Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle, Book One: A Death in the Family

My Struggle: Book OneMy Struggle: Book One by Karl Ove Knausgård

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This will be neither a palinode nor a redrawing of the indictment. As longtime readers know, I tried to read My Struggle when the first installments were published in America, did not succeed in clearing 100 pages, and wrote an impatient and aggrieved assessment of what I did read on this site in 2014. There I pronounced My Struggle an essentially conceptual artwork, meant to be contemplated as a phenomenon rather than read, and worried that Knausgaard’s willful and much-advertised abandonment of literary form worryingly implied that the necessary contrivances by which we live were merely disposable bits of ornament rather than load-bearing structures. (On the principle that one shouldn’t review books one hasn’t read from cover to cover, I eventually deleted that post.)

What has tempted me to give Knausgaard another chance? Not the renewed hype, even if “renewed hype” is one (cynical) definition of canonicity, but my recent reading of Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers and rereading of Joyce’s Portrait and their very different approaches to the modernist male Künstlerroman, what I semi-seriously called a distinction between the Protestant and Catholic imaginations—and what is the standoff between Catholic and Protestant about if not the necessity of artifice to the human encounter with existential fundamentals? Despite what I will shortly describe as his affinity with Lawrence, Knausgaard wrote an introduction to the centenary edition of Joyce’s Portrait. There he makes this most highly-wrought formalist novel sound like something the vitalist Lawrence might have written:

In “Portrait,” Joyce ventures inside that part of our identity for which no language yet exists, probing into the space between what belongs to the individual alone and what is ours together, exploring the shifts of mind, the currents of our moods and feelings as they flow blindly this way and that, and mapping the unarticulated, more or less salient presence of the soul, that part of our inner being that rises when we are enthused and falls when we are afraid or despairing. “Portrait” is about this, a young man’s soul, and what makes Joyce’s novel so magical, what makes it essentially literary, is that his conquest of what belongs to the individual alone — what is special, and to Joyce’s mind unique about Stephen Dedelus [sic] — is also a conquest of what belongs, and is unique, to each of us.

This isn’t a wholly implausible reading, but it’s not the novel’s dominant note. Joyce seems to suggest in much of his work that what we experience as the “soul” emerges from the languages that make up our subjectivity in dynamic interaction with our bodies. A Portrait is a novel about the play of language over and eventually out of one young Irishman’s corpus, a materialist reimagining of the Romantics’ Aeolian harp. The book Knausgaard describes, by contrast, sounds much more like Sons and Lovers; Lawrence, unlike Joyce, rushes past the fineries of language and literary form to notate, sometimes gracelessly, but always energetically, the waxing and waning of his autobiographical hero’s psyche, which exceeds any vessel that might contain it. This Lawrentian ambition is also a plausible description of Knausgaard’s project in My Struggle.

Book One of the series, A Death in the Family, has two parts. The first begins with a small essay on how modern society conspires to conceal death from our awareness, before flashing back to the author’s childhood experience of seeing a face emerge from the sea on a TV news report about a sunken fishing boat and its drowned crew. Young Karl Ove rushes with some trepidation to tell his remote, stern schoolteacher father about the face, but the man advises him to put it out of his mind. From there, the novel narrates episodes from Karl Ove’s childhood and adolescence in Norway for about 200 pages, from his fumbling and sometimes callous early romances with girls to his excited discovery of rock music to his comic attempts as a minor to secure beer for New Year’s Eve party. This section ends with Karl Ove’s parents’ divorce and his discovery that his father has a new girlfriend and a more festive new lifestyle; returning to the theme of death, Part One’s final scene shows the father breaking down and sobbing at a party as he recalls his sister who died when she was a teenager.

The second section opens in the narrative present, with our author, now living in Stockholm, married for a second time, responsible for two children with another on the way, and trying to write a new novel. He again essays, this time on art and its relationship to a world totally humanized by science and technology, which topic leads him back to death. From there, we segue to Book One’s tour-de-force: Knausgaard’s account of the aftermath of his father’s death about 10 years before, in the late 1990s. After his parents’ divorce, his father became an alcoholic and eventually moved back in with his own widowed mother, where he lived as a shut-in for several years, almost immobilized by his addiction. When his mother finds him dead, Karl Ove and his brother Yngve must go manage his affairs back in Norway. They find their grandmother a confused and emaciated old woman reeking of urine and the house in complete decay, littered with liquor bottles and rotting clothes and even smeared with feces.

For almost 250 pages, Knausgaard narrates the cleaning of the house in immense detail, interspersed with several harrowing episodes. In one, the brothers discover that their grandmother too is an alcoholic. In a scene not unworthy of Dostoevsky in its comic horror or horrific comedy, they sit in the kitchen and drink vodka and orange juice with her and watch her return to her senses under the influence. They also go to the funeral parlor and view their father’s corpse, blood-stained and with a broken nose, though as a result of what violence they don’t know. The novel ends when Karl Ove, haunted in his grandmother’s house by childish fears that the dead may walk in the night, visits the corpse a second time alone and makes his peace with his father’s having become an inhuman part of the object world.

Despite the testimony of some critics, I find that the book doesn’t seduce through identification. Karl Ove is a very distinct person in a very distinct social setting, so I never found myself slipping behind his eyes. Rather, his very distinctiveness, and the detail with which he excavates it, turns you back on yourself, to weigh your experience against his. You find yourself thinking about your grandmother and your father and your first kiss and the music you listened to in adolescence (though it helps if you listened to a lot of the same bands as teen Knausgaard, which I did, given the role these genres play in the novel’s first half). Once I fell into these reveries—I note, for instance, the strangely poignant fact that Knausgaard is 14 years older than me and 14 years younger than my father—I began to understand why the critics characterized this book about addiction as itself addictive, though I also worry that the effect mimics drunken self-pity and its magnification of ego, in defiance of what I take to be the author’s ultimate goal, as I’ll explain in a moment.

Knausgaard’s oft-discussed dispensing with novelistic form can be overstated, though. He does expend more words and pages than the average novelist on seemingly trivial details or moments without mobilizing them as elements of a plot structure. Yet this has been done before—by Joyce himself in Ulysses, for example, but also by writers unfairly considered “average novelists,” like John Updike, as William Deresiewicz notes in a gratifyingly hostile early review. Knausgaard also writes standard novelistic scenes comprised of alternating description, reflection, and dialogue, and these scenes often end with appropriately conclusive punctuation: a resonant line of dialogue or pregnant image. Any given page “reads like a novel,” not an avant art object.

On a larger scale than that of page or scene, though, Knausgaard abandons plot or even obvious thematic organization and allows himself instead to be led by his memories and associations. This creates the strangely careering suspense that his greatest admirers praise; it does feel much more unpredictable than even the craftiest plot, because the author himself doesn’t know what’s next. At the level of the word and sentence, Knausgaard brings the speed of writing nearer to the speed of thought by disburdening himself of any Flaubertian quest for le mot juste or Proustian production of elegantly intricate long sentences. James Wood, in the laudatory 2012 review that established Knausgaard’s reputation in the English-speaking world, describes the novel’s anti-style:

There is a flatness and a prolixity to the prose; the long sentences have about them an almost careless avant-gardism, with their conversational additions and splayed run-ons. The writer seems not to be selecting or shaping anything, or even pausing to draw breath. Cliché is not spurned—time is falling through Knausgaard’s hands “like sand”; elsewhere in the book, the author tells us that falling in love was like being struck by lightning, that he was head over heels in love, that he was as hungry as a wolf. There is, perhaps, something a little gauche in his confessional volubility. But there is also a simplicity, an openness, and an innocence in his relation to life, and thus in his relation to the reader. Where many contemporary writers would reflexively turn to irony, Knausgaard is intense and utterly honest, unafraid to voice universal anxieties, unafraid to appear naïve or awkward. Although his sentences are long and loose, they are not cutely or aimlessly digressive: truth is repeatedly being struck at, not chatted up.

Yet this is the necessary price Knausgaard pays to cast aside the fearful modern complacency with which he opens the novel and instead look death in the face.

Faces and death are—if our author’s using clichés, why can’t I?—the heart of the matter. In the novel’s first scene proper, young Karl Ove thinks he sees a face emerge from the natural setting of a human disaster. But near the middle of Book One, Knausgaard quotes Nietzsche on modernity’s creation of “a purely fabricated world,” a world which “after three hundred years of natural science is left without mysteries,” where “everything lies within humanity’s horizons of comprehension”—where, in other words, we look on the otherness of the landscape and see instead our own face like so many little narcissists. Significantly, Knausgaard is spurred to this meditation by a Constable painting of clouds that he describes as “inexhaustible”—an artistic recreation of the purely inhuman that gives him a feeling of “presence” and moves him to tears. Elsewhere, in the narrative, he invokes Adorno:

And what enriched me while reading Adorno, for example, lay not in what I read but in the perception of myself while I was reading. I was someone who read Adorno! And in this heavy, intricate, detailed, precise language whose aim was to elevate thought ever higher, and where every period was set like a mountaineer’s cleat, there was something else, this particular approach to the mood of reality, the shadow of these sentences that could evoke in me a vague desire to use the language with this particular mood on something real, on something living. Not on an argument, but on a lynx, for example, or on a blackbird or a cement mixer.

Leaving aside the probably conscious irony that he doesn’t write sentences like Adorno’s at all, the desire to turn his literary intellect on the living but inhuman world, to restore the world to its mystery by apprehending it without the explanatory human intellect that would dispel its opacity, to learn to see life without also seeing ourselves peering out of it as if the surface of the earth were only a mirror, inspires his reckless reclamation of experience sans art and artifice.

We are a long way from Joyce or Proust, each of whom Knausgaard might regard as complicit in the world’s killing humanization given their sense of language and imagination’s literary sovereignty over life. We are, however, close to Lawrence, not only the Lawrence of Sons and Lovers, sexually debilitated by his mother’s overrefinement and his first love’s religiosity, but also the Lawrence of the poems, communing with snakes and tortoises at the clamorously violent heart of existence. And it’s easy to imagine that Adorno, with his cunningly Hegelian lament over modern dehumanization, might judge Knausgaard’s novel as therefore worthy of its Hitlerian title, however the latter is explained in the series’s final 1200-page volume.

At Book One’s conclusion, Karl Ove looks upon not a mystical vision of a human face in the sea, which would certify our God-ordained lordship over nature, but the face of his father in death, testifying to our eventual return to—and therefore primordial emergence from—the world of the inhuman, which this literary project strive so strenuously to encounter:

For humans are merely one form among many, which the world produces over and over again, not only in everything that lives but also in everything that does not live, drawn in sand, stone, and water.

This anti-epiphany solves a riddle too little posed: how is it that the major figure of the last decade, a decade when the literary world consecrated itself to diversity, is a white man from Europe? Seen, however, as a post-postmodernist bard of the fashionable anthropocene, a writer who wishes to write his and our way out of the human exceptionality whose very emblem is linguistic artifice, Knausgaard might be the man for the moment after all, even if it’s a moment that has delayed too long the question of whether or not embracing the inhuman is so obviously beneficent a gesture.

To return where I began, I neither recant my initial criticism nor fully restate its argument. Having read Book One in full, I better understand Knausgaard’s venture and its impetus and therefore admire its ambition more than I did; yet my hesitation remains when I consider all that he seems to be asking us to surrender. In the cruel paradox of the roman-fleuve as a form, I will no doubt have to read the subsequent volumes to know if I should have bothered reading even one.

4 comments

  1. “In the cruel paradox of the roman-fleuve as a form, I will no doubt have to read the subsequent volumes to know if I should have bothered reading even one.”

    You’re going to have to do this so we don’t have to :-D. Thanks for these reviews. I’m enjoying them thoroughly.

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