[Marxism] At the Close of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s ‘My Struggle,’ a Magician Loses His Touch

Louis Proyect 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 
His Touch
By Dwight Garner

My Struggle
Book Six
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 
to share.

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 
work weekends.”

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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