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After autofiction

Rachel Cusk and Karl Ove Knausgaard embarked on works blurring the boundaries between fiction and autobiography. Now the two series have come to an end, did they find the freedom they craved?

In the sixth and final volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, his enormous autobiographical novel (3,669 pages in Don Bartlett and Martin Aitken’s translation) loops back and begins eating itself. It opens with Knausgaard having pictures taken for the jacket of volume one (entitled A Death in the Family in the UK, although the Norwegian originals are simply Min Kamp, or My Struggle, 1–6), and for the book’s first few hundred pages he gets increasingly stressed about his uncle Gunnar’s hostile reaction to the pre-publication manuscript that has been sent for approval to people mentioned in the text.

Unlike the previous volumes, which were written and published fast in Norway, in the space of a year between 2009 and 2010, volume six, simply but also grandly entitled The End in its UK edition, didn’t appear until 2011, and so was written with an awareness that My Struggle had become a sensation. As Knausgaard writes:

For more than three years I have spent my mornings in the same way, sitting here or at home in the apartment in Malmö, bent over the keyboard, writing this novel, which is now drawing to a close. I have done so alone, in empty rooms, and as I have worked, my publishers have published what I have written, five volumes so far, about which I know there has been a lot of talk, much written and said in newspapers and blogs, on the radio, in journals and magazines. I’ve had no interest in that discourse and have kept out of it as much as possible, there’s nothing there for me. Everything is here, in what I am doing now. But what is that, exactly?

Yes, what is it? In brief, My Struggle is the life story of a 40-year-old Norwegian writer called Karl Ove Knausgaard that stints on none of the repetition and banality of daily life. Knausgaard describes the aimlessness and drama of childhood, the endless small tasks of parenting young children, drunken university nights and the most private aspects of his and his family’s emotional life in great, at times obsessive, detail.

The books are divisive. For some, including me, they offer a uniquely compelling and absorbing reading experience. For others they are like watching paint dry. In fact they’re like watching paint dry for me too, only via some strange inversion that makes watching paint dry the most interesting, involving pastime imaginable. As a friend tells Knausgaard, “You can spend 20 pages describing a trip to the loo and hold your readers spellbound.”

Knausgaard wrote the books fast to prevent himself rethinking, revising, or otherwise transforming the texts into literature (“We need to be alert whenever events shape themselves into narratives, for narratives belong to literature and not to life”). Volume five, 665 pages long, took him eight weeks. I believe the speed of composition is fundamental to what makes the books so compelling, and is also why they contain some stunningly bad writing.

“I lit a cigarette,” Knausgaard writes in volume four, “we joined Hans, chatted for a bit until a girl clapped her hands and silence spread like a flock of pigeons startled into the air.” Any writer rereading a simile that bad (is anything less evocative of silence than a flock of startled pigeons?) would cut it, but revision would most likely have robbed the book of its captivating interplay between banality and beauty, the redundant and the profound, and might have meddled with the flow. Knausgaard acknowledges the dichotomy: “There’s a naivety to it that I absolutely hate,” he told the South Bank Show in 2017, “but I know that’s the only way I could write [it], that’s the price I’m paying.”

Near the end of The End, Knausgaard describes the holiday to Gran Canaria where, reading Witold Gombrowicz’s diaries, he has the idea for My Struggle, a book that will insist on its author’s own experience of reality and “describe everything as it was”, not as literature makes it appear. In the same moment three books by Rachel Cusk were conceived, too, although she didn’t know it at the time. After writing Aftermath (2012), a memoir about the break-up of her marriage, Cusk felt unable to return to the type of fiction she had written previously. As she told the Guardian in 2014, that now seemed “fake and embarrassing. Once you have suffered sufficiently, the idea of making up John and Jane and having them do things together seems utterly ridiculous.” Her words echo lines she quoted in a review of volume two of My Struggle a year earlier: “just the thought of fiction, just the thought of a fabricated character in a fabricated plot made me feel nauseous”.

If fiction as Cusk knew it was no longer an option, neither was more autobiography in the mould of Aftermath or A Life’s Work, her 2001 book about becoming a mother: “I could not do it without being misunderstood and making people angry.” Her answer, sparked by reading Knausgaard as his was sparked by reading Gombrowicz, was the Outline trilogy, which Kudos concludes. Alongside My Struggle, it is a work that has inspired a new wave of autofiction – or has at least led to that voguish term being applied, with varying amounts of accuracy, to any novel based closely on its author’s life.

The Outline trilogy is written from the point of view of Faye, a writer who either is Rachel Cusk or shares a lot of her DNA. In the first book she is in Greece teaching creative writing. In the second, Transit, she buys and renovates a flat. In Kudos she attends a book festival in Germany and a literary conference in Lisbon. Cusk is coy about locations but provides enough clues for them to be identified. Some places – Athens, London, Wiltshire – are named, but not others. Why? It’s uncertain, but perhaps Cusk wants to destabilise the reader in the same way Faye, an unusually elusive presence in the text for a first-person narrator, is destabilised.

If we ignore for the moment the matter of authorship (passages from Outline are quoted at Faye by journalists in Kudos, suggesting the books we are reading are ones she has written), Faye’s voice is the least heard in all the books, most of which are taken up by monologues from people she encounters: journalists, students, tradesmen, fellow authors – including, in Kudos, a Lusitanian version of Knausgaard who seems to be both tribute and takedown. Unlike My Struggle, in which many conversations are unflinchingly banal (“‘Right then,’ said Geir. ‘How about you?’ ‘I don’t know really. Carbonara, I think.’ ‘Nice choice. I’ll go with the carbonara as well.’”), Faye’s interlocutors are, to a woman, man and child, such eloquent and insightful self-analysts that the reality the books describe feels heightened.

In structural terms it’s possible to think of the Outline trilogy as detective fiction, with the corpses replaced by collapsed marriages. Dogged as any gumshoe, Faye proceeds from witness to witness, trying to find a reason why people continually enter situations that can only end badly. In Aftermath Cusk writes that “everywhere people are in couples”, a non-stop parade of them who “make it seem so easy, to love”. By contrast, the testimony of nearly everyone Faye encounters suggests love is impossible in anything beyond the short term. Yet Faye herself is revealed to have remarried between Transit and Kudos. “What I don’t understand,” her Portuguese publisher says, “is why you have married again, when you know what you know.”

It’s a good question. In Outline, a Greek man who takes Faye sailing and propositions her, admits that although he has been “disillusioned more times than he could count in his relationships with women”, the moments when he has fallen in love “have been the most compelling moments of his life”. Perhaps this is the case for Faye, too. The central question these books ask isn’t really about love, though, but how a woman can secure some degree of freedom in a world that is not organised with her freedom in mind. In each book she approaches the problem from a different angle. In Outline she says she “had come to believe more and more in the virtues of passivity”, but in Transit she abandons this position:

For a long time, I said, I believed that it was only through absolute passivity that you could learn to see what was really there. But my decision to create a disturbance by renovating my house had awoken a different reality, as though I had disturbed a beast sleeping in its lair. I had started to become, in effect, angry. I had started to desire power, because what I now realised was that other people had had it all along, that what I called fate was merely the reverberation of their will, a tale scripted not by some universal storyteller but by people who would elude justice for as long as their actions were met with resignation rather than outrage.

Yet for much of Kudos Faye seems to have relapsed into passivity. She is led everywhere by publicists and festival-appointed guides: to lunch appointments, receptions, and interviews with journalists who talk endlessly about themselves before telling her, “I think I have everything I need.” But is Faye passive, and is her remarriage evidence of passivity, or is something else going on here? “What I am interested in is power”, a TV presenter tells her towards the end of the book. She has concluded that for a woman to have her own space in which to exist – the freedom that Faye seeks – she must either retreat wholly into “female invisibility” or “camp on male territory and abide by its terms”.

The novel’s brilliant final scene takes place at a location Faye is not led to, but finds for herself. What happens there suggests Faye is willing literally to camp on male territory, but is more interested in rising above its terms than abiding by them. Is this how she might become free? Like the trilogy as a whole, the scene is striking, challenging and open to a variety of readings.

****

Locations in the Outline trilogy, whether a labyrinthine hotel, a borrowed apartment filled with objets d’art, or an old farmhouse lost in fog, seem invested with meaning, whereas in My Struggle a fjord is a fjord is a fjord. Yet there is a mystery that occupies Knausgaard for much of The End: why he wrote it. In trying to answer, he catalogues his anxiety about his uncle’s threats and accusations before launching into a 60-page close reading of a Paul Celan poem, “Engführung”, and then a 400-page essay about Hitler. This essay has been part of My Struggle lore for years, always seeming to promise some kind of summation, but in fact it’s a mess in which Knausgaard’s unlikely strengths – his prolixity, his faith in his own intuition, and his refusal to edit – transform into flaws.

The problem is teleological: Knausgaard decided to write about Mein Kampf because he called his book My Struggle, rather than calling his book My Struggle because he perceived connections between it and Mein Kampf. “Hitler’s youth resembles my own”, he writes, and the links he makes between their biographies – Hitler’s hostile relationship with his father, his hopelessness with women, his refusal to masturbate, his struggle to become an artist – are reasonable, but much of what Knausgaard writes has only the vaguest relevance to his book. He quotes from Mein Kampf at excessive length, and from August Kubizek’s The Young Hitler I Knew and Victor Klemperer’s diaries, and gives overlong summaries of scenes from Shoah, Claude Lanzmann’s 1985 film about the Holocaust.

Knausgaard also writes about transgressive acts committed by two of his favourite writers: Peter Handke speaking at the funeral of Slobodan Milosevic, and Knut Hamsun writing the words “we bow our heads” in Hitler’s obituary, which he calls “the most outrageous sentence in all of Norwegian literature”. He seems to be admitting to or courting a similar transgression in writing about Hitler – mentioning “something warm and kind” in the gleam of his eyes in footage taken during the Battle of Berlin – while also trying to connect this to the mixture of guilt and defiance he feels for breaking the social code that separates real people from characters in novels. Here his scattershot argument becomes directly contradictory, as he describes the novel first as an “intimate genre” that exists “in the private sphere”, then as “a public form”.

I don’t think consistency is necessarily important here – in fact the inconsistency underlines the moral dilemma Knausgaard wrestles with as he tries to explain his compulsion to write a book that “has hurt everyone around me” – but when it moves away from the personal, The End becomes laboured and incoherent.

We don’t come to Knausgaard for facts, but it’s distracting to read that “only a couple of thousand” people died in the World Trade Center attacks (there were 2,996 fatalities), or that 600,000 were killed “in the first two days of the Battle of Flanders”, also called the First Battle of Ypres (the actual figure is an estimated 300,000 over a month of fighting). He claims the ancient Greeks never conducted autopsies, ignoring Galen, Erasistratus and Herophilus, and misdates the start of the industrial revolution by a century. “Where do you get all this?” his friend Geir asks Knausgaard during a conversation about Neanderthals. “Late-night TV documentaries… I’ve no idea how much is true and how much is rubbish. But it fascinates me all the same.” His Hitler research feels little more robust. “During these past weeks writing about Mein Kampf,” he says, “I have been contemplating what I know about evil. Before I started I had never given it a thought.” A tad more would have been good before he started churning pages out.

The essay derails The End, but doesn’t destroy it; this chaotic 1,200-page book has a great 800-page book inside it. Like Faye, Karl Ove is looking for freedom: freedom from the influence and fear of his father, and by this point freedom also from the book he has been writing to achieve it. In earlier volumes, the impact of Knausgaard’s repetitious, exhaustive style is most strongly felt with regards to his father. Where a traditional novel would establish his cruelty and oppressiveness in a few key scenes, Knausgaard’s recounting of event after event infects us with the same fear Karl Ove felt. By volume three, he need only step on a creaking floorboard for us actually to experience dread at the prospect of the father emerging from the basement in rage.

This fear has receded in The End, but his father remains present and perhaps always will. Turn a few pages of Knausgaard’s recent Seasons Quartet and there he is. “He was a supreme being,” Knausgaard writes in Autumn, the tenor of which suggests that freedom in this case is more about making peace with the memory of this saturnine, abusive man, rather than obliterating it entirely. Is it worth the price My Struggle exacts? The book “has hurt me”, he writes, “and in a few years, when they are old enough to read it, it will hurt my children.” This isn’t a reckoning for Knausgaard alone: everyone who has shared his life across thousands of pages is complicit. Breaking out of fiction’s constraints can be exhilarating, as Knausgaard and Cusk both prove, but doing so comes at a price that isn’t only the authors’ to pay. 

Chris Power is the author of “Mothers” (Faber & Faber)

The End: My Struggle Book 6
Karl Ove Knausgaard
Harvill Secker, 1,168pp, £25

Kudos
Rachel Cusk
Faber & Faber, 240pp, £16.9

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Will Labour split?