On Knausgaard's 'My Struggle 6' and the hatred of parenthood
This review of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, Volume 6: The End was published in the September 17, 2018 issue of the Times Literary Supplement. Elsewhere I have reviewed Volume 3, Volume 4, and The Morning Star. In 2015 I interviewed the author at the Algonquin Hotel. Next month I am visiting Norway for the first time. You might like my friends’ podcast Our Struggle.
The time has come for closure between anglophone readers and Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six-volume autofiction epic My Struggle. Since Volume 1: A Death in the Family appeared in English in 2012, Knausgaard has enjoyed a literary celebrity in the US and UK rare among foreign-language authors. In recent years such figures have tended to arrive one at a time, attracting high-profile critical champions (often novelists who rarely wade into the mulch of reviewing), capturing the collective imagination, saturating the market, and achieving a kind of mythical aura: Haruki Murakami, Michel Houellebecq, the posthumous Roberto Bolaño. These authors tend to be highly readable, engaged with major historic events, politically contrarian while eschewing obvious partisan affiliations, and existential in a way that teenagers can appreciate. Writers too dour, too weird, or too difficult—a W. G. Sebold, Clarice Lispector, or Javier Marías—never quite qualify for this sort of fame. In Knausgaard’s case he has been joined in the spotlight by the phantom of Elena Ferrante, the perfect pseudonymous foil to the Norwegian maestro of self- exposure.
This is a curious phenomenon, akin to a literary lottery, in a context where many bemoan the dearth of literature in translation, while publishers often resort to a rhetoric of guilt to attract attention to worthy foreign authors. Meanwhile, the Nobel Committee has delivered a string of duds: either already well-known authors with limited mass appeal (Mario Vargas Llosa; Orhan Pamuk), or little-known traders in grey prose ( J. M. G. Le Clézio; Patrick Modiano). Mo Yan was just another magic realist; Bob Dylan not an author. None of them (excepting Dylan) caused a sensation, or a groundswell of popular excitement. Domestically, too, the hunger for new sensations has been left unsated in recent years. In the UK, Hilary Mantel was still labouring in the sixteenth century; Martin Amis decamped for Brooklyn. In the United States, readers were done with processing the suicide of David Foster Wallace and his patchwork posthumous novel The Pale King after a decade of Franzen fatigue. The critical terrain was prepared: enter the graphomaniac Proust of Generation X. David Shields in Reality Hunger: A manifesto (2010) had issued a summons for just the sort of art Knausgaard would deliver (and, indeed, had already started delivering in Norwegian):
What are its key components? A deliberate unartiness: “raw” material, seemingly unprocessed, unfiltered, uncensored, and unprofessional . . . . Randomness, openness to accident and serendipity, spontaneity; artistic risk, emotional urgency and intensity . . . reader/viewer participation; an overly literal tone, as if a reporter were viewing a strange culture; plasticity of form, pointillism; criticism as autobiography; self-reflexivity, self-ethnography, anthropological autobiography; a blurring (to the point of invisibility) of any distinction between fiction and nonfiction: the lure and blur of the real.
The “unartiness” is the most striking element of Knausgaard’s project. The impression of randomness and spontaneity was immediately conveyed in the form of the nested digressions in the first two volumes, the associative logic of memory moving back and forwards in time, swerving in and out of scenes of a dinner party, or a trip to procure beer on New Year’s Eve, over dozens of dinner party, or a trip to procure beer on New Year’s Eve, over dozens of the narrative, which mined intensity from the banal and invited identification between the reader and narrator. The self-portrait was a container for essays on literature, music, art, religion, etc. Always Karl Ove, as child and father, was alienated from modern family life, yearning for a heroic masculinity available in classical times or to the Romantics. As much as Knausgaard averred that everything he was saying was true, there were so many details that most of them had to have been made up.
Why did this work? For some readers it didn’t, especially the prolixity. Tim Parks put it simply in the New York Review of Books: “Knausgaard is the great new thing, I am told. I pick up Knausgaard. I read a hundred pages or so and put it down. I cannot understand the attraction. No, that’s not true, I do get a certain attraction, but cannot understand why one would commit to its extension over so many pages. It doesn’t seem attractive enough for what it is asking of me”. William Deresiewicz encapsulated the backlash in a review of Volume 3: Boyhood Island, for the Nation: “The problem with My Struggle is that nothing happens in the writing. The prose consists, for the most part, of a flat record of superficial detail, unenlivened by the touch of literary art: by simile or metaphor, syntactic complexity or linguistic compression, the development of symbols or elaboration of structures—by beauty, density or form”.
But this is the same writer that James Wood was describing when he claimed in the New Yorker, “even when I was bored, I was interested”—and Zadie Smith when she said that she returned to Knausgaard’s books “like crack”. The apparent absence of the touch of literary art, or what we expect of literary art, is the attraction. Knausgaard’s abandonment of fictional convention was particularly disruptive because he executed it in a realm where the strictures of artifice are most rigorously codified: domestic realism. Formal tendencies accompany thematic cognates. “Belinda was on the phone with the insurance company and Harvey was cutting vegetables for the stir-fry when they realized Madison hadn’t come home from basketball practice.” That’s a crude parody of the way many American short stories begin, but the prominence of the “missing child” as a theme in American fiction cannot be denied. I counted four such stories in the Best American anthology of 2015; numerous novels deal explicitly with the theme, from Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Virgin Suicides on the literary end to Alice Sebald’s The Lovely Bones among the blockbusters, with Maile Meloy’s recent midlist entry Do Not Become Alarmed being a textbook example. It is hard to find children in current American fiction who aren’t simply projections of guilt, virtue and anxiety when seen from the parental point of view. The other option is the child as parody adult, typical of most precocious adolescent narrators or kids drawn in the mode of the sons and daughters in, say, Don DeLillo’s White Noise (see also the boy with the hobby of surveillance in Franzen’s The Corrections). Children are the least understood characters in American literature. What’s least understood is that going about their childhood doesn’t mean much: they are innocent and, to their parents, burdensome; time will have to pass before their lives take on meaning.