If you’ve heard of Karl Ove Knausgaard and haven’t read his novels, or started reading his novels and couldn’t finish, or started reading and couldn’t stop, your impression of his work is probably of a rather detached Norwegian recounting what seems to be exactly his actual life in excruciating detail, with confusing chronology, and no clear plot. This impression is not inaccurate.
My Struggle: Book One is overtly about death. But I recollect it as a book about what it’s like to be alive, minute by minute. It’s structured as a series of flashbacks from a present in which Karl Ove is living in Stockholm with a wife and child he barely introduces and never explains. (That is the subject of Book Two. Book Three, about Knausgaard’s childhood, comes out later this month.) Book One is divided into two parts: Karl Ove’s teenage years living alone with his father, and four days during his twenty-ninth year, when he traveled back to Kristiansand with his brother to bury his father.
In the first half, every detail of life is fresh and painful. Karl Ove captures the binary stakes of the teenage years, when you are on the “inside” or the “outside” and nothing else matters. He devotes eighty-five tense pages to one night’s failed effort to get invited to a party so that the following Monday he will not have to admit that he spent New Year’s at home with his parents. At the beginning of the section, we meet his father smashing rocks in the garden with a sledgehammer. At the end, after separating from Karl Ove’s mother, his father throws a house party, gets drunk for the first time in front of his son, and weeps over a cousin who died young.
In the second half, over a decade later, Karl Ove’s father has just drunk himself to death in the house he grew up in. Karl Ove and his brother find the house filled with empty vodka bottles, human excrement, and their addled, alcoholic grandmother. For about 500 pages, Karl Ove cleans the house and reflects on death, clouds, art, and memory during his numerous cigarette breaks. In the final pages, he opens the manuscript of his first book, which is about to be published, and realizes he’d written it for his father: “I wanted him to see me.” A few hundred pages earlier, he had recalled the day his father uncharacteristically showed up to one of his soccer games just in time to see him flub an easy goal and too late to see the two he’d already made.
In Book One, Knausgaard offers the most complete, concrete catalogue of consciousness that I have ever read. He nonchalantly presents extraordinarily insignificant minutiae in nearly every sentence, and effortlessly transitions from what should be banal lists of consumer goods to exalted descriptions of his favorite landscape paintings to abstract meditations on death, time, and meaning, all relating back to the concrete details he began with. It’s a fearless and masterful performance that lasts over 400 pages. And it is only the first of six books. The second—which my brother George and I review here (and which FSG will publish in paperback next month)—is nearly twice as long.
JOHN: Hey George. I think it makes sense to start with a quotation and work our work way up to the big theories, of which I have a few.
The primary impression left by Book Two, and the first book as well, is of an extraordinary accumulation of mundane details: not only who Karl Ove invited to dinner and what they talked about, but everything they ate, where he bought groceries, what the checkout person said to him, what he was doing all afternoon before he went to the supermarket, how he felt about being in the kitchen while his guests mingled in the living room (good), and what memories it summoned from his childhood, until a description of dinner ends up taking eighty pages.
Into this concrete description he weaves so many abstract comments and observations about the nature of art, writing, time, death, memory, etc. that they become a sort of background hum, which is actually quite realistic, I think, to how we all perceive the world, especially since many of his theories can seem half-baked and contradictory to one another. There aren’t too many places where he makes a statement that clearly stands out and signals itself. The most obvious comes after a fantastic children’s birthday party set-piece, when he is standing on his own balcony overlooking Stockholm, smoking a cigarette, drinking from the two-liter bottle of flat Diet Coke that he keeps out there, and recovering from the intense social anxiety produced by the party:
Everyday life, with its duties and routines, was something I endured, not a thing I enjoyed, nor something that was meaningful or that made me happy. This had nothing to do with a lack of desire to wash floors or change diapers but something more fundamental: the life around me was not meaningful. I always longed to be away from it. So the life I led was not my own. I tried to make it mine, this was my struggle, because of course I wanted it, but I failed, the longing for something else undermined all of my efforts.
What was the problem?
Karl Ove goes on to sort of answer his own question by explaining that his life is a series of daily routines with no surprise and that this modern world lacks all mystery, everything is known, all objects mass-produced, and this is what drains out the meaning. But I’m not quite certain I trust that answer. So George, what is Karl Ove’s problem?
GEORGE: Well John, that’s the question. While the book is full of mundane details, it also covers a few of the more meaningful moments in Knausgaard’s life: meeting his second wife Linda, the birth of their first child, and the conception of their second. After he and Linda get together, he writes:
I read in the glow of the sinking sun, and suddenly, quite out of the blue, I was imbued with a wild, dizzy feeling of happiness. I was free, completely free, and life was fantastic. I could on occasion be seized by this feeling, perhaps once every six months, it was strong, it lasted for a few minutes, and then it passed. The oddity this time around was that it didn’t pass. I woke up and was happy, I couldn’t for the life of me remember that happening since I was a little boy.
In your quote and mine we have two very different Karl Oves: one weighed down by the never-ending duties of everyday life, the other at the peak of his happiness. But the deep, uninhibited happiness of love ultimately leads him to the frustrations of life as a husband and father. Perhaps the reason Knausgaard’s life does not seem to be his own is because the writer in him is always hovering over, observing his life, trying to turn it into a narrative that he knows doesn’t exist anywhere outside his own head.
The central conflict in this memoir is Knausgaard’s desire to uphold his responsibilities to those he loves and at the same time be true to his art. While mulling over the prospect of having a second child Knausgaard asks himself: “Children were life, and who should turn their back on life? And writing, what else was it but death? Letters, what else were they but bones in a cemetery.” Ultimately, I think this book is an attempt to resolve that conflict, by merging the everyday events that constitute his earthly experience of life with his loftier goals of creating something that will outlast both him and his children.
John, you’re the writer in this family. What did you think of the narrative structure of this book?
JOHN: I agree with you about these two polarities, and I think it’s important to point out that the happiness he describes in your quote is a singular event in his life. He seems resigned that happiness is out of his control, and seeks to build meaning by writing. He uses a telling metaphor to describe that period of happiness: “Before, I had always been deep inside myself, observing people from there, like from the back of a garden. Linda brought me out, right to the edge of myself, where everything was near and everything seemed stronger.”
Karl Ove not only sits in the back of the garden observing the world, he sits back there observing himself in that world. This is the source of his struggle, his longing to live his own life, not sit back and observe it. Karl Ove mentions landscape paintings quite a lot in this book and explains that they imbue their subjects with a meaning that direct observation of the same subject can’t achieve. These books are Karl Ove’s landscape painting: he takes the mundane and transfigures it, successfully. I as a reader find all sorts of meaning in Karl Ove’s life narrative that Karl Ove did not experience as he was living these events.
You asked about structure, and I think this is one way Karl Ove creates that meaning. One of the hallmarks of these books is the lack of chronology: Karl Ove will unobtrusively slip into a flashback that will then go on so long you forget it’s a flashback. If you submit to the flow, it works, and it’s one of my favorite things about these books. There’s this great moment at about the halfway point of Book Two where he suddenly brings you back to the point where he left you hundreds of pages before, on the stairs of his apartment building with the crazy Russian woman, and you realize you have been involved in this elaborate flashback whose point was to explain his history with the Russian but that also happened to include how he first fell in love with Linda at an artist’s colony years before he moved to Stockholm (and sliced his face up with a shard of glass over her), and how they had a child together many years later. The entire book is more or less four flashbacks nested into each other, each one corresponding to a new addition to the family. There are many mini-flashbacks in the midst of all this, so I could be screwing something up, but here is how I finally traced it:
There are so many ways to break these layers down. Each basically tells a coherent story, and each is interrupted by flashbacks and brought right back to the point of the interruption. My theory is that Karl Ove wants to create an ever-present feeling of nostalgia. (I’m pulling this theory partly from my own experience and partly from My Struggle.) There are several scenes where Karl Ove remembers past events during which the world was imbued with the meaning he now seeks. It’s unclear whether this meaning actually existed then, or if nostalgia has simply performed that work. In any case, telling his life in flashback to induce nostalgia is a technique he uses to give his narrative the same feeling of meaning he finds in landscape paintings.
GEORGE: While reading the book, I felt like I was being led backwards in time. Or moving from the everyday routines that constitute Knausgaard’s current life as a husband, father, and semi-famous Norwegian writer, towards some of the most intimate and important events in his adult life. Ultimately, I get the impression that Knausgaard believes the world holds meaning at every moment if we could just be receptive to it. This way of seeing the world is very existential. Knausgaard, within the first hundred pages of the book, writes that “meaning is not something we are given, but which we give.” However, existentialism doesn’t seem to satisfy him fully.
It is not a surprise to me that Knausgaard is reading Dostoevsky at the beginning of the book. What really struck me about reading Dostoevsky’s works is that nothing much really happens in them, and yet for me they contained so much drama. When I read The Idiot and The Brothers Karamazov, I felt like most of the drama was created by people frantically going from house to house in search of one another (something an author can’t do in our current cell phone age) or performing other unexciting tasks. Knausgaard, using Tolstoy as Dostoevsky’s foil, explains it this way:
[Tolstoy’s] preponderance of deeds and events for their own sake does not exist in Dostoevsky; there is always something lying hidden behind them, a drama of the soul, and this means there is always an aspect of humanness [Tolstoy] doesn’t include, the one that binds us to the world outside us. There are many kinds of wind that blow through man, and there are other entities inside him apart from the depth of the soul.
Like Dostoyevsky’s works, My Struggle: Book Two contains a great deal of “humanness.” And, like Dostoevsky, Knausgaard does not offer us a definitive answer about what the source of this humanness is. The mundane events of his life overlay his own “drama of the soul.”
John, your classic way for describing us is by saying I’m a Dostoevsky man and you are a Tolstoy man. Knausgaard gets into the differences between them (which is probably why this is a great book for our first discussion). What do you think? Is Karl Ove a Tolstoy or a Dostoevsky man?
JOHN: If you hadn’t brought this up, I was going to. When I read Brothers Karamazov, I appreciated that I was reading something brilliant, but I didn’t get it. I was bewildered by all these characters running around shouting and waving their arms. Then I read War and Peace, and everything made sense to me: I was swept up by this sort of rational, hyper-perceptive creator filtering all his characters’ thoughts and actions into a logical narrative. After you read War and Peace a few years ago, you said, “I thought it was good, but I didn’t get it. It didn’t make sense to me like Dostoevsky did.”
You, George, experience the world through your emotions; what you feel in any given moment is what exists. I sort of live one step back from my emotions; I filter them through my perspective on the big picture, then accept or reject them. My therapist Karen tells me, I don’t “feel my feelings.” That’s why you experience more fits of rage than I do, and why I can infuriate friends and family by seeming unsympathetic. So my theory is that most of us are either Tolstoys or Dostoevskys. Karl Ove is definitely Dostoevsky. He says so himself: “I feel, and my feelings determine my actions.”
But he writes like Tolstoy. He takes the Dostoevskian subject of the inner life and examines it with this Tolstoyan distance and precision. This internal conflict is probably a major contributor to his “struggle.” Karl Ove can’t stand to be around his mentally unstable father-in-law because of the older man’s tendency to “recount everything in precise, elaborate terms as if every detail was of the utmost significance.”
And the split makes for great writing. Like The Lord of the Rings, and just as transfixing, My Struggle carried me into another world where an extraordinarily meaningful conflict was unfolding. The brilliance of Karl Ove’s accomplishment is that the world he creates is really our own world. He shows us that you don’t need to travel to Middle Earth to participate in meaning; you can find it in the most mundane details of your own life. It’s actually very hopeful.
So, I think that’s KOK for you. A Dostoevsky who wants to write like a Tolstoy (or, a George who wants to write like a John).
GEORGE: Sometimes I wish I had your gift for volume. I agree that Knausgaard is like Tolstoy in his ability to offer an incredibly detailed description of a social gathering, and like Dostoevsky in the way that powerful emotions and not rational thinking often dictate his actions. However, I also think he has Tolstoy’s ability to step back and appreciate his own insignificance in the grand sweep of history. In one of my favorite passages, he writes:
But the stars twinkle above our heads, the sun shines, the grass grows and the earth, yes, the earth, it swallows all life and eradicates all vestiges of it, spews out new life in a cascade of limbs and eyes, leaves and nails, hair and tails, cheeks and fur and guts and swallows it up again. And what we never comprehend, or don’t want to comprehend, is that this happens outside us, that we ourselves have no part in it, that we are only that which grows and dies, as blind as the waves in the sea are blind.
His adeptness at stepping back and describing a scene, or in this case the never ending cycle of life and death here on earth, seems somewhat at odds with his visceral experience of life. Knausgaard’s beautifully written and honest account of his life is what really drew me into his first two books. He portrays himself as a dynamic character. He is willing to share his most intimate thoughts and feelings, willing to relate the most embarrassing and painful moments of his life like the death of his father and the end of his first marriage, in vivid detail without regard for his self-image. Then, near the end of the book, he writes:
I had attached huge importance to what other people thought of me ever since I was seven. When newspapers showed some interest in what I was doing and who I was, it was, on the one hand, confirmation that I was liked and therefore something part of me accepted with great pleasure while, on the other hand, it became an almost unmanageable problem because it was no longer possible to control other peoples opinions of me, for the simple reason that I no longer knew them, no longer saw them.
I did not find Book Two to be the work of someone who cared deeply about what people think of him. These contradictions in Knausgaard’s character are what I find fascinating about his books. He offers us wonderfully descriptive snapshots of his life that don’t quite seem to fit together to form a coherent whole. Do you think Karl Ove is worried about what people will think of him after they read these books?
JOHN: I love this question, and I think it’s a good place to wrap up our conversation. I actually don’t think there’s any contradiction, and the reason is at the end of the passage you quoted. Karl Ove doesn’t care what people think of him, but he does care about being able to “control” what people think of him. There are a handful of weird scenes in this book where he feels an intense emotion at seeing someone else expose an unguarded emotion without knowing they are observed. For instance, the time he was standing in shadow during a dinner party and saw the hostess come into the room and smile to herself in happiness: “Oh I was so happy when I saw that, but sad too, because she had not intended anyone to see how much it meant to her that we were there.” And his insane father-in-law again: “His face was utterly open; it was as though there was nothing between him and the world. He had no protection against it, he was wholly defenseless, and to see that hurt you deep into your soul.”
Karl Ove does not want to be seen like this. He gets angry at others who see more of him than he wants to reveal, whether good or bad. He hates audiences for having the power to draw their own conclusions and he hates journalists who interpret him, even though that is their job. And this anger is really anger at himself, for needing praise from strangers, caring about criticism, craving publicity and recognition. So there is actually no paradox about the fact that he worries what people think and has written books that make him look bad. In fact, the one is the logical extension of the other: by writing these books, he exposes himself completely instead of allowing himself to be seen unawares. It’s hard to imagine anyone ever revealing something about Karl Ove that he hasn’t revealed about himself already.
This explains the unflattering passages that pop up continually with no narrative purpose, like when he finds his mortal enemy, the Russian neighbor, lying helplessly drunk in the stairs: “Instinctively, I looked at her thighs and the black panties between them before shifting my gaze to her face.” When his friend Geir tells him it takes courage “to go so far,” he replies, “Not for me, I don’t give a shit about myself.” (This is the point in the book where he leaves unclear whether he committed statutory rape.) This may also be why he titled his books with an allusion to Hitler.
I’m proud of my clever little psychological tour here, but I’m also kind of sick about it. Because of course it’s total bullshit, or should I say, it’s totally meaningless. I don’t really care why Karl Ove the person wrote his book; I just want to know what makes it so great. Though maybe those two goals can’t be separated. I am drawn to these books because I’m mesmerized by his style and because I identify with his feelings, including his desire for recognition and his fear of others knowing more about him than he knows of himself.
I want to end on an enduring image of Karl Ove in this book: a man alone on a winter evening, finally escaping the human contact he’s spent the day compulsively seeking, smoking a cigarette on a freezing balcony, looking at a landscape that in verbal description sounds extraordinary, and in real life is almost certainly profoundly mundane.
John Teschner’s stories and essays have appeared in The Iowa Review, The Florida Review and other journals. He is completing a collection of linked stories and beginning his first novel. He lives in Minneapolis.
George Teschner is a Dostoevsky man. He lives in Richmond, Virginia.