Eight Hundred Pages into Knausgaard

I’ve asked friends about Karl Ove Knausgaard’s 3,500-page novelesque autobiography My Struggle. Most have never heard of it. Most of those who have doubt they have time to read it (they’re right). Those who have read it, though, are evangelists. I’m a couple of volumes in, and I’m in the last camp.

“Total Recall” – that’s the title of James Wood’s 2012 New Yorker review of Knausgaard’s opus. Wood gets it exactly right. Knausgaard is unafraid of Dickensian detail. He does not shy away from naming the brand of candy bar bought at a Bergen convenience store one day in the last third of the 20th century. The act of cleaning out a filthy toilet bowl stretches across twenty or thirty pages, turning the unforgettable aroma of Proust’s madeleine into the unforgettable stench of turd.

Knausgaard’s five translated volumes (a sixth is due out next year) have appeared in the midst of the Great Age of Diaries. This blog is one of perhaps 200 million others. You, of course  have also kept a blog, a diary, a journal or a lifelog at some point, no? The patron saints of this Age include, for instance, the late Robert Shields, the “wordy diarist” who documented his daily grind in five-minute increments, amassing 37.5 million words and a mention in the Guinness Book of World Records. Shields may one day be surpassed British parliamentarian, broadcaster, and obsessive chronicler Gyles Brandreth, who claims to have written “countless millions” of words reflecting upon his day-to-day activities. Like the 17th century diarist Samuel Pepys, Shields and Brandreth have created documents so massive that it would take an interested reader (not me) months to get through them.

Such projects are basically aide-mémoire: keyed to the calendar, they index a life.

This is not at all Knausgaard’s aim. He does not tell us about that toilet out of an obligation to report the hour he spent kneeling beside it. Instead, he scrubs his grandmother’s downstairs bathroom because his father had lived in the house for months in an alcoholic stupor. Before his death, the man had thoroughly fouled toilet, bathroom, and house, just as he had fouled his son’s young life. It takes a lot of writing to clean all the shit that shames us.

When My Struggle appeared in English five years ago, I absolutely did not want to read it. I was dealing with my own share of family deaths and apartment cleanings. Though none were anywhere near as awful as Karl Ove Knausgaard’s, I didn’t want unwelcome reminders. Besides, my attention span had diminished in inverse proportion to the time I spent online. I had to force myself to sit in a chair long enough to finish some breezy crime novel. Serious literature? Forget it.

George Eliot

Retirement changed the calculus. I spent this past Spring and Summer retraining myself to read. Like an errant schoolboy, I limited my screen time and then sat myself down in total midnight silence with lengthy and consuming fictions. I owe the resurrection of my reading life to the tough love imposed by William Makepeace Thackeray, George Elliot, and Leo Tolstoy. I also began making a tentative peace with my losses. In the last twenty weeks, I’ve been sorting files, arranging albums, and tossing garbage inherited from a dead sister, a dead brother-in-law, two dead uncles, dead parents and dead grandparents. Immersing myself in the paper they left behind has done me a world of good.

Even so, I didn’t much want to tackle Knausgaard. Three thousand pages? Really? I couldn’t even stick with “Game of Thrones” much past the first episode of season 2. Winter may be coming for you, but the weather’s fine here, and I really do have to get outdoors more often. Wouldn’t I just die of inactivity – or boredom?

But last month, at Skylight Books, I turned a bookcase corner. Staring right back was Knausgaard’s gnarled face, on the cover of volume 1. He did not look happy to see me. I gave in. Three weeks later, I’m about halfway through volume 2. Volumes 3-5 arrive from Amazon tomorrow. This morning, at Small World Books, I picked up Autumn, a luminous collection of brief essays Knausgaard wrote for his youngest daughter. The die is cast: for at least the next couple of months, I’ll be binging on Knausgaard. Skål!

The series is exactly as promised: a self-contained and obsessively introspective autobiographical memoir, packing an emotional wallop without becoming maudlin. Knausgaard’s business is to reconstruct memory and in doing so, to work through his demons and so, with ever greater candor and clarity, examine and make peace with himself. If you do read Knausgaard, you’ll have to come to terms with a hard truth:  you will never blog, journal, or life-log as fearlessly he does.

Knausgaard’s excavation of memory has invited comparisons to Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu (Memory of Lost Time). This comparison annoys Proust’s many fans, who suspect that Knausgaard’s acolytes haven’t actually read Proust, but merely borrow some of the Frenchman’s reputation in order to burnish that of their Norwegian favorite. No matter: Knausgaard shares with Proust the insight that memory is a function of emotion rather than reason, and therefore follows no logical timeline. An event in early adulthood leads backwards to an episode in adolescence, which rebounds into a conversation with a college friend, and then forward into a phone call from mom. This tangle of mutually dependent memories creates and reinforces a sense of self.

It is no accident that the 21st century nightmare is not a zombie apocalypse. It is amnesia. We will never experience a night of the living dead. But, through Alzheimer’s, dementia, a nasty knock on the head, or an unresolved emotional trauma, we can easily become dead to ourselves. It’s this last fate that Knausgaard so vigorously resists.

Though Proust remains the comparison of choice for most critics, Knausgaard reminds me just as much of Kurt Vonnegut. In Slaughterhouse Five, events move according to two intersecting and recursive chronologies, one on Earth and the other on the planet Tralfamadore. Causation is, for the Tralfamadorians, independent of time (a theme also explored, with far less humor, in last year’s sci-fi film “Arrival”). Knausgaard, like Vonnegut, is alive to the wince-worthy humor of his own behavior and to the way his intentions so very often go awry.

But unlike Vonnegut, Knausgaard doesn’t play his life as a sci-fi satire. Though there are painfully funny passages, he does not turn these into surrealist tragi-comedy. For him, the ongoing dialogue between past and present isn’t a literary device: it’s the way life actually works. Vonnegut’s cheerfully bleak response to disasters great and small, the repeated phrase and so it goes, is completely foreign to Knausgaard’s sensibility.

Nor (unlike Proust), does Knausgaard dress up his autobiography as fiction. Yes, he does call it a “novel,” an acknowledgement that memory is unreliable and that, to write a cohesive account of a memory requires a certain amount of imagination: the exact words his brother uttered in 1998, or the precise brand of beer bought for a new year’s eve party fifteen years before. Knausgaard recognizes that memory is not history, much less the past: we reinvent it over time and, in the process, we reinvent ourselves. Still, he seems a reasonably reliable narrator. I’m convinced, anyway, that the Karl Ove Knausgaard of My Struggle is the very same Karl Ove Knausgaard now living in a village outside Ystad in southern Sweden. I trust him.

Knausgaard’s “struggle” – so far, at least – pits him against his father’s emotional legacy. The first volume could almost begin with Philip Larkin’s lines – “They fuck you up, your mum and dad / They may not mean to, but they do.” What pulls Knausgaard back from the brink of such despairing hilarity is his decision to immerse himself in a family of his own. By the middle of volume 2, he’s willingly fallen in love and has chosen to stick with it, even when love’s first irrepressible desire ebbs. He rejects Larkin’s advice to “Get out as early as you can / And don’t have any kids yourself.” Instead, he rejoices at the birth of his first daughter, which pulls him into a tight orbit around a new cosmos, lit by an irrepressible faith in the future.

It’s too early to know, but it’s just possible that by the end of his life, Knausgaard will have saved up more memories of sheer happiness than Proust, Vonnegut or Larkin ever allowed themselves. With four volumes ahead of me, I’m rooting for him.

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