[Marxism] At the Close of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s ‘My Struggle,’ a Magician Loses His Touch
lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Sep 18 08:17:42 MDT 2018
(I was always skeptical about the hype surrounding Karl Ove Knausgaard,
not that I would ever read thousands of pages of fiction with a title
derived from Mein Kampf.)
NY Times, Sept. 18, 2018
At the Close of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s ‘My Struggle,’ a Magician Loses
By Dwight Garner
By Karl Ove Knausgaard
Translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett and Martin Aitken
1,156 pages. Archipelago Books. $33.
The most elite of the world’s white, male, under-60 novelists sometimes
seem to ride together as if in a peloton, as if they were competitors in
the Tour de France, coasting in and out of each other’s slipstreams.
When one breaks from the pack while up in the mountains — witness
Jonathan Franzen or the Norwegian Karl Ove Knausgaard — a target
surfaces on his jersey.
Sensing this ancient dynamic, Tom Wolfe once replied to an attack by
Norman Mailer by commenting, “The lead dog is the one they always try to
bite in the ass.” Mailer casually responded: “It doesn’t mean you’re the
top dog just because your ass is bleeding.”
Knausgaard’s new novel, the sixth and final book in his diaristic “My
Struggle” series, is a gift to his detractors, those who have found the
books to be solipsistic and overwrought. At nearly 1,200 earnest pages,
Book Six is a life-drainer, so dense and so dull that time and light
seem to bend around it.
I had to flog myself through it. I carried it under my arm like a
football, giving the Heisman Trophy push-off to friends, family, basic
hygiene, Netflix and the pets. When I finished, I felt there were fang
marks in my neck; I wanted a blood transfusion. There are few books I
will more avidly not read again.
Especially trying is Book Six’s 400-plus page excursus into Hitler and
the etiology of the Third Reich. It is a grindingly sophomoric exercise
that sits undigested under this novel’s skin, like an armchair inside a
snake. This section purports to explain why Knausgaard’s book shares a
title with Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” — in German, “My Struggle.” But its
salient points could have been made in 40 pages, or even four.
I write all this as a Knausgaard admirer. The earlier books in this
series, notably the first three, and especially Book Two, were for me
among the great reading experiences of this decade. In his commitment to
the quotidian details of his life as a boy and as a man, Knausgaard
writes like a whale filtering krill. He has an uncanny, nearly magical
gift for isolating his details, for holding them to the light until they
What once felt like sorcery in his work now sometimes seems, in Book
Six, like fumbling tricks. A spell has been broken, a thermometer shaken
It’s simplest to talk about this novel as if it were three 400-page
books, which arguably it should have been. In the first, Knausgaard
comes to grips with the fame the early books in the series brought him.
There is a freight of unwanted attention, especially a threatened
lawsuit from his uncle Gunnar, who was incensed that so many family
secrets were spilled in Book One. The author smokes and frets and tries
to keep writing.
The second section contains the Hitler material. It includes a close
reading of “Mein Kampf,” and considers that book’s ideas and impact
through many lenses — through Dostoyevsky’s consideration of nihilism;
Heidegger’s yearning for simplicity; the weird and barbed images of the
Old Testament, still lurking somewhere in our minds. He spends pages on
a favorite poem by Paul Celan. He winds through the socialism of Jack
London and Karl Marx, through the art of Rembrandt and J.M.W. Turner,
through Wagner’s triumphal music and Victor Klemperer’s analyses of
fascist language. Knausgaard doesn’t bite off more than he can chew, for
he chews with a morbid enthusiasm, one that the reader never quite comes
In the third and final section he shows his wife, Linda, what he has
written about her and their children in his first book. She weeps, but
she seems strong enough to take it.
She is not strong enough to take it. In the very affecting final
section, Linda has a mental breakdown (she had spent time in a
psychiatric hospital before they met) and the author tries to care for
her. He pulled the pin on a grenade when he wrote the first novels in
this series, writing unsparingly about the people close to him, using
their real names. In this final book the grenade has gone off; it’s too
late for him to throw himself on it.
“This novel has hurt everyone around me, it has hurt me, and in a few
years, when they are old enough to read it, it will hurt my children,”
Knausgaard writes. Yet he would not, you sense, have changed a word.
Knausgaard remains Knausgaard. There is vital writing in this book on
many subjects, from male vanity and supermarket carts to fruit labels
and how we view the changing faces of loved ones over time. About
prawns, for example, he writes: “Alive they looked almost like office
workers of the ocean, in death like a company of ballet dancers.”
At least once, he made me laugh out loud. “If there were a choice
between couples therapy and death,” he writes, “I would unhesitatingly
choose death.” He’s seldom this vivid here, however.
This book feels like it was written quickly, and indeed it was. But then
so were the previous books in the “My Struggle” series. He says amazing,
terrifying things about his productivity in this book, such as: “I would
have to write three new books in 10 months. Which wasn’t implausible,
I’d been doing about 10 pages a day for the past six months as it was,
in the region of 50 pages a week given the fact that I wasn’t allowed to
Several major ideas boil to the surface in Book Six. The first is about
how Hitler’s memoir and politics were all about the obliterating “we,”
not the individual “I.” This way leads to herd instinct, to madness.
This is among the reasons Knausgaard’s books so strongly insist on the
facts of one life.
A second is the way that liberal society denies and buries so many of
the dark instincts that lurk inside us. We hide death and disease. We
pretend that beauty and charisma, Nazi ideals both of them, don’t
matter, when in fact they have never mattered more. We spend our hours
playing epic-quest video games that stir the grandiose instincts absent
from our daily lives. Knausgaard fears another dark figure will come
along to tap our inchoate longing to be part of something greater than
These ideas are interesting but they are not new, and they’re buried in
an endurance test of a novel. This book is the largest in the absorbing
“My Struggle” series, but curiously it’s the runt of the litter.
Follow Dwight Garner on Twitter: @DwightGarner.
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