Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard.A MAN IN LOVE.By Karl Ove Knausgaard. Random House. 528pp. $32.95.
A Man In Love is the second volume to be published in English of a monumental six volume, 3600-page memoir by the Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard, collectively titled – amusingly for a small nation once invaded by Nazi Germany – My Struggle (Mein Kampf in German).
The first volume, published last year in English as A Death in the Family, was about the author’s adolescence and his father’s death. It was the best contemporary work of literature I had read for several years.
My Struggle is an astonishing creation, in which Knausgaard invents a monstrous, tender, brutal, gentle, vain, humble, selfish, brilliant and banal man called Karl Ove Knausgaard, whose life he minutely documents. Just as Walter Whitman, failed journalist, had only superficial resemblances to Walt Whitman, genius, of Leaves of Grass, so too, one suspects, the Knausgaard of these pages shares some but by no means all characteristics of the real Knausgaard. This is one of the strangest projects of recent literature, and also one of the most fearless.
As A Man in Love slowly opened up to me, I began to make sense of the grand architecture of Knausgaard’s ambition. Where the first volume was about death, this was about creation. It tells of Knausgaard’s time after he leaves his first wife and Norway for a new life in Sweden. There he falls in love with the poet Linda with whom he has three children.
A time of love becomes also one of crisis; his purpose in life, to write, becomes impossible, and the book ends with him abandoning fiction and starting a new project in which he seeks meaning by writing up his life, beginning the work that will become My Struggle. He writes quickly, up to 20 pages a day, seeking to stay ahead of his thoughts. This means abandoning all attempts at literary perfection.
”You have to burst the balloon that is the world,” he writes, ”and let everything in it spill over the side.”
As a result, much of the writing is bad, cliches abound, and rather than cut Knausgaard adds; for him, more is decidedly more. He’ll spend a paragraph on making a cup of tea with a tea bag, a page on changing a nappy, and we even get not one shopping list but several. If much of this is dull it also becomes weirdly compelling. If the task is self-consciously Proustian, it also smacks of the voyeuristic mesmerism of reality television.
It is not without writerly vanity: Knausgaard does it because he can. What, in the hands of a lesser writer, would be in turn pompous, dull, dead and – most unforgivably – unreadable is instead fascinating, occasionally transcendent and rarely less than compulsively readable.
”You can spend 20 pages describing a trip to the loo and hold your readers spellbound,” his friend Geir says. ”How many people do you think can do that?”
If it were just this strange virtuosity Knausgaard would become a boor and the book fail. His description of dreary daily life builds to a larger scream of anguish and isolation. Yet at each point this threatens to become unbearable it is relieved and released into passages of sometimes great beauty dealing with God, death and love – all the verities and mysteries rendered coolly, strangely, exquisitely and ever originally.
It is all mad and mundane and magnificent at the same time; the hyper-realism honed with images of startling wonder, the self-abasement Karl Ove Knausgaard is willing to visit upon himself – whether it is his bizarre recurrent fear of being feminised or a long description of cooking a Jamie Oliver dish, or Googling himself to find a recommendation suggesting people use his books to wipe their arse. Knausgaard teeters perilously close to pretentiousness and falls into tedium, and still he writes on, and it all finally works, this art of artlessness, because Knausgaard is no mere diarist. He is a remarkable writer who has read widely, thought deeply, and understood his craft completely. The sheer scale of these books and their detailed telling gives the misleading impression of them being exhaustive. But large slabs of life and people are clearly absent. The description of the birth of his first child is a stunning set piece but the births of their other two children rate only a sentence. A dinner party runs for 70 pages but four years pass in six words. And in all this Knausgaard is making careful choices.
The technique is novelistic; using specific events and details for certain effects. Things are shaped, balanced, reprised, juxtaposed, imagined. Similarly his long slabs of dialogue are novelistic in form and purpose and can hardly be regarded as accurate to life. Perhaps in the end it is a novel even more illusory than most by claiming the veracity of a memoir. The truths Knausgaard is chasing are, in any case, not those of his life. In the destruction and recreation of his own experience, he hopes for the universal.
”For I am you,” he writes, ”and you are everyone, we come from the same and are going to the same.”
This is a book about writing, its nightmarish heritage, its unbearable burdens, its intolerable costs, and the redeeming grace it grants of communion and meaning.
”What is a work of art,” Knausgaard asks, ”if not the gaze of another person?”
The costs of that gaze for a writer such as Knausgaard are great.
”Your life is joyless,” Geir tells Knausgaard. ”You have such unbelievable reserves and so much talent, which stops there. It becomes art, but never more than that. You’re like Midas. Everything he touches turns to gold but he gains no pleasure from it.”
There are numerous meditations on everyone from Lucretius to Rilke, Holderlin to DeLillo (”clearly in decline”) but the two writers who hover over the character of Knausgaard are Dostoyevsky and the Knut Hamsun of Hunger (1890), the great Norwegian novel of a starving writer that is arguably the founding text of literary modernism. Pushing a stroller, Knausgaard wanders Stockholm’s streets ”with a furious 19th-century man inside me”. That man seems more and more to be Hamsun. The narrator of Hunger – monstrous, irascible, compelling – echoes loudly in the obsessive nastiness of Knausgaard, a man for whom writing is life itself, who would leave his wife if she came between him and his writing, and who seeks to ”write as if my life depended upon it”.
If A Man in Love, for all its remarkable qualities, feels a lesser and less-interesting work than A Death in the Family, lacking the power, tension and control of that first volume, it also cannot fairly be judged outside of the whole six-volume project, any more than Molly Bloom’s soliloquy can be judged outside of Ulysses. Knausgaard’s struggle for meaning is finally the ceaseless struggle of the novel to reinvent itself, and in its sometimes crazily brave determination to risk failure and mediocrity, My Struggle finds new ways of writing about new things. Though it courts failure, it is in the abyss between a book’s ambition and failure that their genius is so often found. As Hamsun’s Hunger announced the beginning of 20th-century literature, it may be that Knausgaard’s My Struggle marks the moment 21st-century literature begins.
Richard Flanagan’s novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North will be published by Knopf in October.
This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.