It’s not difficult to spot Karl Ove Knausgaard waiting at Ystad train station. Partly, it must be said, because there’s no one else present at the open-air platform on a brilliantly cloudless February afternoon in southernmost Sweden. Yet even if there had been a large crowd, Knausgaard is the sort of man who would stand out.
He’s 6ft 4in with a strikingly handsome face, a writerly beard and a thick mane of swept back silvery hair. But it’s not that he’s a commanding presence so much as a conspicuous absence. There’s an air of separateness about him, something noticeably aloof and withdrawn. He doesn’t look like the sort of person, in other words, who would readily divulge his innermost secrets, desires and insecurities.
Yet that is precisely what he did in writing a six-volume, 3,600-page novel-cum-autobiography, provocatively titled My Struggle – or in Norwegian Min Kamp. In Knausgaard’s native Norway, where the book was published between 2009 and 2011, it was an unprecedented phenomenon, selling half a million copies in a nation of 5 million people. It has subsequently been translated into 22 languages. In English, the fourth volume, Dancing in the Dark, is about to be published. And given the size of the undertaking, the widespread critical acclaim and cultural buzz the series has generated, it has strong claim to be the great literary event of the 21st century – so far.
Although the series is ostensibly fiction, it is also an unflinching memoir, from early childhood right up to the controversial reception of the book itself. Such an endeavour is hardly unique. Bookshops are full of unflinching memoirs, and even the literary novel is no stranger to the genre. Knausgaard’s portrait of his cold, authoritarian father, who drank himself to a squalidly premature death, may have scandalised the reading public of Norway, but it’s a tale of mild familial dysfunction by comparison with, say, Edward St Aubyn’s autobiographical Patrick Melrose series.
So what is it that has led fellow authors like Zadie Smith and Jonathan Lethem to rave about Knausgaard and hail him as literary pioneer? Why did the novelist Jeffrey Eugenides speak of the Norwegian breaking “the sound barrier of the autobiographical novel”?
The answer lies not in Knausgaard’s depth of revelation so much as the intensity of focus he brings to the subject of his life. He seems to punch a hole in the wall between the writer and reader, breaking through to a form of micro-realism and emotional authenticity that makes other novels seem contrived, “made up”, irrelevant. As Smith put it: “You live his life with him. You don’t simply ‘identify’ with the character, effectively you ‘become’ them.”
Whether he’s writing about his adult alienation at a toddler’s birthday party or the memory of trying to get hold of alcohol as a teenager on New Year’s Eve, Knausgaard is prepared to go into extraordinary sensuous detail that can last 50 pages or more.
The most obvious antecedent is Proust, whom Knausgaard has said he “virtually imbibed” when A la recherche du temps perdu was finally translated into Norwegian in the 1980s. But the prose has little of Proust’s delicate refinement. At times it’s poised, beautiful, profound, and at others mundane and casually tolerant of cliches. People pick up and put down coffee cups a lot, close doors and light cigarettes. There’s a great deal of the sort of writing that is usually edited out before publication, and yet the overall effect is utterly hypnotic. As the critic James Wood put it, even when he was bored he remained interested.
It’s not to everyone’s taste. Writing in the Nation, the critic William Deresiewicz complained: “Instead of thinking about the character, I was thinking about the author, and the fact that they were the same individual only made it worse. Who cares? I kept wondering. Why is he telling me this? Who is he to think his life is worth this kind of treatment? I wasn’t just bored (even his fans are bored), I was angry about being bored. I felt my time was being wasted.”
But to see in Knausgaard’s epic bildungsroman the evil of banality is to miss the point. Cyril Connolly declared that the enemy of promise was the “pram in the hall”. Knausgaard, feeling trapped by young children, bravely confronts the enemy and then recruits it to the cause of what Connolly called “good art”.
His digressions, chronological shifts – time washes back and forth like an unpredictable tide – and forensic observations of the everyday are an astonishing effort to capture the vast mystery of consciousness through the techniques of a novelist. At any given time our selfhood is the sum of our memories and Knausgaard understands that this means the throwaway ore as well as the precious metal.
What, though, are memories? How accurate and reliable are they? Knausgaard makes several mentions of his poor memory during the course of the thousands of pages of precisely rendered recollections. And it’s not false modesty. This is less a work of formidable retention than concentrated invention.
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