I read Book One of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle in 2014 or 2015 when Neil and Kim Abramson graciously invited us to spend Spring Break with them in Rosemary Beach. My recollection is that some of the reviews, etc., had talked about Knausgaard’s focus on quotidian and commonplace “non-events” like buying groceries, going to the gas station, or making sandwiches, in what could sometimes be described as “micro-” or “non-literary” or “real-life” or perhaps even “excruciating” detail. But when I read the book, it seemed to circle largely around the days surrounding his father’s death, which would seem to be a fairly significant event in the author’s life.
I didn’t read Books Two, Three, Four, or Five, but when Book Six came out, or at least when the English Translation was released, I was intrigued by the prospect of a 440-page digression on literature, including a critical analysis of Adolph Hitler’s own struggle, in Mein Kampf.
For better or worse, I started reading Book Six of Knausgaard’s My Struggle just as I had signed off on the final version of My Life as a Spy. Which, for better or worse, prompted me to “stop the presses” and change a few more names.
I wrote My Life as a Spy (in 2006-2008) before I ever even heard of, much less read, Knausgaard’s My Struggle (which he appears to have started writing in the summer of 2008). As well as David Shields’ Reality Hunger (2010); Rachel Cusk’s Outline Trilogy (2014-2018); Ben Lerner’s 10:04 (2014); and Elana Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels (2011-2014). Self-described in my own Author’s Notes as “part fiction, part non-fiction, part rumination, and part collage”, it felt kind of new and original as I was writing it. But I was never sure exactly why or how.
For centuries, people had been writing non-fiction memoirs, biographies, autobiographies, and essays, about themselves and others, using real places and names. People had also, for centuries, been writing lightly fictionalized and essentially autobiographical roman a clefs, bildungsromans, and other “novels” in which only the proper nouns had been changed. So what was new, or different, or original, or revolutionary, about this “autofiction” – or “antifiction” – craze?
And yet, there was a strong feeling, as I was writing, that there was something significant and essential about speaking with the voice of “Steve Herman”, and a strong reluctance, as I was revising for publication, against changing the names of people, places, or things.
Why the reluctance? What difference did it make?
Knausgaard, it appears, wrestled with the same question. And addressed it, in Book Six, in the following ways:
The name has always occupied a space between the concrete and the abstract, the individual and the social, but when it begins to be shaped and changed with meaning in places removed from the physical world, in that way entering the world of fiction, albeit unseen by the majority, at the same time as this fictional world is expanding and taking up an ever greater part of our lives – … – when we arrive at a point where everything is either fiction or seen as fiction, the job of the novelist can no longer be to write more fictions…. That was the idea, or the urge: reality. And the sign of such reality, its only transferable component, was the name. Not as dream or image, but as the sign of an individual human…. In the novel I began to write, the authentic names were therefore the key. I was aware that a number of people could not be named, since they would not wish to be associated with the events I was going to describe, my uncle being one, and I had no problem at all giving up those names, although for a short time I resisted when one of them didn’t want to be in the book at all, not even under another name, because at that point I had no idea how the novel was going to be received, viewing it as simply an experiment in realism that would reach only a very small number of interested readers and be hurled against the wall out of sheer boredom and frustration by anyone else who might venture onto its pages. I was, however, totally against changing the names of those in the next most immediate sphere, those I played with as a child, for instance, or went to gymnas with…. Geir G. said it didn’t matter to the reader, he or she wasn’t going to connect the names with anyone anyway and wouldn’t know if it was authentic or not. But authentic is a timbre, impossible to imitate.
* * *
The novel is an intimate genre and its intimate nature doesn’t change even if eight thousand copies are printed, because it is read by only one person at any one time and would never leave the private sphere. But when the newspapers discussed what I wrote, there was no longer any connection with this private sphere, there was no longer any connection with the intimate sphere, it was objective and public, and detached from the “I”, and even though it was still related to me and my world, it was solely via my name, its exterior, “Knausgaard,” one object among other objects – and only then did what the novel was about become a “thing”….
* * *
I had never gone looking for trouble in my life, as far as possible I tried to be kind and friendly and polite and decent, I just wanted everyone to like me, that was all, and here I was, in such a storm of aggrieved people…. I wanted nothing more than to write and be an author….
* * *
Everyone who has read Out of the World will understand that the emotions, urges, and desires that it contains are not something the author made up but are something inside him. But the agreement between the author and the reader, the novel’s pact, is that this conclusion should not be drawn, and if it is, only in secret. It should never be spoken aloud. The term “novel” is a guarantee of that. Only in this way can what is not said but which is true still be said. That is the pact, the author is free to say whatever he or she wants because the author knows that what he or she says will never, or at least should never, be linked with the author, with his or her private person. It is a necessary pact that the books, which provoked such sensation and such anger, broke. I wrote them because commitment to the novel wasn’t enough for me, I wanted to go a step further and commit to reality…. My commitment was to reality, what I wrote about had really happened and it happened as described. What the “I” of the novel felt was what the author of the novel felt, so the private space was nullified, and I personally had to answer for everything written there…. The publishing house and I still changed some names and deleted some features that might have caused offense, but not many…. But Book 4 was different. I feared I might have started something that had got out of hand. I anonymized the village where I worked…. I gave different names to all the pupils and teachers and I also furnished them with made-up characteristics or idiosyncrasies, all to escape the commitment to reality I could no longer fulfill. In this book, therefore, I committed neither to the novel nor to reality. For this reason it became a strange book, in which I do the opposite of what an author should.
For me, I think it was a part of the ineffable desire to say not just that “I was here” but that he or she was here. And did this, or said that, or wrote something, which was important, and meant something to me. Perhaps some of it was petty, or limited, and short-sighted. But I think it was mostly about trying to pay or record some measure of homage, history, honor, reverence, respect, and apology.
In Nathan Hoffman’s experience, there is a “90/10 Rule”, meaning that 90% of the people you reference will be flattered that you mentioned them, while 10% will be upset that you wrote about them, even if you use a pseudonym.
Presumably, when we are all dead and gone, (and all of the copyrights have all expired), there will be little remnants of Steve Herman and no remnants at all of My Life as a Spy. But if, by some miracle, some copy or two remains, I hope that someone might put it back the way it was intended: with real names, complete/accurate quotes, a more authentic ending, and the fuller range of my own weaknesses, pettiness, and other human frailties.
In the meantime, if you are in the 90%, and I changed your name, I apologize. If you are in the 10%, I’m just sorry.
The truth was that when I sat down to write the novel I had nothing to lose. That was why I wrote it. I wasn’t only frustrated, the way you can become when you live as a parent with small children and have many duties and have to sacrifice yourself, I was unhappy, as unhappy as I have ever been, and I was all alone. My life was pretty dreadful, that was how I experienced it, and I wasn’t strong enough, I didn’t have the spine to abandon this and start anew….
Then there was a change…. I knew what I had. I knew what they meant to me. I saw Linda, who she was, and I saw our children. I saw my family. I didn’t want to lose it….
When I wrote it I’d had nothing to lose, when she read it now, suddenly I had everything to lose.
There is, to be sure, some genius in the way Knausgaard weaves the critical analyses of Celan’s poem The Straitening together with Hamlet and Ulysses, the Bible, and several Hitler-related memoirs, biographies and other contemporary German dispatches from the early 20th Century, along with Hitler’s Mein Kampf itself. One of his basic themes, in this regard, appears to be the loss of a pre-modern aspiration towards objective external and eternal expressions of art, which in the modern world have now become taboo, along with the express recognition of beauty and charisma as prime motivating factors, because of and/or especially including the Holocaust.
As I write about the Holocaust I sense its unmentionable nature…. A writer can say what he or she wants about God in a novel, it may be condemned as blasphemous, but not in all seriousness, for the moral indignation entailed by blasphemous violation no longer exists. But when it comes to the Holocaust the writer certainly cannot say what he or she wants, indeed it is the only phenomenon in our society to which the notion of blasphemy remains applicable, in the sense that the indignation brought about by any violation is unanimous and fierce.
Knausgaard, over the course of these extended passages, not only provides abundant explanation and examples of the ways in which we refuse to allow ourselves or anyone else to acknowledge the humanity in Adolph Hitler as a person struggling to find meaning and success, Knausgaard himself humanizes Hitler, both explicating and breaking the taboo.
In synthesis, this is interesting, if not profound. But line by line, I found it a little tedious – and quite simply way too long. Much of the discussion regarding the nature of Hitler and “evil” reminded me of conversations I found stimulating during my senior year of high school or freshman year of college; since then, not so much. Much is in the form of a philosophical tract. Or extended literary criticism. Which includes a lot of fairly mundane passages from uninteresting, unimportant and unknown writers who simply happened to know Hitler or write a biography about him.
Hitler’s Mein Kampf exhibits no style whatsoever, not even a low style, its I simply gives vent to its opinion on a variety of different matters without at any time showing the slightest sign of being able to see itself; in other words it is uninhibited and excessive, seeking no legitimacy anywhere other than in its own self, which can say exactly what it wants, because that is what it is and because it knows no better. The I of Mein Kampf is self-congratulatory, self-centered, unrestrained, hateful, and small-minded, yet considers itself just and reasonable and grand, and it must have been this that resulted in such dismal reviews and meant that the book was nevertheless taken seriously, Hitler was showing his face without realizing it, revealing himself to be nothing more than an uncultivated, crude, and brutal man of the masses, who with his limited knowledge took a little here and a little there and stirred it about into something he thought was politics, but which was nothing more than a series of prejudices, anomalous opinions, and pseudo-scientific assertions….
Which, perhaps, sets Knausgaard apart from Theodor Adorno, a German Jewish philosopher and contemporary of Hitler’s:
What would Adorno have made of it? He would have been unable to challenge it with his rational, finely tuned, unimaginably precise and subtle arguments, for there is nothing there to challenge, Adorno is at a level so far above Mein Kampf that he would not have been able to take it seriously, to consider it worthy of his attention. Had he done so, he would have elevated it to something it was not, lending it legitimacy by his very interest. He could have ridiculed it, as it was ridiculed elsewhere, but doing so would not have served any purpose; the only sensible strategy would be to pay it no heed.
I found myself leafing through many of the pages, looking for interesting nuggets and waiting for the payoff. It’s hard not to ask yourself (or Knausgaard, as it were) whether this could have been done in 40 pages? What would have been lost? Whether the payoff would have been the same? Or whether, perhaps, it might have been even more effective and impactful?
I was, admittedly, struck by one passage which gets to the heart of something that has always bothered me. Knausgaard writes:
I read the poem, understanding nothing, it was closed to me, almost completely mute. This was no infrequent experience of mine. I couldn’t read poetry, and had never been able to. At the same time I had always, from when I was nineteen and had been introduced to the leading modernist poets at the writer’s academy, considered poetry to be the pinnacle. What poetry was in touch with was something I was not in touch with, and my respect for poetry was boundless. I have written about it earlier too, in this novel, the way the poem, which I took to be the highest form of expression, refused to open itself to me. When I grew older I became familiar with all the names of the poets and knew enough about them to mention them in what I was writing or talking about….
I knew who they were, but not what they had written.
Could it really be the case that poets and readers of poetry comprised some esoteric sect? Surely not only the initiated could read poems?
For some reason that was exactly how I had perceived it. The sense of others possessing insights I have no idea about, of everyone else being able and knowledgeable, has pursued me all my adult life, in almost every respect…. Poetry expresses the innermost secrets of life and the world, some people relate to it with the greatest of ease, others are excluded. That I got nothing out of the poetry I read merely confirmed it to be true. It was as if poems were written in code. I felt excluded by many other languages too, that of mathematics, for instance, yet the language of mathematics did not possess the aura for me of leading to the grail, was not shrouded in such dim mists, with half-turned faces, derisive sneers, scornful eyes. This feeling, of being outside what was important, was degrading, since it made me simple and my life shallow. The way I tackled it was to ignore it and pretend it didn’t bother me.
I, too, in reading poems, have always felt like I was probably missing something. As with foreign languages. And mathematics. For me, though, with poetry, (when I wasn’t just ignoring it and pretending it didn’t bother me), I thought there was at least a 40% chance that the “code” was not really the path to a “grail”, but a hollow and relatively useless artifice concocted largely by self-important people to feel self-satisfied. Not understanding math, on the other hand, really did (and does) make me feel inferior, as I know that the language of mathematics is a code that describes something real and essential and utilitarian about the world around us.
Knausgaard, for his part, then goes on to talk about how his experience changed when he was hired to translate the Bible.
People have been reading the Bible as holy Scripture for a couple thousand years, and every word it contains has been considered meaningful, a dizzyingly tight mesh of different meanings and shades of meaning have thereby arisen, which no single human can ever possibly command. What happened when I started working on those texts was I learned to read. I began to understand what it meant to read. Reading is seeing the words as lights shining in the dark, one after another, and to engage in the activity of reading is to follow the lights into the text. But what we see is never detached from the person we are; the mind has its limitations, they are personal, but cultural too in that there is always something we cannot see and places we cannot go. If we are patient and investigate the words and their contexts carefully enough, we may nonetheless identify those limitations, and what is revealed to us then is that which lies outside ourselves. The goal of reading is to reach these places. This is what learning is, seeing that which lies outside the confines of the self. To grow older is not to understand more but to realize there is more to understand….
In addition to Hitler himself, Knausgaard spends a lot of time with the German people, and Austrians, and Poles, who at the very least allowed the Holocaust to happen, if not contributed to it directly. How did this happen? is, of course, one question. (World War One, Marxist and anti-Marxist economic theory) But also in the sense of our taboo-like tendency to focus on Hitler as a singular evil which somehow ignores, if not absolves, something greater and powerful and appealing in the “art” and/or charisma of Hitler’s messaging, which reverberates throughout society and in the psychology of human beings:
But it was not the case that people were deceived, that they were unaware of the propaganda, of the fact that behind what they were seeing and hearing there was a will and a particular intention, and that this was directed toward them in order to make them act or think in a certain way. That aspect was so obvious that it was impossible not to be aware of it. It is similar to advertising in our day; we know full well it is trying to manipulate us and make us buy some product, but this does not prevent us from watching the ads, which can be good or funny, subtle or just plain silly, but even if we dislike them we do not necessarily dislike advertising in itself, and although we know there is no difference between this or that product and that all of the glamour associated with one and not the other belongs to the image and not the product, which can be a different thing altogether, we nevertheless still buy what we associate with the glamor. We know that someone always will, and we know that the association between a product and its advertising is arbitrary, so buying the product or not buying the product is entirely up to us. No one has deceived us.
Like poetry, math, and foreign languages, I always feel like I am missing something when I try to read literary criticism. In Book Six, there is a lot of philosophy and criticism regarding the “I” and the “we” and the “you” and a whole bunch of stuff that someone like Harold Bloom or James Wood could probably embrace, or dispute, or dismiss. But to my untrained and superficial eye:
Hamlet is a portrayal of a human being, professors and other scholars of are human beings too, yet this identification never touched on, the connection simply never made, for the morals and ethics of Hamlet are morals and ethics applying within the text or system of texts, not the human beings to who read those texts in their own lives. The question professors and other scholars of literature ought to ask themselves in order to understand Hamlet is this: What would I have done if my father dies and I suspected someone of killing him? Would I have gone to the person I thought had killed him, who it turned out was my uncle, and avenge my father’s death by killing him? No, nobody would. What we would do would be to go to the police.
I got one chuckle out of this section. In talking about Jesus, he says: “Perhaps he was the most charismatic person ever to live. Someone must have been.”
Beyond this digression into Fascism and literary criticism in the extended center of Book Six, I found the dialogue in the first and last sections extremely realistic, in the sense that much of it seemed meaningless, unnecessary and/or repetitive.
In his September 2018 review of Book Six in the New York Times Book Review, Daniel Mendelsohn posits that Knausgaard “wants to argue that any human life is, in the end, just that – a life. And it’s here that his ideological commitment to minutely representing reality – or rather a fervent belief that the particulars of our lives, in their complexity and their vivifying incoherence, always trump any attempt to impose ideology on them…. A life is a life; that’s the struggle. No life ‘means’ anything more than itself.”
Knausgaard himself describes My Struggle as an experiment. Which, in his view, failed.
Because I have never been close to saying what I really mean and describing what I have actually seen, but it is not valueless, at least not completely, for when describing the reality of an individual person, when attempting to be as honest as possible is considered immoral and scandalous, the force of the social dimension is visible and also the way in which it regulates and controls individuals.
Perhaps, it seems, particularly with hindsight, that Knausgaard was overly sensitive to the objections. The overwhelming response, from at least my perspective, has been adulation, success, and praise.
In a New York Times piece from May of 2014, Liesl Schillinger quotes the writer Hari Kunzru:
“He does all the stuff you’re not supposed to do,” Mr. Kunzru said. “He risked being boring at every turn. He has the courage to say, ‘My ordinary life as a father in a regional town is going to be enough to hold the reader’s attention.’”
Certainly Knausgaard has been able to hold the attention of millions of readers. Whether it’s his voice, or his style, or the insight of his observations.
But it occurs to me that many people have attempted to record their lives, in the minutest detail, whether in the form of a journal, or diary, or the first draft of an autobiography or memoir. They are written with various degrees of recall, felicity, and penetration. But they all have one thing in common: They are not generally published.
They are stripped down, livened up, reshaped, cut, anonymized, or rejected altogether.
Perhaps the advent of self-publishing will change that. Indeed, Gravier House Press is proof that any untested and unproven idiot can do it.
But I kept wondering, as I read Book Six, and the reviews: Is this really a feat of writing? Or more a feat of publishing?