As I sit to write this review, I’d rather be finishing the third volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle. I’ve done little else for the last few weeks, as I just began reading the 3,600-page, six-volume novel following the media attention of the third volume’s English publication.
Tonight, though, I abandoned the obsession, and I attended a conversation between the Norwegian author and the novelist, Zadie Smith. Unfortunately, the literary critic James Wood was unable to make the event. Stricken by a travel calamity, I imagined a bored Wood sitting in an airport terminal as he awaited the next flight back to the States, and then I thought, if he was Knausgaard, his hours of waiting would transfer into twenty pages of poignant ruminations on the beauty of ordinariness.
The talk was scheduled for seven o’clock, and arriving to SoHo a little before six, I was shocked to see the line stretching almost a full street. Strangers passing by, under the apprehension, one must believe, of missing out on something magnificent of which they were unaware, constantly stopped to ask about what was happening.
An hour later, once inside, hundreds of people crowded downstairs (some on the steps, with restricted views), while others had to stay on the top floor and watch Knausgaard and Smith speak on a projector screen. It looked like a blurry experimental film, but it didn’t—at least for me—diminish the gathering. Plus, there was free food and alcohol.
There’s a scene toward the end of volume one in which Karl Ove and his brother, Yngve, interview the Norwegian author Kjartan Fløgstad, and the two decide not to use any notes, tape recorders, or anything of the sort: they meet Fløgstad in a coffee shop, and he tells them their casual technique requires respect. That is, until Karl Ove and Yngve don’t write for many days, and even after a supplementary telephone interview, when they clarify all the things they’ve forgotten, they can’t seem to get anything “right.” Karl Ove sends Fløgstad a copy before publication, and the writer demands them not to put it in print.
In the hopes of not missing anything that was said, I listened to the conversation at McNally Jackson without any materials, and what I’m now typing on my laptop is simply the closest thing to memory. I’m doing this late at night, instead of tomorrow morning, or the next day, or after the weekend because I fear of falling victim to the same thing as Knausgaard. And if there’s anything one takes away from reading his novel, it’s that all these banalities and boredoms—what I heard him call the “in-between’s” of life—are strikingly universal.
Although Smith admitted she and Knausgaard had met only minutes beforehand, and while she expressed some dismay (and more nervousness) because of Wood’s absence, she prepared ten extensive questions that touched upon a number of different topics, some concerning all the volumes so far in English and some focused solely on the recently translated and launched volume three.
Smith opened by reading the first few lines of volume one—“For the heart, life is simple: it beats for as long as it can…”—and complimenting Knausgaard for his seamless transition from philosophy (a familiar one of materialism; she compares him a bit to Heidegger) to his personal narrative, one that starts with a fishing accident, his father, and an alleged “face” in the sea.
Knausgaard revealed that writing much of the book felt instinctual, knowing the right time to dip into the story and then step back for his philosophical monologues. He labeled the process as a sort of “free flow control,” and Smith wondered if that was the reason so many writers admired Knausgaard’s work: he’s a “writer’s writer,” not so much as Henry James is often labeled as such (for his attention to language and his sweeping, expansive plots), but because the Norwegian tells the whole “truth”—if such a thing even exists—in such a bold and fluid way. He didn’t wait, as Philip Roth, to publish pieces on his parents or former lovers until they were all dead: Knausgaard confronted the reality in the present, and though he often gets questioned about regrets (that was even one of Smith’s inquiries), he wonders if he should even worry about those things any longer. He did what he did—some handled it, of course, better than others (one only needs to read the reaction from his ex-wife and father’s side of the family to get an idea)—and now he needs to live with the consequences.
Prompted by Smith, Knausgaard said he copes with much of the book’s aftermath—both the international praise and his extended family’s anger—by taking solace in his wife and three children. He had other strategies—a healthy amount of self-hatred and a constant state of denial, especially after briefly returning to Norway from Sweden—but none proved better than being around those he loved. Smith lauds Knausgaard for describing his children as having a sort of essence and mystery, something almost transcendent, a realm—she thinks—that has been almost dismissed in recent decades. In this domestic zone, Knausgaard finds philosophical revelations, and he thinks that much of the reason why he views his kids as containing an almost other-worldly radiance is because the concept of fatherhood has changed: in the past, for his father, and his father’s father, there were forms they had to fill; now, however, the idea of being a father has become looser, and that, in a very short and (somewhat) crude way, summarizes his motivations for writing such an autobiographical novel, he thinks—to take a traditional form, one bound-up in humanity (words come from humans, after all) and try to make it somehow beyond this world, to look down on men and women from somewhere above and be able to comment, in whatever manner, on our existence.
I can’t remember if many of Smith’s questions mentioned Knausgaard’s father, or if many of Knausgaard’s answers mentioned Knausgaard’s father, but the topic frequently arose. And why wouldn’t it? It is, Knausgaard admits, central: coming to terms with his father’s death—not in any sort of dramatic way (he believes that overtly dramatizing the event would have produced the opposite effect he intended)—but through observation and feeling. Smith relates a moment in the third volume when Knausgaard fears his father even when he’s not around—that in somehow dropping a teacup, he would sense it, or he would find out, or if none of those things happened, just letting the ceramic fall to the floor would cause the writer anxiety. And not to spoil any of the novel—if you haven’t read any of it yet, I highly recommend you call out sick next week—but my favorite scene occurs in the first volume when Knausgaard returns to his grandmother’s home, where she lived with his alcoholic father, and for hundreds of pages, cleans the bottles and shit and food his father left behind.
A question of Smith’s about his father, however, that Knausgaard thought a good one—but had never been asked before—concerned whether or not his estranged relationship with him propelled his writing career. That is, would Knausgaard have become a writer if it weren’t for his father being a bad father? Sprung from a theory expressed in Alice Miller’s The Drama of the Gifted Child, Smith wondered if their failed father-and-son bond had a lot to do with Knausgaard’s artistic motivations. While he claimed to write for most of the same reasons others write—to chase his identity, because he’s in a constant state of misery (what happy people write?)—he also noted that he feels a compulsion to write because it is an act of creation, as opposed to one of destruction. While his father destroyed much of his life, he now has the opportunity to create something.
There were other interesting tangents, of course—they discussed Knausgaard growing-up in a town always being built (did he really ever have a “home?”) and writers living as “introverted extroverts”—but the audience questions, of which there were many, almost all centered on the book’s controversy or his writing process.
After discussions with his publishers, Knausgaard attributed the work as a “novel,” instead of a memoir, because he felt it was closer to that form, and Norway doesn’t have the memoir-tradition as much as America does. He spoke highly of Smith’s own On Beauty and Ben Marcus’s The Flame Alphabet, saying he had never read anything like it. He explained how he needs to be miserable in order to write, and that he’s always miserable, but he wouldn’t trade that to be happy, because then he couldn’t write (as people audibly laughed, Smith joked that it’s always a scandal in America when someone’s primary ambition isn’t ultimately for happiness).
Knausgaard touched, too, upon what’s missed in the English translation—the mix, say, of Swedish and Norwegian dialogue—and about listening to music when he writes (he listened to a particular band for each volume). When asked why he writes so much about having trouble writing, he basically explained that there was almost nothing better to write about.
The night ended, though, with a long explanation about the title and publishing something so autobiographical.
When asked about writing in such a self-revealing way, Knausgaard claimed to have to choose between the work and his life. He confessed to originally wanting to title the novel Argentina—a perfect place he would always be struggling toward but never actually go—but following a conversation with a friend, he decided to name it My Struggle, or in Norwegian Min Kamp. It goes without saying, of course, that Hitler’s manifesto is, in German, Mein Kampf (My Struggle), and though Knausgaard wanted to be provocative—a confident proclamation that he was owning what he was writing (publicizing the private lives of those close to him—“I don’t care!”)—he also exposed a more subtle, ironic reasoning for his decision: while Hitler’s work is nothing more than bigoted preaching—a warped ideology—Knausgaard’s is the exact opposite, an anti-ideological study, one that questions identity, existence, and everyday life. Hitler, in other words, struggled to achieve what he saw as a “perfect” society, a “perfect” race; Knausgaard’s struggle is simply coming to terms with himself and learning to understand the world around him. There’s a reason, I think, Knausgaard sees faces in seemingly everything (even inanimate objects): everything for him has a meaning, an identity, a similarity.
Everything’s alive just as much as it is dead.
As I rode the subway home, I stared at my reflected face in the dirty window.