Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle (Book Two)

my-struggle-book-2More than two years have passed since I read Book One of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six-volume memoir My Struggle, and now, having just finished Book Two, subtitled “A Man In Love,” I don’t know why I allowed such a wide gap between readings.

The first volume described the death of his alcoholic father, and hinted at the trauma that relationship caused the young Karl Ove; the second volume tackles an ostensibly happier subject, his second marriage and fatherhood, but we are not ten pages into his narrative before he gives us this description of his wife, prompted by a petty argument:

I would have left her because she was always moaning, she always wanted something else, never did anything to improve things, just moaned, moaned, moaned, could never face up to difficult situations, and if reality did not live up to her expectations, she blamed me in matters large and small.

Whether this is a lasting judgment or the product of a moment’s annoyance, he is not speaking about a fictional character but a flesh-and-blood woman, his wife, the mother of his children – and likewise revealing much about himself in the process. No wonder, then, that the books have caused such a stir, for if Knausgaard can muster such honesty in description of his wife, imagine how he treats friends, neighbours, casual acquaintances. But his principal quarry is not others but himself, and he is as ruthless – more ruthless, even – in his self-assessments. One of the chief inspirations for My Struggle was the memoirs of the Norwegian poet Olav Hauge, and Knausgaard describes him in terms no less applicable to Knausgaard himself:

He was an unusually sensitive man, as delicate as the most delicate of plants, with absolutely no interest in or talent for the practical sides of life, so everything he did, what constituted the basis of his everyday life, he must have had to force himself to do.

Compare this description of Hauge with Knausgaard’s description of himself:

Everyday life, with its duties and routines, was something I endured, not a thing I enjoyed, nor something that was meaningful or made me happy. This had nothing to do with a lack of desire to wash floors or change nappies but rather with something more fundamental: the life around me was not meaningful. I always longed to be away from it, and always had done. So the life I led was not my own. I tried to make it mine, this was my struggle, because of course I wanted it, but I failed, the longing for something else undermined my efforts.

He will constantly refer to himself as an emasculated man, or something less than a man. Walking his children through the town square, pushing a baby carriage, is agonizing, an affront to his already fragile masculinity; in another section, his wife becomes trapped in a bathroom at a party, and someone must kick in the door to free her. He feels it to be his responsibility to free his own wife, but is humiliated when a larger, stronger man is asked. These are minor instances, arriving early on in the book but later on in Knausgaard’s life; he plays freely with time, taking us backward and forward in his life, and midway through the book he gives us a stunning example of the depths of his insecurity. When he first courts his future wife, she rejects him in favor of another man, and Knausgaard, devastated, retreats into a bathroom, drunk out of his mind, where he breaks a mirror and cuts his face with the largest shard of glass: “I did it methodically, making the cuts as deep as I could, and covered my whole face. The chin, cheeks, forehead, nose, underneath the chin. At regular intervals I wiped away the blood with a towel.” The moment is as shocking as it is unexpected, but it goes some way to demonstrating to what extent Knausgaard is revealing himself in these memoirs. We see him cower with insecurity over the most trivial of issues; we seem him act out of extreme selfishness, choosing to write rather than spend time with his wife or take care of his children. If his wife is, at times, emotionally abusive, he is no less abusive of her.

We might profitably ask why a novelist, and an intensely private one at that, would opt to expose the most intimate details of his life for his readership when a work of fiction would spare him this embarrassment. Late in Book Two, he hints at an answer:

It was a crisis I felt in every fibre of my body, something saturating was spreading through my consciousness like lard, not least because the nucleus of all this fiction, whether true or not, was verisimilitude and the distance it held to reality was constant. In other words, it was the same. This sameness, which was our world, was being mass-produced. The uniqueness, which they all talked about, was thereby invalidated, it didn’t exist, it was a lie. Living like this, with the certainty that everything could equally well have been different, drove you to despair. I couldn’t write like this, it wouldn’t work, every single sentence was met with the thought: but you’re just making this up. It has no value. Fictional writing has no value, documentary narrative has no value. The only genres 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? Not directed above us, nor beneath us, but at the same height as our own gaze. Art cannot be experienced collectively, nothing can, art is something you are alone with. You meet its gaze alone.

We are indeed saturated with stories, stories told to us on television and sold to us in movie theatres; how often do we encounter in these stories an individual, fully formed, to return our gaze?