. It is the difficulty of sustaining that necessary attentiveness that generates much of the dramatic tension of Knausgaard’s writing, for he recognises that tension as constitutive and something that implicitly connects even his most trivial personal struggles to the violent historical events that lurk at the margins of these books. The Romantic essayist William Hazlitt wrote of what he called ‘the pleasure of hating’, noting that perversity of human nature that makes us dissatisfied when we have every reason to be content, and which turns us against our fellow human beings. He believed that the outrage we are apt to feel when we perceive an injustice, which is the foundation of our ethical existence, was the product of our innate capacity for empathy, our ability to imagine other realities. The cruel twist was that this same imaginative faculty inclined what we would now call the ego to identify with power and aggrandisement. It is on this fundamental level, where ethics meets psychology, that Knausgaard’s struggle is enacted. For it is precisely the ‘soft’ feelings, the ones that make us vulnerable and leave us wounded, that are at once the most necessary and the hardest to sustain: ‘Sometimes I mused that if all soft feelings could be scraped off like cartilage around an injured athlete’s knee, what a liberation it would be. No more sentimentality, sympathy, empathy …’
There is no suggestion in either of these novels that Knausgaard’s struggle is material. He does not face the spectres of poverty or political persecution. For most of A Man in Love, he is living quite comfortably in Stockholm with his family. In a sense, he can enjoy the luxury of self-involvement because he belongs to a stable, modern, affluent society. Yet the security creates its own sense of dissatisfaction, which draws out the regressive side of his personality. The fact that in Sweden the streets are clean and the people are enlightened and well-mannered makes the Norwegian Knausgaard self-conscious about his difference, his relative coarseness, the oddness of his language. This creates a niggling sense that he is looked down upon, which makes him vaguely resentful. Eventually, this erupts:
Sweden hasn’t had a war on its soil since the seventeenth century and how often did it cross my mind that someone ought to invade Sweden, bomb its buildings, starve the country, shoot down its men, rape its women, and then have some faraway country, Chile or Bolivia for example, embrace its refugees with kindness, tell them they love Scandinavia and dump them in a ghetto outside one of the cities there. Just to see what they would say.
There it is: the evil thought. The feelings of embarrassment and shame and unworthiness, those destructive impulses his father turned against himself with such ferocity and which Knausgaard, too, directs against himself, are redirected outward, given an object, transformed into a hateful and violent impulse aimed not at the wicked but the fortunate. To credit the general political point that Knausgaard is denouncing the cosseted nature of Swedish society and the hypocrisy of its poor treatment of refugees would be to flatter the author. The outburst is impulsive, atavistic, the retaliation of a wounded ego; it is reactionary in the purest and most unedifying sense.
There is a passage in A Man in Love in which Knausgaard denounces the illusion of being modern. Beneath the veneer of sophistication, our bodies and needs have not changed. ‘Who can be modern with a brain tumour,’ he scoffs. ‘How could we believe we were modern if we knew that everyone would soon be lying somewhere in the ground and rotting?’ Yet Knausgaard’s writing resists the nihilism this implies. His struggle for meaning is necessary because the alternative is horrifying. In A Time for Everything, Henrik Vankel walks across the site of a wartime atrocity at Roligheten in Norway, where several hundred men were shot and buried in a mass grave. That event, he muses,
robbed the participants of everything apart from their bodies, executioners and executed alike, those who left that place alive and those who were left there to rot. No spirit, no humanity, no feelings, no concepts of good or evil, only eyes and mouths, hair and teeth, rib cages and arms, kneecaps and soles, grass and trees, earth and water, air and sunlight, and blue, blue sky.
Knausgaard has explained in an interview that the final volume of My Struggle ends with the 2011 massacre committed by Anders Breivik, whose ‘countenance fell’ and whose ideologically motivated atrocity Knausgaard characterises as
a collision of the abstract heaven we have above us and our own physical earth. … This is the same thing that happened in the Nazi era, when Hitler imposed an abstract image upon the physical reality of the world. That’s what interests me about daily life, when this happens.
In offering himself as an example, in dragging his most regressive and shameful impulses out into the light, Knausgaard is trying to get at his own atavistic core, to arrive at that place where the latent human capacity for evil resides. Whatever the forthcoming My Struggle books contain, they are likely to be very dark indeed.
Jesse Barron, ‘Completely Without Dignity: An Interview with Karl Ove Knausgaard,’ Paris Review (3 July 2013).
Karl Ove Knausgaard, A Time for Everything, translated by James Anderson (Archipelago, 2009).
James Wood, ‘Total Recall’, The New Yorker (13 August 2012).