The first book of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle appeared in Norway in September 2009. The next two books were published that same fall. Books 4 and 5 followed in the spring and early summer of 2010. Along with the rest of the Norwegian population, I was hooked from the start. (By now, Book 1 of My Struggle has sold over 500,000 copies in a nation of five million inhabitants.) The publication schedule was addictive. Every two or three months or so, I needed my Knausgaard fix. The long wait for Book 6 was excruciating. (The English-speaking world is still waiting.) When I finally held the gigantic tome in my hands in November 2011, it felt as if I were reading it intravenously.
There was something extraordinary about the experience of reading My Struggle. I was absorbed. Transfixed. I identified. I suffered. I struggled alongside Karl Ove. But why did I find this particular novel so mesmerizing? The story of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s life is hardly full of unusual events. The teenage Karl Ove drinks too much. He has trouble becoming a writer, let alone a good writer. He hides his feelings, tastes and opinions. His shyness thwarts his early attempts to connect with women. Over the years he marries and divorces, then marries again and has three children. When he is thirty, his estranged father dies. He looks at paintings. He writes. He wonders what writing is, and why he is the way he is. The ordinariness of his daily existence is breathtaking. He makes tea and butters sandwiches. He pushes a pram through the streets of Stockholm. He does a lot of housework. He butters some more sandwiches and rails against politically correct child-rearing practices in Sweden. Quite late in the story he tells us about school teaching in northern Norway, and about his frustrating twenties in Bergen, years of constant and mostly futile efforts to become a writer. In the last volume he devotes almost four hundred pages to an essay on Hitler’s childhood and youth, particularly dwelling on his unsuccessful attempt to become an artist.
What makes My Struggle mesmerizing, then, can’t be the events depicted, but rather the writing. And yet, for many critics, nothing is more plainly unartistic than Knausgaard’s style: “The problem with My Struggle,” William Deresiewicz insists, “is that nothing happens in the writing. The prose consists, for the most part, of a flat record of superficial detail, unenlivened by the touch of literary art: by simile or metaphor, syntactic complexity or linguistic compression, the development of symbols or elaboration of structures—by beauty, density or form.” As the passage reveals, Deresiewicz is a formalist at heart, meaning he is someone who takes for granted that literary beauty arises as an effect of a specific kind of literary form. His critical ideals appear to harken back to those established by “high” modernists such as T. S. Eliot and other critics who canonized the dense and challenging (and sublime) poetry of John Donne and other metaphysical poets. Like those modernists, and like many critics writing today, Deresiewicz devalues writing that does not employ striking rhetorical figures, impressive metaphors, deep symbols, and complex and elliptic syntax.
In my view, a critic reading with such aesthetic values in mind will miss the significance of Knausgaard’s project in My Struggle, which is a product and a record of his break with those values. In his search for meaning, experience and reality, the Knausgaard of My Struggle insists on the importance of feelings without buying into the language of affects. He seeks reality, and considers symbols a flight from the existential reality he aspires to grasp. (“What is a symbol?” he notes elsewhere. “An event stripped of reality, a shell of meaning.”) Nothing could be more ironic than Deresiewicz’s claim that My Struggle simply “doesn’t tell us anything about the novel as a work of art, about its meanings or its value,” for My Struggle is nothing if not a reflection on art and writing. Knausgaard’s novel is a genuine effort to figure out what it means to write a novel in a new aesthetic and historical dispensation—one we may not yet have named, but which is emerging as we speak.
This leaves the critic with two options. One is to apply her conventional criteria and conclude that My Struggle is a complete failure. This is what Deresiewicz does by reading My Struggle through the lens of an artistic ideal that Knausgaard is at pains to free himself from, namely the formalism of late modernism, or, if one prefers, postmodernism. My Struggle is a novel for which these traditions have become a problem. But a critic could choose a different path: she could try to figure out how to read this novel in new ways, drawing on completely different criteria for good writing. Instead of looking for symbols, she could consider the text’s authenticity, passion and integrity, the quality of its descriptions, its capacity to convey reality, or its world-building abilities, just to mention some options.
As an academic I know only too well that my own response to My Struggle will appear amateurish to some. I am supposed to cultivate self-consciousness and critical distance. Absorption, immersion and identification are modes of reading suitable for children, or for adults reading popular fiction, but not for serious critics. As I consumed My Struggle, I realized that I was constantly committing two of the cardinal sins of modern academic criticism: like Don Quixote, I was taking the book’s characters to be real people, and the novel’s world to be the real world. But how could I not? The author insists that he is writing about himself, Karl Ove Knausgaard, a man born in Oslo on December 6, 1968. He further insists that everything he writes is true, and that he is using real names for all the real people in his novel. Apparently, then, it’s not just my choice; the novel itself challenges these old taboos. As soon as I began to look more closely, I realized that My Struggle resists and challenges a whole host of ingrained attitudes in contemporary literary studies. It began to dawn on me that to understand My Struggle, I would have to unlearn a generation’s worth of literary theory.
But if this is true, My Struggle requires a new kind of readers, readers capable of freeing themselves from the shackles of the tradition, readers who, like Hari Kunzru, realize that Knausgaard deliberately “breaks all the rules.” To read My Struggle well, we have to let it teach us how to read it, teach us how to break with the old conventions of reading. This is a break that academic readers like myself are still struggling to make.
Art, Intellect and Feelings
Far from being a return to plain, old-fashioned, kitchen-sink realism, My Struggle offers an explicit, self-conscious series of reflections on the nature of art and literature. It does so in part simply by telling the story of how Karl Ove Knausgaard became a writer. We learn that in 1989, Knausgaard moved to Bergen. For the next decade, he struggled to become a writer, without much success. His first, rapturously received novel, Ute av verden (Out of the world) did not appear until 1998. While he was struggling with his writing, we learn, Knausgaard studied literature at the University of Bergen, in a department generally recognized as one of the key arenas for postmodern thought in Norway. (This department is also my own alma mater.) In Bergen, he also studied art history.
In the first volume, Knausgaard describes the experience of being caught in an emotionally frustrating intellectual picture of what literature and art must be. Paintings always filled him with feelings, he writes, yet at university he never once felt licensed to write about that experience. Only when he wanders alone in great picture galleries, far away from the academy, does he feel free to own—to express—his emotional responses: “There was a kind of freedom about this. I didn’t need to justify my feelings, there was no one to whom I had to answer and no case to answer.”
Late one night, Karl Ove sits in his apartment leafing through a book of sketches by Constable. One 1822 sketch of a cloud formation floods him with feelings, compelling him to look at it for almost an hour. As he contemplates the oil sketch, he returns to the conflict between two different ways of looking at art: “It was as if two different forms of reflection rose and fell in my consciousness, one with its thoughts and reasoning, the other with its feelings and impressions, which, even though they were juxtaposed, excluded each other’s insights.” Musing on the contrast between this experience and the attitude exuded by contemporary art theory, he notes that it fails to appreciate the feelings inspired by a work of art: “Feelings were of inferior value, or perhaps even an undesirable by-product, a kind of waste product, or at best, malleable material, open to manipulation.” Contemporary art fails to appreciate representations of reality: “Naturalistic depictions of reality had no value either, but were viewed as naïve and a stage of development that had been superseded long ago. At that point, there was not much meaning left. But the moment I focused my gaze on the picture again, all my reasoning vanished in the surge of energy and beauty that arose in me. Yes, yes, yes, I heard. That’s where it is. That’s where I have to go. But what was it I had said yes to? Where was it I had to go?”