Karl Ove Knausgaard's book The End marks the end of the struggle
Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle arrived to the English-reading world, beginning in 2013, pre-hyped and eagerly anticipated. Before we had read a word, readers were aware of the series’ nature and history — six volumes of autobiographical-fiction, bestsellers in Norway — and its controversies: friends and family members had protested their inclusion and depiction in the books, claiming Knausgaard was not as honest as purported. We knew of the rifts that had developed between the author and some of his subjects, with family members — including his uncle and his former wife — taking to the media to attack the books and the writer. And then there was the title, which the series shared with another significant memoir, that of Adolf Hitler.
The novels became bestsellers in translation, with largely rapturous reviews. The hype, it seemed, was merited.
Or was it?
Now, with the publication of the series’ final book, The End, in English (bringing the total weight of the series to more than 4,000 pages in its Canadian edition), we are able to look at My Struggle as a whole, to look at the full scope of Knausgaard’s vision.
If one is looking for clarity, though, prepare for frustration. The more one considers My Struggle, the more contradictions and paradoxes begin to emerge.
For example, it’s not always good. While one might expect a certain measure of roughness in 4,000 pages of prose, there are lengthy passages where the book lags, where the writing is lazy, where one can see the effect of both Knausgaard’s pace (the series was written very quickly) and publication schedule (the books were released in such a tight time frame that editorial time for the later volumes was practically non-existent). And I’m not even talking about the 400 page digression/essay in The End in which Knausgaard explores Mein Kampf, Hitler’s youth, Weimar culture, the First World War, the rise of Nazism and the growth of anti-Semitism in Norway. Surely that could have been cut, right?
No, not really. The lengthy exegesis contains some of the key concepts underlying the series as a whole: the creation of identity, the friction between individuality and community, questions of beauty and divinity. It’s crucial to our understanding of the books, and of Knausgaard.
It’s also 400 pages of densely packed history, sociology, biography and literary criticism. Criticisms of self-indulgence have a certain merit.
While they’re not always good, there are passages in the books which are utterly transcendent, which create a shock of recognition and understanding one is more accustomed to experiencing in the presence of great visual art than in fiction. Think of the frisson one experiences on looking at, say, Van Gogh’s painting Starry Night (the original, not a reproduction), the immediate connection and almost electrical charge: My Struggle has dozens, nay hundreds, of moments like that. In fact, Knausgaard returns to the nature of the reaction to visual art a number of times over the six books; he knows what he’s writing about, and he seems to know exactly what he’s doing.
But is that enough?
There are times that reading My Struggle is, in fact, a struggle. I hesitate to use the word “boring” (or self-indulgent) but there are really only so many trips to the market with his kids that one needs to read, only so many times one needs to hear about Knausgaard going out to smoke and drink coffee on his balcony (I wouldn’t advise trying to quit smoking while reading The End. Trust me on this.). Partway through The End, I found myself almost literally begging for it to be over. This is substantially an issue with the limited editing and baggy writing, but it’s also a matter of exhaustion: there’s only so much time you can spend inside another person’s head to the degree one begins to inhabit Knausgaard.
And the inside of Knausgaard’s head isn’t a particularly pleasant place to be. Cranky, morose, judgmental, quick to anger … there’s a certain appeal to the outlook, but it works best in limited doses.
But that’s not quite right, either. My Struggle succeeds because of how close one comes to feel Knausgaard, how one both empathizes and understands him. He may be unpleasant, but he’s not alone: My Struggle documents thoughts and emotions which most of us feel, though we are quick to deny them or downplay them. Knausgaard has no such filters.
As his friend Geir says, partway through The End, “You don’t have to say everything that comes into your mind, you know. Kids do that. Adults can put their utterances through quality control first.”
Thankfully, Knausgaard has no such quality control: the power of the books comes from their unguardedness, their honesty (or at least, what reads as such).
That honesty, however, isn’t as groundbreaking as it may appear. Aside from its weight, My Struggle doesn’t add anything new or significant to the literary field. Autobiographical fiction has been fairly routine since Tolstoy, Joyce and Proust, and Knausgaard’s novels don’t really break any new ground.
So, 4,000 pages later, what do we have? One could write thousands of words, hedging and praising, enthusing and caveating. There is probably a generation of graduate theses in these books, but for now: My Struggle is a flawed masterpiece, a broad canvas on which strengths and weaknesses are equally visible, and which somehow combine to create a reading experience unlike any other.
Robert J. Wiersema is the author, most recently, of Seven Crow Stories.