Mæg ic be me sylfum soðgied wrecan,
siþas secgan, hu ic geswincdagum
earfoðhwile oft þrowade,
bitre breostceare gebiden hæbbe…
— “The Seafarer”
May I for my own self song’s truth reckon,
Journey’s jargon, how I in harsh days
Hardship endured oft.
Bitter breast-cares have I abided…
— Ezra Pound’s translation of “The Seafarer”
Perceiving the pathway to truth,
Was struck with astonishment.
It was thickly grown with weeds.
“Ha,” he said,
“I see that none has passed here
In a long time.”
Later he saw that each weed
Was a singular knife.
“Well,” he mumbled at last,
“Doubtless there are other roads.”
— Stephen Crane, “The Wayfarer”
…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.
— Knausgaard, page 1152, My Struggle: Book Six
Karl Ove Knausgaard is my friend. I have never met him, but that’s become true of some of my closest friends these days. This is not a novel conception in reviewing his six-volume diary, which imbues this sense of close acquaintance by its very form — but then, how many pages of your closest friend’s diary have you read?
Enter: the customary comparison to our many friends-in-name-alone, that we have accumulated over years of social mediation. As if one knows one’s family by its scrapbooks, as if our daily communions with the glittering and shimmering surfaces and pretenses of a crowd so amply populated it defies approximate imagining amounts to any meaningful knowledge at all, as if we are not overly inebriated by the kaleidoscopic scatterings of dispatches emerging for seconds, then disappearing into the whirlwind. No — I probably know much less about most of my closest friends than I know about Karl.
So what sort of friend is Karl? How would I rate him as a friend? If his project is to be reviewed as an Uber driver is reviewed — is his vehicle commodious? Amply so. Did he make me laugh? Infrequently. Cry? Almost. Did he have some mysterious wisdom to impart? Nope. Was my journey smooth from point A to point B? As smooth as a landscape snowed over on a lazy morning, with a mug of coffee, a blanket over your lap, as you recline into a weathered armchair, and creak the spine of a large book.
This is the general review of his work, unless it comes from someone who would not claim Karl as a friend, but as an enemy — in which case, how dare he deem himself a fit subject for thousands of pages of narcissistic wank! The gall! The nerve of such a man publicly exposing himself and his family for money! A pornographer! A solipsistic terrorist! Let’s not even start with the problematic political gestures! Swipe left! No stars here!
Oh Karl, poor Karl. My friend, I understand your struggle. Yours is the writing whose patron is the Void, as Bolaño, that deceased friend of ours, once described so succinctly in his essay An Attempt at an Exhaustive Catalog of Patrons. Who did The Seafarer sing for? Surely not me, but I like so many others, have eavesdropped on his song. Where does this desire to write come from? I’m no less spellbound by it than I was as a child, when I realized that not everyone suffered from it. I remember, at the peak of my adolescent self-confidence, as a freshman in university who had been “noticed” — having a professor, an accomplished author, well-acclaimed, fiscally well-endowed enough to own a first edition copy of Ulysses, which sat in the stacks of an expansive living-room library, in a multimillion-dollar Brooklyn brownstone apartment, ask us: “Do you enjoy writing?” There was a silence as some of us raised our hands, confused — “Oh” the author replied “All of the writers I’ve met hate writing.”
It was in that classroom that I first heard the name “Knausgaard” in the form of a question posed to this anonymous author — a name gathered from the literary pages, deployed as a form of “talking shop,” as a fumbling attempt at casual conversation that we writers, pinkies-up, engage in as a matter of course. The papers shuffled on the desk, as I shuffled on my winter coat to have a customary after-class smoke in that particular corner, beneath that particular overhang, across from the library, where we smokers, embers-tipped-up, chatted and surveyed the park, lit by the moon, the frozen fountain where we’d later drink, and smoke, and listen to — what was it then… Moss Icon and Indian Summer from Yasha’s laptop — we were not the types to so beg approval from such forgettable establishment-approved authors of middlebrow pablum — we were free of all that!
“What do you think about Knausgaard?” he asked.
The name was all around, just after Bolaño. Just as David Foster Wallace’s was already then waning, and was met with rolled eyes (often justly, as the asker of this question announced to me, not long after I had first met him “I keep looking for excuses to bring up Infinite Jest”). The way that Karl’s project is often described is generally counter-productive, as the “mundanity” of his subject matter is displayed as its appeal. This confuses and alienates the uninitiated in the way that a glowing review of an abstract-expressionist art exhibit displaying an empty canvas would. It seems like a high-flown inside joke, as if people were subjecting themselves to something torturously boring solely for the bragging rights of having done so. For a while, this was the impression that I had of Karl’s project. I could not understand why anyone would bother to read such a thing.
It was two years later that my roommate (who we had poached from the asker of that question) had succumbed and plowed through the first of Knausgaard’s volumes. He assured me that these books were far from boring or pretentious, that they were really very engaging in the way that the best novels are. They are compulsively readable, and the emphasis on mundanity so often found in reviews is out of shock — as it is nearly impossible to explain how one could stay up past one’s bedtime, entirely rapt, at prolonged descriptions of events that one, in waking life, would not consider subjects fit for literature.
With this assurance from a trusted friend, I followed suit, and read the first three in paperback, back to back, in a way that melds them together in my memory, with the long subway rides to our apartment, so far from that frozen fountain, from our freshman selves… I read the fourth and the fifth, and now the sixth, when they were released, as I did so many Young Adult serials as a child. But the latter half of Knausgaard’s Struggle does not summon any landscapes from my memory.
It’s hard for me to write about Knausgaard without trying to share my own diary entries, memories, landscapes — and I’m sure that in doing so I’ve whittled down my readers, and at this point, those of you still here are probably the ones most likely to enjoy Knausgaard’s writing. There’s no utilitarian or pragmatic purpose to reading such things, which goes for this review as well. Some of us a drawn to it, some say out of loneliness, some say out of “human interest” — but ultimately, the criterion is ineffable, for what writing succeeds or fails in warranting anyone’s attention is as mysterious as the impulse that produces the writing in the first place. I can only assure you that my friend Karl is a friend worth knowing, and that you will not be wasting your time if you decide to read thousands of pages of his reminiscences.
Perhaps it would be better to write about REACTIONARY POLITICS and the milieu of the ALT-RIGHT & IMMIGRATION POLICY & HEIDEGGER & ERNST JÜNGER & HITLER & MULTICULTURALISM & FEMINISM & TERRORISM & EUROPE & IDENTITY, DASEIN, HÖLDERLIN, FASCISM — as these are touched upon by Knausgaard, not so specifically in some cases, but in varying degrees of depth. Perhaps you just started reading here, after looking for these “really interesting” words, ya know, that “real shit” of world-historical happenings: war, life, death, power, and all those things that everyone has opinions about that mean some ostensible something more than their opinions on what a passing cloud most resembles. If that’s what you’re looking for, six volumes replete with descriptions of supermarkets, passing foliage, 80s records, coffee-making, drunken tirades, obscure Norwegian poets, cigarette breaks, phone calls, cheese spreads, toast, domestic arguments, public embarrassments, and minute facial gestures, will probably strike you as “mundane.” I can’t quite agree with that assessment, but I know that I’m doing some of you a favor by letting you know that these big topics aren’t the draw of Knausgaard’s writing.
“THAT ‘UN LOOKS LIKE A SWASTIKA TO ME.”
However, he does touch upon these issues. And despite his public presentation as an aloof social democrat, Karl is moved by myth and tradition in a way that betrays his calculated political apathy. For every confession of a reactionary temperament comes a qualification that he means “the good bits” without all the bad bits that are assumed with the turf. He bemoans the homogeneity that globalization (or Americanization) produces across the West and the rest of the world. He is against immigration because he admires real cultural difference. He references Japan positively for the uniqueness it has fostered in isolation. He does not like Anders Breivik. He does not think that the Nazis or USSR were “good akchually” and when it comes to America, he likes to imagine an alternate reality in which the entire continent had been left alone.
All of that being said, the heart of this final volume is where Karl’s Norwegian title Min Kamp encounters its sinister referent, the satanic bible, the tome of pure evil in our liberal religion, Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf.
This is the only time within the six-volume project that a bibliography becomes necessary, and there is, perhaps, a good argument against its existence within an autobiographical project. It is out-of-place in the way that Tolstoy’s historiographical essays are in the flow of War and Peace, but as is the case with Tolstoy, I am glad that it has been included. In this book-within-the-book, Karl restructures Hitler’s autobiography in such a way that it reads more like the pages of Karl’s own autobiography. Rather than take Hitler at his word, when he passes over his troubled adolescence in a few sentences, Karl appeals to secondary sources, and intuition, to fill the gaps. This results in the greatest biography of Hitler I have read, though I am not exactly a Hitler expert. I cannot say whether or not it is more or less credible than others, but I can say that aesthetically, it is a great read. Though it is framed in a half-baked theoretical conceit regarding the usage of abstract nouns like “It/I/You/We/They” — the parts that zoom in to particular scenes of Hitler’s life — such as, Hitler at the height of his power showing off a miniature model of his radically reconstructed Linz to his closest friend from adolescence, promising him to endow his sons with music scholarships, so that they can avoid the malaise he had suffered as a failed art student, back when he had first sketched his architectural vision of an alternate Linz — it is these minute “mundane” instances that shine & humanize this figure that we have been trained to imagine as an instantiation of transcendent evil.
That is Karl’s real point in writing this book within a book: not to redeem the Hitlerian vision, but to emphasize that it emerged from very human yearnings. If we are to take Karl’s semiotic theory seriously, by filling in the figure of Hitler, so that he becomes an individual referent (a “You”) as opposed to an abstract symbol (an “It”) — we (the conglomerate “I”) can avoid the dehumanizing rhetoric that turns Nazis (a “They”) into an abstract symbol of pure evil (an “It”). This grazes the territory of the hackneyed liberal rhetoric that claims “Contemporary SJWs are the real Nazis,” but Karl avoids stating this banal conclusion.
What the rest of Book Six consists of, after this four-hundred page Hitlerian digression, is not often explored in this genre of auto-bildungsroman — which customarily concludes with the protagonist’s decision to write the book. From the very start of volume six, volume one is long finished, and being prepared for release. Angry relatives, prying journalists, lawyers, and awkward encounters with figures from times past become the subject matter, forcing Karl to wonder whether or not his public project was worth it in the end. He is disowned by half of his family. His wife breaks down after having her romanticized conception of their relationship shattered, especially when she learns about the night that Karl had very nearly committed adultery (was it so nearly? We must wonder…). Karl finds himself editing subsequent volumes with these all-too-human concerns in mind, tempted — in some ways, like his alcoholic and self-destructive father whose death is central to Karl’s odyssey — to sink entirely into his writing in an almost “autistic” or “solipsistic” sense, both words he has used to describe his own authorial process.
Time catches up completely at the end, in which the very date and time of writing is attached to the entry. His wife has just returned from a prolonged stay at a mental hospital (noting the irony, that she has often felt like a sailor’s wife, but now it is she who is returning from the sea); Karl has been dealing with the fallout from his newfound fame, as well as the sale of an ill-fortuned vacation house (which stands as synecdoche for the promise of familial peace); and all he can ask for is forgiveness from his wife and children. He is ready to stop being a writer.
But this is not something that one born with this gift (which is poison, in German) can readily forswear. As it has taken seven years for this volume to be translated into English, the informed reader knows what Karl in these pages does not yet know: that a divorce is in the pipeline, and that he will continue to be a writer — unveiling his soul in all its waverings — from selfishness to charity, from love to loathing. From laughter to tears, from pride to shame. And as the anonymous Anglo-Saxon poet wrote:
ac a hafað longunge
se þe on lagu fundað.
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