Knausgaard and the Moi-ists
Knausgaard is back, this time describing his misspent student years. Some Rain Must Fall has a cover showing a girl (slender, rear view, swimsuit) standing in a sunlit field gazing onto a Norwegian town. This is an ironic image to wrap around the fourteen mostly miserable years Karl Ove spent studying, or failing to, in rain-plagued Bergen in his native Norway. The year starts with our man on a high, accepted into the prestigious Academy of Writing and the youngest on the course. Inevitably he is rapidly exposed as a failure and even plagiarist – more failure and oceans of booze follow.
It’s fascinating, if weird, to experience his endless shame and misery in a slab of prose that, as we all know, has established him in the literary canon world-wide. Harvill Secker’s new hardback is another great brick at 663 pages. It ends with literary success, another chunk of failure, and his decision to break up with his wife, the delightful and long-suffering Tonje.
The five volumes of ‘My Struggle’ in English cover our hero’s youthful turmoil and hatred of his Dad, his adolescent anxieties, a desperate year as a teacher in the north, student life and his first marriage, leaving his first wife, meeting the second, becoming a father, and the subsequent never-ending struggle to deal with the kids and get on with his writing. His year far north of the polar circle as a teacher and would-be writer rapidly darkened into sexual frustration, lust for 13-year-olds, drinking and blackouts as depressing as the eerie sunless landscape. The years in Bergen feature more pratfalls, booze and sexual mishaps alongside his burning shame at his lack of friends, confidence and every kind of failure: personal, sexual, academic. Drunken nights result in horrible acts: theft and stupidity, self-laceration both literal and metaphorical, total blackouts. He betrays his loving girlfriend, picking up girls for meaningless one-night stands. He loathes himself but continued drinking, beyond reason and sense.
Karl-Ove is the hero of the humiliating premature ejaculation, the disastrous antenatal class and the joyless holiday. He chronicles what others would try to forget: his self-obsessed adolescent worries about the bend in his penis when erect, his lack of specialness; his desperate need to be noticed. His speciality is fully and indeed hilariously to express the ignoble thoughts we all have and strive to suppress. Book 4 was dominated by his obsession with premature ejaculation and losing his virginity and culminated with a particularly depressing success. Having lied about his sexual successes, our hero finally succeeded in drunkenly screwing a vomiting girl in the most sordid of circumstances. Even in his forties, this ‘modern and feminised’ father pushing a pram through Stockholm will be consumed with lust for the passing bodies of strangers for whom he is invisible.
Yet Knausgaard turns out to be very serious indeed, ‘with a furious nineteenth century man inside me’. That fury relates to his absolute will and struggle to become a writer. I too struggled until I worked out how to deal with his prose, which varies from bland to dull to repetitive, bumping around his solipsistic everyday with moments of comic gruesomeness. It has to be gulped down in long unadulterated draughts, just as he wrote it. We have to accept repetitions and meanderings, long boring conversations and scenes that seem to go nowhere. We have to accept that he tells us what to think – we’re never ever left to work anything out for ourselves. This is the reverse of the ‘show don’t tell’ mantra I learnt at film school decades back, and which has greatly influenced my writing. I like the kind of fiction that forces the reader to think and to pay great attention to detail, that creates reader-writer complicity without ever forcing the outcome.
Knausgaard is an authoritarian: we do it his way. And, because the content is so ruefully self-aware it works. There are many rewards in these chronicles of woe. He is the classic wannabe adolescent rock star with a guitar case but no musical ability. Disaster comes when for once he is noticed. Thus his early rock group’s appalling non-performance – all noise and no music – takes place publically in a supermarket car park, the horror witnessed by precisely those school pals he most wants to like him. At such moments of pure unadulterated shame the reader sits right inside the experience in a peculiarly powerful way. Often he is very funny.
Things don’t improve: generally life is a bitch. Humiliations abound. In later life sex doesn’t necessarily go well, childcare is no better and he deeply regrets having agreed to it. Knausgaard well describes the boredom and tedious detail of looking after children, as he changes nappies and pushes the pram, morose and self-pitying, appalled by his screaming infant. He stares at random women he fancies in the supermarket, buys food he doesn’t like, and then goes home and cooks dinner.
In The New York Times reviewing Book 3, Rivka Galchen wondered whether he would be a literary sensation if it were a woman writing the same things. She thinks not – and there’s certainly something in that. He stands before us exposed: flawed, weak, ineffectual and self-hating, this bloke is us, at our self-critical worst. Monsieur Bovary, c’est lui. His novels are funny, sad, ruthless, direct yet rambling, mundane and terribly humiliating and for all these reasons compulsively readable and best selling worldwide. Knausgaard is the emperor of the memoiristic strain of novels, described by James Lasdun in The Guardian as running the risk of narcissism and banality – the empresses being Rachel Cusk and Sheila Heti (Lasdun was reviewing Cusk’s new novel Outline).
Outline and Rachel Cusk
Outline is an unsettling and very interesting book, told from the point of view of a woman teaching at a summer writing school in Athens. Most of the novel consists of stories told by the course’s participants and others met along the way. One strand is the life of an older middle-aged man whose amorous approach the protagonist rejects. Seemingly the very reverse of a moi-novel, Outline leaves a deliberate (yes) outline at its centre where the narrator should be. She is the receptacle for the stories of others, with all their love and pain – yet she is aware that our stories create us. Seemingly a process of self-erasure from life, the book examines the issue of how to live as a woman. The tiny moments that pierce the frame come from the protagonist’s life as a mother – a phone call from the son who is walking to school and says he is lost – moments of anxiety and dread which have something of what Elena Ferrante describes as falling into the void. These maternal terrors are painful and all the more worrying for being unexplored. The novel articulates what Cusk has called ‘the disjuncture between how women live and how they actually feel’.
I interpret Cusk’s refusal to let anything much happen to the protagonist outside the stories she hears as her riposte to the personal attacks she received after the publication of her first memoir A Life’s work on motherhood - attacks so hostile that she almost had a breakdown. Hostility revived when she published her second memoir, Aftermath, about the collapse of her marriage. Both books come close to the Knausgaaardian memoir but with serious rather than comic effect – hence no doubt the extreme reactions they have provoked.
‘My husband believed that I had treated him monstrously,’ she has written. ‘This belief of his couldn't be shaken: his whole world depended on it. It was his story, and lately I have come to hate stories. If someone were to ask me what disaster this was that had befallen my life, I might ask if they wanted the story or the truth.’
Outline lets us evaluate these stories for ourselves. As brisk as Knausgaard on the horrors of parenthood and family life and the strains these impose on the writer, Cusk has written as she has because she felt she had to. While she does not regret it she has regretted the way her work has been presented: ‘Yes, there is an element of exhaustion, of self-sacrifice, in this kind of writing, because without the most stringent honesty it is absolutely meaningless.’
The attacks upon her – so personal and vitriolic - must have been particularly distressing to a writer so deeply concerned with conveying the truth of lived experience. In its use of reported speech and its avoidance of dialogue and action, Outline forms a cold, calm shell with something of the elegiac tone of WG Sebald. At its centre is the idea that we can never connect to another person; that life cannot be lived in any way except as a walking echo chamber, listening to people’s stories, attempting to polish them and occasionally connecting. Nothing happens and yet all life is here.
‘It’s blown my mind'
Lasdun says of this memoiristic kind of writing that ‘when it works it feels paradoxically more miraculous than its artifice-dependent cousins. Knausgaard’s me-novels are now being compared to Proust and termed masterpieces: ‘It’s unbelievable … it’s completely blown my mind’ said Zadie Smith on the cover of Book 1. Cusk called Book 2 ‘rare and ruthless’ and said ‘this deserves to be called perhaps the most significant literary enterprise of our times’. She has also said in interviews that character and plot and description are tired, and that autobiography is the only truthful, non-fake kind of writing.
I am less sure – some great writers just cannot or will not express themselves in the first person - and I don’t think the vogue of the moi-ists will last, in the way that Proust has. But this type of writing does feel fresh. A valuable new addition to the genre is the late Jenny Diski’s utterly compelling In Gratitude, an account of her experience of cancer and her life-long relationship with Doris Lessing, revisiting her life as a writer and vulnerable teenage years with great lucidity. This wonderfully written book is a new modern classic.
Kicking the door in
I (and quite a few others) met Karl Ove at a sell-out evening in London organised by the London Review Bookshop held in St George’s Church in Bloomsbury Way. The long queue up the steps on a warm late summer evening was full of young women and young bearded men – not your usual lit-fest crowd. Even the ultra-cool pony-tailed photographer with his dark beard and moustache looked like Knausgaard. Elegant in black T-shirt and jeans, Knausgaard in the flesh is handsome and unscary. He started by reading a wonderful piece from the beginning of Book 2, A Man in Love. This describes how his pregnant wife Linda gets locked in the bathroom at a party, a locksmith fails to free her, and our hero must ask the giant boxer in the sitting room wooing two girls to kick the door in – attracting attention being anathema to him. Nobody – Knausgaard least of all – believes that he is capable of freeing his wife. And the boxer does release Linda with one well-aimed kick, breaking the lock and splintering the door – an act that underlines Knausgaard’s existing feelings of failure, disenchantment and general wretchedness. The ‘weak trammelled man I was, who lived his life in the world of words.’
Knausgaard’s explanation of his world of words is simple. He wrote two well-received conventional novels then after the death of his father – whom he hated, and wanted dead and who is pitilessly described in his work – he cried for a week. He knew he had to write about the crying. He spent four years trying to write a fiction that he said was utterly fake, and that he didn’t believe in. It had too much form – narration – ‘the experience was more raw than that’, and then he wrote down something literally ‘as it really is’. He asked his agent whether he should expand this diary into a novel. The rest followed. And how. He writes in great torrents because that is the ‘most authentic’ way. Any clever connections that the readers may make are unplanned, he says: ‘I don’t plan connections, I don’t know what I’m going to write, it is all a coincidence’. Everything is arbitrary, random, a flow – he writes thousands of words a day and doesn’t re-write; he doesn’t go back or try to shape it. ‘It’s done while I’m writing. If it is wrong I remove it and write something else’.
His writing is uneven, unscripted, embarrassing, naïve and compromising (his adjectives, not mine). It can slow down to give us tiny everyday details, becoming utterly fascinating. At other moments the writing is excruciating: vide the embarrassing epitaph poems:
Wielded pen and dick but never well
Lacked the style but tried to excel
He took a cake, then took one more
He took a spud, then ate it raw…
Knausgaard never stops trying to render everyday functioning throughout life. There is a fair dollop of awareness in this mixture: hence the overall title ‘My Struggle’ which in Norwegian (Min Kamp) is even closer to the Hitlerian original. Knausgaard told us that he finally read Hitler’s original ‘Mein Kampf’ on a plane, thereby creating a degree of panic. The inclusivist had inadvertently created his very own exclusion zone – perhaps this absurd scene so typical of him will reappear in Book 6, for Knausgaard is famously the man who leaves nothing out. Book 4 – relentless in its preoccupation with teenage sexual humiliation and shame - engaged me rather less than its predecessors and bored me rather more. Nevertheless, I couldn’t put it down. Book 5 revisits humiliation and shame from a slightly older perspective and, though we’ve been there before, it too grips.
Throughout all five books Knausgaard concentrates on the intensity and importance of ‘his struggle’ to become a writer. Nobody could take himself more seriously. He told us that he undertook the whole massive project in order to ‘get rid of himself ‘and more particularly of the presence of his hated father inside him – in order to become free, and to be able to write. ‘After four years of pain I was desperate, I would cut off my arm’. He had to ‘be free of everything, to free himself in order to write about everything’. Until the first two books came out he was indeed free, for he had no idea what the reaction would be. Then of course he got it from all sides.
He is entirely capable of fine writing though he deems that to be fake – and he understood very well that his daily outpourings might be misunderstood. For this reason he insisted on retaining the first 13 pages of Book 1, A Death in the Family – an elegant reflection on the science of a body decaying, and how we deal with our dead bodies. His editor wanted it out, because it didn’t fit with the remainder, but Knausgaard knew he had to demonstrate up front that he could string words together elegantly. What follows is a deluge – which, by the way, contains many pieces of great writing, particularly when he deals with the act of writing itself, and with memory.
That evening in St. George’s church, Knausgaard was in conversation with Andrew O’HaganAndrew O’Hagan is a prize-winning and lauded novelist, essayist, and journalist. I bought his first collection of essays, at the Knausgaard evening. The Atlantic Ocean offers all the traditional pleasures of the world of words. Full of wit and insight, it is also modest, deeply civilised, and crammed with ideas, big and small. I shall be writing about O’Hagan, this book and his novels in a separate essay., a marvellously witty prose stylist and snappy dresser, whose questions were very interesting. Alas, the complex acoustics of this beautiful church with its immensely tall ceiling ensured that despite microphones and loudspeakers, we only got part of what was said. The audience sat in utter silence and remained very British, in that nobody put their hand up to say we couldn’t hear. Instead we strained forwards. The London Review Bookshop was filming the event; perhaps that was why we were so polite. (There is no doubt a perfectly audible podcast). Oddly, this did not take away from the interest of the occasion; in fact it made us feel like characters in a Knausgaard novel, real people involved in something they don’t quite get, braced for a revelation while up ahead a slow flat monotone carries on.
Andrew O’Hagan asked how Knausgaard felt about the huge success of the books:
‘When I did this I had to give up my relationship with my self,’ he said. He couldn’t control the newspapers – or his four kids for that matter. He couldn’t control anything. ‘In writing you have to be fearless, you can’t have fear of any restrictions.’ And, he added ‘You have to create enormous energy, and go for places where something is at stake.’ He has tried to close himself off from the reactions, the newspaper articles and the attention. As time has gone by, it’s got much calmer, and he is certainly very calm about it. ‘I knew this is immoral,' he said, ‘And I knew I had to do this.’ He talks about the breaking of taboos, the crisis of privacy and how he doesn’t respect the privacy of the others in the book, and he says that he owns his life story. ‘Who can stop me from telling the story? It’s my father.’
In Norway and across Scandinavia, he dominates all the bookshops. His fiction relies on the sour taste of angst and failure, the revelations of a miserable wretch, for its tragic and comic effects. And fiction it is, despite the blurbs promoting his raw honesty and the endless publicity about those who have apparently been trashed and don’t like it.
It is an erroneous notion, though, that the writer has told the truth – whatever that is – that he has served up his ‘real’ life, betraying children and parents and brother, conjuring up devilish condemnations from the ectoplasm of his present and past. Knausgaard says he has a poor memory, by the way, and I believe him. His books are novels purporting to be a set of recollections, pretending to be real when – like all novels – they actually always represent a point of view. They choose to give certain scenes and particular moments.
All novelists draw on their own pasts and selves, one way or another, even if they do not choose to do so directly. This is not just permissible, but entirely unavoidable. Still, publicists have had a great time solemnly pointing out the grief he has caused his loved ones, the hostility that has ensued, and how he rides rough shod over it all – all of which makes for more, massive publicity and sells more books. Book 6 – not yet in English - is apparently about the consequences of the first five, the reactions of people he had written about, the response of the media, and its impact on Knausgaard and his family: ‘Four years have now passed since it came out in Norway, and I have travelled around the globe and talked about it as its translations have appeared in each new country. It is a soul-devouring task, the division between me and my literary self being so slight.
The fearless purveyor of freedom said that he had no loyalty to anyone: ‘you have to get to an immoral state to be free’. He expected hatred, and got it; mind, this is the wimpy husband who also said he could not stand his wife raising her voice to him. You do have to feel sorry for poor locked-in Linda (his second and current wife.) He gave her the second book to read. It didn’t go well: ‘My wife read the book and said she wouldn’t change a word. Then she cried, and said we had to talk.’ (Linda Bostrom Knausgaard is a poet and writer who has recently written a spare and well-received novel: The Helios Disaster which according to The Independent ‘explores religion, madness, time, language’.)
Knausgaard admitted (cue much laughter from the audience) that in a relationship you have to lie – ‘if you don’t lie, the relationship will collapse.’ There were plenty of female fans in the audience, by the way, and many young ones – they don’t seem put off by the self-absorbed maleness of his voice, nor by his take on women which swings from adored invisible mother to woman as sexual object: he is disarming in his truthfulness.
Art in his artlessness
Mind, nobody should believe that Knausgaard captures life literally as it really is. There is art in his artlessness; the writing is shaped and writerly in its choices and description. I opened Book 2 at random and chanced upon the first paragraph on page 320. In Stockholm – where he has now settled – our hero visits his wife’s father’s flat for the first time and walks out onto the roof terrace, wondering how many millions the place is worth.
“I walked to the edge to see below. There were still small piles of snow and patches of ice left on the pavement after the winter, almost completely eroded by the mild weather and grey from the sand and exhaust fumes. The sky above us was also grey, laden with cold rain that lashed the town at regular intervals. Grey but with a different light in it from the grey winter sky, for it was March, and March light was so clear and strong that it penetrated the cloud cover, even on a muggy day like this, and opened all the gates of darkness, as it were. There was a gleam in the walls in front of me and in the tarmac on the road beneath. The parked cars glinted, each in its own colour. Red, blue, dark green, white.
‘Hold me,’ she said.
I stubbed out my cigarette in the ashtray on the table and put my arms around her.”
It’s a banal view and moment – the generic stuff about the sky and weather that any writer has in his or her mental cupboard. He gives us greyness, mugginess, erosion, fumes, cold rain, ice. The words contribute to the pathetic fallacy: the gleam of March spring light indicating hope and underlining the darkness and boredom and anxiety of this small flat and the chore of being there. Karl Ove and Linda’s dad have only recently met and the latter has been described as ‘utterly open and defenceless’ though Linda’s reaction to her father are complex, and she is strangely subordinate to him. Yet – in a touch of drama – out she comes into the cold to Karl Ove for an embrace: choosing him.
This paragraph serves as a metaphorical breath of air for the reader, coming directly after a description of the dark smoky flat and just before they go back inside to eat a terrible concoction the father has made. Soon Linda will sit on her father’s lap in order not to reject him (fathers being a big deal for Knausgaard: the gates of darkness, as it were). That March light and that gleam prefigure the arrival of Linda; the parked cars glint in their own specific colours (they could hardly do otherwise) and we can be sure that the order is random, not remembered. Even without trying awfully hard the writer knew he needed colours after the repetition of grey, grey, grey – which an editor would have removed. Colours represent warmth; they form a transition to the embrace, which is natural, and wanted, unlike the unnatural embrace of the father.
This little piece of description is not what Karl Ove actually saw that afternoon. It is serving an entirely writerly and typically novelistic function in giving the reader a break, setting mood, describing place, and advancing the story. Readers’ great pleasure, indeed their joy in Knausgaard’s work derives from this workmanlike prose, eschewing style, allied to the guilty pleasures of recognition (those delightfully ignoble thoughts) as we seem to recognise ourselves. Meanwhile all the publicity and hoo-ha rests on the assumption that this is absolute authenticity – and authenticity trumps style, indeed is the holy grail of fiction where publishers and readers are concerned. Every novelist is asked how much their work comes from their ‘real life’ – and the more real it seems to be, the more the audience likes it. No wonder readers love him.
We all carry an awareness of ourselves at different ages layered within and it is the strong and horrible moments – usually involving shame or regret or pain – which pop up from time to time without our wishing to remember them. They are the stuff of our sleepless nights. What feels very ‘real’ (and diary like) in his novels comes when he dwells on these. He strongly conveys the sense of a self at many different stages and ages, eschewing any kind of shaped character development or progression. He – like us – experiences bursts of awareness, but no resolution. In his recent Man Booker speech, Tasmanian writer Richard Flanagan – a very different kind of writer – said: ‘Novels are not content. Nor are they are a mirror to life or an explanation of life or a guide to life. Novels are life, or they are nothing.’ This seems to me very close to what Knausgaard sees as his mission. And (unlike Flanagan) he achieves this.
Knausgaard is not the first chronicler of the flawed everyday self; vide Samuel Johnson’s diaries of the 1780’s recording his reactions to his wife’s dying while he continued to travel on, failing to visit her. Authors who mine their own life and times are of course legion. Lawrence Durrell was also mentioned as an inspiration and I subsequently looked up his writing method. Here is a snippet from a wonderful 1959 interview with Paris Review:
Have you thrown away a lot?
Hundreds of books, yes. No, that’s an exaggeration. No, I mean hundreds of passages. What I do is try and write a slab of ten thousand words, and if it doesn’t come off, I do it again.
How long does it take you to write ten thousand words?
Ten thousand? Two pages a thousand, twenty pages… oh, two days. It varies, of course, according to different circumstances, but in general, when one is in good form one can really pour it out.
Infuriating, isn’t it? It turns out that Lawrence wrote Bitter Lemons in six weeks, Clea in seven weeks. I can’t recommend this article too highly; it also demonstrates un-Knausgaardian compression and wit on the part of the interviewers: “Lawrence Durrell is a short man, but in no sense a small one. Dressed in jeans, a tartan shirt, a navy-blue pea jacket, he looks like a minor trade-union official who has successfully absconded with the funds.”
Where Karl Ove Knausgaard seems to me to be most original is in his creation of two separate, linked selves. One exists to experience the normal stuff of life and the other to mine and to process it, while flatly refusing any criticism. This is incredibly clever. If he were British there would be all kinds of ironic nods and winks in the writing – a writer going on at such length about himself would be self-aware, and wary. But Knausgaard is his method, and this permits him to declare himself to be beyond any criticism, immune to reproach or blame, as to praise. He’s ‘not interested’ in whether it’s fiction or non-fiction: writing is just a way ‘to go here, there, everywhere and to be free’. It’s ok if it’s ‘immoral’ or repetitive, or self-indulgent. It’s ok to take yourself incredibly seriously. This absolute seriousness is a powerful tool, and he has mastered it.
My feeling is that he hit accidentally upon a semi-automatic writing facility, and that his brilliance lies less in the writing – which is moderately accomplished even when supposedly unedited – than in the way the prose describes the raisonnement behind the books. In its own way, that is genius. And if the motor driving you is a deep-seated shame, your everyday becomes heroic. If you don’t shape or edit, and you make a virtue out of that, no criticism can ever hurt you. If you don’t care about praise, you’re invulnerable. Knausgaard has elevated himself and his flaws into the ultimate writer selfie – pointing out the warts and his own bad behaviour to those who haven’t noticed – while remaining charming, self-deprecating and funny and utterly readable. His public really liked him. I certainly did.
But Knausgaard’s epic is now done – and there is no more moi-ism coming our way. In another Guardian interview he said: “One thing I know is that I will never do anything like it again. My plan now is to write something completely different. I may even visit the villages of Russia and see what the last 160 years have done to reality there since Turgenev tramped around with his rifle.’
‘It was as if Turgenev’s prose in some way tore through the plastic of the novel’s packaging, allowing that world to emerge in all its colour, populated by its own idiosyncratic characters. How that feeling of authenticity, or world-nearness, arises, I don’t know, but it is certainly rare and has nothing to do with Turgenev’s characters actually having existed, as opposed to Tolstoy’s, who did not.’
Whatever form it may take, the reading public will be most eager to experience the next instalment in the ongoing Knausgaardian struggle for a yet more evolved form of realism.
A Death in the Family, My Struggle: 1, Karl Ove Knausgaard, Vintage, London 2014. Translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett
A Man in Love, My Struggle: 2, Karl Ove Knausgaard, Vintage, London, 2013. Translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett
Boyhood Island, My Struggle: 3, Karl Ove Knausgaard, Virago, London, 2014. Translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett
Dancing in the Dark, My Struggle : 4, Karl Ove Knausgaard, Harvill Secker, London, 2015. Translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett
Some Rain Must Fall, My Struggle: 5, Karl Ove Knausgaard, Harville Secker, London, 2016. Translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett
Clea, Lawrence Durrell, Faber & Faber, London, 1966
Bitter Lemons, Lawrence Durrell, Faber & Faber, London, 1958
The Atlantic Ocean, Andrew O’Hagan, Faber & Faber, London, 2008
Outline Rachel Cusk, Faber & Faber, London, 2014
In Gratitude Jenny Diski, Bloomsbury, London, 2016