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Karl Ove Knausgaard's Nordic existentialism

Why have the confessions of a Norwegian Everyman become a literary phenomenon?

Selfish gene: Karl Ove Knausgaard turns his mundane life into honest and provocative fiction. (Photo: David Sandson/Eyevine)
Selfish gene: Karl Ove Knausgaard turns his mundane life into honest and provocative fiction. (Photo: David Sandson/Eyevine)

Boyhood Island (My Struggle: 3)
Karl Ove Knausgaard, translated by Don Bartlett
Harvill Secker, 490pp, £17.99

Some time in the late 1890s, Kate Perugini, the daughter of Charles Dickens, told George Bernard Shaw that she intended to burn her mother’s letters. Perugini argued that rather than fulfilling their intended role, to show the world that the Dickenses had once been happy, the letters served only to reinforce the familiar view that her father had been married to a boring woman. But Shaw responded that it no longer mattered either way, advising Perugini that, as he later put it, “the sentimental sympathy of the 19th century with the man of genius tied to a commonplace wife had been rudely upset by a writer named Ibsen”.

In the first two volumes of his free-form, fear-filled, densely descriptive, thoroughly autobiographical six-part novel sequence, My Struggle, published in England in 2012 and 2013 under the titles A Death in the Family and A Man in Love, the novelist Karl Ove Knausgaard, Norway’s biggest literary star since Ibsen, portrays with savage honesty the challenges of being a man of genius who is also expected to be thoughtful, sensitive, unmonkish. In a passage that begins “Ibsen had been right . . . Relationships were there to eradicate individuality” (a somewhat different reading from Shaw’s), Karl Ove, Knausgaard’s not-very-alter ego, explains that he would often say “yes, yes, when I wanted to say no, no” – to the detriment of his work. At one point, Karl Ove resolves that he must “start working harder” on his novel and tells his girlfriend Linda that he is going to write through the night. But when she arrives unannounced at his flat, he feels obliged to let her in. He doesn’t want her to think that his “miserable manuscript” is more important than their relationship. “At that moment it was,” he confesses, “but I couldn’t say that.”

Again and again in My Struggle, the third instalment of which, Boyhood Island, has just been published in Don Bartlett’s smooth translation, Knausgaard says the things that Karl Ove “couldn’t”. “When I was with other people I was bound to them,” he writes, setting out his credo as part-man, part-artist. “But the moment I was alone others meant nothing to me.”

In exposing the loveless, lordly genius-husband, Ibsen was also striking a blow for the artist as a trader in unpalatable truths, and if Karl Ove feels like a victim of egalitarianism, he is also a grateful beneficiary of artistic freedom. Yet isn’t he really a beneficiary of both? After all, Linda’s long-term demands on his time provided material for a manuscript that has fulfilled the “ambition” that he feared relationships would undermine: “to write something exceptional one day”. Saying yes, yes to Linda – coupled with his tendency to say yes, yes, to every artistic impulse, however harsh, that comes his way – has made him one of the great writers about male frustration. The startling passages about being “bored out of my mind” on days out with his baby daughter required Karl Ove to be that kind of man and Knausgaard that kind of writer.

An immediate response to Knausgaard’s exercise in truth-telling – his programme of uncensored revelation – was the publicly voiced anger of his uncle (who objected to Knausgaard’s portrayal of his father and grandmother) and also of his ex-wife, Tonje. But then writing as if other people mean “nothing” to you is a tried and tested means of turning intimates into enemies, relatives into plaintiffs. Thomas Wolfe, Knausgaard’s predecessor as an author of aggressively prolix, proudly autobiographical fiction, recalled that his first novel turned him into “a black sheep, a pariah and an outcast who had cruelly savaged his own people”. Hanif Kureishi, who incurred his own accusations of betrayal for writing about his father in The Buddha of Suburbia (1990) and his wife in Intimacy (1998), recently shrugged off such problems as inevitable, stating: “Writers are trouble . . . a writer is a nuisance.”

Knausgaard fits those descriptions, but not gleefully. He isn’t a wilful, tickled badboy like Michel Houellebecq. Though his willingness to alienate friends and relatives suggests, as he admits, a certain degree of dissociation, Knausgaard is not a slave to his own damage in the way Houellebecq is. In Houellebecq’s work, damage is only the motor; in Knausgaard’s, it is a subject. My Struggle is an example of what you might call New Man existentialism, whereby male anomie and exhaustion are depicted along with the pain that underpins them: a more talkative, touchy-feely Camus. Provocation is a by-product of Knausgaard recounting his personal history without letting anyone off the hook, just as exhibitionism is the vessel. Neither is an end in itself.

But as well as provoking legal threats, death threats, hate mail and arson, Knausgaard has earned himself a mass readership in his home country, where the series, published between 2009 and 2011, has sold more than half a million copies. Norwegians have an appetite for the kind of transfixing boringness that Knausgaard offers; Michael Booth, in his enjoyable new book The Almost Nearly Perfect People, describes how Norway’s national broadcaster scored a hit in 2011 with a six-day documentary of footage from a camera mounted on an express ferry, which it advertised as “watching paint dry – live on TV”. But Knausgård-manien seems to arise from a different impulse, at once more pleasure-grabbing and more flag-waving.

Knausgaard was born in December 1968, a year before the discovery by Phillips Petroleum Company of Ekofisk, the first oilfield in the Norwegian sector of the North Sea – and so My Struggle is the fullest account of what it has been to live in a country whose already fierce pride, based on its ancient traditions, recent independence and solid social-democratic agenda, has only increased with its sudden wealth. “Zeitgeist comes from the outside,” we read in Boyhood Island, “but works on the inside.” According to that logic, a family saga can also function as a national epic; and in a country excited about itself, a national epic can hold the appeal of a daytime soap.

The attraction beyond Scandinavia is of a more elevated, boredom-seeking sort. The arrival of My Struggle has coincided with a growing intolerance, expressed more by writers and critics than by average readers, towards the shapely, plot-led, made-up novel, and the made-up American novel in particular. Knausgaard embarked on A Death in the Family after failing to write an invented story about the death of his father, and in A Man in Love, Karl Ove recalls that 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 . . . but just consisted of a voice, the voice of your own personality, a life, a face, a gaze you could meet”. Other writers who felt this weariness about narrative, together with excitement about directness and disorder, include Geoff Dyer, Sheila Heti, Frédéric Beigbeder – and David Shields, who first felt it 20 years ago, long before he wrote his own book about his father, The Thing About Life Is That One Day You’ll Be Dead (2008). One of Shields’s whipping-boys in his polemical collage of 2010, Reality Hunger: a Manifesto, was a writer’s successful attempt to turn his relationship with his father into a work of fiction – The Corrections (2001), where the Franzens become the Lamberts and Jonathan becomes Chip, which Shields derided as a big, conventional, blockbustery American novel, exactly the kind of thing he no longer wants to read (and, indeed, he hasn’t read it).

Knausgaard’s aversion to conventional shaping and selection has been somewhat overstated. Boyhood Island is the most repetitive and overtly mundane instalment of My Struggle so far translated into English, but only as Knausgaard works to reorient the reader to the child’s-eye-view of such experiences as being grounded, rejected and bullied. (As Karl Ove’s mother says, “Feelings are feelings whether you’re seven or seventy.”) It’s a task that by definition takes some time, resulting in an opening hundred pages of occasionally torturous blandness. But on the whole, the power of Knausgaard’s work comes from what it shares with Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections: its vocal fluency (both writers deal in the fifty-page set piece, the hundred-page stream of consciousness) and its author’s willingness to say, albeit more directly in Knausgaard’s case, My father beat me, my mother was submissive, my older brother couldn’t really help, I’m weak and scared, I’ve got no illusions left, my struggle is a real one. It is Knausgaard’s brazen humanity that distinguishes this project, not the way he writes about nappies and cleaning products and comic books, or his resistance to epiphanies and the three-act structure.

If a small, secret part of Knausgaard’s thrill in America is that he writes about ordinary, middle-class experience that isn’t American, then it is an anthropological or touristic thrill that Boyhood Island denies to the English reader. Thanks to the novel’s recipe of football, mucking about in the countryside and listening to Queen and Bowie, the third instalment reads like an English novel, with all the pleasing dowdiness that implies.

The critic James Wood has said that he initially feared that the portrayal of adolescence in A Death in the Family, with its “autopsied minutiae”, was just a less well-written version of Adam Mars-Jones’s ongoing novel sequence – until the book’s “morbidly compelling” second half justified the first half’s “plenitude of detail”. But Boyhood Island isn’t a book of two halves, or much variety. It doesn’t jump about, unlike the previous volumes, or make room for the adult narrator’s charged, extended musings.

Instead, it concerns itself exclusively with the way things felt – desperate, shameful, unfair – to the seven-year-old, the ten-year-old, the 12-year-old Karl Ove, and so it is very similar indeed to Mars-Jones’s books, Pilcrow (2008) in particular. Both Karl Ove and Mars-Jones’s narrator John Cromer are prone to tears; both have strict and unhugging fathers (though Karl Ove’s is more brutish); both swing between delight and disappointment (though Karl Ove swings more wildly); both make countless topical references; both engage constantly in tail-eating boy-logic; both describe a television turning off; and so on. A sentence such as “I liked Norwich, I liked their yellow and green kit” could come from either narrator, and in fact is delivered by Karl Ove.

If there is a central difference, it is in the level of knowingness. While Karl Ove reflects the temperament of the society he comes from, John reflects more directly on it. And though both Karl Ove and John are “precocious investigators of states of mind”, only John would describe himself that way.

But a topcoat of irony cannot explain why, despite all that the series share, there has been no sight of Mars-Jones-mania in England or anywhere else. A more likely factor is that John lacks Karl Ove’s “representative” features: he is homosexual, upper middle class, disabled, Hindu. Where Faber calls John Cromer “one of the most unusual heroes in modern fiction”, Knausgaard’s publishers can say with a clear conscience: “This is a book about one man’s life but, somehow, about everyone else’s too.” Karl Ove, in further contrast with John, lives in a country that is growing in confidence and might, and the books about him have been presented to a readership with increasing wealth and leisure time. It is also notable that whereas Knausgaard’s erasure of family privacy served as a magnet for publicity, Mars-Jones received permission from the friend around whose experiences he is composing his “free fantasia”.

Yet it would be wrong to suggest that Karl Ove is just an Everyman-plus-shading, and that Knausgaard has simply lucked out. Historical factors may account for why My Struggle has become a “phenomenon” but they can neither explain nor dilute the novels’ richness. Yes, Knausgaard appeals to the modern appetite for warty portraiture and off-page bust-ups and has chronicled middle-class Norwegian life during the country’s “exceptionalist” phase. To a loud anglophone minority, he constitutes a thrillingly boring alternative to boringly diverting invention. But he also displays a tremendous and irreducible zeal for penetrating what Karl Ove, reeling after a date with Linda, calls “the inner core of human existence” – an effort that brings fame to some but not others, and in which he has no obvious superiors among the writers now available to an English-reading public.

Leo Robson is the NS’s lead fiction reviewer