When Karl Ove Knausgaard was in San Francisco to promote the U.S. release of the fourth book in his six-volume My Struggle series, he was quietly and generously discussing a project that had been completed several years ago, but whose trajectory among English speakers is still tracking with a fervor rarely seen in the literary world. My Struggle: Book Four (Archipelago; 485 pages; translated by Don Bartlett) deals primarily with the eighteen-year-old Knausgaard’s time as a schoolteacher in northern Norway; as in each of the first three volumes, he painstakingly chronicles tiny yet unendurable humiliations, fleeting moments of elation and revelation, and the abiding shame and existential dread that, for Knausgaard, are the costs of being alive. He employs a flatness of style, an insistence on detail, and an overwhelming candor to produce an effect few authors have ever been able to achieve, and whose qualities I can only compare to the experience of reading as a child: total immersion in a story, and the sense that the rhythms of writer and reader have been synced, producing a cosmically unlikely pleasure that hits like a fierce wave of energy.
Comprising Knausgaard’s admirers are novelists of every ilk and age; respected reviewers; and, judging by the sales, around one-in-nine adult Norwegians. Reckless hyperbole about his accomplishment abounds (such as that in the preceding paragraph), much of it merely in service of figuring out how he achieved what he did, which is to make interesting and appealing 3,600 pages of hastily-written, baldly autobiographical prose about a handsome, intelligent, successful man who describes the birth of his daughters and his bowel movements with equal reverence.
Philosophical theorizing about bodily excretions is not even the most unusual aspect of the series. Even more puzzling is how Knausgaard chose to embark upon the project of telling his story, and how such a stubbornly uncool way of writing has earned him early induction into the pantheon by many writers and critics who usually like their literature well-wrought and clever. Guilty of what in other instances would be unforgivable transgressions against “literary” writing, he employs cliché without irony or apology; begins expressions of embarrassment or passion (or passionate embarrassment, a typically Knausgaardian emotion) with a histrionic “Oh”; and explores banality and boredom with so much earnestness that the story is frequently banal and boring. (The critic James Wood wrote, in The New Yorker, that even when he was bored he was interested.) According to Knausgaard, he is a competent writer—just not in these books. In conversation with Daniel Handler at the Nourse Theater, he described writing the novels at a furious pace—even faster than that of their translation into English—and paying little heed to style as he worked, focusing instead on achieving a hypnotic state in which words would flow out as memories seeped up out of his consciousness. Knausgaard is not the first author to consciously work with constraints—Beckett said that he wrote in French so his prose would be “without style.” But lack of affect is entirely different from what would usually be considered lack of taste.
Knausgaard began what was to become the fiction series, he has said, while working on something else, as a way of making sense of his life, particularly his relationship with his now dead father, who inflicts physical and psychological violence upon the novels’ narrator, but for whom Knausgaard says he wrote the entire thing. The project’s other looming, spectral father figure, as acknowledged by Knausgaard, is Proust, to whom he has often been compared, fairly and unfairly, for better and for worse. At the Nourse, Knausgaard described reading In Search of Lost Time in his early twenties as an experience that made him believe he knew how he wanted to write. Moments later, though, he described My Struggle’s driving mechanism as “anti-Proust” in its refusal to concede to conventions of fine writing and aesthetic sublimity. Generosity of feeling and fidelity to the pacing of a scene take precedence over stylistic fireworks and psychological exploration through metaphor. (If, as someone once told me, Proust is the smartest person ever to write a novel, then Knausgaard might be the smartest person ever to write a “bad” one.) The pacing of the books is preternatural, the action occurring at the speed of recollection, rather than of literary transmutation. It is a testament to Knausgaard’s innate sense of storytelling that he has managed to make this fun to read. It usually takes a tremendous amount of effort to give life to language, not to mention to give language to life. Cliché, usually the enemy of writing, works here because of Knausgaard’s tacit acknowledgment that to work around it is to betray how his experiences have settled and taken shape within him, and their honest retelling necessitates a language free of adornment, the language easily available to him because it is the language not of storytelling but of memory and reminiscence.
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(Don Bartlett, the series’ translator, has explained that he wanted to replicate not only the rhythm of Knausgaard’s prose but that of the Norwegian language, and he does so in part by insisting on commas even when semicolons or colons would typically be favored, even demanded. It is unclear whether Knausgaard’s Norwegian prose would look as strange to native readers as the English translation does, but either way, the sentences are loping and gentle, usually unfurling in one direction rather than doubling back and twisting around themselves, like those of Proust, for example.)
Knausgaard admitted that much of the freedom he felt to write sloppily, even badly resulted from the circumstances of the project’s germination. He theorized that it might be possible to improve upon bad writing and extraneous detail by expanding upon it—letting branches of thought, story, and feeling grow and bloom instead of pruning them back. In reaction to the fanatical emphasis on minimalism so prevalent in writing workshops, then and now, Knausgaard decided to indulge himself, exploring life’s banalities not with mock heroism or ironic detachment but with earnest commitment to baring his emotional caprices and the small moments of horror, happiness, or even distraction that are all-consuming, if only for a split-second. Knausgaard does not narrate these moments in the rapid-fire free association of Joyce’s Leopold Bloom or the discursive knots of one of Tolstoy’s lovers, but in an un-stylized insistence on solely detail. When he panics at a lost sock, or mentally interrupts a conversation by wondering whether he forgot his bathing suit, the reader tangibly experiences those moments, too. This might not sound like much of a triumph, but it is. Zadie Smith described these instances of synchronicity by saying, “There shouldn’t be anything remarkable about any of it except for the fact that it immerses you totally. You live his life with him.”
I went to see Knausgaard on a Monday night in San Francisco. The Nourse Theater is big, and it was full. There was excited chatter among the crowd. I could discern no “average” attendee. I wondered how much each attendee knew about the man we were here to see, whether they understood him like I did, what he meant to them. I wondered who among the crowd had tried to write fiction. My seat was not bad, but I was not sitting across the table from Karl Ove Knausgaard, nor was I being interviewed by Daniel Handler about my genre-altering novel. The theater was hot.
Handler introduced Knausgaard, who strode onstage as handsome and stylish as had been expected, though looking more nervous than brooding. How could such a man know that we, too, reel from so many tiny degradations, feel so acutely the pain of a smile unreturned, the joy of a needle sliding into a record’s groove? Then he began to speak, his Norwegian accent pleasantly lilting as he thoughtfully and convincingly answered each question. Handler was an amiable presence, clever and obviously passionate about Knausgaard’s work. But why was I unhappy? I had listened to interviews with Knausgaard, read interviews with him, read reviews of his work, read about his life, read My Struggle: Book Four the day it had come out, watched interviews with him, been faced with his photograph for as long as it took me to read each paperback with his photograph on the front. I had said, only partway through the first book, that I had never encountered another person in writing whose feelings, reactions, and tendencies reminded me more of my own. What was it about being in this theater, with all these people for whom the same feeling of connection might be true, that made me think, savagely, They just don’t get it?
Here sat onstage a man who every reader of his work knows to be shy, easily embarrassed, often incapable of feeling comfortable in the moment, or with strangers, talking about what we have all deemed his life’s work with something like grateful yet pained bemusement. He spoke with a candor and warmth that is not necessarily expected from writers of his stature. He seemed passionate about his work and grateful for the opportunity to share it. But perhaps above all, he seemed helpless to describe just what it was that had allowed him to achieve what he has, and stunned to be the keeper of the book’s secrets, as though he would prefer to discuss the work if someone else had written it. As he told The Paris Review:
“I can’t stand the thought of being this figure and having done this thing. And every time I talk about it, or give interviews about it, it eats my soul, and it’s getting worse and worse every time I go out there, and I have to stop. I’m going to stop. But it’s such a temptation to do it, because it’s a confirmation of something, and something is happening, and all that, but it’s really poison. I have to stop. I’m going to stop.”
A smart and interested young audience member asked a complicated but familiar question about meta-fictionality, mimesis, and reader-writer dynamics. Knausgaard, who has described problems with drinking since he was a young teenager, sipped a cocktail and listened. While clearly an attentive student of literature and a passionate theorist, as evidenced by his essayistic digressions in the first two volumes and his attempts to approach something resembling rational explication of his writing process, Knausgaard, understandably, finds it difficult to answer questions that treat his work as though it were designed in a laboratory. Although it might be dissected on the operating table onstage, it was not put together there, but far away, long before he sat down at the typewriter.
If one buys into the My Struggle phenomenon, and is dumbfounded not only by the success of the novels but by the strangeness of that success, it is difficult to speak about the project without reducing criticism to mysticism, and appreciation to hagiography. This is particularly notable since Knausgaard so frequently presents himself as a pathetic figure, his words seeming to flow most easily when he feels embarrassment, or regret. This strange incongruence is central to our understanding of the man now, and of course we read that back into the work as it is translated, ignoring the typical impulse to separate author from work, because this is, after all, not really fiction—or is it?
Knausgaard, whether earnestly or coyly, has said he has no memory for events or people. Instead, he says, he is able to imagine every room he has ever been in, and it is from there that he molds his episodes, finding his adolescent sexual experiences under the bedsheets, a night of shameful moral dissolution in a bottle, an old short story under the ashtray. Many readers know already that My Struggle’s final volume will exist outside the closed narrative of the first five, describing the fallout of Knausgaard’s project, as well as why Knausgaard chose such an incendiary title for his personal project (Min Kampf, in Norwegian). But he wrote that volume before his English and American coronations, and has said he will never write another.
Understandably, readers and writers alike are fascinated by an author whom we think we know better than anyone because he speaks not to them but to us, and who, by writing about and for himself, seems to know us, too. We want him to tip his hand. But Knausgaard has already stretched both out, palms up, trying to prove, as though there were still doubt, that nothing is hidden there.