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Life in the Future Perfect Tense?

Kevin Brazil

Karl Ove Knausgaard
My Struggle: Book 1. A Death in the Family
My Struggle: Book 2. A Man in Love
Translated by Don Bartlett
Vintage Books, 2013 and 2013
£8.99 and £8.99
416 and 544 pages
ISBN 978-0099555162 and 978-0099555179

The first volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s autobiography My Struggle opens: “For the heart, life is simple: it beats as long as it can.” With four more volumes to come, one might conclude that for Knausgaard writing is equally simple: just write as long as you can. But given the practicalities of translation, the remaining volumes of My Struggle will be appearing in English long after they have been completed and published in Knausgaard’s native Norway. Reading the first two volumes, one has a curious sense of being in the middle of something sprawling and unformed that nevertheless will come to an end: drifting through a life in the future perfect tense. It is very different from the experience of reading Proust, whose shadow appears in the opening pages as a writer whom Knausgaard once “imbibed”. Proust’s search for lost time never ended and one suspects that it probably never could. Towards the end of the second volume of My Struggle, Knausgaard describes how he began to write the books: “The idea was to get as close as possible to my life.” So he begins to write about his wife and children sleeping in the next room, but soon can’t resist some “ultra-modernistic” passages about the faces and patterns in all systems. But then he notices a little hedgehog, shelves any idea of the sublime, and turns deeper and deeper into his own life, to when his father left his mother, and back to a time when he hid some bags of beer in a ditch when he was a teenager.

Those bags of beer are at the center of one of the mundane but instantly recognisable quests of the first book of My Struggle: the quest of two teenagers to get drunk. The carefully calibrated excuses to parents, the enlisting of someone with an ID, the drinking so as to be drunk on arrival, and the uncomfortable car journey home: all these details are recounted in a way that is both enthralling and boring, even enthralling because it is boring. Much of the first volume is taken up recounting Knausgaard’s childhood and teenage years growing up in suburban Norway in the eighties. The book doesn’t pretend that much of this was anything more exciting than endless car journeys, to and from school and to and from his grandparents’ house, nor that the most indelible memories of childhood were something as ordinary as the sound his father made coming home from work. But this memoir is not a study in the sublimity of the quotidian. When the present Knausgaard surveys the objects of his past, the “Slazenger tennis racquets, Trentorn balls and Rossignol skis, Tyolia bindings and Koflach boots”, he realises the “difference between a child’s reality and an adult’s”: that to the adult, such objects are “no longer laden with meaning”. For Knausgaard, growing up is one long slow process by which the meaning that once seemed inherent to the objects and places of the past slowly but irreversibly withers away. The bottle is the focal object in which this might be traced, for rooms full of them appear and are thrown away in the central episode of the first volume. The house in which his father drank himself to death, its rooms full of bottles, and the grandmother who the father let slide into senility are described and recounted in a studied, flat, and neutral style in which the loss of meaning is not lamented but ardently and tragically desired. Yet for all the flatness of style, and the often embraced clichés of loss, the motif of the bottle alerts us not only that this writing is an act of mourning loss through its containment, but that the autobiography as a whole is a question of the container and the contained, of crafting a suitable vessel for the life it holds.

The second volume is concerned less with a childhood past than with Knausgaard’s more recent present. If the dominant tone of the first volume was elegiac, then that of the second is self-deprecatingly satiric. Knausgaard is now living in Stockholm with his wife Linda, and the book sees the birth of his three children, Heidi, Vanja, and John. The book is not without minor tragedies and joys, but fatherhood is presented as an experience whose meaning is bounded by different limits than those of youth. As we follow Knausgaard through Stockholm, through embarrassment at parenting classes, through his hilariously simmering but self-aware resentment at bourgeois Swedes, his world draws in, curling around itself. Happiness becomes a matter of making it to the crèche and back again. It is the status of contemporary fatherhood, as well as Norway’s mortal enemies the Swedes, that receive the brunt of Knausgaard’s satire, but he is also willing to turn it on himself. If this feels less substantial than the first book’s exploration of grief and memory, then it is heartening to realise, with four more volumes to come, both the range of Knausgaard’s writing and his ability to wring humour from his image of himself as a self-pitying country man in the world of Sweden’s cultural classes.

Their “culture”, he is at pains to show, is not his. Throughout the books, we get a picture of Knausgaard as a reader as well as a writer. The names that made up a late-twentieth century European education in the humanities appear with an almost sociological familiarity: Saussure, Derrida, Kristeva, Foucault, Deleuze, and Lacan. But we also see those writers who clearly mean the most to him: Hamsun and Hauge, Bernhard and Blanchot. Knausgaard’s life in reading has crucial consequences for his writing:

Over the years I had increasingly lost faith in literature. I read and thought this is something someone had made up. Perhaps it was because we were totally inundated with fiction and stories. […] The only genre I saw value in, which still conferred meaning, were diaries and essays, the types of literature that did not deal with narrative, that were not about anything, but just consisted of a voice, the voice of your own personality, a life, a face, a gaze you could meet. What is a work of art if not the gaze of another person?

Of course, in keeping with his self-conscious personality, the narrator knows that he “could relativize this as well”. But then the back and forth of self-examination ends: “I took out my mobile and flipped it open. The photo of Heidi and Vanja shone up at me.” In the background photograph of a mobile phone, he discovers the gaze in which he will try to find his work of art.

What then of the question of genre which a passage like this one raises? The question of how to categorise My Struggle has generated considerable debate in Knausgaard’s native Norway and looks like it will do so in the English speaking world as the subsequent volumes appear. Autobiography or novel? Autobiographical novel? The perils of trying to classify writing that purports to hew so close to life are indicated by the cankerous neologisms which it generates: ‘autofiction’; ‘allofiction’; ‘autobiografiction’, each as contorted as the next. Lingering in this urge to classify My Struggle, not as an autobiographical essay without narrative, but as a novel or simply as a fiction, are two assumptions. Firstly, that the claim to art that Knausgaard is clearly trying to make requires a gap between life and art, so that the former can be promoted to the latter—or demoted, according to another point of view. And secondly, that it is both possible and desirable that ‘the novel’ can accommodate everything and anything which a writer might put into it: endless car journeys around suburban Norway, or a list of what feels like every street in central Stockholm. Or what a writer might take out: not just the long jettisoned plot and character, but a position in space and time from which the events are being related, or, indeed, the guarantee that the author wants you to read a book as a novel.

In her review [1] of the first two volumes of My Struggle, Shelia Heti best expressed this sense of unease with what she called “the aura of ‘the novel’”. For Heti, “the novel” is like “nostalgia” because it creates a false distance: “It brings life close but makes that life unreal. It turns the past into something it was not, the way conventional novels make of life something it is not.” Heti’s own How Should A Person Be (2010) mapped a similar struggle to break free from nostalgia and the novel, or nostalgia for the novel, and to kill the “consensual safety that fiction brings with it, the presumably ethical veil behind which writers protect themselves from their family and friends: it’s not you, that’s not your name, your hair is not red, it’s made up.” It is the urge to tear this veil that makes the desire to get beyond the safety of fiction so convincing and chilling. We might then be able to replace this question of genre as classification with one of genre as desire. To paraphrase Heti: what is it that My Struggle wants to be? It wants to be art and it wants to cut as close to the life of Karl Ove Knausgaard as possible. It wants to bring reality back into art without the theoretical baggage of ‘the real’ or the critical baggage of ‘realism’, baggage which, as Frederic Jameson’s recent Antimonies of Realism (2013) shows, is never going to depart from a dialectical train station somewhere in nineteenth-century France.

Michael Wood has written that the long drift of fiction in the second half of the twentieth-century was away from the novel to the story. Life, identity, history, reality: all became stories in one long postwar carnival. But life, at least in Norway, hasn’t felt like a carnival for quite some time. In Knausgaard’s books we see the desire to get beyond a world where everything is a story and where everything is consequently the same, a desire to seek out those limit points where stories end and something else begins. Maybe that is why, from its very first pages, My Struggle announces itself as a series of books about death. But unlike Walter Benjamin, for whom death was the origin of storytelling, in Knausgaard’s books we see the acceptance of death as the origin for a different kind of writing. But what that might be, only four more volumes will tell.

Kevin Brazil [2] is reading for a DPhil in English literature at New College, Oxford. He is a senior editor at the Oxonian Review.