Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle (Book Four)

In a public conversation between Zadie Smith and Karl Ove Knausgaard, part of the Lannan Literary Series, Knausgaard relates how his editor’s description of his first novel as a “monument to male shame” took him utterly by surprise. “I wasn’t aware that the book was about shame,” Knausgaard explains, “because I am so full of shame, and I thought that was the way the world was.” Shame is indeed his great theme, and I have read no writer since Kafka who has so clearly plumbed its depths. Each book in the series covers a period in his life – Dancing In The Dark, the fourth book, covers his late adolescence – and every new age brings something new to be ashamed of. As a child, it is his overly large butt, or his popularity among his peers; as a father and husband, it is his physical weakness, or the image he has of himself as an emasculated man pushing a baby carriage. As a teenager, it is his ineptitude with women – his inability to lose his virginity, manifested most painfully in his problems with premature ejaculation – that is his greatest source (or perhaps excuse) for feeling shame.

Shame is, by its nature, an intensely personal emotion, mediating the boundary between private and public experience, outer action and inner thought. In healthy doses, it’s perhaps a necessary component of a functioning society, and different cultures and nations employ shame differently, and to varying degrees. The Nordic countries, in particular, are notoriously private – Knausgaard has described his native Norway as a “shame society” – and it is easy to see how the long, dark winters and spread out population (most of Karl Ove’s childhood and adolescence takes place in small towns) might contribute to this. There is, however, such a thing as an excess of shame. If the mechanisms of shame that make it such an effective policer of good and bad behavior become unmoored from objective reality, the consequences can be devastating. Guilt, for example, is closely allied to shame: guilt is the emotion we feel when we have done something wrong, and the pain of guilt is a powerful impetus to prevent our doing that bad behavior in the future. But what if the source of your shame is something innocuous, something innocent? What if you feel guilt, not for your behavior or anything you’ve actually done, but for who you are? Karl Ove Knausgaard is such a person, a man consumed by shame, and it has created an incredible gulf between his life as others perceive it and his inner experience of it. Every action, however small, every social encounter, however trivial, gets filtered through a consciousness forever on the look out for potential sources of shame.

The book begins when Karl Ove is 18 years old, as he journeys to northern Norway to a remote fishing village, where he has accepted an invitation to work as a teacher for the town’s only school. He is, for the first time in his life, truly on his own, away from his alcoholic and abusive father, free from parental supervision and in charge of his own destiny. He has grand ambitions to write and to read, to live the secluded life of the aspiring writer, but his plans go astray. Shame at still being a virgin – despite what he tells his friends – gnaws at him, and makes an ordeal of every encounter with a young woman, charging every fleeting relationship with the twin possibilities of redemption and undoing.  Here is how he describes his approach to women:

I looked upon them as completely unapproachable creatures, indeed, as angels of a sort, I loved everything about them, from the veins in the skin over their wrists to the curves of their ears, and if I saw a breast under a T-shirt or a naked thigh under a summer dress, it was as though everything in my insides was let loose, as though everything began to swirl around and the immense desire that then arose was as light as light itself, as light as air, and in it there was a notion that everything was possible, not only here but everywhere and not only now but for ever. At the same time as all this arose inside me, a consciousness shot up from below, like a water spout, it was heavy and dark, there was abandon, resignation, impotence, the world closing in on me.

He is simultaneously aware that his reverence for women also makes him somehow unattractive to them, as if they can sense his desperation. And to make matters worse, when he does finally succeed in seducing a woman, his premature ejaculation – or merely the fear of it! – prevents him from consummating the relationship. On several occasions, he even rejects women who care for him deeply, ending a relationship in its infancy rather than reveal his shameful sexual failing and risk humiliation.

Four books in, with two remaining, I have a better grasp on his project in My Struggle, and for all its literary design, it is equally, excruciatingly personal, the work of a pent-up and tortured soul expunging his shame and guilt and insecurity in one 3,500-page diary. What an incredible irony, that so personal and tightly focused a work of literature should find a global audience – and what luck.