Death and Life in Knausgaard

This essay first appeared in Review 31 on 24th January 2017

Storytellers, the late John Berger was wont to say, are ‘Death’s Secretaries’: they borrow their authority from the dead. Death hands storytellers the file, ‘full of sheets of uniformly black paper.’ ‘All the storyteller needs or has,’ Berger reckoned, ‘is the capacity to read what is written in black.’ The Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard is a Death’s Secretary after Berger’s own heart. His bestselling, 3,600-page ‘autobiographical’ blockbuster, My Struggle, which has been translated into 22 languages, is an epic story scrawled in black. The sixth and final volume – its thickest at over a thousand pages – is set to appear later in 2017, one of the most eagerly awaited literary events of the year.

Midway through the first book, A Death in the Family, Knausgaard says ‘writing is drawing the essence of what we know out of the shadows.’ The dark shadow looming large over My Struggle, and over Knausgaard’s life, is the death of Knausgaard’s father – a brooding, unpredictable and menacing alcoholic whose death tore son Karl Ove apart. He hated his father, was terrorised by him, psychologically and emotionally. And yet, when the grownup boy heard of his father’s eventual demise, he cried. Why did he cry? Who was this father? Who was the son? What had the son become now that he, too, was a father – a father writing about his father?

The search for answers became Knausgaard’s quest for self-clarification, his attempt to find wholeness again – or perhaps to find wholeness for the first time. It was a literary quest as much as anything else: how to find the right words to represent a life, prompted by a sudden insight into death. Writing wasn’t and still isn’t cathartic for Knausgaard; he insists on that. It is torture, a twisted medium that buys time, that somehow offsets death. My Struggle became Knausgaard’s personal struggle, his trial, perhaps even The Trial. Only here K. is Knausgaard himself, and The Trial in question is one in which Knausgaard – let’s henceforth call him K. – is both judge and jury. The case that follows is to prove his own innocence – or guilt. In My Struggle, K. accuses himself.

At first, he tried to fictionalise things. But that didn’t work. It only pushed events away from K., made it sound phoney, remote. For years it also prompted writer’s block. K. couldn’t advance with the standard novel in a standard manner, creating characters; he had to go elsewhere. The stakes were higher. K. had to bring things closer, inside himself. It’s not what happens there, he says, not what actions are played out there; it’s the there itself: ‘There, that is writing’s location and aim. But how to get there?’ So he starts writing in the first-person, compiling his own diary of a madman, wondering if what he was saying was any good. He kept going, was encouraged to keep going by his editor-friend Geir Gulliksen, despite the latter’s balking at the work-in-progress’s title, Min Kamp, like Mein Kampf.

The constant feeling of humiliation

Before long, K. started to reconstruct himself as he reconstructed past years. In order to move forward he went backward, in search of lost time, buried memory. Proust was the writer who’d made the greatest impression on K.; he’d shown K. so many possibilities. But K. makes it clear that his work doesn’t create beautiful art, like Proust’s, using beautiful words and luscious prose. My Struggle isn’t so much about creating beauty as finding meaning. K.’s words are ordinary and plain, nailed to the page with a fierce, sometimes searing honesty, with graphic intensity. This isn’t writing that grabs you by the collar: it’s literature that singes your backside. Still, we’re not talking about anything realist; K.’s work transgresses realism: it’s that which gives My Struggle its artistry, its Proustian flair.

In a way, Peter Handke, the Austrian novelist and playwright, about whom K. has written admiringly, is a better guide. Handke’s novella A Sorrow Beyond Dreams (1972) deals with the suicide of Handke’s mother and similarly addresses the problem of representation. Its ‘plot’ is likewise a struggle to express death in language. K. quotes Handke describing his method, which might equally be K.’s method:

‘I first took the facts as my starting point and looked for ways of formulating them. But I soon noticed that in looking for formulations I was moving away from the facts. I then adopted a new approach – starting not with the facts but with the already available formulations, the linguistic deposit of man’s social experience.’

For all that, My Struggle is K.’s Dream Beyond Sorrows; it’s not a book about despair. K. was glad his father was dead. Yet memory is a weird thing and isn’t ‘a reliable quantity in life … It is for the simple reason that memory doesn’t prioritise truth. It is never the demand for truth that determines whether memory recalls an action accurately or not. It is self-interest which does.’ For K., the sound of the crack of a sledgehammer enters his head, the memory of his ruddy-cheeked father banging away outside their house, pounding rock, breathing heavily. Rural Norway, 1976. An eight-year-old boy runs across the grass because he’d seen death in the sea, on the TV news, bounding over to tell dad. Don’t run across the grass, Dad scowls, sledgehammer in hand. ‘I stared at him. How could he know I had run?’ His back was turned. ‘And shut your gob,’ dad says to son. ‘You look like an idiot.’ ‘You’re a waste of space.’

Another time son returns to find the house ice-cold. ‘Can’t we put on the heating?’ son asks dad. ‘It’s freezing in here.’ ‘Fweezing?’ dad mimics, ‘We’re not putting on any heating, however fweezing it is.’ ‘I couldn’t roll my ‘r’s,’ son says in his text. ‘Never had been able to say “r”, it was one of the traumas of my late childhood. My father used to mimic me, sometimes to make me aware that I couldn’t pronounce it. But I just turned and went back upstairs. I did not want to give him the pleasure of seeing my moist eyes.’ What struck the teenage adolescent was ‘the constant feeling of humiliation.’

‘Nor did he go to any of the innumerable football matches I played in as I was growing up.’ ‘He was never one of the parents who drove to away games, never one of the parents who watched home games.’ On one rare occasion he did come, by default. ‘He drove me to the shale pitch in Kjevik, he was going on to Kristiansand, we had a practice match against some team from upcountry. We sat in the car, as silent as ever . . . Then I had a sudden inspiration and asked him if he wanted to see the match. No, he couldn’t, he had to go on, didn’t he. Well, I hadn’t expected him to say yes, I said.’

But later, ‘when the second half was nearing an end I spotted his car by the sideline, behind the piles of snow. Could vaguely make out his dark figure behind the windscreen.’ With only a few minutes left, son had a chance to score a final goal, receiving a perfectly weighted pass. To his left foot, his wrong foot. It skidded off. He’d fluffed his opportunity. ‘You didn’t put your chance away,’ comments dad later. It was the first thing he said to son. ‘I didn’t think you’d mess that up.’ ‘Oh well, I said. But we won anyway. What was the score? Two-one, I said, glancing at him, because I wanted him to ask who had scored the goals. Which, mercifully, he did. Did you score then? he asked. Yes, I said. Both of them.’

A chill wind

And then in 1998, the 30-year-old son hears dad is finally no more. Dad’s life had imploded; over the years that K. had grown estranged from him, a spiral of decline hit, worse than son ever imagined. Once upon time, dad was an upstanding local schoolteacher, a relatively normal lower-middle-class parent. Mum and dad were together. But their marriage failed. Mum moved to Bergen, son went to school in Kristiansand, lodged a while with grandma, dad’s mother. Dad moved to northern Norway, with a new partner, had a daughter; then they split, partner leaving dad who began drinking heavily. Dad lived alone, drank even more. Then he went to live with grandma, and kept on drinking, drinking with grandma. He had no job. He drank away everything. Bloated, he no longer ate. Then, one day, grandma finds him dead. ‘Dad is dead,’ writes son, with his own italics. ‘A chill wind blew through me.’

Some of K.’s most harrowing writing in My Struggle, the denouement of Book One, describes him and his elder brother, Yngve, sorting out dad’s funeral. They had to go to grandma’s to put dad’s affairs in order, little imagining the nightmare soon to befall them. ‘The smell inside the house was unbearable. . . What is that bloody stretch? . . . I turned and went into the living room.’

‘For as long as I could remember, it had been used on church holidays and special occasions. Now dad’s huge TV was in the middle of the floor and two of the large leather chairs had been dragged in front of it. A little table swimming with bottles, glasses, pouches of tobacco and overflowing ashtrays stood between them. In front of the three-piece suite by the wall lay some articles of clothing. I could see two pairs of trousers and a jacket, some underpants and socks. The smell was awful. There was excrement on the sofa, smeared and in lumps. I bent down over the clothes. They were also covered in excrement. The varnish of the floor had been eaten away, leaving large, irregular stains. By pee? I felt an urge to smash something. Lift the table and sling it at the window. Tear down the shelf. But I felt so weak I could barely walk.’

A week later, at the funeral parlour, K. sees his body.

‘And that there was no longer any difference between what once had been my father and the table he was lying on, or the floor on which the table stood, or the wall socket beneath the window, or the cable running to the table lamp beside him. For humans are merely one form among many, which the world produces over and over again, not only in everything that lives but also in everything that does not live, drawn in sand, stone and water. And death, which I have always regarded as the greatest dimension of life, dark, compelling, was no more than a pipe that springs a leak, a branch that cracks in the wind, a jacket that slips off a clothes hanger and falls to the floor.’

In delving deeper into dad, and deeper into himself, K.’s real struggle unfolds, a struggle that gives body and soul to My Struggle, to books that destroy linear time and conventional narrative flow, that shift between past and present, memory and intuition, observation and conjecture, fact and feeling. A boy-island struggles to become a man, a man in love, a man who dances in the dark, a man who struggles to become a husband who struggles to become a father who struggles to be a writer, a better writer, giving order to his disorder, bringing sunshine to the falling rain. My Struggle becomes a struggle with the inexorable fragility of being wholly human.

Ever so steadily the spectre of death is shrugged off. Death gives back a sense of urgency that we know belongs uniquely to life. If we can read the torrent of K.’s words, get beyond the tedium of some of the detail, we can glimpse a modern-day Bildungsroman, a coming of age portrait of the artist as an ordinary man. He quits school in 1987, goes off to be a supply teacher in a village on a northern island, planning to write his novel in the evenings, saving enough money to travel around Europe as a free spirit. But he’s accepted onto a creative writing course in Bergen, where, despite dreams of an itinerant life, he stays put for nine years, learning his craft, writing music criticism for a student rag, publishing his first novel, Out of This World (1998), which wins the Norwegian Critics’ Prize. He moves to Malmo, to Stockholm, has a kid, eventually marries another woman, has three more kids and ends up in rural Sweden, in a tiny village called Glemmingebro.

A literature of boredom

In K.’s hands, mundane everyday life gets represented as . . . well, mundane everyday life – and somehow it assumes an epic quality, like Brecht’s great play about his great hero Galileo: ‘GALILEO: (washing the upper part of his body, puffing, and good-humoured:) “Put the milk on the table”…’ Oftentimes it’s a literature of boredom we’re reading, or frustration, the woes of a writer without time to write – though having the time to tell us. K. lets us enter the familiar world, the world we all recognise and live out, and then, without us really seeing how, he wrenches us out of this familiarity, takes us elsewhere. Everyday objects, acts and images – making coffee, smoking a cigarette, staring out of the window, the light, the rain, people’s faces, changing nappies, kids’ parties, walking down the street – all the routine trivia and décor of daily life becomes, for K., an existential quest, a metaphysical drama. Little is portrayed directly as we inhabit it. Instead it becomes a world of shudder and dread, of nothingness and ecstasy:

‘While the muted winter light that had forced its way through the clouds seemed to draw all the colours and flat surfaces towards one another and minimise the differences between them with its greyness and fragility, this clear, direct sunlight emphasised them. Around me the town exploded with colour. Not the warm biological colours of the summer but the mineral colours of winter, cold and synthetic. Red brick, yellow brick, dark green bonnets, blue signs, an orange jacket, a purple scarf, grey-black tarmac, verdigris metal and shiny chrome. Sparkling windows, glowing walls and glinting gutters on one side of the building; black windows, dark walls, toned down almost invisible gutters on the other.’

At times when we hear K.’s internal monologue – some of his most compelling writing – we’re reminded of Sartre’s anti-hero Roquentin and the nausea he feels touching door knobs, glimpsing gnarled tree roots; the shock of recognition, the spinning of the head, when he, a fully conscious human being, encounters the inanimate coldness of things. K. feels this Sartrean nausea, as nothingness needing to be filled, as isolation and dislocation screaming out for meaning. K. gives our world meaning by writing about it, by having to write about it, by filling the void with words, making it whole, somehow intelligible and above all communicable. That’s why we read him; that’s why we find his books strangely hard to put down.

K. admitted recently that for a long time he’d thought literature lay elsewhere, in the centre not in the periphery, not in Norway, in Bergen, or rural Sweden. He said this in 2016, in his tender foreword to the 100th-anniversary edition of James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. In the periphery, K. once believed, little happened; there, things were without significance, unworthy of being written about, inconsequential. ‘History belonged to others, literature belonged to others, truth belonged to others.’ But after reading Joyce, K. recognised ‘the true essence of literature is that the conquest of what belongs to the individual alone, what is special and characteristic, and to Joyce’s mind unique, is also what belongs, and is unique, to us. Literature is never the preserve of others, and it knows no centre – which is to say that its centre is any place at which it exists.’ Great literature can happen anywhere, anyplace we find ourselves, anyplace the human spirit is touched, anyplace authentic experience is expressed, shared.

A way through chaos and confusion

This expression can even be voiced from the tiny Swedish village K. now calls home; literature doesn’t have to play away from home. It’s a message conveyed in K.’s latest work in English, Home and Away: Writing the Beautiful Game (2016), at first blush a book about football, about the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, a series of letters K. exchanged with his Swedish writer-friend Fredrik Ekelund. Ekelund went to Brazil and sends K. tales of matches and soccer heroes, sunshine and beaches, primary colours and caipirinhas, crazy parties and bustling cafés, exuberant people and exotic outdoor life; Fredrik’s world is hot and high-spirited, extrovert. K.’s, meanwhile, is family-oriented, introvert: he falls asleep watching games on TV.

Yet Home and Away is much more than about footfall: it’s full of nuggets on life and death, on culture and class, on the task of the writer and the location of literature. In one letter (12 June 2014), K. explains to Fredrik his need for stability, for structure and repeatable patterns: ‘routines have been a way through the chaos and confusion, and this has worked well, we are fine, all of us.’ In another (25 June 2014), he tells his friend how he had to crash, exhausted, before France versus Ecuador was over.

‘Woken at half past six by Anne [his youngest] making disgruntled noises. I fed her, put her on the changing table and placed a mountain of clean clothes in the cupboards, emptied and filled the washing machine, changed the bedding and tidied the rooms…then I made lunch for the girls—fried fillet of chicken, pepper and a wok sauce with noodles, and then fruit, slices of bread, water, pear juice, yogurt and pancakes…and at half past nine I drove the girls to the theatre, stopped at the local shop and bought our lunch, then sat and worked on an essay for two hours, one page. . . Such is life here. Nothing spectacular, nothing memorable, a life filled with children, cooking, driving, football on TV and sleepy evenings, all set in countryside full to bursting with gentle beauty.’

When it comes to the crunch, K. writes (4 July 2014), ‘being a writer is about only one thing: sitting down behind a desk and looking at an empty page and knowing it has to be filled with something, from nothing. That is where the excitement is, the pleasure, but also the doubt, the uncertainty, the fear of failure. If you don’t want that, if you have had your fill and are better off without it, you are no longer a writer. Success has nothing to do with this.’

Fredrik, we hear, roots for Brazil, with their poetic ball-play. K.’s team is Argentina; Brazil isn’t for him. Argentina never does anything beautiful for the sake of beauty, he says; they’re always well-organised defensively and sometimes even a bit cynical, drawing on an opponent’s weaknesses rather than their own strengths. The first World Cup K. remembers was in Argentina – 1978, as a nine-year-old. ‘I was spellbound,’ he says. ‘Argentina, both the country and the team, represented an adventure for me. . . There’s a lot of romanticism in this, but it is a different kind from the romanticism I see in your letters. For you Brazil is lived, it is alive. Argentina for me? I have never been there, it is no more than a dream, a fantasy, anchored nowhere else but in the books I have read.’ You know, he tells Fredrik, he’d originally wanted My Struggle to be called Argentina. Not a treatise on megalomaniacal world-historical domination, conquering everything and everybody, but a stoic, unheroic struggle for self-knowledge, for inner meaning, for finding life in non-life, for unearthing a yes from a no, an Argentina from a Brazil.

This is perhaps one reason why, over the past year, during 12 months that brought us Brexit and Donald Trump, terrorist explosions and trucks ploughing into innocent people, I’ve found a strange pleasure and peace reading Knausgaard, absorbing his struggle into my own little struggle, reading him when I could barely face reading anything else, least of all a newspaper. His words leapfrog across national boundaries, transcend specific times and spaces and enter into you directly, almost by osmosis, as authentic human experience, above and beyond politics. Where Knausgaard begins his great masterpiece is what he leaves us with at the end of it all: a beating heart. Sooner or later it will stop; he knows it, we all know it. But in the meantime, its pounding action belongs to a precious life-form in which we are constantly surrounded by phenomena from the realm of death. Knausgaard brings death back to life. His is a literature not of release or avoidance but relief: a hushed Nordic scream that struggles to help us struggle on.

About Andy Merrifield

Writer, Urbanist, Marxist, Educator
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