At the end of last summer, you could find me lugging around a very large book. I took it with me to the Lake Michigan beach; I read it during my kids’ practices and lessons; I strapped it on my bike; and I kept it at the library where I work, hoping to find some time. The book is over a thousand pages long. It seems to weigh about as much as a newborn. It was the final volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle but indeed it was also my struggle.
The sheer heft of Knausgaard’s volume six seems a comic rebuke to portability, to tablets and phones, to a world of weightless images through which our devices insistently transport us. But like the stories that we post about ourselves, Knausgaard compels us to consider: what are the politics of exposing the most intimate details of one’s life and insisting upon the primacy of “I”? What is the point of making up narratives, of writing fiction, in a time when life itself seems fashioned for an audience?
I resisted tweeting my progress through the novel.
I wondered whether Knausgaard’s work unraveled threads of my first book—about modernist writers who invented new forms to narrate everyday life.
I failed to answer a question from my oldest son, age ten, who only likes to read apocalyptic science fiction. “Mom, what is that big book about?”
Everything and nothing, I tried to tell him. Knausgaard describes monumental events of his life—the death of a parent, falling in love, the birth of a child—but only as these moments chafe and pierce the perpetual, protective cloak of the everyday. He cleans; he cooks; he heaves a stroller and three children out the door. Excursions to the grocery store figure as a frequent set-piece in the final volume of My Struggle, which is by far the longest and baggiest of all six. The volume opens with the author on the brink of publishing part one of My Struggle, which appeared in Norwegian in 2009, and which sparked major controversy, especially in Norway. Many readers were astonished by how Knausgaard exposed in excruciating and shameful detail his relationships with real people in time and place. His vivid account of his own father’s alcoholic demise elicited outrage and legal action from his family. His wife, the writer and poet Linda Boström Knausgaard, fell into a deep depression after part one was published.
The struggle of part six—perhaps of the novel (as he calls the whole project)—is Knausgaard’s compulsion to continue writing his life and his responsibility to live it: his struggle between art and life. Yet these distinctions seem thin when experiencing the enormity of this last volume, which unfolds through a process of Knausgaard living in the novel’s aftermath: we experience his life as it becomes art. As Beckett said of Joyce, His writing is not about something. It is that something itself.
But unlike Joyce, Knausgaard is no stylist. His sentences hardly sing. He seeks an art without symbolic style and a life that means nothing other than it is a life, described through cliché and idiomatic convention. He asks, “Oh, how then, for crying out loud, can we make the lives we live an expression of life, rather than the expression of an ideology?” He resists the idea that his particular life represents a model, a bildungsroman, an exemplar of “how to live.” (Though “for crying out loud,” of course it is.) He allows himself massive range, accreting conversations and philosophical excursions that do not constitute a coherent aesthetic, political, or moral project.
There were moments reading Knausgaard’s last volume when I felt a familiar anxiety—let’s call it the domestic temporal—when you can’t find your kid’s boot, everyone is running late, and you’ll never find that hour to finish what you’ve been writing. I worried that Karl Ove would not make it to the grocery store in time for dinner. (He promised Linda that he would pick up prawns!) I feared that the ATM in the city center of Malmö, Sweden, where they live, would not dispense him money. (They don’t pay their bills!) This is the nature of suspense in My Struggle, which I tracked with startling recognition.
“Like crack,” Zadie Smith has said about Knausgaard’s narrative mode. No book offers a better experience of reading as addiction. To inhabit Knausgaard’s expansive prose—roomy and earnest, rife with clichés—is to live inside of the everyday, a rough dwelling buffered by the ritual of habit, a place of uncanny obsessions, boredom, and bursts of intense desire. Time is measured out in meals.
There is a great deal of müesli in My Struggle. Also sausage.
At five-thirty one morning, Karl Ove is awakened by his toddler and pads into his kitchen flooded with sun.
Everything became visible in its light, the bits of food on the floor, the trail of coffee stains that ran from the counter on the right to the sink on the other side, the globules of fat that specked the surface of the sausage water in the saucepan, the two bloated sausages that lay at the bottom, split open, the two empty milk cartons next to it, the open packet of margarine, so soft it was almost a fluid, its yellow color much deeper now than when it had been taken from the fridge.
This litany of objects unfurls across several pages, swelling with the light of descriptive illumination. How does one describe the everyday without transforming it? “It was as if they were alive,” Knausgaard writes about the “bulging piles” of leftover objects, an acknowledgment of both domestic entrapment and also the freedom found through writing one’s way out.
Of course I wondered if Knausgaard’s excess of detail about domestic life would be tolerated from a female novelist. When a man talks about the minutiae of childrearing, he expands the range of his knowledge and demonstrates his commitment to equalitarianism and—dare I say—his moral expertise. But for a woman, there are great risks in divulging the consuming power of the everyday.
French theorists of la vie quotidienne have long held that the everyday is the special province of women, who are so embodied in the everyday (especially the routines of childrearing) that they are not aware of the everyday’s social and political dimensions, or its revolutionary potential. The problem with this idea, of course, is that it is possible to be entrenched in the everyday and simultaneously outside of it, elsewhere, and cognizant how it might be transformed. This doubleness has always seemed palpable to me in my own life. I knew, reading Knausgaard, that his maleness would give credibility to a critique of everyday life never granted to a “memoir” from a mother. But if Knausgaard has appropriated women’s writing—a kind of celestial everyday—then, well, so be it. I need more men awake and visible in the everyday’s bright light.
The brilliant British novelist Rachel Cusk understands Knausgaard—indeed, there is a tremendous parody of Knausgaard in Cusk’s Kudos, the last novel in her recent trilogy, in which an author with a “great moody face” turns up at literary festival. (Just google-image My Struggle for that face.) Critics have rightly compared Cusk’s trilogy to My Struggle, but I read her work as a stringent antipode. Cusk’s protagonist, Faye—named only once in each volume—is defined by how she listens to other people’s stories, by how she attends to the fictions that other people tell about themselves. She herself is an “outline,” a receptacle for the words of others. Yes, she is a mother of two sons. They need her too.
I worry about Faye. I really worry about Linda.
I wanted My Struggle to finish with a long soliloquy from Linda, who—like Molly Bloom—is so often described as a body in bed.
But deep into the last volume of My Struggle, Knausgaard swerves away from his particular domestic drama—and his insistence on “I”—to think about the collective story of culture, or what he calls the “we.” In a breathtaking move, Knausgaard contends with the literature of the Holocaust, including Hitler’s Mein Kampf, published in 1925, at a moment when so many of Knausgaard’s high modernist heroes exploded narrative conventions. Against Knausgaard’s Min Kamp, as Knausgaard’s novel is known in Norweigan, Hitler’s Mein Kampfunravels through Knausgaard’s close reading as a bildungsromanof omission, through which Hitler’s life is cleansed, fictionalized, mere story. This is Knausgaard’s ultimate critique—through Hitler—of the novel itself.
No doubt the analogy is bold: Karl Ove versus Adolf. But I could not fully commit to the exercise in contrasts. It is an old trick, really: a man blames himself for something far more terrible than the thing he has actually done. He is self-lacerating, penitent. He has been away for too long—over four hundred pages, actually—and he is deeply apologetic. Can you forgive him?
Oh, how I wish he had just slipped into bed with Linda. Instead, Knausgaard merges history’s blackest hour with the dark risk of his own life, which is the making of his novel. By the end, we have seen Linda through a dangerous bout of mania, depression, and hospitalization, as successive volumes of her husband’s work are published to critical acclaim. The last sentences of My Struggle look toward a future when Knausgaard, filled with hope and shame, is finished writing. He desires a moment, with cool desperation, when he might “revel in, truly revel in, the thought that I am no longer a writer.” Perhaps he seeks reconciliation with Linda. Perhaps he seeks freedom from stories of insistent banality, or from the irony of his literary celebrity. But we know that he has not found a way out. Or has he? Since My Struggle, Knausgaard has kept on writing.
—Liesl Olson lives in Chicago with her husband and three sons.