Discussed in this essay:
My Struggle: Book Six, by Karl Ove Knausgaard. Translated from the Norwegian by Dan Bartlett and Martin Aitken. Archipelago Books. 1,160 pages. $33.
A Time for Everything (2009), Karl Ove Knausgaard’s exceedingly strange and intermittently beautiful second novel, concludes with a novella-length coda, written in the first person, about a summer day when the narrator’s father takes him and his older brother crabbing on the Norwegian coast. Along the way, the narrator spots a seagull carcass. “Did you know that seagulls were angels once?” his father asks. Naturally the boy doesn’t take this claim seriously: “He lied about everything, but his lies were various; this one fortunately was only meant to tease us.” The father picks up the bird, turns it over, and shows it to his sons:
“Can you see?” he asked.
“What?” I said.
“Come right up close, then you’ll see.”
I bent forward. And then I saw it. A tiny little arm, no longer than the tip of my finger, thin as a piece of wire, lay against its breast under the wing.
“It’s a hand,” Dad said. “Can’t you see?”
The narrator in these pages is named Henrik, his brother is Klaus, but readers of My Struggle—the monumental autobiographical novel that has made Knausgaard an international literary superstar and whose sixth and last volume has finally appeared in English—will recognize the pair as Karl Ove and his older brother, Yngve. They will recognize too the father who
normally . . . never did anything with us, preferring to stay in his office in the basement, silent and somber and tormented. When he did come up, he often flew into rages, so that our relationship with him was one of fear and apprehension rather than love.
A Time for Everything ends, as My Struggle begins, with the death of this feared and unloved father. Throughout Knausgaard’s childhood, his father was abusive and mercurial but not much of a drinker; after leaving the family, he descended into alcoholism, and spent the last years of his life living with his mother, who was apparently suffering from dementia. After his death, Karl Ove and Yngve returned to their grandmother’s house to find it filled with garbage, empty bottles, dirty clothes mildewed to the point of decay. Neither one had spoken to their father in years, and they were horrified to see the depths to which he’d sunk.
Just as this death shapes everything that comes after it in My Struggle—Knausgaard has said that the entire project was an effort to “get rid of his presence inside me”—it retroactively transforms A Time for Everything into a grand attempt to build a world in which a father might be taken at his word, in which the enchantment of youth can somehow be preserved into adulthood. Indeed, the novel might be read as a kind of prologue or overture to the later project, announcing its major themes, particularly the longing for a period—whether childhood or some lost moment in history—when life held more meaning than contemporary secular culture seems to offer.
At first glance, the two books might seem to bear little relation to each other. Most of A Time for Everything takes place far from present-day Scandinavia, shuttling between biblical times and the early modern era. The novel’s central character is Antinous Bellori, a fictional Enlightenment figure whom Knausgaard places alongside the great thinkers of the “transition between the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries”: Bruno, Descartes, Pascal, Leibniz, Newton. “For all of them,” Knausgaard writes, “knowledge was indissolubly linked to their individual lives, severed from the general context.” Like these luminaries, Bellori attempts to throw off the yoke of tradition and biblical authority, to see the world for himself, but he differs from them in what he sees. As a young man, Bellori has a personal encounter with a pair of profoundly fallen angels, perhaps among the last of their kind, and he subsequently dedicates his life to studying these creatures as natural phenomena, work that culminates in a vast treatise called On the Nature of Angels.
His story is interspersed with long retellings of biblical passages in which angels feature prominently, by way of which Knausgaard (or Bellori?) seeks to understand where they went. His eccentric answer is that angels—whose “most important characteristic is that they really belong to two worlds, and always carry the one into the other”—never left the earth. Quite the opposite: it was the heavens from which they disappeared, their earthly side overwhelming their spiritual side. Eventually they fell to the point where divinity was not even a memory: “They no longer remember where they came from or who they were, concepts like dignity and solemnity have no meaning for them, all they think about is eating and reproducing.”
In the second volume of My Struggle (2013), Knausgaard describes the composition of A Time for Everything, which originated with that story of two boys out crabbing with their father and the discovery of the seagull that was once an angel. While reading Spengler’s Decline of the West, Knausgaard realized that his book would have to be grounded in the early seventeenth century:
Everything sprang from there, it was when the world separated: on one side there was the old and useless, the whole magical, irrational, dogmatic and authoritarian tradition; on the other, what developed into the world we inhabited.
Late in My Struggle’s final volume, he writes again that “our present culture was founded in the seventeenth century,” and here he explicitly connects this moment with another founding: the first part of Don Quixote appeared in 1605, and with it the tradition of the modern novel began.
The novel is the great art form of this altered age, a form built to depict individuals navigating a disenchanted world, their stories unfolding in secular time. In The Rise of the Novel, Ian Watt tells us that the early novelists were “the first great writers . . . who did not take their plots from mythology, history, legend, or previous literature.” Their predecessors, from the Greeks up to Shakespeare, happily repurposed traditional plots,
because they accepted the general premise of their time that, since Nature is essentially complete and unchanging, its records, whether scriptural, legendary, or historical, constitute a definitive repertoire of human experience.
Not only did this new genre eschew such plots, it often seemed to eschew plot entirely. Watt notes Daniel Defoe’s “total subordination of plot to the pattern of the autobiographical memoir” as a template for later realists. Another feature of the form is specificity:
The plot had to be acted out by particular people in particular circumstances, rather than, as had been common in the past, by general human types against a background primarily determined by the appropriate literary convention. . . . The novel is surely distinguished from other genres and from previous forms of fiction by the amount of attention it habitually accords both to the individualization of its characters and to the detailed presentation of their environment.
Finally, the novel treats time differently from any genre that preceded it. When time itself, like the days and the seasons, was taken to have a cyclical element, plots often unfolded over a single day, which served as a microcosm of eternity, or took place in the mythic time of origins, which remained ever-present. By contrast, secular time is linear; each instant that passes is gone forever, and each one that arrives is something entirely new. The prototypical novel restricts itself to this secular present, and it unfolds in linear fashion. This method allows for “detailed depiction of the concerns of everyday life.” Before the novel, “much of man’s life had tended to be almost unavailable to literary representation merely as a result of its slowness.”
It has been tempting to read My Struggle, as most reviewers of its earlier volumes have done, as a kind of logical terminus for all these tendencies: the pattern of autobiographical memoir; the plotlessness; the specificity; the detailed description of everyday life; the much-remarked-upon slowness. (Even the primary criticism of the work—its unliterary style, prone to awkwardness, banality, cliché—was consistently leveled at the early realists.) But this is only part of the story. A countervailing impulse has run through the novel’s history, an impulse not just to depict the disenchanted world into which the form was born but to critique it. With notable frequency the novel has taken disenchantment itself as its subject, and it has asked the uncomfortable question of whether the kind of heroic greatness that was literature’s primary concern from the Iliad up to Orlando Furioso is even possible under the current dispensation. That this tension animates Don Quixote is obvious enough. But it is also present, for example, in nearly all of Dostoevsky’s work, perhaps most poignantly in The Idiot, in which a “positively good and beautiful man” proves to be tragically unfit for the modern world. George Eliot announces the theme in Middlemarch when she calls Dorothea Brooks a “Saint Theresa, foundress of nothing.” Joyce works a comic variation on it when he turns the events of one Dublin day into Homeric epic. Proust—so often cited as Knausgaard’s primary model—builds his own monumental novel around the recurrence of higher moments and his narrator’s effort to reconcile them with the inevitable loss of linear time. This is the tradition that justifies Lukács’s definition of the novel as “the epic of a world abandoned by God,” and with the publication of the 1,200-page conclusion to My Struggle, it is now unmistakable that Knausgaard has been working within this tradition all along.
If it has been sometimes difficult to recognize as much, this may be because the sheer volume of detail in Knausgaard’s book leads readers to assume a certain relationship between the author and reality. We associate this brand of minute noticing with the Nabokovian school, in which sustained attention is an act of love inevitably reciprocated when the world on which attention is bestowed offers up its numinous secrets. In My Struggle, something like the opposite takes place. Karl Ove keeps hoping that if he looks at his own life long enough it will reveal itself as meaningful, but it rarely ever does.*
* By critical consensus, My Struggle’s narrator is referred to as “Karl Ove” and its author as “Knausgaard,” following the tradition by which Proust is distinguished from his narrator, Marcel. It’s a useful device, but it’s worth noting that Knausgaard himself insists that Karl Ove is in no sense a literary character. Karl Ove is Knausgaard.
There is something slightly mad about writing a 3,600-page autobiography on deadline, and something truly mad about doing so when your own life doesn’t interest you. Yet the most striking thing about Karl Ove’s relationship to the passing days he so carefully describes is that he finds them mostly insufferable. As he writes in the passage that gives the book its title:
Everyday life, with its duties and routines, was something I endured, not a thing I enjoyed, nor something that was meaningful or that made me happy. This had nothing to do with a lack of desire to wash floors or change nappies but rather something more fundamental: the life around me was not meaningful. I always longed to be away from it. 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.
He does experience periodic bouts of significance. “All of a sudden I was receptive to everything,” he thinks after his second daughter is born, “and the world I found myself in was laden with meaning.” Less momentous events—getting drunk, or just sitting alone with a book—can also trigger this effect: “I could on occasion be seized by this feeling, perhaps once every six months, it was strong, it lasted for a few minutes, and then it passed.” Such moments mainly serve to remind him that most of his life is something he “had to get through.” While listening to Emmylou Harris one day, he finds himself moved to tears:
It was only then that I realized how little I felt, how numb I had become. When I was eighteen I was full of such feelings all the time, the world seemed more intense and that was why I wanted to write, it was the sole reason, I wanted to touch something music touched. The human voice’s lament and sorrow, joy and delight, I wanted to evoke everything the world had bestowed on us. How could I have forgotten that?
Enlightenment, Kant tells us, is man’s emergence from self-imposed immaturity. Throughout My Struggle, Knausgaard inverts this formulation. Childhood is the time when the world is magical, “jam-packed with meaning,” while maturation is the process by which this meaning gets stripped away. This is not to say that Karl Ove idealizes childhood. His own seems often miserable, dominated as it is by his abusive father, at once remote and omnipresent. But this suffering is a necessary feature of enchantment: “As your perspective on the world increases not only is the pain it inflicts on you less but also its meaning.” This change might be inevitable, but that doesn’t explain why most people aren’t even bothered by it. “Who brooded over the meaninglessness of life anymore? Teenagers. They were the only ones who were preoccupied with existential issues.” We are like the angels who don’t remember where they came from, who know nothing of dignity or solemnity, who care only about eating and reproducing.
In volume 6, Knausgaard explicitly links this personal struggle with meaninglessness to the larger historical process of secularization:
When we closed the door on religion, we closed the door on something inside ourselves as well. Not only did the holy vanish from our lives, all the powerful emotions associated with it vanished too. The idea of the sublime is a faint echo of our experience of the holy, without the mystery. The yearning and the melancholy expressed in Romantic art is a yearning back to this, a mourning of its loss. This at least is how I interpret my own attraction to the Romantic in art, the short yet intense bursts of emotion it can discharge in my soul, the sudden swell of joy and grief that can arch up inside me like a sky if I happen to encounter something unexpected or something commonplace in an unexpected way. . . . But so small and insignificant that experience is compared to the rapture of the mystics, so sad my own quest for meaning, forever interrupted, compared to their lifelong devotion, so pathetic my rituals in front of the television screen, compared to those that once took place in the world.
This connection becomes more pointed as volume 6 goes on. Most of the action takes place after the first two volumes have been written, and it is much concerned with the reception of the work, his publisher’s plans for it, and Karl Ove’s efforts to deal with family and friends who appear in its pages. In particular, he must manage his uncle, who objects to the depiction of his brother’s—Karl Ove’s father’s—death and threatens to sue to stop publication of the book. Karl Ove agrees to change his uncle’s name but insists that changing his father’s would undermine his effort to grapple head-on with the man’s legacy. It is important that the father depicted in the book be his actual father, not a fictional character based on him. Eventually a compromise is reached, whereby he will simply go unnamed. Because the book is written in such a close first-person perspective, and because sons don’t generally speak of their fathers by name, this absence has not been particularly striking to this point, but for Knausgaard it clearly holds great significance, and he associates it here with the tetragrammaton—the four letters, YHWH, used to refer to God in the Hebrew Bible—and the Jewish injunction against speaking God’s name. In this roundabout way, Knausgaard suggests that this book about the death of a nameless father has also been a book about the death of God.
The moment comes in the middle of an extended meditation on naming, what it means to give something a name, what language can capture and what is bound to remain ineffable, which includes a long close reading of Paul Celan’s “The Straitening,” a poem in which Celan, whose parents died in a Nazi internment camp, writes around the Holocaust, which he believed language couldn’t possibly approach directly. (The contrast between Celan’s elliptical style and Knausgaard’s verbose exegesis of it has a hint of the comic, despite the underlying subject matter.) Knausgaard’s reading of Celan leads in turn to what will surely be the most discussed element of My Struggle’s last volume—and perhaps, now that readers can consider it as a whole, of the entire novel: a several-hundred-page essay about the life of Adolf Hitler.
When the early volumes first appeared, the novel’s title (in Norwegian, Min Kamp) was widely viewed as an ironic provocation with little relevance to the book’s subject matter, a suspicion encouraged by the revelation in volume 6 that Knausgaard had not actually read Hitler’s autobiography when he decided to name his own after it. But we also learn in this final volume that Karl Ove found a copy of Mein Kampf among his grandfather’s possessions at the time of his death, and that this troubling discovery led him to devote a long period of study to the rise of Nazism. Given the level of detail and the speed with which the volume was written, there is no question that Knausgaard was deeply familiar with Hitler’s life story before he started writing his own, or that he takes the parallels between the two seriously.
To begin with, Knausgaard readily admits throughout My Struggle that there is a reactionary element to his persistent sense that the world as it is—particularly the post-Christian, European world of liberal inclusiveness—cannot provide the meaning he needs. “I walked around Stockholm’s streets,” he writes, “modern and feminized, with a furious nineteenth-century man inside me.” He objects to a world where “the ideal was not human uniqueness but equality, and not cultural uniqueness but multicultural society”:
We are all democrats, we are all liberal, and the differences between states, cultures, and people are being broken down everywhere. And this movement, what else is it at heart, if not nihilistic?
These views become more prominent in volume 6. “Culture charged the world with meaning by establishing differences within it,” he says. “In this wide perspective, I was against immigration, against multiculturalism, against sameness of every kind.” He is quick to add that this opposition is entirely theoretical, that in his day-to-day life he sees immigration as “an enormous resource” that makes Sweden, where he lived as an adult with his Swedish wife, “explosively vibrant and full of energy,” but this caveat is undermined a few pages later, when he walks his children home from school:
A beggar, one of the most active, had stationed himself outside the bank. He was on his knees with his hands folded in front of him, rocking backward and forward as he glared at the passersby. In front of him was a cap with some coins on it.
“Why’s he sitting like that?” said Vanja.
“He’s begging,” I said. “He wants money.”
“Why hasn’t he got any money?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “He probably doesn’t have a job. So he begs to get money for food.”
“Why didn’t you give him any?”
“Because he’s not doing anything. If he’d been playing an instrument or something I’d have given him some. That’s what they usually do, anyway. But sometimes I might give something to beggars anyway. If I feel sorry for them. Never much, though.”
“Why didn’t you give him anything then?”
“What a lot of questions,” I said and smiled.
She smiled back.
“He’s probably from Eastern Europe. That’s a group of countries a long way away. They come here to beg for money. They’re a kind of gang.”
“A gang of thieves? Are they thieves?”
“Not exactly. But they’ve basically made it their job. Which means there’s no point begging anymore. Begging’s not a job.”
Knausgaard isn’t actually endorsing these ideas or his decision to pass them along to his children, any more than he endorses sticking your kids in front of the TV while you go out for the day’s tenth cigarette. He is ashamed of these feelings, but he refuses to deny them. In a conversation about a famous Norwegian writer who praised Hitler, he says,
The worst part is that I can understand: that need to rid yourself of all the banality and the small-mindedness rotting inside you, all the trivia that can make you angry or unhappy. . . . God knows what I would have done if I’d lived through the 1940s.
The other thing that connects Karl Ove to Hitler is, of course, artistic vocation, and Knausgaard spends a great deal of time on Hitler’s frustration over his failure as a painter. He’s hardly the first person to suggest that history might have been spared one of its worst monsters had Hitler been accepted into art school, but he takes the idea further, asking in all sincerity what distinguished the young Hitler, in his monomaniacal wish to “transcend the bourgeois by following the path of genius,” from so many struggling artists, including Karl Ove himself. Knausgaard consistently pushes back on the idea that Hitler was an unusually monstrous young man. It is only in retrospect, he says, that we can pick out certain gestures or remarks and see in them what was to come. If Hitler had turned into an artist instead, we would read this all completely differently.
What made Hitler a monster, Knausgaard believes, was World War I. When the war broke out, Hitler was among many, including many artists, who embraced the opportunity for regeneration through violence. “If a single idea recurs throughout the mindset of the age,” Knausgaard notes about the period before World War I, “it is a distaste for the pragmatic and what Wagner in an essay called ‘soulless materialism.’?” Even as sensible a soul as Thomas Mann fell briefly prey to the notion that war might save us from this fate. “How should the artist, the soldier in the artist,” Mann wrote in a letter at the time, “not have praised God for the collapse of a world of peace that he had his fill, so completely his fill of?” Again, Knausgaard understands the feeling: “Who would not wish to be a part of something greater than the self? Who would not wish to feel their life to be meaningful? Who would not wish to have something to die for?” Perhaps more than any conflict that preceded it, World War I was caused not by economics or geopolitics or even ethnic hatred but by a will to violence in the heart of seemingly civilized societies, a will that took the form of the belief that violence offers a significance that civilization cannot.
Most artists were quickly disillusioned of this idea when the reality of the trenches set in, but Hitler, who fought in one of the war’s bloodiest battles, had the opposite response. He could not give up on meaning. Much of the ideology he developed in the 1920s and 1930s, Knausgaard argues, was precisely an effort to create a larger narrative in which the German defeat might have some significance. This, Knausgaard tells us, is where the Romantic desire for transcendent meaning leads, in the absence of God. It is a striking admission for a writer so preoccupied with transcendence.
But once we have made this admission, what is the alternative? One possibility is that we might reconcile ourselves to mundane life by finding there all the meaning we need. Karl Ove wants such an outcome for himself, but Knausgaard is too honest a writer to give it to him:
What I ought to do was affirm what existed, affirm the state of things as they are, in other words, revel in the world outside instead of searching for a way out, for in that way I would undoubtedly have a better life, but I couldn’t do it, I couldn’t, something had congealed inside me, a conviction was rooted inside me, and although it was essentialist, that is outmoded and furthermore romantic, I could not get past it.
There is another possibility. We could give up on the idea that anything we do has a larger significance outside ourselves, or that the events of our lives might be shaped into something significant. That is, if life is incapable of providing meaning, we might choose life by choosing meaninglessness. It’s possible to read My Struggle, with all its anti-literary gestures, as representing just such a choice. While composing it, Knausgaard committed himself to a kind of automatic writing. At certain points, he says, he was producing twenty pages a day, a number that will strike anyone who has attempted to write a novel as obscene. He was trying, he says, to get beyond any rational artistic impulse. The result is a book in which contradictions abound, a book with moments of great insight and moments of great banality, a book where one thing often seems to follow another for no reason at all, a book that aggressively courts insignificance.
But unlike contemporary life, a book can’t help having a reason for being. The world may or may not be a created place, but the world of a novel unquestionably is. This fact has many implications. When a writer proceeds by chance or depicts the absurd, he cannot help saying something about the role of chance in our lives or the absurdity of man’s condition. Even when a book fails to cohere for no good reason, that will say something about the relationship of literature to the world or, at the very least, about the ineptness of the author. A novel simply does not have the luxury of meaninglessness. Truly giving up on meaning would require giving up on writing itself.
Knausgaard has said that he knew even before he started the project that My Struggle would end with precisely this renunciation. “I am no longer a writer” are the novel’s last words. It is difficult to convey to a reader who has not passed through the many pages that precede this sentence how moving it is within its context. For a moment we almost believe it’s true. Yet finally this conclusion is that one thing Knausgaard has held in such contempt for all these pages—a purely literary gesture. Karl Ove’s struggle will end only with the end of life itself. It has taken eight years for this long final volume to be translated and published in English, so that we can take the full measure of Knausgaard’s achievement. In the meantime, he’s written half a dozen more books.