Urbanities

Adam Kirsch
In Proust’s Footsteps
Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard reclaims the novel’s humanistic ambitions.
Summer 2013
A Constable painting reminds My Struggle's narrator of the emotional power of art.
John Constable, “branch hill pond, hampstead heath, with a cart and carters”/Tate, London/Art Resource, NY
A Constable painting reminds My Struggle’s narrator of the emotional power of art.

Not since Roberto Bolaño’s posthumous conquest of American letters has a foreign writer arrived here with the kind of acclaim given to Karl Ove Knausgaard. Born in 1968, the Norwegian Knausgaard had authored two highly regarded novels when, in 2009, he began to publish the work that made him a celebrity, first in his own country and then across Europe: the autobiographical fiction My Struggle, a vast sequence that finally filled six volumes. The title—in Norwegian, Min Kamp—is the same as that of Hitler’s infamous tract, and while Knausgaard can’t exactly be said to be referring to Hitler, his willingness to court the allusion gives a sense of the absolutism, the recklessness, with which he writes.

The same all-or-nothing commitment is evident in his use of directly autobiographical material—about himself, his two wives, his three children, and, above all, his father and brother, the dominant presences in Book One of the sequence. Sophisticated readers, of course, have been trained by literary theory never to make the gauche mistake of confusing a text’s speaker with its author, or even to believe that the author can be more than an impersonal “function.” Many have had their fill of fiction masquerading as memoirs, from the outright duplicity of James Frey to the amusing self-impersonations of David Sedaris. But Knausgaard, with a kind of sullen sincerity, wants to puncture such evasions:

Today is the twenty-seventh of February. The time is 11:43 p.m. I, Karl Ove Knausgaard, was born in December 1968, and at the time of writing I am thirty-nine years old. I have three children—Vanja, Heidi, and John—and am in my second marriage, to Linda Bostrom Knausgaard. All four are asleep in the rooms around me, in an apartment in Malmo where we have lived for a year and a half.

As the passage’s legalistic, almost testimonial, language suggests, Knausgaard isn’t interested in postmodern playfulness about the boundaries between fiction and reality. He is writing a kind of confession, a spiritual accounting in the severe Protestant tradition, and he insists on dates and names as tokens of his earnestness.

In Norway, this confessional style struck with the force of a revelation and a scandal. The sequence has sold almost half a million copies there—an unthinkable number in a country of just 5 million people—and spawned a running debate over the ethics of using family members as literary characters. Now Farrar, Straus and Giroux is issuing a paperback translation of Book One, and it will partner with the small press Archipelago to publish the entire sequence in hardcover and paperback. That will let Americans judge whether Knausgaard deserves the praise of the European critics who have compared him with Ibsen, Hamsun, and Proust.

With the first two of those great names, Knausgaard has a language in common; with the third, a method and an inspiration. Any writer embarking on a multivolume autobiographical novel about becoming a writer, with philosophical asides on the nature of time and the metaphysics of art, is inevitably writing in Proust’s shadow. And Knausgaard seems to embrace his indebtedness, even as he transforms Proust in crucial ways.

Indeed, one can think of My Struggle as an experiment to discover whether a bildungsroman on the scale of In Search of Lost Time remains possible in a time and place stripped of Proust’s literary advantages. Where Proust’s narrator Marcel lives in a cultured, aristocratic milieu full of dukes and millionaires, Karl Ove grows up in a petit-bourgeois household in a small town in Norway, the very definition of nowhere. Where Marcel’s education comes from great writers and painters, in person and in their works, Karl Ove’s key aesthetic experiences come from pop music, which he dissects passionately. The ungainliness of his background is effectively communicated by Knausgaard’s prose, which, in Don Bartlett’s English translation, is unadorned, direct, and sometimes awkward. (The book makes an admiring reference to Thomas Bernhard, and Knausgaard seems to have modeled his bleak, insistent prose on the Austrian novelist’s.) Book One’s first half consists of recollections of Karl Ove’s childhood and adolescence, narrated with a plainness and detail that are deliberately unglamorous, even tedious. In long set pieces, we see him failing to get invited to a teenage New Year’s party, failing to learn to play the guitar, and failing to get the girl he loves to reciprocate his love.

Each of these set pieces lasts a little too long, and sometimes My Struggle leaves readers with the uncomfortable impression that Knausgaard lacks control over his own material. But this excessiveness, it soon becomes clear, isn’t the result of insufficient skill; it is the form necessarily taken by a spirit that knows no rest and narrates everything because everything that it has experienced still weighs too heavily upon it. Indeed, Knausgaard has insisted that literature’s “sole law” is that “everything has to submit to form. If any of literature’s other elements are stronger than form, such as style, plot, theme, if any of these overtake form, the result suffers. That is why writers with a strong style often write bad books. That is also why writers with strong themes so often write bad books.”

The most significant difference between Knausgaard and his Proustian model may be that Proust emerged from a culture that held the self—its trials, intuitions, experiences, mysteries—in the highest reverence. For Knausgaard, growing up in the 1970s and writing in the 2000s, it is a constant struggle to believe that the self is a valid subject for a work of art. Are the epiphanies that people once found in art still possible today, or have we become too sophisticated and disillusioned for all that? Midway through the book, we find Karl Ove leafing through a book of Constable paintings. A picture of greenish clouds moves him deeply:

It was a fantastic picture, it filled me with all the feelings that fantastic pictures do, but when I had to explain why, what constituted the “fantastic,” I was at a loss to do so. . . . Contemporary art, . . . the art which in principle ought to be of relevance to me, did not consider the feelings a work of art generated as valuable. 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. . . . But the moment I focused my gaze on the painting 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.

So My Struggle is partly an effort to recapture the faith in art that was once a high achievement of Western civilization and to do so in the most inhospitable conditions. Those conditions aren’t just cultural but also familial, as we see when an odd, seemingly inconsequential, recollection sets off Book One’s relay race of memories. One day, when he was just eight years old, Knausgaard writes, he saw a television news report about a ferry accident in which seven people drowned. He found himself struck less by the horror of the accident than by a stray image: “I stare at the surface of the sea without listening to what the reporter says, and suddenly the outline of a face emerges. I don’t know how long it stays there, a few seconds perhaps, but long enough for it to have a huge impact on me.”

In the pages that follow, Knausgaard uses the incident to demonstrate how his father, a schoolteacher, keeps everyone in terror of his ridicule and abrupt mood swings. We see the young Karl Ove try to tell his father about the face, only to be mocked: “Was it Jesus you saw?” Later, he dares to sneak out of his bedroom, hoping to see the newscast again, but finds that new footage is being used; the face has disappeared. To Karl Ove, this outcome is not just a disappointment but a humiliation: now his father will never believe him. The episode brilliantly evokes the atmosphere of a household ruled by patriarchal fear.

Such emotional struggle, however, turns out to be not a disadvantage but an essential component of the writer’s education. It breeds a preternatural awareness of atmosphere, of emotional depths and tensions, and of the way even inanimate objects take color from the human lives lived in their presence. “When I was at home on my own, every room had its own character, and though not directly hostile to me they were not exactly welcoming, either. . . . However, were a person to come in, even if it were only a small baby, the yawning room was gone. My father filled the rooms with disquiet, my mother filled them with gentleness, patience, melancholy. . . . It was interesting when several people were present because there wasn’t any space for the sway of more than one, at most two wills in a room, and it was not always the strongest that was most obvious.”

But why is it precisely the memory of that face in the sea with which Knausgaard begins his saga? The answer doesn’t arrive for another 200 pages, when we are transported to 2004 and Karl Ove is an adult writer, living in Sweden and struggling unsuccessfully with a novel. As he sits in front of a blank computer screen, his eyes fall on the wooden floor, where suddenly, “I noticed that the knots and grain, perhaps two meters from the chair where I was sitting, formed an image of Christ wearing a crown of thorns.” This image, with all its connotations of suffering, martyrdom, and death, is Knausgaard’s madeleine. It brings back the memory of the face glimpsed in the sea, and with it the forgotten world of childhood: “With the images came the atmosphere of that time, of spring, of the housing estate, of the seventies, of family life as it was then. And with the atmosphere, an almost uncontrollable longing.”

The details of Knausgaard’s childhood ride the wave of this longing. Yet if he wants to retrieve his past, it is plainly not because that past was an idyll; on the contrary, he presents it as a time of fear and disappointment. Still, that fear and disappointment made him the man he is; and so he cannot truly understand himself, or redeem himself, without plunging into lost time. For yet another dimension of Knausgaard’s “struggle,” as we begin to grasp it in the passages dealing with the present or near-present, is that he may be doomed to repeat in his own life everything he resented about his father. He admits that he is impatient with his children, sometimes shaking them and screaming at them, much as his own father once terrorized him. His father and mother got divorced; likewise, he left his first wife in what seems like a daze, for no apparent reason.

Above all, his experiences made him a writer—and a writer, in Knausgaard’s pessimistic but not indefensible outlook, is someone exiled from human happiness. Becoming a writer, in this high romantic view, is a kind of curse. Yet it is also, he lets us see, a kind of cure. For in the second half of Book One, Knausgaard shows that a far worse destiny was available to him, and perhaps still is: the destiny that overtook his father. Throughout Knausgaard’s childhood recollections, we have glimpses that his father is not entirely well: the son spots him drinking alone, or suddenly wearing different clothes and associating with different friends, as though his personality had snapped. Later, once the narrative has moved into the 1990s, the young adult Karl Ove receives word of his father’s death, and he and his elder brother Yngve make a pilgrimage to their hometown for the funeral. There, they discover what has become of their father in his last years, and the revelation is terrifying. The once powerful and frightening father had degenerated into an alcoholic shut-in, living with his own mother and not leaving the house for years. The sons find the home destroyed: feces smeared on the furniture, clothes moldering in the basement, and hundreds of empty liquor bottles piled in every corner.

These pages of the book have the atmosphere of a horror film, and at a climactic moment, Karl Ove and Yngve begin to wonder whether their father is dead at all, or whether, like Hamlet’s father, he might come back, bent on vengeance: “Down below the front door slammed. I met Yngve’s look. What was going on? . . . Was it Dad? Was he returning? I was as frightened as I had ever been. Footfalls sounded on the stairs. It was Dad, I knew it.” It is not a ghost, only another visiting relative. But the psychological truth of the moment is apparent: for Karl Ove, his father will never really be dead; he will always be a presence lying in wait for him.

My Struggle has the hypnotic force of an exorcism. What gives the book its fascinating power—and for all its length and occasional eventlessness, one never wants to put it down—is the sense, so rare in contemporary literature, that Knausgaard has staked his being on writing it. In these pages, we feel, he will not just record his life but justify it—to himself, to his father, to the world.

Such a project is based on humanistic assumptions about the importance of the self and of art that few artists have the confidence, or the talent, to make today. American readers (at least those who don’t read Norwegian) won’t know how My Struggle turns out until the later volumes appear in translation. But Book One shows that Knausgaard is engaged in the kind of effort that can forge a masterpiece.

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