Knausgaard’s Ruthless Freedom

We’re on winter break until January 7. In the meantime, please enjoy our contributor’s take on a book selected by the New York Times as one of the year’s best. This article was originally published on October 26, 2018.
So here it is at last: the end of Knausgaard’s struggle. It is 1,160 pages long, divided into three parts. Part 2 consists of a long essay on Hitler. Both ...

So here it is at last: the end of Knausgaard’s struggle. It is 1,160 pages long, divided into three parts. Part 2 consists of a long essay on Hitler. Both Part 1 and Part 3 begin just before the original, Norwegian publication of the series’ first book, in September 2009.1 Part 1 is recursive, looping back through the spring and summer of 2009, during which Karl Ove agonizes over his uncle Gunnar’s threat to sue him to prevent publication of Book One. Scared and enraged, he does the laundry, loads and unloads the dishwasher, walks the children to and from school, talks to his friend Geir, and quarrels about housework and childcare with his wife, Linda. Part 3 moves forward chronologically from the launch of Book One through the writing and publication of the next four volumes until Karl Ove finally finishes Book Six, in September 2011. But in this part, the story of the books pales in comparison to the harrowing account of Linda’s psychiatric breakdown.

Book Six, then, is in part a metanovel about the My Struggle series, not just because, like the earlier volumes, it contains many reflections on language and writing, but because the existence of the My Struggle books now inevitably becomes part of Knausgaard’s subject matter, part of the life he is trying to lift out of the shadows. The speed with which these books transform his life is astounding. When, in 2010, his ordinary summer visit to see his mother, who lives in Jølster, a small village by the Sognefjord in Western Norway, turns into a media circus, it dawns on him that his life is forever changed. His books have turned his every public appearance into an event, and his name into a logo. In the summer of 2009, when Book Six opens, Karl Ove is an impoverished writer who can’t get a credit card; in the summer of 2010 he buys a new house almost on a whim. By the end, Knausgaard is simply not the same writer as in Book One.

In this volume we observe how, paradoxically, the existence of the other My Struggle books puts an end to the conditions that enabled him to write them in the first place: the obscurity, the frustration at not being able to write, the desperate desire for recognition. This is surely why Book Six is the least Proustian of the series, for there is no volume of In Search of Lost Time in which Marcel reflects on the publication of his masterpiece or ruminates on the experience of being excoriated for his ruthless flouting of ordinary moral standards, not just in the media but by his family too.

Permeating every part of Book Six, in fact, is Karl Ove’s discovery that not just his uncle, but many others, find the very act of publishing My Struggle morally repulsive. By writing about real people with (mostly) real names, they believe, he has shown himself to be a selfish brute. This is fascinating, for the Karl Ove we have known for six volumes has been compliant and submissive, always trying to please, always hiding his real opinions and feelings out of fear of becoming the target of the rage of others. Yet here in Book Six, he weathers the wrath of his quasi-insane uncle Gunnar, as well as the ire of his mother, his mother-in-law, and his ex-wife, Tonje. He also witnesses Linda’s profound pain after she reads the manuscript of Book Two. Her breakdown is surely in part provoked by that experience. No longer hidden, Karl Ove has come fully out into the open, but at what cost?

None of this prevents him from doing more of the same: toward the end of Book Six he not only chronicles the details of Linda’s breakdown, he finally and triumphantly names his father, something he didn’t do in Book One, for fear of legal action by his uncle. He even finds himself reflecting on the potential value of Nietzschean ruthlessness [hensynsløshet].2 The whole project of the My Struggle books, which I take to be Karl Ove’s quest for existential and artistic freedom, turns out to be intertwined with artistic and personal ruthlessness. After reading a particularly nasty email from Karl Ove’s uncle, Geir spells it out: “You’ve written a book about your life, from where you stand. It’s all about freedom. Freedom’s something you take. If it’s given, then you’re a slave. You wanted to write about your life the way it is. There’s a price for that. That price is what you’re looking at now. You didn’t consider your uncle, therefore you’ve been ruthless.”3

The hallmark of the My Struggle series has always been its mix of banal ordinariness and breathtaking moments of beauty and genius, the latter often inspired by pictures, literature, and philosophy. Whether he is loading the children’s clothes into the washing machine or walking along the quayside in Helsingborg, Karl Ove’s mind conjures up a whole intellectual world. In quick succession he thinks of Hamlet, Ulysses, Paul Celan, the ancient Greeks, Friedrich Hölderlin, Swedish modernism, and uses them as springboards for his own reflections about writing and existence.

In fact, the books in the My Struggle series give us the most fascinating account I know of what it is like to exist as a male intellectual in the early years of our century. I specify “male,” for it is a fact that for all his wide-ranging interests, Karl Ove hardly ever reads anything at all by a woman. Nevertheless, Knausgaard shows us better than any other contemporary writer what it is like to live a life in which literature, art, and philosophy genuinely matter. And surprise: such a life is not one of esoteric elitism. It is utterly ordinary! Yet at the same time it is utterly exceptional, like every life. It is no coincidence that the relationship between the general and the particular, the “we” and the “I,” the social and the personal, is one of the great themes in Book Six.

In Book Two, Knausgaard expresses his admiration for Thomas Bernhard, but observes that Bernhard’s writing lacks open rooms, that it shuts everything up in “small closets of reflection.” Karl Ove recoils in horror: “Hell, no! I wanted to be as far from everything closed and mandatory as it was possible to be. Come out into the open, my friend, as Hölderlin had written somewhere. But how, how?” In Book Six he quotes the same line again, but this time he connects it to his lifelong struggle with an idea that he feels has been forced on him, namely “that I wasn’t a good and decent person but a fool, conceited and inadequate.” This thought fills him with shame.

As a 16-year-old boy in Kristiansand, he took to drink, he writes, to escape “my inner uncle’s watchful eye.” Now he realizes that the longing to “write something fantastic, something truly unique, something of unearthly beauty,” expressed the same desire. At the time, escape seemed so impossible that he couldn’t even name what he was longing for. Much later, he found it expressed in Hölderlin’s “simple call: ‘Come out into the open, my friend!’” Yet for a long time, he couldn’t explain why this line spoke to him so deeply.

Knausgaard shows us better than any other contemporary writer what it is like to live a life in which literature, art, and philosophy genuinely matter.

Here, in the last volume of his monumental series of novels, Knausgaard is finally able to name what Hölderlin’s call for openness means to him: a yearning for freedom. He realizes that he writes to free himself from the yoke of the perceptions of others. That’s why My Struggle is a project of freedom, as Geir put it. But to be free, he—Knausgaard, the writer, which here can’t be distinguished from Karl Ove the character—needs to shatter the self-image forced on him by his uncle’s judgment. He needs to stop hiding, reveal who he really is, finally come out into the open. No wonder, then, that Book Six describes his project in terms that convey a dense series of closely related oppositions: open/closed; showing/hiding; visible/invisible; exposure/concealment; expression/silence.

To find a voice in this way will make him ruthless, for to expose himself is necessarily also to expose others. Instead of continuing to try to please others, continuing to hide under the cloak of social conformity, he will have to own his own individuality by acknowledging his words and actions, claim them as his regardless of the consequences.

In my view, the decision to devote 450 pages to Hitler is connected to Karl Ove’s ruthless need to break free from the carapace of shame. If he has always felt himself weighed down by the idea that he wasn’t “a good and decent person,” then why not examine a man the whole worlds considers truly evil? But there are also more specific reasons to consider Hitler. The original impulse came from two small objects: first, after his father’s death, he and his brother found a Nazi pin among his belongings; then, when his grandmother died, they found a copy of the Norwegian translation of Mein Kampf. Knausgaard always wanted to understand what this meant. It is also clear that the title of his own book, and the weight of his readers’ expectations, eventually forced him to read Hitler’s text. Yet so worried and ashamed was he about being associated with that book that he made Geir buy it for him.

He needs to keep his distance precisely because he recognizes himself in the young Hitler. In his late teens and early 20s, Karl Ove too was a failed artist with dreams of grandeur but no achievements. At 16, he too felt himself to harbor extraordinary talents, yet had no idea how to turn them into concrete work. This is why he objects to Ian Kershaw’s portrayal of Hitler as essentially evil from the start, as if a 16-year-old Austrian boy somehow reveals his genocidal future by being lazy at school. Yet Knausgaard’s study of Hitler is not an attempt to “humanize” Hitler, as some critics claim, for that could only be true if we accept the premise that Hitler was a nonhuman monster, a freak of nature. That would let us all off the hook rather too easily. Knausgaard sticks to the more disturbing conclusion that even the most ordinary human being can turn out to be capable of unspeakable evil.

How, then, does Knausgaard shed the burden of shame and come out into the open? What is it about the writing of My Struggle that allows him to do this? For Hölderlin, ultimate existential openness meant madness, and death. But for Knausgaard, there is a different way: not the one that leads us away from our existence with others, but the one that binds us to them. That way goes through language, which for him, as for Wittgenstein, is public and shared: “To describe the world is to create reality.”4 Once he begins to describe his experiences, what he sees, what he pays attention to, it opens up the world, makes it visible to others, and thus makes it real.

Here we touch at Knausgaard’s way of connecting writing and life, the place in which he reaches for a new understanding of what literature can be. For his idea of description is not traditional realism, if we understand that as a writer’s full faith in the novel’s capacity to represent reality. Knausgaard knows perfectly well that even the most exact description is a kind of fiction. Thinking about Proust’s luminous metaphors, he notes that “The way he transformed everything and imbued it with magic is no longer possible … because everything has already changed, everything is already something else, as if pervaded by fiction[,] as it were. We can strip down reality, layer by layer, and never reach its core, for what the last layer covers over is the most unreal of all, the greatest fiction of them all, the true nature of things [egentligheten].”

Everywhere in My Struggle Knausgaard shows his profound admiration for the great modernists at the same time as he registers the passing of modernism’s dream that writing might capture genuine moments of being. This in itself is not unusual. What is unusual is his consistent refusal to espouse the usual alternative, namely the postmodern conviction that nothing is real, that language can only produce “reality” (as David Shields, in Reality Hunger, believes), that all we can do is play around with our words, our signifiers, our different fictions and guises. It is difficult to think of a novel less ironic, less invested in pastiche and play than My Struggle.

What, then, is Knausgaard’s alternative? My Struggle can’t be reduced to a romantic yearning for authenticity, for throughout the series that yearning is always grasped through the prism of modernist literature, which Karl Ove admires deeply; and of postmodern theory, which he feels consistently ambivalent about, and not for lack of familiarity with it, for in the 1990s, Knausgaard studied literature at the University of Bergen, a hotbed for the propagation of postmodern thought in Norway (and also my own alma mater). Throughout these six books he constantly reflects on literary form, expressing his desire to get beyond the existing formal constraints. This is his project as a writer, and this is why he becomes so ruthless in his struggle to do a kind of writing that “draws what exists out of the shadows of what we know,” that gets to “the there itself.”

For Knausgaaard, to give in to the temptation to be intellectually or stylistically brilliant would be to continue to hide behind externally imposed forms.

Knausgaard is a deeply existential writer: his great themes are life, figured in the birth and care of children; and death, as in the death of his father. Above all, My Struggle reveals an intense yearning to find a kind of writing capable of conveying existence itself, of conveying the experience of being here, now. In Book Six it becomes clear that, for Knausgaard, the here and now is always historical. Everywhere in this book, he reflects on time and historicizes experience. He wants to know what difference it makes to be born in the 16th rather than in the 20th century, and why the ancient Greeks invented history, but not the diary. He wonders why the enchantment produced by Proust’s scintillating metaphors is not available to us today. That historical consciousness drives his conviction that to express our existence, the old forms, and the old concepts—literariness, literary form, realism, modernism, and so on—simply will not work.

The lack of those old forms in My Struggle has often met with resistance, not least from critics looking for dazzling intellectual feats and sublime “writerly” prose. But Knausgaard deliberately avoids all attempts to shine. To come out into the open he needs unvarnished self-exposure. To give in to the temptation to be intellectually or stylistically brilliant would be to continue to hide behind externally imposed forms, and thus akin to hiding behind an externally imposed self-image. Were he to accept established forms, he would continue to be subservient to the taste and judgment of others. There is only one exception to this rule, namely the opening of Book One. In a 2013 essay he explains that his editor wanted to cut the “worked-through, high-modernist-prose-like opening.” Yet he couldn’t let it go: “I held on to it, for it declared that I was a real writer, that I actually could write and not just feel.”5

Just as Karl Ove dwells on the difference between reading Hitler’s Mein Kampf in 1925 and reading it in 2010, I am struck by the difference between reading the sixth volume of My Struggle in Norway in November 2011, and in the United States in September 2018. The famous ending is a case in point. On the last page, Karl Ove tells us what he will do after he has finished writing the very paragraph we are reading. In a few hours, he says, Linda will return. Then they will go to Copenhagen to be interviewed about their respective new books: “Afterwards we will catch the train to Malmö, where we will get in the car and drive back to our house, and the whole way I will revel in, truly revel in, the thought that I am no longer a writer.”

In 2011, then, the book ends with Linda and Karl Ove on a high. He has finished his massive book; she has recovered from her breakdown, and her new collection of short stories, Grand Mal, has just appeared. Finally they will share the literary stage. After their evening in Denmark, they will return to their house and their three children, and Karl Ove will never write again. Or will he? In 2011, Norwegians weren’t sure how to take that line. American readers can’t share their anxiety (or relief), for they have already been treated to the four volumes of the Seasons series, which Norwegians would know nothing about for another four years.


Ferrante, in History

By David Kurnick

Thanks to the Seasons series, in 2018, followers of Knausgaard know that Karl Ove and Linda had their fourth child, in 2014. They also know that their marriage ended soon thereafter. Readers of The Guardian may have noticed that Knausgaard now lives part-time in London with a woman he refers to as the “love of his life.”6 Should we allow that knowledge to affect our reading of the end of My Struggle? Given the books’ determination to break down the conventional divide between author and narrator, author and character, it’s not clear that it’s irrelevant.

I don’t doubt that Knausgaard felt exactly what he wrote that he felt. (After all, he didn’t know how it would all turn out either.) Yet I find that I am still inclined to read the story of Linda and Karl Ove with greater skepticism than before. But were I to do that, I would be doing to Knausgaard what he criticizes Kershaw for doing to Hitler: projecting my knowledge of what was to come back into a time where that future was still open. Yet, how can I avoid doing precisely that? I can’t pretend that I don’t know what I know. And My Struggle itself insists that the meaning of an event, or a work, or a life, changes with time; that our understanding of the past is inevitably shaped by our own circumstances. But this is no longer Knausgaard’s problem, for he has let the text go. It’s our struggle now.


This article was commissioned by Nicholas Dames. icon

  1. In this context I am using the term “part” generically; in fact, Knausgaard’s book is divided into the following named sections: “Part 1”; “The Name and the Number”; and “Part 2.”
  2. The translation mostly uses “inconsiderate” where the Norwegian has “hensynsløs.” It is true that “hensyn” means “consideration.” But “hensynløs” usually implies brutality and hardness, not least in this volume, in which Knausgaard explicitly connects the word to Nietzsche, as in the passage where Karl Ove remarks about Gombrowicz that “in the ruthlessness of his thoughts he was akin to Nietzsche.” Here and below, I have at points modified the translation.
  3. Inexplicably, at this point the translation renders “hensynsløs” as “thoughtless” (and “frihet” as “liberty”). But the point is the ethical chill cast by Karl Ove’s ruthless behavior.
  4. For more on description see my December 2017 essay “Describing Knausgaard” in The Point.
  5. My translation from “Ut dit fortellingen ikke når,” in Karl Ove Knausgård, Sjelens Amerika: Tekster, 1996–2013 (Oktober, 2013). A translation by Anna Paterson, “Out to Where Storytelling Does Not Reach,” is available in Eurozine, April 3, 2014.
  6. Karl Ove Knausgaard, “Contemporary Fiction Is Overrated,” interview with Andrew Anthony, The Guardian, February 11, 2018.
Featured image: Bø i Vesterålen, Norway (2018). Photograph by Vidar Nordli-Mathisen / Unsplash