Our Struggle: On the Experience of Reading Karl Ove Knaussgaard
I read Book One of Karl Ove Knausgaard epic novel My Struggle in 2014, and was instantly hooked. In subsequent years I read books two through five, and waited for the English translation of Book Six to appear. I got my copy in late 2018, and took it to Switzerland with me, where I read it over the Christmas Break and into the new year. At 1157 pages, reading Book Six seemed an epic challenge; the six volumes combined total over 3,600 pages. Not quite Proust, but in the territory. Reading is a solitary act. When I finally finished reading Book Six, five years after I had begun, I longed for someone to talk to about the experience. Luckily, my friend Roxana Robinson had finished reading Book Six around the same time as me. Roxana is a wonderful writer. Her new novel, Dawson’s Fall, imagines the lives of her great-grandparents in an unrepentant South two decades after the end of the Civil War.
GP: Roxana, one week out, what is your takeaway from the experience of reading My Struggle?
RR: Hmm – I think that question is too big. The thing about the work is that it tries to encompass everything, so it’s daunting to try to respond in a way that also encompasses everything. Can we choose a narrower approach?
GP: Last week on Facebook you wrote that you were completely engaged by the narrative, the characters, and the author’s intention, which you understand as, “the struggle to integrate the inner life and the outer life, the intangible and the real, in a way that delivers the totality of lived experience.” You illustrated your meaning by describing what almost everyone who comments on My Struggle has observed–its relentless and obsessive attention to the details of average ordinary life, page after page of doing the laundry, getting the kids to school, making dinner. Why does the quotidian fascinate us so much, and how does gender enter into this? If a woman writer spent this amount of time and effort describing going down to the basement to do the laundry or preparing dinner in the kitchen, would the reading public be as interested, do you think? Would we be describing it, as you did in your post, as, “hugely authentic, driven, determined, brave and compassionate?” Meg Wolitzer gave voice to this line of criticism a few years back in a much-discussed article in the New York Times titled, “The Second Shelf: On the Rules of Literary Fiction for Men and Women.” If My Struggle had been written by a woman and had piles of laundry on the cover, would it have been relegated to what Wolitzer calls “Women’s Fiction”—“that close-quartered lower shelf where books emphasizing relationships and the interior lives of women are often relegated?” Is it the excursions into philosophical theory and literary criticism that shield Knausgaard from this fate, and is this what you mean by the “integration of the inner and outer life?”
RR: I think My Struggle is the chronicle of Knausgaard’s effort to integrate the two antithetical parts of his life, the interior and the exterior. He shows us what each is like, giving even-handed attention to the world of the body and the world of the mind. He offers detailed descriptions of the physical life, telling us just how the rain hits the window, just how the laundry room looks and smells. These descriptions offer an odd mix of intimacy and distance: the author’s deep attentiveness to quotidian facts gives them value, and they suggest a kind of tender awareness of the way our lives are spent. We might feel a sense of recognition, a shared awareness of our human connection. Yet Knausgaard’s tone is level and detached, impersonal. It denies intimacy. Rarely does he tell us how he feels about the room, or the landscape, or the weather.
He’s up to something besides an easy collegiality. He imbues this mundane information with importance, not only through his attentiveness but also through his literary style. The precision of his detail, and the slow, controlled, measured pace of the narrative is familiar from detective stories and thrillers, to say nothing of Henry James. The deliberate slowness and the careful focus create a kind of suspense. Why is he ascribing such importance to this scene, these details? We examine them for clues. We expect a murder, or a love story, though, confusingly, we don’t get either. Knausgaard is doing something different.
In the early scenes, as he describes the process of cleaning his grandparents’ house at the beginning of the series, he delivers information in a neutral tone. The appalling conditions of the rooms, the filth and disorder, the empty bottles and ruined furniture, are all described without emotion or explanation. The actuality of this ravaged world bears down on us through our own absorption of its physical presence. He doesn’t tell us what the bottles and the filth mean, or how they might affect him. We come to understand that through our reading of these physical clues. The controlled slowness of the pace, the meticulous observation of detail deliver a devastating message.
What Knausgaard is doing seems new to me, in his commitment to giving equal value to the two halves of our lives. Many writers have chosen one of these halves, but few who insist on their absolute entwining. Those who focus on the physical and the mundane rarely focus on the intellectual side, and vice versa. The intellectuals have rarely shown such interest in the life of physical details.
Writing itself has its own esoteric tradition: the earliest writers were few, and they used their skill on only the most significant subjects: the spiritual life, God, the soul. Those early subjects were those that were the most holy, the most abstract, the most intellectual. The most separate from the body. As literacy became more widespread, subject matter became more diverse. Nowadays you can write about anything – but we’re still aware of a hierarchy of subjects. We know that the intellectual is the most elevated sphere of interest. We give that more respect than the physical – but, interestingly, Knausgaard does not. He gives equal attention to those hours in which we are simply doing chores and tending to our bodies that he does to his observations on Heidegger, or on reading the diaries of a Polish poet. Knausgaard demands that we acknowledge that the life of the body is as significant and as profound as the life of the mind. He denies the idea of hierarchy. He demands that we accept all parts of our lives as equals. He insists on a kind of wholeness, he declares that there is a great richness to experience that can only be absorbed in its entirety.
It’s this integration that I find so interesting, because most other writers choose one part or the other. As to gender — many women writers have focused on the physical aspects of their domestic lives – groceries, laundry – but most of them imbue these descriptions with feelings. Knausgaard refuses to do this. And not many women writers have integrated the quotidian life with such an exigent and profound intellectual life. These are generalizations, and I don’t mean that women writers don’t write about the intellectual life, of course they do. Many have written with energy and brilliance about the intellectual life – but from either gender I think it’s rare to find Knausgaard’s integration of the two. The conjoining is both confusing and exhilarating.
GP: I’m also curious what you think about Knausgaard writing My Struggle as a novel rather than a memoir, which he seems to regard as a “weak form.” If he wrote it as a novel in order to avoid having to deal with the possibility of giving offense to real people in his life (a constant source of tension for memoir writers), he surely didn’t succeed. Holy hell broke out in his family, with his uncle threatening to sue and expose him as a liar, and his wife Linda crushed when she learns, in reading the book, that her husband had been unfaithful to her. Calamity ensues.
RR: I think he means that a memoir is held hostage to memory, and to the memories of other people, and a novel is entirely under the control of the writer. In the last book of My Struggle, he wrestles with the chaos he has created through his early candor, or utter lack of consideration. But part of the purpose of the book is his need to settle for himself the question of his relationship to his father. He can’t do that if he is bound by the rules of courtesy or consideration – it requires a great candid reckoning, honesty and exactitude. I was enthralled by his long disquisition on the idea of the name, on what it means to have one, what it signifies to be called by one, how, before names, there was nothing, how names call things into being. And I realized that before that final book we had never known his father’s name. He was called Dad. Then I understood that it must have been withheld at the request of his uncle, who had challenged everything about Knausgaard’s initial book, his own memory of and relationship to his own father. Knausgaard questioned these things himself, wondering if he had committed some kind of fraud, or mockery, or attack, which is something all writers who draw on their own lives for material must experience. But now, finally, at the end of this great examination of his own inner and outer lives, and his own reckoning with his father, Knausgaard comes to the place in which he chooses at last to claim his story, believe in himself, reaffirm his own understanding of his place in the world and use that name. It is like a great chord being played, echoing through the landscape, followed by silence.
GP: It’s unclear to me how an autobiographical novel is any less hostage to memory than a memoir. Both engage in the dialectic of narrative and time; both are preoccupied with a hermeneutic of the self; both are subject to what Ricoeur calls “the hermeneutics of suspicion.” Both are likely to get you in trouble with loved ones, relatives, and friends when you elect to write about them, no matter how well you try to mask it. Knausgaard’s wife, Linda (they are now divorced) said of him, “I married the world’s most indiscrete man.”
RR: But none of those things is about being hostage to memory. The premise of a memoir is that it is true; a novel is shaped and created by the writer; s/he is in charge of the “facts” in it. Whether or not you get in trouble with your friends and family is another matter. It can happen with either. My point is that the writer has more autonomy in the novel. (And it’s discreet, not discrete. He is not at all discrete!)
GP: What do you take to be the struggle in My Struggle? And speaking of names, why do you think Knausgaard settled on the notoriously mimetic title (Min Kamp in Norwegian)? He tells us elsewhere that he originally intended to title the novel The Dog—a self-referential mocking of his canine tendency to always try to please.
RR: As I said earlier, I think the struggle is his attempt to integrate the interior and the exterior life. As to the title, he feels some deep connection to Hitler’s book, as he shows in the long passages about it. I was fascinated to learn that it’s banned in Norway. It raises the paradoxical nature of censorship, how banning something – as the Nazi Party has been banned in Germany, and hate speech has been banned here – a society demonstrates its most forceful beliefs about harmful ideas and words. What about Charlie Hebdo’s disgusting cartoons showing the Prophet with a baguette stuck into his posterior? Is that hate speech? It is certainly contempt-speech, and why wouldn’t it arouse fury on the part of believers? So, banning Mein Kampfby Norway would show how gravely the country took the threat of Nazism, and why not? But it would also confer on the book the thrilling fascination of the forbidden. Both those things, I think, play a part in Knausgaard’s response to it.
GP: You mentioned Heidegger earlier. In the Facebook that I mentioned earlier, you revealed that you skipped this section? Why is that? Is it because you find Heidegger appalling, given his support for Hitler (he never disavowed it, until his dying day)? In the four hundred-page excursus into Hitler, there are whole sections of Mein Kamph quoted verbatim. Is reading Heidegger somehow worse than reading Hitler?
RR: I skipped the Heidegger section because I’m not interested in philosophy. I know this reveals a woeful lack of intellect, but I find it exasperating. It’s entirely theoretical and abstract. It doesn’t allow for emotional engagement, and though I’m sure it has merit, it’s something I enjoy exploring.
GP: I’m tempted to ask whether you’ve read the dialogues of Plato, then, which are full of whimsy and wordplay, poetic as much as philosophical—or Kierkegaard, or Nietzsche. Knausgaard himself has written of the many ways he has been influenced by the philosophers he studied in the 1980s; he names Foucault as a deep influence, Derrida, Deleuze. But what I really want to ask is whether you’ve seen the movie “The Bookshop,” with the delightful Emily Mortimer in the role of a widow, Florence Green, who upon the death of her husband decides to open a bookstore, despite local opposition. The movie opens with a friend of Florence Green, remembering her: “She told me once, when we read a story, we inhabit it. The covers of the book are like a roof and four walls. A house. She, more than anything else in the world loved the moment when we finish the book, and the story keeps playing like the most vivid dream your head. And after that she loved taking long walks, to clear her mind of all the emotions and feelings the book had started within her.” So, I am wondering, has any of this happened to you with My Struggle? Is this novel likely to play inside your head for years to come? Or maybe I should ask, was this a house that was built for you that you will miss inhabiting?
RR: (laughing) I know I should read Plato and Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. It’s not that I think they are dull or unimaginative or valueless. I’m sure they’re full of cleverness, and whimsy, wordplay and brains. It’s just that they don’t tell a human story, a narrative about people who engage with each other. Philosophy is all theory and no emotional engagement. And it’s emotion that evokes compassion, not intellectual theory, no matter how thoughtful or profound. So, while I know I should read it, I keep putting it off, as we all do when we are given two choices: one of doing something you want to do right now, and the other of doing something you want to do later.
As to “The Bookshop,” I have seen it (and read the book). I like her response, but mine is a little different. Rather than the moment when the book ends, when I can think about it, I prefer the time halfway or two-thirds of the way through, when I am completely absorbed by the text, and relish the fact that I still have more time with it ahead. If I really love a book, when it ends I am bereft. I walk around yearning to continue living with the characters, missing them and their houses and landscapes and children and anxieties and principles and loves. Once I went to Sicily with my husband. I had tried twice before to read “The Leopard,” but each time I had been unable to get past chapter two. For some reason it seemed dull and old and stagey. But this time I read it in the landscape of the novel. We drove up into the hills, and I looked over the fields and thought of the Leopard’s family holdings. We went through churches and cathedrals and I thought of their family masses, and of the old aunts and their pathetic collection of holy relics. We ended our trip in the great faded hotel in Palermo, which he describes in the book. I finished it at breakfast, in our room, with its high ceilings and terrazzo floors, the cracked plaster walls, the tall windows, the Sicilian morning outside. When I finished the book I was shattered at losing that world. It was terrible to close the cover on it. When I did I turned it over and opened it again to page one, and I read the whole book through all over again.
So, no, finishing a book is not my favorite moment.
But, yes, I absolutely lived inside My Struggle. I so admired the way Knausgaard gave us his days, moment by moment, and I reveled at being able to plunge into his life. I stayed there for hours and hours at a time. I loved all of these books, mostly for the way he told the family story. I admired him for telling this story, which was so complicated, and so dangerous for him to tell. By this I mean that his relationship with his father was a frightening one, and it would be hard to set it down. I admired his account of his marriage, and his relationship with Linda. There is something I find very moving about his determination to set down the truth, in all its banality, its particularity, its shamefulness and courage. And then I am a big fan of big, expansive books. I love Buddenbrooks, and Return of the Native, and Anna Karenina. The Leopard. I’m also an insomniac, so the big book is my friend. I’ve just started re-reading A Dance to the Music of Time.
GP: One of the things I first noticed about you in your Facebook posts (which is how I came to know you, virtually, before we met in person in Manhattan) was that you teach a course that focuses on the theme of compassion in the novel. The course, which I believe you teach on a regular basis, features two of my favorite novels, Anna Karenina and Emma Bovary. I want to ask: Do you find My Struggle to be a novel filled with compassion, and Knausgaard a compassionate writer? And why is compassion an important trait in a novel, or a writer?
RR: I’ve written a lot about compassion, and why I think it’s essential to the great novel, so I won’t expand on it much here, except to say that it’s the portal through which we enter into another person’s life, his heart, his soul.
And yes, do I find Knausgaard compassionate. He is scrupulous in his rendering of other people, both generous and precise, and he is uncompromising in his renderings of himself. He tells his worst characteristics and reveals his worst flaws quietly, as though in confession – without boasting, without self-indulgence, and driven by a sense of obligation to the truth. It is this candor that evokes the reader’s compassion. And because he doesn’t spare himself, and because he loves other people – his mother, his brother, even his father – we enter into the intimate space of his heart, that place reserved for emotional connection. He evokes our compassion through his steadfast narration of his own mistakes, his serious errors and shameful cruelties, as well as through his good intentions as a son, brother, boyfriend and father. He is closely bonded to this small circle of people, he is committed to creating the strongest kinds of link to them. He bungles the attempt over and over, then struggles on again. Which is the point, and has always been the point of a novel: it’s the struggle onward, ever since Pilgrim’s Progress, or Ulysses. Because Knausgaard almost does away with the idea of plot, he can focus on the struggle. Which means we can see our own lives in his narrative – the shapelessness of each day, the way it is made up of one thing after another, ironing the tablecloth, changing the nappies, watching the cars and people on the street. I find his attention to the diurnal utterly fascinating. As Updike says of himself, he is “giving the mundane its beautiful due.” The mundane is where we spend our lives, and, instead of rising to the high romantic crags of heroism, Knausgaard faces each unrelenting moment of the day. It’s that uncompromising gaze that I find so compelling, the exposure he is willing to make of himself, and of how life really is.
Roxana Robinson is the author of ten books — six novels, three collections of short stories, and the biography of Georgia O’Keeffe. Four of these were chosen as New York Times Notable Books, two as New York Times Editors’ Choices.
Her fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Harper’s, Best American Short Stories, Tin House and elsewhere. Her work has been widely anthologized and broadcast on NPR. Her books have been published in England, France, Germany, Holland and Spain. Robinson is a scholar of American paintings and an environmentalist, and her essays, criticism and Op-Eds have appeared in The New York Times, The International Herald Tribune, The Chicago Tribune, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Washington Post, Bookforum, The Nation and elsewhere. She has twice been a finalist for the Balakian Award for Criticism from the NBCC.
Her novel, Cost, won the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance Fiction Award for 2008, and it was listed as one of the Best Books of the Year by the Chicago Tribune, Library Journal, The Seattle Times and The Wall Street Journal.It was named one of the Five Best Fiction Books of the Year by The Washington Post.
Her novel,Sparta, won the Maine Fiction Award, the James Webb Award from the USMCHF, was named one of the Ten Best Books of the Year by the BBC, and was short-listed for the Dublin Impac Award.
Roxana Robinson has received fellowships from the NEA, the MacDowell Colony and the Guggenheim Foundation, and she was named a Literary Lion by the New York Public Library. Robinson has served on the Boards of PEN and the Authors Guild, and was the president of the Authors Guild from 2013–2017. In 2019 she received the Barnes and Noble “Writers for Writers Award,” given by Poets and Writers.
Gary Percesepe is the author of eight books, most recently The Winter of J, a poetry collection published by Poetry Box. He is Associate Editor at New World Writing. Previously he was an assistant fiction editor at Antioch Review. His work has appeared in Christian Century, Maine Review, Brevity, Story Quarterly, N + 1, Salon, Mississippi Review, Wigleaf, Westchester Review, PANK, The Millions, Atticus Review, Antioch Review, Solstice, and other places. He resides in White Plains, New York, and teaches philosophy at Fordham University in the Bronx.