Why Knausgaard?

Why Knausgaard? When I have a dozen other things I should be doing, at least three blogs I have lined up to write? Well, sometimes you just have to sit down and blog it out.

In this instance, the post was brought on last night when @gillybethstern hijacked a Twitter conversation about The National to ask: Any of you read the latest Knausgaard?

My contribution was:

I finished Vol II over w/end. Easy to SAY it’s superb. Harder to say WHY, to which Gillian replied

Agree. But I am enthralled, even when he boils water or fries up his meatballs. Then me:

and unties his shoelaces and takes off his shoes and hangs up his jacket…

She’s right, and those laces and jacket were already underlined in my copy of the book, that I finished in a glorious sunny binge this weekend just gone, during a 24 hour stretch staying in a nice hotel in St Ives on my own – one of those pockets in time that allow you to really immerse yourself in a book, with no distractions.

Nobody wanted me for reviewing duties on this, the second volume of Knausgaard’s epic, six-volume succès de scandale, My Struggle, so this is my opportunity to just sit down and bash out an attempt at that question: Why Knausgaard? What is about his books that fires me up in a way that simply no other books do, at the moment?

@seventydys tried to answer it thusly: The quality of attention. How the facts are held in language. Nope-can’t do it.

This then is nothing so considered as a review – instead, here are a few of the comments I scrawled across the tops of the pages I read, and a few of the lines or passages I underlined, with hopefully brief attempts to explicate them.

“I unwound my scarf as I stood there, hung it in the wardrobe with my jacket, untied my laces and put my shoes on the shelf by the wall.”

There’s that line, which should be taken as emblematic of all the mundane details that fill out these pages – the going to the shops and the washing up and the taking out the bins, the precise descriptions of meals and of random people sat in train carriages that prove this is a novel, for the facticity of the detail – as non-fictional element – is clearly spurious.

The first volume of the novel series, A Death in the Family, famously had a long section describing in great detail Knausgaard (K) and his brother cleaning up the wreck of a house where their father had drunk himself to death, alongside his practically incapable mother (K’s grandmother) and if this book does something similar it’s in the day-after-day drudgery of looking after a small child, whether it’s changing nappies (the wriggling child puts her foot in the shit of the full nappy, you end up hosing her down in the bathroom), going to deathly kids’ parties, or ‘fun’ baby music groups. All these things could be used for satirical purposes – and they can be, superbly: see Abbott Awaits by Chris Bachelder – but not here. It’s just how life is. The description of Linda giving birth, the description of one of the kids having a night terror – that brought back to me a forgotten phase of one of my own children at that age – these have power because they are given no more attention, no more language-love, than the taking off the shoes and hanging up of the jacket.

“Her eyes were dark and serious, like an animal’s.”

There are very few metaphors or similes in the book. The writing is not fine writing. It is, to be frank, bog standard. That’s why, though I revere this book, I’d be slightly disappointed to see it win the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, if only because the translator, Don Bartlett (forgive me if I’m wrong) doesn’t seem to have had much of a job to get it into serviceable English.

“The life around me was not meaningful. I always longed to be away from it, and always had done. So the life I led was not my own. I tried to make it mine, this was my struggle.”

There’s the title explained. Side note: A Death in the Family was divided into two numbered parts, the first, I suppose, a sort of general introduction, the second dealing with K’s dad. A Man in Love is prefaced by the title ‘PART THREE’ and Part Three takes up the whole of it.

It’s not dramatized. The reader doesn’t have to do any work (my note)

In Creative Writing classes we are taught (I teach) to show, not tell. And yet Knausgaard tells, tells, tells. Of course there is description, at the level of the shoes and scarves, but if K is angry with his wife, Linda, or Linda with him, he says it outright, rather than dramatizing their pre-argument tension and letting the reader fill in the gaps.

“Oh, how I gloated when I caught her in the trap and could stand there agreeing to all her demands!”

Scenes are fully annotated as to the emotions they contain. There is no distance between the events and the reader – in a way Knausgaard is profoundly anti-modernist, his struggle is not a struggle with language, it is a struggle with the world. He will be the first to admit that what he writes is shit, but there is no neurosis over the language, just over what is written. At one point, narrating the moment when he first thought of writing what would become this book he finds an old piece of writing describing going to a party as a teenager (the beer bottles-in-the-ditch section of Vol I) that he decides he can use – “as long as I wasn’t too bothered and shelved any idea of aiming for the sublime”.

The sense that everything’s going okay leads to tension – if this were a novel, something would happen, the baby would die, K would have an affair, but nothing does. And yet anxiety pervades it (my note)

There are dramatic moments – K gets drunk and desperate and cuts his face, he confronts his mother-in-law over her drinking while looking after the children – but these are short and soon dealt with. Nor, really, is the drama of the book in K struggling to be able to write the book we are reading. This is NOT a Bildungsroman. In fact it is an attack on the very idea of the Bildungsroman – not that our childhoods don’t create who are as adults (he specifically says this is the case) but that we never stop being created. The lie of Bildungsromans is that we ever become fully formed. The awful tension of the book is the ambient tension of contemporary Western bourgeois metropolitan liberal life. Not tension because something might happen – it’s happening already. It’s always happening.

“Every morning I got up at half past four as usual, worked on editing the translated collection of short stories until seven and had breakfast with Linda and Vanja without saying a word.”

Plenty here for writers, and would-be writers, and their partners. The commitment to the self. The sacrifice of all others. The conflict that this establishes, that can, if you’re luck (lucky as a writer, lucky in love) be used to fuel the writing. The self-laceration K gives himself when he agrees to do an interview is instructive. I’m not sure I would have the necessary level of self-doubt, but then I don’t have the necessary level of self-belief .

“‘Sissel is mean-spirited, unwelcoming, cold and closed,’ Linda shouted in the green sun-drenched valley. ‘That’s the truth about her. You say I can’t see my mother as she is, you say a gift is never a gift and that she makes me dependent on her, and you may be right, you may be, but you can’t see your bloody mother, either.’”

The question of Knausgaard’s ‘Faustian bargain’ – the inclusion in his novel of his pen portraits of friends, family, acquaintances – is one that I haven’t even started to come to terms with. In 100 years all these people will be dead, and it’s a fair bet that these books will still be being read, but how does that affect the in-play morality of his actions? I don’t know. Some would say it’s a question not even worth asking. Others would say the answer invalidates all the rest. The real question is: how necessary is it to the functioning of the work? The taking off the shoes and the hanging up of the jacket are chips on the table that help substantiate and validate the arguments K makes about his and our life, but do the comments about L’s sister, who fancied the drug addict who lived in their apartment block, or his friend who lived on illegal earnings… do these do the same? If the first book was about the father-son relationship, then this one is about mother-in-law relationships, and how those affect a marriage, and god knows that is the meat of the book. Changing the names wouldn’t make any difference there.

“Fictional writing has no value, documentary narrative has no value. The only genres I saw value in, which still conferred meaning, were diaries and essays, the types of literature that did not deal with narrative, that were not about anything, but just consisted of a voice, the voice of your own personality, a life, a face, a gaze you could meet. What is a work of art if not the gaze of another person? Not directed above us, nor beneath us, but at the same height as our own gaze.”

This is fantastic. Reading it, as it comes pretty near the end, feels like a manifesto, and as a manifesto it feels like it punches a hole right through David Shields’ Reality Hunger. When you write from the gut, not only are there no genres, there is also no genre anxiety. And yet… gaze, voice – these are not neutral terms. Any critical-theoretical analysis of My Struggle would surely bring it tumbling down, but then Knausgaard is clear that such thinking, “beyond a certain point” becomes evil. This is really a book to take on its own terms. That, in itself, is struggle enough, for its own terms are powerful indeed. I’m not sure I would be up to a struggle with it.

It’s a book that makes most novels seem pointless. Why read them? They’re made up. Here’s life. And thinking – proper thinking – about life. It’s like looking in a deep, dark mirror. As a book, it’s hard not to feel that it validates me. This is not a review. Other people will have thought more deeply about these books, but I’m nor ready to read what they say yet. The best I can do is respond honestly to a book that I feel was written honestly, and hope that nobody blows us out of the water. If it goes down, I’m going down with it.

Three additional thoughts

One: For a more considered, less flustered response to Knausgaard’s books, do read Stephen Mitchelmore on Vol I here and here, and Vol II here, and Mark Thwaite here.

Two: Rachel Heath pointed out the connection to Montaigne – that so many people seem to see themselves in the Knausgaard, as they do in the Frenchman’s Essais. To which I say, well, up to a point. The thing is, I don’t see myself in Montaigne… I cannot subscribe to very many of his of his opinions, although I do fully see myself in his attempt to know himself. It’s just that what he finds there is not what I find here, in the mirror, as I do with Knausgaard. Which, potentially, goes against my thought that these books will be read in 100 years’ time. Maybe they won’t. Maybe they are just a reflection of the self of the early C21st. (I don’t believe that.)

Three: Is it a novel? Is it not a novel? Well, clearly it’s not a novel, and just as clearly it’s not a memoir, and anyone who says, ‘Hey, it’s a book, dude!’ gets a punch. So… (Deep breath) … perhaps this is the time to pull out that over-used Benjamin quote: that every great work dissolves a genre or invents one.


  1. biancawinter

    How have I not come across this blog before?! I finished Randall at 2am this morning, stunned – and of course wanting to know if I had also worked out where the missing painting was! After some sleep I agonized over writing about Randall and its position in relation to What I Loved. But it was a random tweet, not that writing, that brought me here, into this veritable treasure trove of bookish thought.

    When I finished A Man in Love, I felt like I wouldn’t be able to read again. I wandered around in a kind of daze, expecting at any moment to wake up, in Sweden, in the body of a forty-odd year old man, with a family to look after. But I couldn’t explain it, how the book has made me feel that way. I really empathise with your motivation to try to find it in language, or not even that – to simply mark it.

    I could go on, but I’d rather carry on reading than comment. Suffice it to say I’m delighted to have stumbled in to this corner of the internet. Thanks.

    • Jonathan Gibbs

      Bianca, hi there – thanks so much for your comment. glad you like the blog, and very glad you enjoyed Randall so much! (As for the mystery picture, let’s just say Vincent has looked right at it during his New York trip, but he hasn’t seen it… and it’s not in the studio. Is that enough of a clue?)

      • biancawinter

        Aha! He’d need x-ray vision, right? To really see it. The texture of the paint… return to origins, or something else…

        And for the record, I’ll consider it a cheat if you yourself did not spend three hours looking at Rothko ;)

  2. Pingback: Today’s sermon: What is art for? A response, in part, to Raymond Tallis’s Summers of Discontent | Tiny Camels / Jonathan Gibbs

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