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

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

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

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, NEW COLD WAR

Davide Restivo at Wikimedia Commons
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Scientists have finally said it: alcohol causes cancer

Enough of "linked" and "attributable": a new paper concludes that alcohol directly causes seven types of cancer.

I don't blame you if you switch off completely at the words "causes cancer". If you pay attention to certain publications, everything from sunbeds, to fish, to not getting enough sun, can all cause cancer. But this time, it's worth listening.

The journal Addiction has published a paper that makes a simple, yet startling, claim: 

"Evidence can support the judgement that alcohol causes cancer of the oropharynx [part of the throat], larynx, oesophagus, liver, colon, rectum and [female] breast"

So what's especially significant about this? 

First, scientists, unlike journalists, are very wary of the word "causes". It's hard to ever prove that one action directly led to another, rather than that both happened to occur within the same scenario. And yet Jennie Connor, author of the paper and professor in the Preventive and Social Medicine department at the University of Otago, New Zealand, has taken the leap.

Second, alcohol not only causes cancer of one kind – the evidence supports the claim that it causes cancer at seven different sites in our bodies. There was weaker evidence that it may also cause skin, prostate and pancreatic cancer, while the link between mouth cancers and alcohol consumption was the strongest. 

What did we know about alcohol and cancer before?

Many, many studies have "linked" cancer to alcohol, or argued that some cases may be "attributable" to alcohol consumption. 

This paper loooks back over a decade's worth of research into alcohol and cancer, and Connor concludes that all this evidence, taken together, proves that alcohol "increases the incidence of [cancer] in the population".

However, as Connor notes in her paper, "alcohol’s causal role is perceived to be more complex than tobacco's", partly because we still don't know exactly how alcohol causes cancer at these sites. Yet she argues that the evidence alone is enough to prove the cause, even if we don't know exactly how the "biologial mechanisms" work. 

Does this mean that drinking = cancer, then?

No. A causal link doesn't mean one thing always leads to the other. Also, cancer in these seven sites was shown to have what's called a "dose-response" relationship, which means the more you drink, the more you increase your chances of cancer.

On the bright side, scientists have also found that if you stop drinking altogether, you can reduce your chances back down again.

Are moderate drinkers off the hook?

Nope. Rather devastatingly, Connor notes that moderate drinkers bear a "considerable" portion of the cancer risk, and that targeting only heavy drinkers with alcohol risk reduction campaigns would have "limited" impact. 

What does this mean for public health? 

This is the tricky bit. In the paper, Connor points out that, given what we know about lung cancer and tobacco, the general advice is simply not to smoke. Now, a strong link proven over years of research may suggest the same about drinking, an activity society views as a bit risky but generally harmless.

Yet in 2012, it's estimated that alcohol-attributable cancers killed half a million people, which made up 5.8 per cent of cancer deaths worldwide. As we better understand the links between the two, it's possible that this proportion may turn out to be a lot higher. 

As she was doing the research, Connor commented:

"We've grown up with thinking cancer is very mysterious, we don't know what causes it and it's frightening, so to think that something as ordinary as drinking is associated with cancer I think is quite difficult."

What do we do now?

Drink less. The one semi-silver lining in the study is that the quantity of alcohol you consume has a real bearing on your risk of developing these cancers. 

On a wider scale, it looks like we need to recalibrate society's perspective on drinking. Drug campaigners have long pointed out that alcohol, while legal, is one of the most toxic and harmful drugs available  an argument that this study will bolster.

In January, England's chief medical officer Sally Davies introduced some of the strictest guidelines on alcohol consumption in the world, and later shocked a parliamentary hearing by saying that drinking could cause breast cancer.

"I would like people to take their choice knowing the issues," she told the hearing, "And do as I do when I reach for my glass of wine and think... do I want to raise my risk of breast cancer?"

Now, it's beginning to look like she was ahead of the curve. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.