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?”1
My Struggle is the chronicle of Knausgaard’s long struggle to find the path towards this place, to find a way of writing that doesn’t shun feelings, that refuses to consider naturalism (the belief in the representation of reality) naïve, a way of writing that creates meaning and beauty. But it is also a series of essayistic reflections on art. Examining his own responses, Knausgaard tries to find the right words for what it is about the picture by Constable that attracts him so deeply. The feelings aroused by the work are paramount. But what feelings are they? The feeling that the work is inexhaustible, beautiful, and utterly present; the feeling that all this is conveyed in one, acutely intense moment.
In a 2013 essay called “Inexhaustible Precision” (“Det uuttømmelig presise”), Knausgaard returns to these themes. He struggles to accept the two aspects of himself: the critical aesthete who considers that the value of art increases with its difficulty, with the demands it places on the reader, and the emotional, spontaneous, childlike reader or beholder who looks to art for immediate experiences of beauty and joy. He knows perfectly well that the latter is not considered particularly sophisticated. He fully acknowledges the need for knowledge, reflection, distance. Yet he can’t stand the easy conflation of difficulty and critical distance with literary value. As if the mere fact that a work is popular, readable by non-experts, makes it bad: “This is where we are now: the more people who spontaneously like a work of art, the more who read a novel, the worse the work of art and the novel. But also: the better the work of art or the novel, the more filled with resistance they are, and since it takes much intellectual work to overcome the resistance, feelings are almost totally eliminated.” Why, he wonders, are we so contemptuous of art that tries to address everyone? Is there an alternative to this attitude?
The answer is yes. Art that appears to be easy and simple, art that has an immediate appeal, doesn’t have to be shallow, doesn’t have to be something we exhaust at the first approach. The difference between good and bad art is precisely the sense of inexhaustibility. However many times you look at the painting, or read the novel, you will feel its infinity, as it were. Art history, Knausgaard writes, is “full of examples of pictures that are so simple and basic that everyone, regardless of their aesthetic training, can relate to them.” At its best, the novel too can do this by setting out to convey not reality but “the picture of reality, the picture that combines two entities: concretion and inexhaustibility.” He goes on to name this combination “inexhaustible precision,” which, for him, is the hallmark of genuine art: what artists aspire to, and what legitimizes the work as art.
The combination of concretion, precision and inexhaustibility, the sense that a great work of art can appeal to all without losing its greatness: these ideas also name the artistic goals of My Struggle. But how does Knausgaard’s novel go about achieving its ambitions? By its extensive use of descriptions.
Descriptions: Attention and Expression
Descriptions are the backbone of My Struggle. James Wood calls some of them sublime, and rightly so. Yet Deresiewicz finds them utterly flat and boring, nothing but examples of the “naturalistic depictions of reality” that dominant aesthetic theories have long despised as naive. Clearly, to understand My Struggle, we need to understand what Knausgaard is doing with his descriptions. What makes them so compelling?
One could surely write a whole book on the many different forms of descriptions in My Struggle: there are, for example, descriptions of visual art works, nature, scenes from everyday life, either as they transpire in the moment of writing, or as remembered and reimagined. Here is a description that I want to call “existential.” It is a recollection of a perfectly ordinary moment in January 2004, probably written in 2009. Karl Ove has arrived in his new office space, makes a cup of coffee, and steps outside in the freezing January afternoon. As he drinks his coffee he looks at his surroundings:
At the intersection by the top of the gentle incline the traffic lights began to tick. Soon after, the street below was free of cars. Two middle-aged women came out of the entrance below me and lit up. Wearing white hospital coats, they squeezed their arms against their sides and took small, stabbing steps to keep warm. To me they looked like some strange kind of duck. Then the ticking stopped, and the next moment cars shot out of the hilltop shadow like a pack of baying hounds into the sunlit street below. The studded tires lashed the tarmac. I put the mobile back in my pocket, wrapped my hands around the cup. The steam from the coffee rose slowly and mingled with the breath from my mouth. On the school playground that lay squashed between two blocks of flats twenty meters up from my office the shouts of children suddenly fell quiet, it was only now that I noticed. The bell had rung. The sounds here were new and unfamiliar to me, the same was true of the rhythm in which they surfaced, but I would soon get used to them, to such an extent that they would fade into the background again. You know too little and it doesn’t exist. You know too much and it doesn’t exist. Writing is drawing what exists out of the shadows of what we know. That is what writing is about. Not what happens there, not what actions are played out there, but the there itself. There, that is writing’s location and aim. But how to get there?2
Nothing special happens. Knausgaard simply pays attention to his surroundings. He notices his hands holding the coffee. He sees two women in white coats smoking. He sees cars stopping and starting at the traffic light. He notices the associative movements of his own mind: the women are like strange ducks, the cars like baying hounds. He realizes that the children in the schoolyard have stopped shouting. Only then does he realize that they had been shouting. He failed to notice them because he didn’t really know they were there, didn’t really know that his new office was near a school. Later, he predicts, he will fail to notice them again, because by then he will know the sounds of his neighborhood only too well.
Knausgaard’s description is an exercise of attention. He struggles to notice, to become aware of existence, which here isn’t a metaphysical concept, but simply “det som finnes,” what is there. The shouting of the schoolchildren, for example. But “existence” obviously also includes the presence of the existent (his Dasein, his being-there) the presence of the man who stands there hearing—or failing to hear—the shouts of children playing.
Attention is not a state, or a condition, but an action. To pay attention is to do something. We direct our attention towards or away from something. At the same time, attention is difficult to govern, for it is so easily hijacked by sudden irruptions, diverted against our will. It is so easy to fail to govern one’s attention. But, as Simone Weil reminds us, it is perfectly possible to train one’s attention, to become a more attentive person. Clearly, we are as responsible for our attention and its failures as for anything else we do or fail to do in life. Failure to notice something is a failure of attention. Depending on the situation, such failures can be moral, aesthetic or political.
Knowing too much distracts us from paying full attention to what is there, Knausgaard writes. Rather than looking, sensing, perceiving, too much knowledge makes us slot the experience into pre-existing categories. Too little knowledge prevents us from understanding what we see. Then we don’t pay attention either. (It’s a little like what happens when I look at my car engine. Because I know nothing about car engines, I only see a chaos of confusing coils and metal containers. A car mechanic would surely say that I am not actually seeing the engine.) Knausgaard sets out to catch the freshness of the world. Attention works best in the space where everything seems new and fresh—not too new, but new enough. To pay attention is to take in the experience of being a human being, in this place, in this moment. It’s an attempt to be present in the world.
Nothing is more ordinary than existence—than being there; nothing is easier to miss. This is the heart of the project of My Struggle: all these thousands of pages are attempts to pay attention. They arise from the realization of how easy it is to miss the adventure of one’s own existence, to live one’s life without noticing, without paying attention to that one thing: that I was there. But they also arise from the realization that we will inevitably miss much of that adventure, that our only hope is to recreate the moments of existence from memory. For when is Knausgaard actually writing this passage? In January 2004 he was working on A Time for Everything. Did he take notes then? Did he remember it later? We don’t know.
Almost imperceptibly, the description fades into something like a compressed philosophical essay about the nature of writing. Knausgaard wants to pull existence out from the “shadows of what we know.” He knows that he won’t always succeed. But note the difference between saying, like so many postmodern theorists, that language interposes itself between “what is there” and the writing, and saying what Knausgaard does, that the pressure of too much or too little knowledge makes the writer’s attention flag and fall away. Language isn’t the problem. He is. We are.
Description, then, is not just a neutral registration of what is there; it is expression, both in the sense that it reveals what the writer sees, what she pays attention to, and in the sense that it expresses the writer’s powers of imagination, his creativity (the two smoking women as little ducks, the traffic lights as baying hounds) as well as the quality of her attention to reality. In description, the memoirist Patricia Hampl writes, the “consciousness of the writer and the material of the story are established in harmony,” so that the “self is lost in the material.” As a result, “we hear and feel the absorption of the author in the material. We sense the presence of the creator of the scene.” This is as true, she notes, for descriptions in fiction as for descriptions in nonfiction. Descriptions reveal the presence of a creator, a presence Hampl calls “style,” “integrity” and “voice.” In such concepts lie the seeds of new criteria with which to understand and evaluate My Struggle.
A description—whether in philosophy or in literature—is an invitation to a response, an invitation to answer the question: “This is what I see. Can you see it too?” Even if you can’t, it doesn’t follow that we are both locked up in our respective solipsisms. I am not a prisoner of my subjectivity. Rather, I can use my subjectivity to engage with yours. (Or I can decide not to.) Maybe your response convinces me that I failed to take something crucial into account. Maybe I realize that I had thought of the situation, or the work of art, in one particular way, whereas you make me see that this is not the only option.
But this means that the reader has to be willing to look, to examine her own world in the light of the writer’s or the critic’s invitation. For their part, the critic and the writer have to try to describe what they see as fully as possible. In so doing, they will necessarily reveal who they are, by which I mean they will reveal the specific nature of their own capacity for attention, at the same time as they say something about the world.
Our embodiment, our separation from one another—the fact that knowledge is always human knowledge, the world as it appears to a human being, is not a limitation, but the very condition of possibility for human knowledge. This is why the work of description as Hampl understands it, and as Knausgaard practices it, is not simply the account of the writer’s own psyche. Because description conveys both the subject and the world, it becomes the preferred mode or genre for a writer like Knausgaard, with his deep longing to grasp existence, to grasp the fact that he is there.
My Struggle is one man’s attempt to tell us how it is to be here, now. To show us existence as an ordinary phenomenon. But it is also an attempt to record his own existence. The book tells us that he, Karl Ove Knausgaard, was here. That he existed. That he struggled to be present in the world. This is why description is the key formal device in My Struggle. Description is precisely the literary form which unites the voice of the subject (of the narrator or writer) with his or her interest in the object of the description. Uniting the utterly concrete and precise with the question of existence, the description we just looked at achieves the “inexhaustible precision” which is Knausgaard’s aesthetic ideal.
Description as World-Creation
Each description in My Struggle is like a picture, a picture of an existential moment. One might say that My Struggle strings together an immense number of descriptions, without much of a plot, unless life itself is taken to be a plot, as Sartre and many others have argued. But why does the result feel so immersive? The answer is, I think, that all these descriptions create a world. World-creation is another unfashionable critical concept, barely discussed in recent theory. But if we go back almost a hundred years, we find that the Spanish critic José Ortega y Gasset took the concept seriously.
In his 1925 essay “Notes on the Novel,” Ortega, in his deeply non-modernist way, argues that a good novel has to create a world. The writer’s world-creating powers immerses the reader in the book’s universe and makes us forget our own. In a passage that uncannily anticipates Knausgaard, Ortega writes that only a “wealth of detail” can achieve the miracle of forgetting that he seeks in reading: “The reader must be caught in a dense web of innumerable minutely told circumstances. What is our life but an immense agglomeration of trifles?” Extraordinary events are not world-creating. For Ortega only realistic, trivial, everyday details can create a convincing—real-feeling—fictional world. While My Struggle invalidates Ortega’s assumption that the world created by the novel must be fictional, it amply confirms the idea that concrete, precise descriptions of the ordinary and the everyday are world-creating.
When Ortega puts Stendhal’s The Charterhouse of Parma back on his bookshelf, his mind still lingers in the novel’s world, reluctant to leave it behind. As I stand on the threshold between Knausgaard’s world and my own, I feel as if Karl Ove, and Linda, and Geir, and Malmø and Stockholm are leaving me against my will, that they are withdrawing into a world of shades where I can’t follow them. But as they recede, it seems to me that the author’s voice lingers for a moment, to plead for remembrance, like the ghost in Hamlet: I was an ordinary man. I was here. Remember me.