Knausgaard’s Novel Degree Zero

Proustian epiphanies happen all the time, particularly to children, and they don’t necessarily add up to much.

In the early autumn of 1974 three divers working off the coast of Tromøya Island in southern Norway located the remains of an 18th-century Danish wreck. The ship they found, the Fredensborg, sank in 1768 while heading back to Copenhagen from the Danish West Indies; while those on board survived, its nonhuman cargo was lost. The ship’s inventory for the return journey listed barrels of unrefined sugar, rolls of tobacco, planks of mahogany, and three slaves, all headed for Danish buyers. Sailing for the Royal Chartered Danish Guinea Company, the Fredensborg had, as its inventory list indicates, been engaged in the triangular trade; its discovery was a news event, since intact wrecks of slavers were and are exceedingly rare. A photograph shows the divers emerging from the water with a trophy: an elephant tusk, vividly emblematic of the ship’s route and purpose.

The man in the center of the picture holding the tusk is Odd Keilon Osmundsen, then the young headmaster of the school in Tromøya where, the following year, a six-year-old named Karl Ove Knausgaard would begin his education and with it his remembered childhood. In the third volume of My Struggle, subtitled Boyhood, Knausgaard recalls Osmundsen as young, bearded, strong, fearsome, and fascinating, “not so different from Dad.” The fear arose from his function as headmaster; the fascination from the legend of his dive:

To me, someone who held diving in greater esteem than anything else, apart from perhaps sailing ships, he was the greatest man I could imagine. It was like having an astronaut as headmaster. Whenever I did drawings, it was always divers and wrecks, fishermen and sharks I drew, apart from sailing ships, page after page after page. Whenever I watched one of the nature programs on TV, about diving down to coral reefs or diving in a shark cage, I talked about it for weeks afterward. And here he was, the bearded man who, the year before, had broken the surface with an elephant tusk in his hands, from one of the few intact wrecks of a slave ship that has ever been found.

Osmundsen comes to young Karl Ove’s class to talk about the wreck. It is an unexpected story—both disappointing and strangely all the more alluring for the disappointment, like so many initiatory experiences, since Osmundsen explains that the wreck was in comparatively shallow water. Karl Ove, who had imagined the “overwhelming darkness” of the deep sea, has to recalibrate: “But on the seabed near the coast, right beneath the feet of bathers, within the range of any boy with flippers and a diving mask?”

A photograph; adult men with authority; chattel, domination, sudden disaster; diving and surfacing, the rhythm of discovery; the peculiar sense that the past is much more accessible than we might think, that the tools we need to find it are humbler than we might have guessed. This is Knausgaard’s territory, throughout his work but with particular urgency in Boyhood. Another kind of mind would have taken these concerns, this diving to find the past, in another direction. Osmundsen’s fellow diver Leif Svalesen turned to the archives, and ended up producing a scholarly history of the Fredensborg in order to come to some reckoning with the slave trade that passed through the Skagerrak well into the 19th century.1

Knausgaard, by the age of 10 and thanks to his older brother, had learned to work differently:

I started writing a book myself, it was going to be about a sailing ship, but after I had written the first ten pages, which consisted largely of listing all the people on board, what kinds of provisions they had, and what cargo they were carrying, Yngve said no one wrote books about sailing ships nowadays, they did when sailing ships existed, now people write about what it’s like to be alive today, and so I stopped.

Here as elsewhere, Knausgaard is being cannier than his deceptively childlike syntax—the ingenuousness of those independent clauses all breathlessly following each other (assuming this to be a feature of the original text as well)—would suggest. The third volume of My Struggle is exactly a synthesis of these two modes: a boy’s adventure story, with its naive precision and exhaustive detail, and an account of “what it’s like to be alive today” in the philosophical-realist tradition of Proust and Musil and Mann. There are lists and inventories, almost epic in their banality (an opening list of the names of his housing estate neighbors is as incantatory and dull as Homer’s catalogue of Achaean ships). There are also ruminations on memory and selfhood, in Knausgaard’s characteristically oneiric style. What connects them is the book’s interest in surfaces and what hides right beneath them, open to any child with flippers and a diving mask and a desire to look.

The Anglo-American response to Knausgaard has now, with the translation of the third of My Struggle’s six volumes, tipped into self-awareness. The first critics to write on Knausgaard concentrated on explaining the oddity of his project: a multivolume novel/memoir, stretching to over 3,500 pages, written by a Norwegian author in his mid-40s given to interweaving accounts of preparing meals, changing diapers, and doing laundry with moments of speculation (occasioned by, say, reading Dostoevsky in a café, or watching Tarkovsky on DVD after the kids have fallen asleep) and ecstatic meditations on time and identity. These initial descriptions relied on more familiar models, like Proust, as points of comparison, and they tried their hand at plot summary—the death of Knausgaard’s father in Book One, his second marriage and frustrations at child-rearing in Book Two—while acknowledging how little plot summary can explain his appeal.

With Book Three, the response has been less about the books themselves than the phenomenon that they have occasioned, as if what needs to be explained now isn’t what there is to admire in My Struggle but why so many people admire it: what does it say about us? With the initial thrill of discovery of My Struggle gone, it isn’t quite as easy to enjoy one’s symptom; introspection into the nature of that symptom seems to be the stage at which Knausgaard’s English-language reception finds itself. The problem is that Boyhood is sufficiently different from the previous two volumes to complicate that inquiry. As each volume is translated, some of what had seemed essential to Knausgaard’s project is stripped away or replaced, and we are forced to revise the alibis or etiologies we might have for the pleasure we take in reading him.

As each volume is translated, some of what had seemed essential to Knausgaard’s project is stripped away or replaced.

Here are some hypotheses, none of them particularly borne out by Boyhood. The first is the Proustian hypothesis: that in his temporal juggling, Knausgaard returns us to Proust’s sense of the elusive integrity of selfhood, albeit with updated settings and references appropriate for a post-aristocratic modernity. Book One, for instance, staged two long scenes as commentaries on each other: New Year’s Eve 1984, the pivot into the year when his parents would separate, a night when the tectonic plates of his family shift underneath him while his attention is on transporting beer to a party; and July of 1998, when Knausgaard and his brother spend a week cleaning out the house in Kristiansand where his alcoholic father had just died. The resonances echo across the intervening 14 years, giving the absent time a palpable shape and heft: in the first scene, a peripheral father, peculiarly distant; in the second scene a dead father, oppressively present in the detritus the disaster of his life had left behind; in between, the enigma of his decline.

Boyhood, however, is unexpectedly linear, without the temporal curlicues that one might have taken as Knausgaard’s method. We move from roughly 1975 to 1982, from ages 6 to 13, a surprisingly literal definition of “boyhood,” with only rare and modest temporal leaps. The book is circumscribed by Tromøya and concludes when the Knausgaards, relocating to a house near Kristiansand, drive over the bridge leaving the island, as if Tromøya’s self-enclosure mirrors that of childhood. Paying its respects to that bounded world, the book shies away from retrospective assessment. On one occasion the narration pulls back to study Knausgaard’s mother standing with a friend in their late-’70s color schemes—“beige trousers and a rust-red sweater” and “a pair of light-brown sandals”—and comments: “They were young women, but we didn’t know that.” Such elegiac perceptions are not generally what Boyhood seeks out.

Which is to say that “Knausgaard,” the restlessly theorizing voice that has been the center of so much commentary, is relatively absent from this volume, aside from an introduction to wonder at the disappearance of infant and early childhood experience. In his place is “Karl Ove,” a consciousness more or less confined to his present. Aside from the violent temper of his father—the constant threat Karl Ove suffers from, the psychic scars from which Knausgaard bears—the connection between boy and man is tenuous and fitful at best, the future signaled only implicitly. In the recesses of the book one can see his parents’ marriage contorting itself to find a comfortable position, and failing. Meanwhile, the two brothers, Karl Ove and Yngve, are beginning to develop the sauve-qui-peut dynamic of siblings who share a depressed or behaviorally disordered parent. Otherwise we are in the perspectiveless present of childhood.

Proustian epiphanies happen all the time, particularly to children, and they don’t necessarily add up to much.

Could Knausgaard have knowingly played with Proustian resonances in order to parody them? At one point Karl Ove’s group of friends, still only six or seven years old, discover that two seemingly separate paths on their estate, an “old gravel lane” that led to a gas station and the paved road that took them to school, divided from each other by a stretch of deciduous forest, in fact merge: “Areas that had previously been isolated, in their own worlds, so to speak, were suddenly connected.” But this Méséglise-and-Guermantes-way epiphany doesn’t lead to anything; it is one of those frequent but also easily forgotten childhood lessons, submerged as quickly as it arises by the force of other, newer discoveries. One could say: Proustian epiphanies happen all the time, particularly to children, and they don’t necessarily add up to much.

What else, then? One other possibility, often explored in less entranced think-pieces, is Knausgaard’s purely topical interest, the force of his opinions and theories. Book Two in particular was a feast of cultural observations begging for controversy. Having left his first wife and emigrated to Sweden on an impulse, Knausgaard finds himself railing at Swedish liberal complacency; later on, having remarried and had children, filling the role of temporary caretaker sends him into fits of impotent rage, walking a stroller around Stockholm “with a furious nineteenth-century man inside me.” The merely personal observations lift off into the grandly theoretical: “We are all democrats, we are all liberal, and the differences between states, cultures and people are being broken down everywhere. And this movement, what else is it at heart, if not nihilistic?” The ambivalent case being mounted here against secular democratic modernity, written from deep in its center, is of course amplified by the title of the series, much more salient in the Norwegian (Min Kamp), about which English readers will apparently have to wait for a sixth-volume explanatory essay—although some speculation has already started.2

But what if it turned out that these reflections, rather than being essential to My Struggle, were the product instead of the specific distempers of early middle age, of the dislocated, burdened Knausgaard of 2006 and after? In this third volume the topical or controversial Knausgaard—the novelist as social commentator—trembles and dissolves. Political and social context in Boyhood is minimal, evanescent. An epic distance yawns between past and present, as the 1970s remains as islanded as Tromøya itself. It isn’t an occasion for theorizing so much as a series of images and magical names:

In my mind, I have only to open the door and go outside for the images to come streaming toward me. The gravel in the driveway, almost bluish in color in the summer. Oh, that alone, the driveways of childhood! And the 1970s cars parked in them! VW Beetles, Citroën DS 21s, Ford Taunuses, Granadas, Consuls, Opel Asconas, Kadetts, Ladas, Volvo Amazons …

This isn’t a context so much as an atmosphere: environing, ineffable, sensuous.

Knives and forks clinking on plates, elbows moving, heads held stiff, straight backs. No one saying a word. That is us three, a father and two sons, sitting and eating. Around us, on all sides, it is the seventies.

“Around us, on all sides”: what can that mean other than that time is no longer historical, no longer progressive or regressive, but simply a kind of weather?

Boyhood, so little given to evaluation, assessment, or argumentation, is instead a study of immersion. It is a pure-state immersion: not immersion in something, not a study of
something, but immersion per se. With a nod to Roland Barthes’s dream of a language returned to its simplest, Adamic roots, we might call this immersion degree zero, a similarly paradisiacal (or childlike) fantasy. It is the function of the novel as a genre stripped to its barest essential. Little in Boyhood is allowed to get in the way of that goal. Not the prose, which in Don Bartlett’s translation is as swift and unornamented and unmannered as possible, as if aiming for pure continuation and sequence, as if driven by an almost childlike desire to keep moving to the next thing. Not the narrative rhythm, in which the sheer mass of a few random childhood days exerts a gravitational pull that distends and stretches into a time almost equivalent to the time of reading itself. Close to sixty pages are devoted to four consecutive mid-1970s autumn days and their events: learning the alphabet in school, exploring the surrounding woods with friends, visiting grandparents, and—in the kind of explosive scene of ordinary cruelty in which Knausgaard excels—being humiliated by his father while watching him chop wood in the yard.

The mechanics of all of these events are so particular, so moment-to-moment precise and unexpected, that they resist summary. Knausgaard père insults Karl Ove’s wood-stacking; Karl Ove cries; frustrated and embarrassed by the tears, his father mocks Karl Ove’s lisp; out of masochistic rebellion Karl Ove refuses to watch the football match they had planned on watching; his father forces him to watch, and even holds his head down to make him eat the candy they had purchased as their match-day treat. This summary’s inadequacy stems from the barely explicable motivations of the scene: the paternal violence comes like a visitation. What all these moments share is a perspectiveless immediacy. Very little is learned—or, that which is learned needs to be learned over and over again—but everything is greeted as a sudden immersion, as an experience of

Attention is lavished generously, indiscriminately; it is as if raptness is Knausgaard’s gift.

We might be forgiven the suspicion that Knausgaard’s appeal, the thing that makes people speak of his books in the language of addiction and hypnotic absorption, is less a matter of content than of narrative texture: the persistence and remarkable stamina of the narrative’s own absorptiveness. Even in the earlier books every mood and state of being is abrupt and total, from cooking salmon filets for dinner to viewing the dead body of his father. Attention is lavished generously, indiscriminately; it is as if raptness is Knausgaard’s gift, although it is exercised with such tact, unencumbered by showy prose, that it never feels burdensome.

But in Boyhood, immersion is not just a method, it is the topic at hand. The volume is structured by a rhetoric of depths and surfaces, by a topology where surfaces are constantly becoming transparent, showing their fissures and revealing entrancing depths just beneath. The housing estate on Tromøya is described from the start as cross-cut by digging, for new sewage lines or electrical cables or cellars: “What we stood on, shouldn’t that be absolutely immovable and impenetrable? At the same time all the openings in the ground had a very special fascination for me and the other children I grew up with.” A poetic logic binds scenes wholly given over to banal domestic details: an average Monday night at the age of seven involves the careful greasing of a baking tray to make scones with his mother (“Butter heated slowly could make the bristles stiffen, so you had to dab rather than stroke it on, whereas with a thin brown liquid it was easier to cover a surface”), followed by watching open-heart surgery on television with his father (“You could see deep into the body. There was a kind of shaft into it, held open by several metal clips, revealing a layer of flesh that the blood appeared to have just left”). Glistening surfaces, constantly in the act of opening up—and always, as a result, transfixing.

One of the first episodic memories the book relates is, in fact, the fear accompanying his father’s trying to teach him to swim, and swimming recurs, alongside diving, as the volume’s primary image system. The child’s constantly vertiginous negotiation of a world characterized by its steepness—so much jumping and falling, so many unsteady surfaces—is enough of a motif that it amounts to an affect: reading Boyhood means worrying about falling in. Or, perhaps, celebrating the immersion, once you’ve gotten good at it: “But what a feeling it was, with the bottom only a few centimeters beneath my body and all the water above me!” So constant is this sense of a world characterized by surfaces and depths that it becomes dreamlike:

Walking here or in similar areas, I often happily indulged the notion that the countryside resembled the sea. And that fields were the surface of the sea with mountains and islands rising from them.

Oh, to sail in a boat through the forest! To swim among the trees! Now that would be something.

To feel immersed even in the open air: one route to that state is, of course, reading. All this immersiveness has an effect more common to the novel than to other artistic forms that seek to capture or enrapture us. As I read Boyhood, I found myself coming down with a case of referentiality blues. Knausgaard’s precise descriptions of the bounded world of 1970s Tromøya—precise topographically, horticulturally, and cartographically—had left me feeling both submerged in that world and not sufficiently in it. I thought about the logistics and cost of visiting the island; I wondered if others already have, if there are My Struggle bus tour groups pointing at the gas station, the school where Osmundsen talked to children about the Fredensborg, the town dump where Karl Ove and his friends went to find pornographic magazines. The literary tourism idea seemed oddly sensible. Lacking that, one has the Internet. After all, Knausgaard had virtually licensed the idea himself: in Book Two he describes exploring Argentina in Google Earth as a temporary escape from a hard day of parenting. So I opened my laptop and looked for Tromøya.

Google Earth

Google Earth

The epicenter of Boyhood was not difficult to find; Knausgaard had already provided the instructions: “the road that linked all the side roads and housing areas on the estate went in a circle, inside which was our own circular Ringvei. As if that wasn’t enough, the main road outside also went in a circle, around the whole island. So we lived inside a circle inside a circle inside a circle.” Google’s satellite image quickly revealed those circles, the bridge toward Arendal, the sea where one could swim and the woods one might imagine swimming through. Street View gave more yet: the declivities and heights of the little estate, the houses where perhaps some of Karl Ove’s childhood gang once lived, the gardens neat and the roofs adorned with satellite dishes, the Beetles replaced by the occasional Golf or Passat wagon. No sign of digging. For a time, pushing my cursor along the lanes of Tromøya as captured on a sunny day in August 2010, the experience felt seamless with that of reading. I wanted to read more; I wanted to be there.

After some time of this I chastised myself for my naïveté. Referentiality of this kind, so we are taught, is a false lure. I reminded myself, in the voice of the formalist, that Knausgaard’s childhood is a literary construction; the artfulness of Boyhood, however little it insists on itself, must still be insisted upon. But later still I wondered if the impulse hadn’t been right, or at least truer than the corrective voice. Knausgaard’s subject matter may be closer to memoir than novel (so, at least, the ongoing Norwegian controversy over the series seems to tell us), but it is a novel nonetheless, because its most insistent subject is the experience of rapt immersion.

That has, after all, been the burden and joy of the novel since Cervantes. The quixotism of looking for Knausgaard through the Google Pegman is deeply novelistic, silly and childishly sincere by turns, and it is as good a way as any of feeling the leakiness of novelistic representation: sloppy, and porous to the banal messiness of the world, the novel’s task has always been to promote the kind of hypnotic state that wraps around the world rather than shutting it out. That state is much of what gave novels their poor reputation for centuries; it is what we tend to celebrate now, in our anxiety over a more distraction-rich media environment, in the process forgetting some of the very good reasons why hypnosis isn’t necessarily a good in itself. No small reason for Knausgaard’s ecstatic reception has been the sense that he supplies the drug of immersiveness for a culture that thinks it needs it so badly.

Of course the novel form usually aims at more than hypnosis. Moral and social education; the promotion of sympathetic identification across boundaries of self and other; sensitization “to the pain of those who do not speak our language,” in Richard Rorty’s words3: more than just convenient alibis, these are socially productive results imagined to follow, necessarily, from readerly immersion in narrative. It has been a durable and consoling story about novel reading since at least the 19th century, with cognitive science now most often recruited to provide its justification. The peculiarity of Knausgaard is that he seems not to care much about those secondary results. Whether we agree with him about liberal democracy, or stay-at-home fatherhood, or what Dostoevsky misunderstood about our lives, seems not to be important; one feels that Knausgaard may not even agree with himself. The submerged wreck of a slave ship is in Knausgaard an occasion to think about submergence per se. The designs of My Struggle on us—with Boyhood
as its most vivid example so far—are much less rhetorical than they are cognitive. The question that ensues, and that readers of Knausgaard in English will have to wait for subsequent volumes to fully answer for themselves, is whether hypnotic immersion on such undiluted terms is as genuinely nourishing as it sometimes can feel. icon

  1. Svalesen’s account was published in English as The Slave Ship Fredensborg (Indiana University Press, 2000).
  2. See, for instance, Evan Hughes’s “Why Name Your Book After Hitler’s?” on the New Yorker’s Page-Turner blog, June 11, 2014. An interview with Knausgaard that first appeared last summer provides some hints about the sixth-volume essay on Hitler; see Jesse Baron, “Completely Without Dignity: An Interview with Karl Ove Knausgaard,” Paris Review Daily, July 3, 2013 (subsequently reposted on December 26, 2013).
  3. Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (Cambridge University Press, 1989), p. 94.
Featured image: Photograph by Allan Iversen