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Karl Ove Knausgaard’s thought experiment

The Norwegian novelist doesn’t just want to show his characters’ inner lives, he wants us to take leave of our own.

By Lola Seaton

Karl Ove Knausgaard’s writing is easy to mock. Here is 19-year-old Syvert, the narrator of the first half of his new novel, The Wolves of Eternity, making pork chops:

“I put the chops on the chopping board, drizzled some olive oil on them and sprinkled them with salt and pepper. The oil lay like a film on the surface of the meat, with its little grains of salt and pepper… I got the two frying pans out of the cupboard, turned the cooker on and dropped a knob of butter into each, sweeping the onions and mushrooms into one while waiting for the butter to melt and turn brown in the other so I could put the chops on, filling a saucepan with water for the rice and putting it on the hob.”

The boilerplate vocabulary – “drizzle”, “sprinkle”, “knob of butter” – could have been lifted from a recipe, as could virtually the whole sequence if you omit the pronouns (“melt the butter… meanwhile, fill a saucepan with water…”). Whatever literary dividend was supposed to accrue from lingering over the scene – from cataloguing each gesture – is squandered by the repetitious description (having “sprinkled them with salt and pepper”, the chops are indeed covered with “little grains of salt and pepper”). “His struggle?”, William Deresiewicz quipped in the Nation in 2014 (he was not the quickest to that punchline), reviewing the first three volumes of Knausgaard’s 3,600-page autobiographical novel, My Struggle, which made the Norwegian writer an international sensation. The problem, for Deresiewicz, is “not that nothing happens” – true of plenty of classic literature – but “that nothing happens in the writing”, which is “a flat record of superficial detail, unenlivened by the touch of literary art”.

Praising Knausgaard’s writing has proved more complex. Admiring reviewers tend to sound a note of puzzled fascination, as though a touch confounded by and wary of their enthusiasm: is it soundly literary or does Knausgaard’s “striking readability”, in the critic James Wood’s phrase, breed a less wholesome kind of compulsion? Knausgaard does not want to intrigue so much as engulf us: as a reader, he told Bookforum in 2013, “good sentences” are often “wasted on me”; he just wants “to disappear completely into the work”. In a profound essay on his former teacher Jon Fosse, author of his own absorbing Norwegian epic of interiority, Septology, Knausgaard describes Fosse’s writing as “something into which the reader vanishes”; “We ourselves dissolve when we read, and in this way we approach the other, or the world.” How do they both go about pulling off this vanishing act?

Not primarily, it would seem, through engrossing us in drama – though there is no shortage of that in The Wolves of Eternity, which, following Knausgaard’s previous novel The Morning Star (2021), is the second book in a projected series. Both works contain the trademark inventories of mundane detail: Syvert using a corkscrew to lever up a plug that’s lost its chain to drain his bath, or lifting a beer to his lips only to find its cap still on; Arne buying a coffee from a machine in a plastic cup “so thin it became darkened by its contents, and so hot that in order to carry it I was forced to hold it gingerly by the rim, which wasn’t that much better since the steam then rose against my palm”. (Such details I would consent to calling prosaic, but not “superficial”, as Deresiewicz had it.) But alongside this quotidian naturalism, The Morning Star especially is packed with all manner of extraordinary incident and freak occurrence, apparently linked to the appearance of a strange star in the sky over the course of two sweltering days in August. There are unsettling portents (swarms of ladybirds, throngs of crabs), mysterious doppelgängers, miraculous resurrections, plain gore (decapitated cats, a ritual killing), even a trip to the underworld.

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[See also: How the centre right was lost]

Both novels can only be described as highly morbid: The Morning Star ends with an essay “on death and the dead”, while Syvert finds work as an undertaker (and his dealings with corpses are just as painstakingly described as his dealings with pork chops). But they also brim with life. The Morning Star alternates perspective among nine narrators, and each of their families could have a novel (at least) to themselves. Knausgaard’s vivid rendering of all the permutations of relationship between parents and children, troubled to varying degrees and in their own way, is nothing short of virtuosic.

A prequel of sorts, The Wolves of Eternity is less eventful – the star, seeming source of all the supernatural excitement, only appears at the end (though there is still a knife attack on a lorry driver and an armed bank robbery, among other things). It is also less populous and simpler in form, its 800 or so pages divided mainly between two contrasting narrators who turn out to be connected. Syvert, back home after military service and unemployed, spends a good deal of his portion of the novel, set in southern Norway in 1986, playing football, going out drinking and preparing simple, hearty meals for his ailing mother and precocious but taciturn younger brother, Joar. But the novel soon develops the momentum of a romance – Syvert falls for a girl – and a mystery: he discovers that his father, who was killed in a car accident when Syvert was 11, had a passionate affair with a Russian woman. The second half of the book takes place in present-day Moscow and is largely narrated by Alevtina, a bookish and beautiful, though rather dissatisfied and withdrawn, lecturer in biology, and Syvert’s half-sister.

Yet much of this eventfulness feels like background noise: incidental, and at times dissonantly conventional, even schlocky. The real draw of Knausgaard’s novels lies in their preternatural immediacy, and this has to do, pedestrian vocabulary notwithstanding, with what is happening in the writing. Take the opening scene of The Morning Star, narrated by Arne, a middle-aged professor of literature who bears some resemblance to Knausgaard. He is sitting outside his summer house, trying to “sustain” and “pin down” the pleasant thought of his children asleep inside:

“But that wasn’t what had felt so good about the thought.

It had been the idea of the darkness falling independently of them…

Yes, that was it…

I swigged a mouthful of wine, then jiggled the bottle to gauge how much was left, unable to see in the gloom. Just under half full.”

Arne considers putting the empty wine bottles – ashamed of their quantity – in the car ready to take to the recycling, but decides it can wait.

Back inside, he:

“rinsed the glass under the tap, rubbing the bottom and rim clean with my fingers, drying it with the tea towel and putting it back on the open shelf above the sink.

There.”

[See also: Inside the mind of Hilary Mantel]

The superfluous detail – “rubbing the bottom and rim clean with my fingers” – and the itemising of each gesture slow us down, acting as a kind of pacemaker, bringing the reader into closer alignment with Arne’s present. But what plants us squarely within it is the fact we are in the thick of his thought, following a sequence of mental actions: trying to articulate something to himself, discarding various possibilities before hitting on the right idea; estimating how much is left of his wine; feeling satisfied at having washed up.

Above all, perhaps, we are witnessing thought without action. Knausgaard frequently transports us to the present by showing his narrators on the cusp of doing something they decide against: in this case, mulling putting the empties in the boot, but often parents wondering how best to approach their children (“Maybe a soft drink as well?/No, that would be overdoing it. He’d think I was pandering to him”). This is the source not only of immediacy but of subtle psychological realism, as when Alevtina, whose beauty has attracted the unwanted attention of a man on a train journey, wonders “whether to get my sponge bag out of my rucksack… but there was something ever so slightly intimate about it that I didn’t want him to see”.

Unlike Fosse’s Septology, which is written in a powerfully strange present tense and in one unbroken sentence (“I don’t want to look at it any more, I think, and I think today’s Monday and I think I have to put this picture away…”), Knausgaard’s new novels are in the past tense. But this conventional tense is in a way deceiving, since he slyly fudges past and present using a set of amazingly simple techniques: selectively dispensing with verbs, for example. “Just under half full.” The omission of “It was…” – which might look like the kind of lazy artlessness that bores readers such as Deresiewicz – stations us in Arne’s consciousness; we gauge what’s left of his bottle with him. In this way, the prose seamlessly toggles between ordinary first-person narration (“I rinsed the glass”) and something resembling inner speech (“There.”).

Another simple device that propels us into the midst of our narrator’s mind is the question. It is used so liberally by both Fosse and Knausgaard that one begins to surmise that questions are the very engine of thought, that to think is to ask. Both writers also exploit the sentence and the line, though in opposite ways. Fosse spurns both – omitting full stops, line breaks and paragraphs – whereas Knausgaard accentuates them, often giving short, barely full sentences their own line. Explaining why he is unperturbed by mistakes in translation (“it really doesn’t matter that much”), Knausgaard said “it’s almost always a question about tone, and much more than words”; it’s a “certain rhythm”, as he put it in the essay about Fosse, that is key to inducing the self-dissolution he is after. The importance of rhythm is hard to miss in Fosse’s more conspicuously stylised prose, but Knausgaard’s one-liners and questions, though less outwardly strange, establish a unique tempo and tone, too. If Fosse’s torrent captures the flow of thought, Knausgaard’s inquisitive staccato marks its beat.

Knausgaard’s new novels feature lovely descriptions of the transfiguring effect of listening to music (there are even Spotify playlists for several of the narrators). Here is Iselin, an unhappy teenager, walking along the street listening to Jorja Smith: “Suddenly, everyone was a minor character in my life.” Or Alevtina, listening to Beethoven on the train: “Everything was beautiful, even the wonky sheds… Or perhaps it was the music that imparted some of its beauty to what passed by outside the window.” Or Solveig, a gentle nurse, driving home playing Albinoni: the music “rose and fell like the landscape around me”, though “it didn’t come from the landscape” but from “within someone./Within us all.”

[See also: Why the novel matters]

Syvert muses at one point that for lifeless objects like stones, “Nothing in the world got in,” whereas the living “internalise” the world. Looking at the girl he has fallen for, Syvert feels as though “she filled me entirely”, as if “her eyes swallowed me up completely”; by contrast, Egil Stray – author of the essay on death that closes The Morning Star – recalls a period of acute depression as feeling “like there was no room in me for anything that came from outside, everything from outside hurt”. Music, including the music of literature, Knausgaard seems to be suggesting, is a way of increasing our traffic with the world – of taking it in, opening ourselves up to it, possessing it even (“a minor character in my life”).

“If you don’t think about what you’re thinking,” Syvert’s younger brother Joar remarks at one point, “your thoughts just drift away, because there’s nothing to tie them down.” “Thoughts cannot get by on their own,” Egil likewise thinks to himself, reflecting on the writing of Nietzsche. “Banal” in isolation, a thought’s “grandness lay in the storm it had precipitated inside him, and it was the storm he wanted to convey, not the thought on its own”.

I like to imagine Knausgaard beginning as Arne did, sitting down and trying to “sustain” a thought and “pin down what was good about it”. By immersing us in the sound of thinking, he pitches us into the storm. We enter another mind and so for a while take leave of our own, following his words, as Alevtina follows her music, to “that place in us where no thoughts exist”.

The Wolves of Eternity
Karl Ove Knausgaard, translated by Martin Aitken
Harvill Secker, 816pp, £25

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This article appears in the 01 Nov 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Labour Revolts

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