My Struggle: Book 6
By Karl Ove Knausgaard
Archipelago. 1,160 pps. $33.
Reviewed by Katherine Hill
In his 2010 manifesto Reality Hunger, David Shields celebrates an emerging movement in the arts. Among its features, he identifies:
"A deliberate unartiness: 'raw' material, seemingly unprocessed, unfiltered, uncensored, and unprofessional … artistic risk, emotional urgency and intensity, reader/viewer participation … criticism as autobiography … a blurring (to the point of invisibility) of any distinction between fiction and nonfiction: the lure and blur of the real."
Shields' list is varied to account for a range of relevant works, but it's also an apt description of Karl Ove Knausgaard's titanic autobiographical novel, which was simultaneously taking Norway by storm.
Published from 2009 to 2011, Knausgaard's six-volume, 3,600-page Min Kamp is its author's attempt to write about his life sincerely, without veils. He recounts his father's death from alcoholism and the excruciating cleanup that followed. He recounts falling in love with his wife and the birth of his first child. He recounts endless premature ejaculations as a teen, endless beers in his 20s, and in Book Six, endless errands with his children.
Banality is one of the novel's great risks, sublimity its frequent surprise. A typical Knausgaard sunrise, from Book Six:
"Everything became visible in its light, the bits of food on the floor, the trail of coffee stains that ran from the counter on the right to the sink on the other side, the globules of fat that specked the surface of the sausage water in the saucepan, the two bloated sausages that lay at the bottom, split open, the two empty milk cartons next to it, the open packet of margarine, so soft it was almost a fluid, its yellow color much deeper now than when it had been taken from the fridge." It gets even better from there.
By the time Don Bartlett's translations reached English-language readers in 2013, Knausgaard had become a genuine media sensation, famous for over-sharing. Now, with the U.S. publication of the sixth and longest volume — a book so demanding it required two translators, Bartlett and Martin Aitken, and so heavy the act of reading destroys it — the series has come full circle.
In Book Six, Knausgaard is about to publish Book One. He's working nonstop, his uncle Gunnar is threatening a lawsuit, and his wife Linda's mental health is teetering. My Struggle is, fundamentally, a novel of middle-class family life, but the family life of Book Six is no longer just a meditative subject. It's something our reckless hero has to fight, belatedly, to defend.
"I imagined I was going to write exactly what I thought and believed and felt," he laments, "in other words to be honest, this is how it is, the truth of the I, but it turned out to be so incompatible with the truth of the we, or this is how it is meant to be, that it foundered after only a few short sentences."
A recurring theme of Knausgaard's is the saturation of the individual by the social world, which is itself shaped by history: We are all responsible for our individual actions, but also creatures of our time. It's no coincidence that his opus has emerged in an era defined by reality television, social media stories, and the celebrity of ordinary people. That his medium is literature and not Instagram only demonstrates the extent to which reality hunger pervades our time.
In many ways, Knausgaard is just another Kardashian, another podcaster, inviting us into his life in serial form, employing a range of techniques, both subtle and overt, to create the illusion that we know him. We know the entire thing is constructed, but we willingly overlook that artifice in our surrender to the pleasure of the "real."
Yet Knausgaard is not a podcaster or a reality star. He is a writer, and a reader, so his chronicle of family life, first as a frightened son, now as a worried husband and father, is punctuated with essayistic digressions on literature, art, and history. In Book Six he meditates on German Jewish poet Paul Celan, French painter Claude Lorrain, and, yes, Hitler, author of "literature's only unmentionable work," which Knausgaard forced himself to confront only after cheekily titling his own project Min Kamp.
We read these sections not to agree with his analysis, though it is often quite profound, but to continue to know this narrator we've followed for 3,600 life-changing pages. In his books, he is that fascinating old friend, a genuine creature of his times, liberal though at times reactionary, preoccupied with shame and the nature of evil, whom we long to sit with, communing, arguing, and interrogating the overwhelming this-ness of modern life.
He has paid dearly to give himself to us, a price that doesn't sit comfortably. But as he concludes in Book Six, "I did it, and I will have to live with it."
So will we.
Katherine Hill is assistant professor of English at Adelphi University and author of the novel The Violet Hour.