Break out the streamers and balloons: after about seven years, the struggle is almost over. My old friend Knausi (or Karl Ove Knausgaard, as you may know him) is back with one last slice of his slightly fictional, but thoroughly revealing autobiographical novel, My Struggle. The UK/Australian edition of Book 6 has a rather apt title, The End, but it’s also a bit of a tease. You see, while it might sound like we’re close to the finishing line, in fact, there’s still a fair way to go (1153 pages, to be precise), which means that we’re not quite out of the woods yet. Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin…
The End (translated by Martin Aitken and Don Bartlett) is a monstrous book, divided into three main parts. In the first section, A Death in the Family is about to be released, and against the usual backdrop of frustration with his wife Linda and feeling hard done by in the housework stakes, comes an overwhelming fear of what people will say about the book. With crushing self-doubt just around the corner, this is probably not the best time to be contacted by his Uncle Gunnar.
The key here is the pivotal scene in which the writer describes his father’s death and the aftermath, seventy pages of cleaning up the squalid mess inside the house. The problem is that Gunnar claims it never happened, and he bombards his nephew with a series of malicious emails and threats of law suits. For the first time in this rather subjective account of events, we’re told a different side of the story. So far it’s all been from Knausi’s viewpoint, and when he begins to doubt himself, we also have to take a moment to reflect: has it all been a pack of lies? It certainly makes Karl Ove’s life a lot more troubling:
‘Weren’t you expecting it?’ Christina asked.
I shook my head, dropped a piece of bread onto my plate and took a sip of wine while I waited for Geir and the butter.
‘No,’ I said. ‘Nothing even close. I thought maybe he might be a bit peeved, but I hadn’t anticipated anything like this. I’ve been really naïve, as it turns out.’
p.378 (Harvill Secker, 2018)
Naïve is one way to describe it, I suppose…
After a few hundred pages of family life and email drama, the writer steps away from his home affairs, taking the reader in a rather different direction. Where his descriptions of daily life whizz by, the pace slows down as we get to grips with some slightly more high-brow writing, a massive chunk of philosophical musings dumped into the middle of the novel. Towards the start of this section, we get a lengthy run through a (short) Paul Celan poem, fifty pages of analysis from a man who says, ironically enough, that he doesn’t really get poetry. Here Knausgaard starts to explore the themes of the importance of names and the contrast between the individual and the collective, with a focus on a poem set in a dark wasteland, where people and names are in short supply.
Don’t worry – he’s going somewhere with this. The elephant in the room is the Holocaust, and it’s at this point that Knausi finally connects his own story with that of the writer of the original My Struggle. Much of this middle section is devoted to summarising Mein Kampf, tracing Hitler’s rise from provincial Austrian obscurity to the leader of a nation, and a people, and then the orchestrator of one of the greatest crimes in humanity. It’s rather unsettling to read about Hitler as a person, and often in his own words, rather than as a monster, but that is Knausgaard’s intention. He attempts to cover Hitler’s life objectively, refusing to see traces of evil where none are evident, and criticises historians who feel the need to demonise every action taken in his early years.
Of course, it’s really all about the writer(s), and part of this section is spent dwelling on the differences in their personalities. The author’s focus is on himself, the individual, while the great dictator’s emphasis is on the ‘we’ above the ‘I’. Knausgaard argues that it is this degrading of the importance of the individual, and the subsequent elevation of the ‘we’ that allows the Holocaust to happen, for if there is a ‘we’, that means there must be a ‘they’, and the only way to protect the idea of ‘us’ is to do away with ‘them’.
But how did it happen? Well, Hitler was known for his oratory, and one interesting theme covered here is that of propaganda for the masses, with Adolf very quick to discover that the common folk didn’t want events explained in detail but dumbed down and repeated ad nauseam. The more you say it, the more you believe it, and this 1930s version of fake news is what made the impossible happen:
Hitler gave self-righteousness a voice, we could say, but only if we are above that voice, only if our taste is superior, our judgement superior, only then is it the voice of self-righteousness. If one is a part of it, it is righteous. And who is to say where the boundary lies between righteous and self-righteous? Who is the arbiter of a society’s morals, who decides what is acceptable and what is not? It is not the one, it is the all. (p.766)
Yes, Hitler’s to blame, but he was just reflecting the mood of the people he led. So far, so plausible, but Knausi’s claims that it’s unlikely to happen again today, in which he fails to see how people could ever turn away from liberalism in a modern democracy, seem rather unfortunate in the light of Brexit, migrant kids being deported from the US and immigrants being incarcerated on Nauru.
This middle section is lengthy, dense and slightly forbidding, and where much of My Struggle can be dealt with by skim-reading, here we see Knausgaard the wordsmith. The style is far more similar to his second novel, A Time for Everything, than to the rest of this book, and it shows that he can write when he wants to. However, for those who have only read My Struggle, it may all come as a bit of a shock to the system – there are no lively anecdotes about taking the kids to kindergarten here…
However, the last three-hundred pages, the final stretch of the seemingly interminable struggle, see us returning to daily life with the Knausgaards. A Death in the Family has been released to great success, and the writer has achieved an unexpected level of fame, reflected in his hobnobbing with famous Norwegian authors and the desperation others show to get a piece of him. Moving on a few years, Knausi is doing his best to finish off his project, but coming to the end of The End is to prove more difficult than he thought. The weight of the revelations throughout the work has finally got to his wife, and in one of the best parts of the book, the writer is forced to stop and acknowledge the cost of his success. Quite apart from Linda’s breakdown, there are the silent accusations of his mother-in-law and the first innocent questions from his children, who will soon be old enough to start wondering what Dad’s book says about them. You get the sense that by this stage he’s thoroughly sick of the entire affair and can’t wait to scribble the final pages and send them off to the publishers.
This sense of an author dashing stuff down as quickly as he can pervades the final part of the novel, and you come away feeling that it’s not just his family he’s taken advantage of – it’s the reader, too. He talks candidly about the shoddy work he’s done, admitting to shying away from the complete truth in Dancing in the Dark in order to protect those involved. He also casually mentions racing through Some Rain Must Fall, the fifth book in the series, in six weeks, leading to him not being sure whether it’s actually any good. Even The End is affected by this ‘honesty’. The work on the impressive middle section was undermined for me by a throwaway comment he makes about having to skim the Hitler book, if he has time. His struggle here is finding the energy to make an effort with the book he’s writing…
I must admit that this sixth part of My Struggle left a bit of a bitter taste as it’s hard to avoid a sense of being had. If we can take him at his word (which is itself doubtful), he spent much of the series pumping the books out, with the faithful reading public treated to his extreme logorrhoea. Also, with the Hitler section only included in the final part (and standing out like a sore thumb), you have to ask yourself if this really was the plan from the start or merely a whim that doesn’t really work.
Yet there’s still a lot to like about The End. It’s undeniably compelling, showing Knausi at his most vulnerable, which is brave in itself (or dumb). While it sounds unworkable, with its mixture of the mundane (shopping lists, getting ready for childcare), self loathing and philosophical musings, it actually comes together fairly well. In the end(!), it’s a cry from the heart of a man needing to write, even if he’s not always sure why:
Why had I written such things?
I had been so despairing. It was as if I had been shut away inside myself, alone with my frustration, a dark and monstrous demon, which at some point had grown enormous, and as if there was no way out. Ever-decreasing circles. Greater and greater darkness. Not the existential kind of darkness that was all about life and death, overarching happiness or overarching grief, but the smaller kind, the shadow on the soul, the ordinary man’s private little hell, so inconsequential as to barely deserve mention, while at the same time engulfing everything. (p.36)
What he describes is an impulse stronger than himself, forcing him to write whatever the consequences. In hindsight, knowing the toll it eventually took on his family (a quick Google search will show that the drama carried on after the book ended), you have to wonder whether it was all worth it.
As always, on a personal level reading The End was a little like looking into a mirror. It’s a coincidence that the books came out in English at the time they did, but somehow they’ve always turned out as a reflection of my life in terms of my age and my kids. His anxieties are often my own, and his sensitivity to noise and the way fatherly duties get in the way of his writing hit very close to home. I suspect that part of the success of the book stems from middle-aged men seeing themself in the moody Norwegian (no matter how distorted that image actually is). How universal this all is – well, that’s another matter entirely.
With the journey (not to mention the struggle) finally over, one question remains: is it actually any good? Having taken advantage of half a country, especially his nearest and dearest, you’d hope that it was all worth it. While I’m not convinced that it’s quite as good as it might have been, and the Proustian comparisons are unmerited for the most part, it’s certainly been an interesting journey, and I don’t regret having gone along for the ride. It’s at its best when the writer stares into the abyss, opening his wounds and writing about what caused them, with a touching honesty and palpable hurt. What I’ll remember most are the following scenes: the aforementioned house cleaning; his startling self-abuse in A Man in Love; his utter helplessness in the face of his domineering father in Boyhood Island; and Linda’s frightening collapse in the very last section of the novel. Would I read it all again? Well, not in a hurry.
But you never know…