KARL OVE KNAUSGAARD
One Man's Successful Attempt to Turn His Life Into Art
by Cherise Wolas
Memoirs are no longer rare revelations—not in this age of perpetual updates where we Facebook our mundane thoughts, Instagram our food and boring body parts, push virtual pins on Pinterest into everything we want that everyone else wants; and not in this age of our gluttony for scandalous information about celebrities we adore and abhor, turned, by us, into ridiculous mythic beings. In a transparent world where little seems transgressive anymore, it is a shock to read the life story of Karl Ove Knausgaard, the Norwegian writer who has written about his life in six books titled My Struggle. For the brave and honest depiction of his life, he has been lauded and awarded prizes, and has incurred some anger and animosity along the way. His work is a memoir, but not. His story is cohesive, but not. What Knausgaard has attempted is to take his—and our own—interest in the daily doings of life and elevate the quotidian into art.
He is a fiction writer who has declaimed fiction and the fictive world. He is a man who has turned inward, actively peeling away the layers of his life—who he is or was, what the world was like then and now—to stringently assess the events that happened to him and the events he himself stirred into creation as a sentient adult. It is quite remarkable, this miracle that Knausgaard has created from existing cloth.
Earlier this year, I read Clever Girl, a subtle novel by the British writer Tessa Hadley that works in the same arena, a story told through the lens of a memoirist. Hadley’s narrator is Stella who, at fifty, looks back at where she has been to determine how she has ended up where she is. In comparison to Knausgaard’s voluminous project, Clever Girl is a single volume, relatively slim, and yet it covers the large and small events in a life, the violence and the disappointment, and the years of simply getting by, which, as in all lives, contain bland chunks of time. The writing in Clever Girl is often lush, its insights meaningful. Yet, it is possible that because we know Stella is a fictional character and that Clever Girl is a novel, we demand more from it than we do from the memoirs written by and about a real person. By the end of Clever Girl, I knew Stella, but at a distance; some kind of essential truth seemed to be missing amidst the quiet realism and understatement. Is that the knife’s edge? With Knausgaard, I know that he is a real person who is writing about himself, his life, and his perceptions, and he becomes an intimate friend on the page. His life is not any of ours, and yet it comes to feel like it is. Unlike Hadley’s often gorgeous prose, Knarsgaard deliberately writes away from my literary predilections; in this first book, his sentences are often unpoetic and hinged together by commas, and the dialogue generally falls flat, and yet I find myself entranced, reading on voraciously because of the immediacy, the knowledge that he is real and revealing all of himself, and I want to know more.
In most ways, Knausgaard is just a regular guy: the younger of two sons, raised by a mother and father who did not always live together in the same place even when they were married, loved by grandparents. He went to school, he had teenaged thoughts, desires, crushes on girls; he had dreams, he thought big, he was confused about himself, and his place in the world. He is dysfunctional in ways we all might consider normal, and is a member of a family dysfunctional in both usual and unusual ways.
I do not know Karl Ove Knausgaard, although the front-cover picture of him on the first book of My Struggle makes me want to know him, and I have never read the novels he has put out in the world. But I am fascinated by all the words he has written to tell his own tale—his life as a child, his sensitivities, his quick and unwelcomed capacity for tears, his need to be liked and accepted, his cold and difficult father whom he feared and naturally wanted to please, his mother, a nursing instructor who receives little attention in this first volume, his push-pull love with his older brother, Yngve, his innate distancing stance, his occasional verbal brutality, the women he has loved, the ways in which he can’t connect, the love that he finds, the children he has birthed who, he admits, will never consume his attention the way that his work, writing the story of his life, consumes him.
Throughout the first book, there are discourses on philosophy, on the nature of self, on nature itself, all of which serve to place Knausgaard’s story within the enormous framework of the wider world, evidence of his sharp and broad intelligence.
Knausgaard provided key people named in his books with prepublication copies. Some threatened to sue; he removed one person entirely. However, when he had the opportunity to pull back, to not publish at all, despite his fear of displeasing those closest to him, despite his ingrained need to be liked, he published anyway. Some may think that Knausgaard has filleted people who love him, and that may be true, but the character who comes off least well, most of the time, is the author himself. Still, he is fascinating as a person, a man, a thinker, and as a writer.
What keeps me riveted by Knausgaard, besides saying this three names in a kind of chant, is how the most banal of events that span over an enormous number of pages, keeps me planted in place, reading into the darkest hours of the night. An example: the lengths teenaged Knausgaard and a friend take to procure, hide, and retrieve a case of beer for consumption on New Year’s Eve. Had that recounting been fiction, it would have been reduced to a paragraph or two. And despite that Clever Girl is a novel, there is a similar expansion of seemingly unimportant events and a correlative contraction of the urgent. What both writers seem to be instructing us to notice is that the truth of who any of us is resides in the details, no matter how small, and it is in those small details that characters find their color, that natures are formed.
Knausgaard was thirty when his father died and only then did he realize that during all his growing-up years, his father, in varying ways, consistently posited suicide as a viable option. All those times that his father articulated those sorts of thoughts, Knausgaard was too young and, hence, too myopic, to understand that his father might eventually end his own life in such a way—a life that seemed happy enough, perhaps, before spiraling into pain and failure. Knausgaard’s father took the hard road—not a gun, or pills, but the inevitable destructive decline caused by increasing alcoholism.
The death of Knausgaard’s father is neither expected nor unexpected, but it comes in Book I like a 2x4 at the back of the head. Knausgaard exhales heart-breaking pages, in simplistic, specific, and endlessly detailed prose, about the disaster that he and his brother find when they arrive at their grandmother’s house after their father has suddenly died. A few years before, after drink stripped him of his teaching job, his second wife, and any meaningful connection to his sons, the father returned to his childhood home, virtually commandeering it, transforming the once-tidy home into a physical manifestation of the mess he had made of his own life.
The only witness to Knausgaard’s father’s death is Knausgaard’s grandmother who, herself, is at sea, deep into dementia. Her timeline about when the death happened is confused and shifts more than once. Did Karl Ove’s father die in the morning, as the grandmother first says? Or was he still alive when the paramedics took him away? Or did he die the night before, while the grandmother went off to bed, likely drunk herself—perhaps aware, perhaps not—of the state of her son in the living room?
There are many pages about the minute cleaning that Knausgaard and his brother engage in to restore their grandmother’s house to a basic level of cleanliness and livability. Because of his conflicted relationship with his problematic father, what Knausgaard wants, and desperately needs, is for his father’s wake to take place there. A goal that seems not only impractical, but impossible, when the week of arranging for the funeral begins.
The brothers bag up the awful gifts their father has left behind: clothes and bedding and furniture that he pissed straight through, left coated in his feces, both dry and still wet. Throughout the arduous days, they find that their grandmother regularly wets herself too, without noticing anything amiss. Not even the ammoniac stench disturbs her. Despite Knausgaard’s perceptual abilities, it is Yngve who realizes first that their grandmother has become an alcoholic as well. Only after the grandmother keeps asking whether either of the boys “takes a drop” does Knausgaard realize that she asks the question so often because she needs to drink, and is not sure how to do so in her grandsons’ presence. At the close of another day of cleaning, Yngve and Karl Ove discuss what they ought to do and decide to casually suggest they all have a drink, which the grandmother jumps at. A bottle of vodka, mixed with juice, is consumed by the three of them. For all the days that Knausgaard and his brother have been sleeping in the single unaffected room in the house, and scrubbing encrusted surfaces, and delivering to the dump everything that must be trashed, their elderly, ill grandmother has sat at the kitchen table, barely moving or speaking, just smoking her hand-rolled cigarettes. But with one drink in her, she blossoms, regains her sparkle, her words, her humor, and regales them with stories from the past, hers and theirs. The three drink late into the night.
In the first book, Knarsgaard writes that he is now in his forties, so his father’s death has taken place more than a decade ago. Still, removed by years and thousands of miles and the transit of language, I smelt it all, saw the ruin inflicted by a failing man, the travesty and tragedy that he left behind for his sons to contend with. Knausgaard finds himself crying copious tears, fearing that his father might not be truly dead, confused about whether he is grieving or is relieved.
It is precisely because Knausgaard interweaves banal events and tumultuous horrifics within the larger remit he has set for himself—the uncovering of emotions and mental states possessed by him and others at various times, his goal of understanding his own motivations in life, what pushed him then, what sets him charging now; how he sees himself within his own small construct, within the larger world, dissecting details that might, at first, seem inconsequential—that he brings forth, for all of us, a way to gloriously reframe our own existences, our own lives that sometimes we imagine as extraordinary, other times as trap doors to certain and immediate death.
What bears sideways consideration of this mammoth undertaking is whether the praise would be equal if a woman had written it? I would like to think yes, but I think not—not unless she were as beautiful as Knausgaard is handsome in his grizzled way, and equally photogenic, and not if she focused, as Knausgaard does, on the domesticity of family life, children, the need for solitary time. The domestic is viewed largely as the realm of women, and it is entirely possible we would not find the same work written by a woman equally transgressive. As Knausgaard reveals his strengths and his weaknesses, he provides clear proof that he must often be bearish to actually live with. The female version of Knausgaard certainly would be dealt with harshly by critics and reviewers for owning, and owning up to, such a nature. This, of course, says something not about the merits of My Struggle, but about the world. Clever Girl received positive reviews, but many critics focused on what it was not—not plot-driven, not a character study, not preoccupied with language. They called it a “sensibility” novel: a story that didn’t overreach, about a character who felt real, told in prose that wasn’t ornate. The two books share those same characteristics, and yet Clever Girl did not receive the outpouring enjoyed by My Struggle.