Karl Ove Knausgaard broke into the general American literary consciousness in February of this year when a chapter from Book Three of his six-volume magnum opus My Struggle was published in The New Yorker. The mesmerizing excerpt announced itself as autobiographical when the narrator referred to himself as Karl Ove, an angst-ridden teenager with a great passion for music and a complex and febrile adoration of girls.
As the memoir has developed as a serious literary fashion, many critics and readers have come to regard autobiographical fiction as self-indulgent—less imaginative and ambitious than the spate of contemporary fiction that inhabits another century or even another culture, both of which require a great deal of research. I remember a conversation with my British publisher years ago when I was told that I hadn’t taken enough risks in my early “autobiographical” novels—while another of her authors (very much in vogue at the time) was held up as an example of risk-taking. Nowadays this particular writer is hardly mentioned in discussions of the literary canon; arguably, the so-called “risks” he took have tarnished with time. Like many novels I read then and now, his seemed too “invented,” not (in my opinion) a pure enough alloy of experience and imagination. When I read a lot of contemporary American fiction, I hear the rustle of research, which more often than not ends up becoming a distraction rather than an invitation to enter a fully realized and imagined world. Contemporary writers aspiring to create “literature” too often feel the need to educate us both culturally and sociologically.
Not so the experience of reading Knausgaard, who is filling his pen with his own autobiographical blood, and whose rural and urban Norway (and, in later volumes, Sweden) becomes at once the rural and urban western world. He’s a writer with a remarkable ability to make the quotidian feel germane. His books give the illusion of taking place in real time, in day-to-day terms, but of course they don’t. They are unselfconsciously artful. Besides reading them, one lives in them, constantly reflecting on one’s own life, recognizing emotional nuances that seemed (until he put them down on paper), elusive. The details Knausgaard gives us—the sporty attire of a cashier in a convenience store, a red-and-white Coca-Cola machine in the midst of a dusty amusement park—manage to stay with us. It’s as if he has kept voluminous diaries that are periodically bled for fiction, for “le mot juste,” for the perfect description that speaks volumes.
And the added pleasure is that we are invited to assume that he really lived the life he’s writing about, that we are looking through a spotless window into his unvarnished world. The intimacy he creates with the reader is sometimes almost claustrophobic. One keeps thinking, “Karl Ove, you are giving us everything, there is almost nothing left. You’ve gutted yourself like the gutted fish you so beautifully describe toward the end of Book One. Will you even be able write when it’s all over?”
John Cheever once said that fiction writing isn’t a competitive sport. Not anymore. Editors these days are constantly weighing literary value against the increasing pressure exerted by the marketplace. The result is that “the quieter purer literary novel,” perhaps artistically more consistent than some of the books that do get into print, is increasingly missing the light of publication. And as great as I think Knausgaard is, his books (stripped of their European plaudits) don’t really fit the increasingly commercial tastes of American literary publishing.
Perhaps the best recent example of “literary commercial” is Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Goldfinch, which I happened to read around the same time that I read the first three volumes of My Struggle. I genuinely admire Tartt’s great rollicking narrative, as well as several beautifully realized characters. Like Knausgaard, Tartt fills her novel with voluminous details, but her book feels recherché and not deeply contemplative. Reading The Goldfinch I couldn’t help but reflect on Knausgaard and his writing. While understanding that conventional narrative clearly doesn’t interest him (and might in the end prevent him from reaching a great number of readers), I kept wondering why My Struggle seemed to have so much more depth and resonance than The Goldfinch. Is it because the author has processed his own life meticulously and profoundly and without self-consciousness? Or because he is unburdened by a lot of intellectual research that per force needs to be ladled into his narrative?
When Knaugaard writes about culture and art, his observations are transcendent; not only has he fully digested what he has seen and read, his references fit seamlessly. For example, “A white-haired, elderly man, stick-thin with a large nose, crossed in front of us. The corners of his mouth drawn down. His lips dark red. He first looked up at the hills to my right, then to the row of shops across the road before lowering his gaze to the ground, presumably to be sure where the coming curb was. All of this he did as though completely alone. As though he never took any account of other eyes. This was how Giotto painted people. They never seemed to be aware that they were being watched. Giotto was the only painter to depict the aura of vulnerability this gave them. It was probably something to do with the era because succeeding generations of Italian painters, the great generations, had always interwoven an awareness of watching eyes in their pictures. It made them less naïve, but they also revealed less.” (Book One)
This is quintessential Knausgaard: a complexity of ideas generated out of true observation rather than the sort of rehash of images found in Tartt’s novel, whose descriptions of art and literature have the same monotonous sound whether they come from the mouths of her characters or from the narrative itself. Our best writers should be wrestling with the abundance of their gifts, constantly weighing what they can do and what they can’t rather than being as reductive as Tartt, who dares to sums up Proust in a single pithy observation. For every writer there are subjects that (research or no research) will always prove to be too much of an imaginative stretch. An example: one cannot write confidently about a culture unless one has lived in it and, most important, knows the language enough to understand what is being said in the street. Even the great Henry James was aware of this potentially perilous presumption of writing about a foreign world, which is why he often weighted his European novels toward the experiences of English-speaking people living abroad.
There are those who might counter by saying, well of course Knausgaard should be writing well and convincingly about where he has lived and what he has lived through. And yet if you ask serious writers about the distillation of autobiography, many will tell you that excavating it thoroughly is not only a painstaking and psychologically precarious process, but also that the psyche likes to protect itself from exposing the real treasures of embedded memory. And that’s perhaps why so many memoirs are mediocre tomes—heavy on historical event, but scant on true and profound self-examination.
It almost seems that Knausgaard intrinsically knows that certain experiences are beyond his own reckoning, impossible to reconcile. Perhaps that’s why he sticks so carefully to his own Scandinavian turf. Instead of bringing us to a time and place outside his life, he is giving us something much more fascinating: the whole pointillist complexion of his world minutely observed, down to the subtle differences between the Norwegian and Swedish temperament and the similarities and differences between the languages. It seems significant that the word “orme” in Norwegian means snake and in Swedish means “worm.” One night in Book Two, which is largely dedicated to Knausgaard’s second marriage and his parenting, Karl Ove wakes from a dream thinking there are snakes in his bedroom. His Swedish wife, calling them “orme,” is able to soothe him because she is inadvertently changing the meaning. This sort of nuanced yet vital observation is what makes the experience of reading Knausgaard transcendent.
The third and most recently published volume of My Struggle is structured in a more straightforward manner than its two predecessors; it’s a bildungsroman of Nabokovian (Speak, Memory) evocation: youthful malaise and nascent lust and most of all a parallax view of the brooding, alcoholic, emotionally abusive father whose death Knausgaard mourns so movingly in Book One. Unlike the first two volumes that move magically between past present and future, Book Three hews to more linear presentation of time. As such one is more aware of the armature of a novel encompassing its lovely prose machine. And yet Knausgaard is never boring; no matter how slow and painstaking his pace, he still rivets the reader. It’s with good reason that the writer Zadie Smith said the experience of reading him is as addictive as crack. And while there are times you find yourself thinking, “how will he be able to pull off three more of these books?” you finish Book Three once again in awe of Knausgaard’s relentless, fascinating and unflagging self-scrutiny.