My Struggle: Book Six. By Karl Ove Knausgaard. Translated by Don Bartlett and Martin Aitken.Archipelago; 1,160 pages; $33. Published in Britain as “The End” by Harvill Secker; £25.
THE title of the British edition of the sixth and final volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s “My Struggle” seems self-explanatory. But what exactly is it that is coming to an end in “The End”? A novel? A diary? A memoir? An autobiography posing as a novel or a novel posing as an autobiography? Or the biggest act of self-indulgence in modern literature?
“My Struggle” is a phenomenon. In Mr Knausgaard’s native Norway one in ten people owns a copy of one of the volumes, but its popularity is global. “It’s completely blown my mind,” said Zadie Smith, likening her yearning for the next book to the crack-addict’s hunger for another hit. Rachel Cusk—who like Mr Knausgaard is a practitioner of “autofiction”, in which writers take their own lives as subject matter—dubbed it “perhaps the most significant literary enterprise of our times”.
It is also one of the strangest: ridiculously long (3,770 pages overall in Don Bartlett’s and Martin Aitken’s admirable translation), devoid of plot, hopelessly meandering. “My Struggle” just keeps coming at you, much as life does. One moment Mr Knausgaard is meditating on whether it’s possible to find meaning in a world without God; the next he is describing the mundane details of feeding a child or lighting a cigarette (the series would have been considerably shorter if he wasn’t such an avid smoker). The reader is spared nothing. “I hadn’t masturbated, not a single time, until I was nineteen,” he writes. He laments “the ignominy and the constant humiliation of premature ejaculation”.
“The End” is the strangest of the six volumes as well as the most self-indulgent: a book about self-obsession that opines at length about what it is like to write a book about self-obsession. It starts with an impending disaster. Mr Knausgaard’s uncle is so furious about his depiction of his father’s death from alcoholism—“verbal rape”, the uncle calls it—that he threatens to sue him to high heaven. The Norwegian media relish the fight. The harassed author struggles to meet his next deadline, getting up at four every morning while bringing up his three small children and looking after his manic-depressive wife.
Mr Knausgaard repeatedly returns to the question of whether his project—to turn his life into art—is worth it. Is it reasonable to impose such suffering on his family for the sake of his craft? He doesn’t really do it for the fame; though he gets a certain thrill from discovering that he’s “big”, he lives as far away from the literary limelight as he can get. He does it because, like Martin Luther, “I can do no other.” A bizarre inner compulsion drives him to bare his soul to the world in the name of “truth”.
His second great obsession, after himself, is with that other author of a book called “My Struggle”, Adolf Hitler. About half-way through, “The End” shifts abruptly in tone and focus—from a reflection on the life of a writer in rich and stable Scandinavia to a 400-page essay on Hitler’s early years. Mr Knausgaard follows Hitler’s progress from aspiring artist to down-and-out. He undertakes a close reading of “Mein Kampf” to see how the trainee dictator’s mind works, and reconstructs the intellectual world of pre-war Europe—with its exuberant high culture on the one hand, and its obsession with race and biology on the other. He insists on treating Hitler as “one of us”, an ordinary human being who was abused by his father and disappointed in his life, rather than as a monster.
My only friend, The End
Why has such a quixotic and demanding work achieved such success? The title no doubt played an important part. So did Mr Knausgaard’s craggy good looks; had he been pimply and puny, he might have found a much smaller audience for his thoughts on masturbation and Hitler. But there are also more substantial reasons.
The most obvious is Mr Knausgaard’s unflinching honesty. In an age of spin he dwells on the imperfections of human life—his father’s drinking, his wife’s neediness, his children’s tantrums. In an age of political correctness, he confesses that he feels emasculated by child care. Such transgressive blurring of the borders between the public and private, sayable and unsayable, can be both life-affirming and riveting. Readers see that they are not alone in at once loving their families and resenting them for impinging on their time.
Just as important, though Mr Knausgaard wrote them fast, his books take their time. “My Struggle” is the equivalent of slow food in a drive-thru age. The internet serves up instant gratification: buzzy stories that command attention for a few minutes or even a few seconds. The medium renders everything equally accessible and equally disposable. Mr Knausgaard provides the internet in reverse: a slow-moving contemplation of everything from the trivial to the profound.
The trickier question is whether the series actually deserves its success. Is it a masterpiece, as its many fans maintain? Or is Mr Knausgaard a literary circus freak? Ostensibly he ignores most of the rules of great literature. His sentences are deliberately under-wrought; he writes in the same flat tone about lighting a cigarette and the essence of beauty. The structure can feel slapdash. A discussion of Anders Breivik’s slaughter of 77 Norwegians in 2011 is disappointingly brief; rather than using the episode to drive home his point that the foundations of civilisation are dangerously fragile, Mr Knausgaard moves on.
But at his best he is wonderful. The study of his relationship with his dysfunctional father—which forms the centrepiece of “A Death in the Family”, the first volume, and ripples through the other five—is unforgettable. Mr Knausgaard captures the torture of a child’s interactions with a difficult and self-obsessed parent: the longing for approval from someone who is incapable of giving it, at least with any consistency; the highs and lows as this object of awe praises him one moment and scorns him the next; and the emotional turmoil as a complicated man slowly becomes deranged, moving in with his mother (the author’s grandmother), persuading her to join him in his drinking binges, and finally drinking himself to death, surrounded by filth, from discarded bottles to unwashed clothes and human excrement.
And, flat though it may be, Mr Knausgaard’s style can be compelling. “It wasn’t hard to write well,” he reflects in one passage, “but it was hard to make writing that was alive, writing that could prise open the world and draw it together in one and the same movement.” Paradoxically, by not bothering with conventional fine writing, Mr Knausgaard succeeds in producing prose that is “alive”, partly because of his eye for detail and partly because of the quality of his intellect. His lengthy section on Hitler, for example, contains one of the best discussions anywhere of the Führer’s skill as a public speaker:
his enormous ability to establish community, in which the entire register of his inner being, his reservoir of pent-up emotions and suppressed desire, could find an outlet and pervade his words with such intensity and conviction that people wanted to be there, in the hatred on the one side, the hope and utopia on the other, the gleaming, almost divine future that was theirs for the taking if only they would follow him and obey his words.
This reviewer finished “The End” with mixed emotions: gratitude that Mr Knausgaard had broken all the rules to admit readers into his life, but also relief that the whole thing was over, and a conviction that he and his acolytes should now find new experiments to pursue. In his “Confessions”, Jean-Jacques Rousseau promised to tell his story with such brutal honesty that his project, “which has no precedent”, would also, once complete, “have no imitator”. Let us hope that this is also the case with “My Struggle”—and that “The End” really is the end.