This review was originally published at ReadySteadyBook.com
Towards the end of the shattering first volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s memoir My Struggle, he cuts from a scene of particularly sepulchral intensity to a flashback describing his days interviewing writers for a student newspaper. On one such occasion, while interviewing the author Kjartan Fløgstad, he forgets his notepad and is forced to try to recreate the interview from memory. But it’s impossible. Even with the questions to hand his memories of the conversation are “too vague, too imprecise”. Having called up Fløgstad for some ‘follow-up questions’ he manages to cobble together a version that seems faithful enough, and submits it to the author for review. The response reads as an ironically prescient in-joke:
“I opened it. Held the printout of the interview. It was covered with red marks and red comments in the margin. “I never said this”, I saw, “Imprecise”, I saw, “No, no, no”, I saw, “???”, I saw. “Where did you get that from?” I saw.”
Knausgaard’s six-volume tell-all has become a literary sensation in Norway, partly due to the lavish acclaim it has drawn from more bookish quarters, but mainly due to the juicy controversy stemming from its warts-and-all portrayal of Knausgaard’s family. This, the first volume to be translated into English, centers on his enigmatic father, who walked out on the family and later barricaded himself in his mother’s house and systematically drank himself to death. Knausgaard pulls no punches in laying bare the desperate squalor in which his father spent his final days, and the very public fallout with surviving members of the family over Knausgaard’s version of events has made the book an unlikely bestseller.
Prescience aside, the anecdote demonstrates the fundamental impossibility of Knausgaard’s project. If he cannot recount a single conversation without scandalizing his interlocutor with flagrant distortions and misrepresentations, what can his memoir ever be but the most arrant of fictions? Even the passage itself is a double negative, a self-cancelling invalidation. As a remembered anecdote that Knausgaard uses to demonstrate the impossibility of really remembering anything, it negates its own purported premises, even as it undermines those of the entire undertaking. This awareness of his alienation from the past underpins Knausgaard’s approach to his subject matter. He may be able to dredge up disparate fragments, images, even the odd madeleine-prompted moment of uncanny convergence, but as Thomas Bernhard’s narrator puts it in Extinction, for the most part the past – even yesterday, even the last second – is nothing but a gaping void. Memory is to a greater or lesser degree fictional, and that is before one even confronts the problematics of writing, of subjugating experience to the outrages of narrative form and the corrupting medium of language. Knausgaard reflects:
“You know too little and it doesn’t exist. You know too much and it doesn’t exist. Writing is drawing the essence of what we know out of the shadows. That is what writing is about. Not what happens there, not what actions are played out there, but the there itself. There, that is writing’s location and aim. But how to get there?” (p. 190)
Even self-knowledge becomes unreliable once it is detached from intuition, and has been assimilated into a personal narrative. Truth isn’t a question of content but of sense and feeling; an event; a verb not a noun. For Knausgaard, writing is a lie deployed in the service of exhuming and recapturing this fugitive truth. But writing muddies the water with its own manipulations and falsehoods, from the weight of usage and association to the gestures of ritual and convention, the charade of literary voice. Knausgaard thus chooses a way of ‘taking us there’ through his writing that is risky, oblique and at times disconcerting. Distrusting the tyranny of the adjective, he bases his style around flatness and matter-of-fact detail. For the most part he lets significations arise out of form and structure, the internally generated resonances and associations carried by objects themselves, rather than laying them on a plate for us through the line-by-line expressiveness of literary prose. Rather than channeling experience, Knausgaard’s dispassionate delivery more often than not serves to accentuate our distance from it:
“On the way downstairs a huge surge of tears overcame me. This time there was no question of trying to hide it. My whole chest trembled and shook, I couldn’t draw breath, deep sobs rolled through me, and my face contorted, I was completely out of control.
“Ooooooooh,” I said. “Ooooooooh.”
The subject matter sits uncomfortably with the anti-emotive, matter-of-fact style. The symptoms are simply presented in a non-hierarchical list (‘My whole chest…’), free of any of the inflective legwork we expect prose to do in order to enhance the sense of that to which it refers. Part of the uncanny effect of Knausgaard’s approach to his subject manner is this resistance to almost any kind of literary voice, rejecting its heightened sensibility on a line-by-line level and instead opting for a cumulative effect based on form rather than style. His prose rejects one of the central mechanisms of traditional literary aesthetics: enhancing and evoking subject matter through imitation. Like when Keats imitates the sticky sibilance of an overripe apple, or Dickens or Joyce modulate their sentences to evoke fog or snow. Knausgaard simply doesn’t bother with any of this, which becomes a kind of oppositional statement in itself. His stubbornly deadpan delivery accentuates the rupture between now and then, the void that separates the historical self from the self that tries to recapture experience and recreate it through prose. Yet this is not the mannered, deliberately enigmatic Dirty Realist minimalism of Hemingway and Carver, or even the offhand garrulousness of Kerouac. It lies somewhere much closer to the tone of Imre Kertesz’s remarkable novel Fateless, in which the narrator revisits Auschwitz and rather than emoting just ingenuously describes what he sees.
In Knausgaard the resistance to emotiveness is not merely a way of confronting the ineffability of trauma without reducing it to the forms and codes of habit, though this is undoubtedly partly where he is coming from. It is also down to a more general, pervasive sense of the impossibility of writing, of which the recollection of trauma is merely an extreme example. It is much more obviously impossible to convey the actual sense of Auschwitz than it is to convey the actual sense of the dinner-table atmosphere of one’s childhood, or the feeling of playing in a rubbish band, or making a pot of coffee or lighting a cigarette; there is much more at stake in its being subsumed into the normalizing network of shared association. But it is ultimately an amplification of the same incongruity. The sense of a moment passes through words like so many grains of sand through despairing fingers. If Knausgaard is to overcome this problem he must do so obliquely.
What does it mean to say that Knausgaard’s artistic effects arise from form and structure rather than style? Take, for example, the line that begins the passage that deals with his father’s death and its aftermath, the real subject matter of the book: “I was almost thirty years old when I saw a dead body for the first time”. This comes on page 222, but it is really the book’s beginning. The events that the narrative concerns – Knausgaard’s confrontation with the squalid house in which his father died, and his attempts to make sense of the events that drove him to what was in effect a prolonged suicide – are all to come. Yet Knausgaard prefaces this all with 222 pages, consisting of a mixture of saturnine overtures, philosophical asides, quotidian detail and fractured anecdotes from his youth, that can at times seem slightly directionless. However, in retrospect it becomes clear that by doing so he creates the conditions under which the objects and events that the main narrative concerns can become meaningful, independent of the stylistic shortcuts of a more conventionally literary treatment. We can well imagine a lyrical memoir in which the above sentence serves as a killer opening. It might continue with evocative prose that transports us inside the mind of the observer, creating resonance and an illusion of empathy. Yet this is not how Knausgaard continues. He merely dispassionately describes what happens:
“It was the summer of 1998, a July afternoon, in a chapel in Kristiansand. My father had died. He was laid out on a table in the middle of the room, the sky was overcast, the light in the room dull, outside the window a lawn mower was slowly circling around a lawn.”
The significance of the scene arises from the painfully accumulated sensibility we have derived from the previous 222 pages, insidiously, accretively drawing us into the author’s way of looking at the world, his many-sided relationship with his father, the ineffable web of significations contained within the corpse laid out on the table before us and its relationship to the observer. Knausgaard could try and communicate something of this through evocative prose, perhaps using free indirect discourse to try to recreate his mental reaction to what he observes. Yet he knows that this would be a fraudulent way of recreating the ‘there’ of the moment. Instead, through its structure and painfully assembled detail, the novel cultivates a sensibility whereby the signification is able to arise, to some extent, out of the objects themselves. Hence, when Karl Ove and Yngwe pull up outside of the house in which his father drank himself to death, all he needs to do is flatly describe what they see:
“The garden was completely overgrown. The grass was knee-high, like a meadow, grayish-yellow in color, flattened in some places by the rain. It had spread everywhere, covering all the beds, I wouldn’t have been able to see the flowers had I not known where they were…”
Knausgaard doesn’t tell us what he is thinking, because he knows the structure of the novel does that for us. We immediately cast our minds back to our first encounter with his father digging his immaculately maintained garden twenty years previously, a cold, rigidly disciplinarian figure. The contrast with the dissolute slob who drank himself to death does not need to be articulated through high-flung phrases or hand-wringing lamentation; Knausgaard subtly creates a textual structure in which it arises out of the detail itself.
The fault line separating autobiography and fiction was explored by some of the great writers of the 20th century, from Nabokov and Cendrars to Bernhard and Coetzee, though the obvious source text for Knausgaard’s epic is Proust’s A la recherché du temps perdu. Knausgaard’s memoir is a Proustian undertaking not just in the most obvious sense of it being a gargantuan six-volume novelistic examination of the author’s memories, but also in the sense that it tells the story of how it came to be written. It remains to be seen exactly where the remaining five volumes will take us, but even as a standalone Knausgaard’s narrative is circular in the sense that it creates the conditions for its own coming into being in the reader. It engenders the requisite sensibility in the reader who has finished the novel whereby he is able to comprehend something of the full meaning of the author who began writing it. In this sense it is a book that reinforces the Nabokovian diktat that we cannot read, only re-read. And one of the great gifts of this devastating, urgent and original masterpiece is that its resonant last line invites you to do just that: turn back to the first page and start over, all the better equipped to make sense of the journey.