Approached in the right light, literary history can be a somewhat sensational affair, often sewn with scandal, betrayal, and—surprisingly frequently—lawsuits. From Lordy Byron's implied incestuous affairs to Henry Miller's obscenity trial for Tropic of Cancer to Nabokov's “pedophilic and pornographic” Lolita, history has taught us that a certain mixture of societal outrage and literary merit can catapult a book from obscure and respected to masterpiece, or an author from popularly unknown but literati-loved to international celebrity.
Enter Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard, a rising literary star and a New York Times proclaimed “bad boy of European letters.” Though Knausgaard had already published two well-received novels in Norway, 1998's Out of the World and 2004's strangely compelling A Time for Everything, it was not until the publication of his most recent work that he began to receive real international attention. Released in Norway in 2009, Knausgaard's massive and slightly masturbatory six-volume memoir My Struggle (even closer to Hitler's title in the original Norwegian, Min Kamp) has proved an unparalleled literary event in his home country, where the first volume has sold an impressive five-hundred-thousand copies in a country of just over five million people. Percentage-wise, My Struggle-Volume 1 is even more popular in Norway than any of the individual Harry Potter or Twiglight books are in America, both of which set sales records in the U.S.. Largely on the strength of those impressive sales figures, Knausgaard has come into his own curious vogue in the United States, where Volume 1 has recently been received with polite if slightly bemused praise.
Karl Ove Knausgaard first came to my attention in late September of this year when he traveled to Harvard to promote a new English translation of the first volume of My Struggle. Before a reading and discussion with critic James Wood, Knausgaard was invited to attend lunch at the Signet Society, an undergraduate society of arts and letters of which I am a member.
I remember sitting in the Signet library before lunch, alone, reading and waiting for other members to arrive. I heard a knock at the door and moved to answer it, anticipating I would find another person my age. Instead, to my surprise, I found a face I recognized only from a poster that the Signet president had emailed out when she announced that we would be having special guests for lunch.
He was an astonishing man with immediate, striking features. His height demanded attention, and his long body seemed to stretch out and past the doorframe. Deep furrows stretched across his face, between his eyebrows, around the corners of his mouth, under and around his eyes. Long, unkempt hair fell around his shoulders, and a short grey goatee gave him a sort of anachronistic rebellious look. He held a cigarette butt between two fingers, which he pressed against the pavement as the door opened. Looking back I am struck by the phrase “bad boy of letters,” and realize, yes, that's what he seemed like then, a sort of literary rockstar. I had expected him to arrive with others. The email had mentioned a Norwegian professor as well as a Norwegian student who would be joining us for lunch, but had clearly come unescorted. There I stood, alone with an international literary icon, who, as far as I knew, may not even speak any English. I looked at him for a moment, and a small silence passed between us.
“Hello,” he said, taking my hand and shaking it, “my name is Karl Ove.” He raised the cigarette butt to me. “Do you have somewhere I could put this?”
Before meeting Mr. Knausgaard, I engaged in a bit of google-driven detective work and found myself enrapt in the controversy surrounding his memoir. By our American standards there is little scandalous to be found within the first volume of Knausgaard's sprawling 3500 page struggle. Sure, Knausgaard reveals several intimate familial secrets, but unless they're penned by affair-having, drug-snorting celebrities, simple domestic tell-alls lack the punch in America that so thoroughly rocked Norwegian polite society. According to the New York Times review of My Struggle (actually much less a review than a tabloid-like story of sensationalism), in Norway, “with its solidly Lutheran culture, many commentators say Mr. Knausgaard as violating fundamental social norms.” Adrift in the perfect storm of publicity caused by the ensuing threats of familial litigation, Knausgaard's uncle's insistence that his name be changed in the book, and the Hitlerian title, it is unsurprising that My Struggle soared to the top of the best-seller list.
As I had yet to read either of his books at the time of our meeting, and I feared he would find my secret internet-gleaned knowledge of his life too intimate, my attempts at conversation were limited, though I did my best to banter with him as much as the situation demanded. I asked how long he had been in America, in Boston, how he liked it so far, etc. He always answered curtly, leaving the burden of conversation on me. Eventually I returned to my book, and read in silence. Then, unexpectedly, he asked me a question.
“What do you want to do?” he asked.
I thought about it.
“I think I want to be a writer,” I said.
He touched a magazine lying on the table.
“Like me?” he asked.
“Yes, I suppose so.”
He nodded, and looked sad. I returned to my book. I felt like something had passed between us, some intangible communication about the nature of writing that I struggled to grasp. I wished I had read his books. He stood up.
“I'm going to go smoke a cigarette,” he said.
“Of course,” I answered. “Lunch should be ready soon.”
He nodded again and left the room.
Even over lunch, he proved to be a quiet man. He politely replied when asked a question, though rarely elaborated, and the conversation quickly began taking place around him, rather than with him. I assume he had little to talk about, we had no shared base of knowledge. Even the Norwegian professor, who did his best to engage Mr. Knausgaard, had not read any of his books. The “Norwegian student” turned out to have just started taking the language last week. I imagine it took a great deal of patience for Knausgaard to listen to a description of himself by a man who had never met him or read his works.
“In Norway,” said the professor, “Knausgaard has become a household name. Much like Kafkaesque or Borgesian, Knausgaardian has come to have its own meaning. It is synonymous with the banality of family existence.” As he said this last phrase he stole an especially meaningful glance at Knausgaard, who said nothing. The professor continued.
“I recently saw a new Norwegian film, where the protagonist gets into a fight with his family, and feels everything is worthless. Afterwards he says, 'Aagh, I feel just like Knausgaard.'” He looked at Knausgaard again. “Tell me, Karl Ove, how does it feel to have your name be synonymous with the banality of family existence?”
We all glanced expectantly at the silent author. That was certainly the most substantial question any of us had posed. Earlier in the meal I had asked him if he had ever seen the movie Trollhunter, a Norwegian mockumentary about university students who accidentally uncover a government conspiracy to hide and suppress the native troll population. He had said, yes, and laughed, perhaps for the only time that lunch. And now, here he was, being asked a question regarding the use of his name as a synonym for the banality of family existence. The professor cleared his throat.
Knausgaard sat still for a moment, looking around the table with the smallest, barely perceptible upward tilt tugging at the corners of his mouth. He raised his shoulder and rotated his hands so that the palms faced upward, he pulled his mouth into a sort of confused grimace, he raised his eyebrows.
And that was about all we got out of him.
Later, when I finally read his book, I understood why he had so little to say at lunch; he had already said it all. To read My Struggle is know Karl Ove Knausgaard as deeply and personally as anyone you know else in your life. Therein lies the beauty of My Struggle, the near complete communication of a self to a completely separate individual.
Several hours later, I remember walking into his reading as he was speaking. I arrived late and had to sit cross-legged on the floor between ungroomed hipster graduate students and grey-haired old women who seemed to fall further in love with Mr. Knausgaard at his every deep, accented syllable. He was describing an episode from his youth, a childhood paranoia that I would have had difficulty articulating to myself, let alone discussing face to face with a room full of complete strangers. It regarded the upward curve of his erections.
“I was deformed, it was misshapen, and ignorant as I was, I didn't know if there was anything you could do about it, have an operation or whatever options there had been then...It was as crooked and distorted as a fucking tree root in a forest.” Laughter and admiration filled the room, as well as a sort of indefinite embarrassment. Not embarrassment for Knausgaard's sake, but rather embarrassment at our own shame and inability to articulate or express our most intimate and frightening thoughts. Throughout My Struggle Knausgaard finds and brings to light beautiful and unexpected connections, strange shared intimacies across people and nations and time. He does this through a complete and thorough mapping of himself and his world. Through honest exploration of himself and the minutia of daily experience, Knausgaard is able to extract an incredible meaning from the otherwise overwhelming series of thoughts and sensory data our minds must process on the average day, as evidenced by the absurd detail into which he delves when discussing his own bent penis.
Of course, not all of a work as large and sprawling as even just the first section of My Struggle could focus only on such adolescent hilarity as penis curvature. Later Knausgaard read from the last section of his book, in which he and his brother attempt to restore order to their grandparents' once beautiful estate, now covered in trash, booze, and bodily fluids thanks to the negligence of their recently dead alcoholic father and the growing senility and incontinence of their grandmother. Like earlier sections of the book, which deal with everything from sharp painful meditations on early childhood to noisy failed attempts to play a first gig with his band (named Kafkatrakterne), Knausgaard treats these morbid and more recent events with the same heartbreaking and excruciating detail.
That is why it frustrates me so much, and should frustrate Knausgaard, that literary press seems unable to leave scandal out of the experience of the book. Virtually all of the subsequent journalistic coverage surrounding My Struggle's first American publication has dealt with the more theatrical elements of the book's still short life, as evidenced by the afore-quoted article in the New York Times, which spends precisely two of its twenty-one paragraphs discussing the books' literary merit or Knausgaard's writing style. Even then, the article's author would rather quote Toril Moi, a Norwegian literary critic, than draw his own opinions; it is possible that he never even read the book.
In what is one of the only decent English language reviews to deal with more than the context surrounding My Struggle, James Wood very eloquently describes the effect of Knausgaard's lilting, unending sentences, packed to the brim detail.
“Knausgaard has his own artistic commitment to inexhaustibility—a prosaic rather than painterly one, which manifests itself as a kind of tiring tirelessness...He wants us to inhabit life, which is sometimes visionary...sometimes banal...and sometimes momentous, but all of it perforce ordinary because it happens in the course of life, and happens, in different forms, to everyone.”
Yet even Wood, whose insight into Knausgaard's writing is nearly unparalleled among major reviews, misses a great deal of what it is that makes My Struggle such an unqualified masterpiece. Like the Norwegian Professor at lunch many months ago, Wood obsesses over the word 'banal,' (indeed, Knausgaard himself used the phrase “the banality of the everyday” to describe his language). He argues that the pervasiveness of such thoroughly cataloged detail robs Knausgaard's unending specificities of their autonomy as discrete objects or actions. This, however, has precisely the opposite effect. Rather than rip the individual details of their meaning, Knausgaard's meticulously observant prose imbues each specific artifact, habit, or sight with immense power. They are not lost among a sea of innumerable and insignificant details, but instead given great weight because Knausgaard tells us these trifles are worth noticing. While Knausgaard may have described his own writing as banal, I would be hard pressed to believe he considers anything other than that each intricate detail holds extreme importance. The summation of a life.
Another small bit of controversy regarding the publication of My Struggle may help to shed light on the construction of Knausgaard's impeccably chronicled world. In it's original Norwegian, My Struggle was subtitled “a novel,” while that distinction has been removed from the American version. Jill Schoolman, founder of the book's American publisher Archipelago books, said in an email to the New York Times, “It was a conscious choice not to label the book for the reader. I feel that 'the project' dwells comfortably between (and embraces both) fiction and memoir.” Knausgaard himself further blurs the line between the two genres in the actual text of My Struggle. “Ask me what I did three days ago,” writes Knausgaard, “and I can't remember.” So how could he fill the world with such breathtaking detail when his own memory is so paradoxically unreliable? In truth, the world of My Struggle is as meticulously constructed and researched as it is remembered. The sometimes unbearable detail of his memories exist not to reinforce their banality, not because they were simply there, but because Knausgaard has placed them there, within his memories, and created his world with an unwavering purpose.
Though I bought Knausgaard's book the day I met him, at the time I believed the book little more than an international intrigue, and didn't actually read it until two months later. Immediately after I found myself hungering for another Knausgaardian adventure. The next volume of My Struggle isn't due out in English until May of this year, and my Norwegian, unfortunately, leaves much to be desired. I decided to tackle his only other work available in English, his second novel, A Time for Everything. While My Struggle may blend the lines of fiction and memoir, A Time for Everything veers far away from the unblinking retrospection that characterized My Struggle and elevated the book to international sensation.
A Time for Everything is dense, charismatic, flawed, and thoroughly odd book. The narrative follows the life and scholarship of one fictional 16th century theologist, Antinous Bellori, who devotes his life to the development and classification of a bizarre sort of angel science, upon which Knausgaard manages to very convincingly expostulate thanks to impeccable research. Yet, though this narrative provides the through-line for the novel, Bellori's sections pale in comparison to what are Knausgaard's more daring and interesting sections, in which he narrates in curioys psychological prose certain well-known events from the Bible. Most notably A Time for Everything contains a hundred page section detailing Cain and Abel's affectionately flawed fraternity, and an even longer section regarding Noah's estranged family in the years leading up to the great flood.
However, though I find Knausgaard's story both original and exciting, I do not believe I am alone when I say that I admire Knausgaard more for his belletrism than the strength of his narrative. The frantically methodical analysis of the history of angels, while intellectually appealing, fails to ever approach the visceral fascination Knausgaard evokes when so painstakingly describing himself or the natural world. Though I firmly believe that Knausgaard possesses extreme talent, and deserves popular recognition for more than chance scandal, reading A Time for Everything made me realize why his personal narrative has been so inseparable from the conversation surrounding My Struggle. There is something incredibly captivating about the knowledge that a novel has so riled a nation. It proves that Knausgaard lives and interacts in the same world as us, and somehow increases the immediacy of the reading experience. Just as I could never divorce my own experience of the novel from the cryptic, quiet man sitting across from me at lunch, I imagine My Struggle constantly reminds most readers that someone, somewhere cared enough about this book to threaten his beloved nephew. Perhaps, in a way, the scandal proves Knausgaard's power as a writer, someone whose mastery of language both enrages and enraptures. He's cool, he's enigmatic, he's someone you want to read about. In A Time for Everything, there simply isn't enough Knausgaard. And hey, if tabloid-like literary coverage can unearth writers as talented as Knausgaard, then, by all means, bring on more scandal.
And, though you may come for the controversy, you'll stay for the words. We Knausgaardians still have the pleasure of awaiting future translations of My Struggle's later volumes and hopefully more. At the moment Knausgaard's future as a writer is somewhat murky, and he has reportedly ended Volume 6 with the phrase, “I am happy because I am no longer an author,” and sources say he plans to open a small publishing house in Sweden, where he lives with his wife and children. Perhaps he's earned it; he's certainly given us a lot to digest.
Now that I have read his two books, I find myself wishing I could encounter Knausgaard once again, this time well prepared to discuss his work. I imagine opening the door once more and seeing the tall rough man with a cigarette and inviting him in and telling him how much his work moved me and why he needs to keep writing. I imagine asking how he did what he did, how he had the courage to write what he wrote. But, for the most part, I think I'd leave the scandal alone. Knausgaard in one interview said, “I feel like Faust. I feel like I sold my soul.” And while that may be true, I, for one, am glad the devil bought it.