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My Struggle: Book Six
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A- : meandering -- at great length -- but consistently engaging
See our review for fuller assessment.
From the Reviews:
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The complete review's Review:
My Struggle: Book Six (The End, in the UK) is the final, and (by far the) longest, volume in Karl Ove Knausgaard's massive work of very personal fiction.
It feeds off itself here, looping back to the beginning: this installment of the novel starts just before My Struggle: Book One is set to appear in the fall of 2009.
The first scene is set just days before the publication date, while the entire first section -- some 400 pages -- is focused almost entirely on the month or so before it is to come out; the 2011 present-day in which he is writing this final volume remains occasionally mentioned background for this first part of the novel -- he is looking back from then, reconstructing the events, conversations, and feelings from that recent (mainly 2009) past -- while then in the final section past catches up with present, and the writing (and being-kept-from-writing) of this sixth installment of the novel comes increasingly to the fore, down to the almost breathless (because also of everything else that's going on) last days of getting to the finish line, the last paragraph beginning: "Now it is 7:07 and the novel is finally finished".
a story about my life centered around two events, the first being my mother and father splitting up, the second being my father's death. The first three days after he was found. Names, places, events were all authentic. It wasn't until I was about to send the manuscript to the people mentioned in it that I began to understand the consequences of what I had done.Hesitantly, he began to send out the book to those mentioned -- often at great length -- in the novel, dreading the replies. He gets a variety of reactions, with most of his subjects accepting what he's done, but one family member, his uncle Gunnar -- the brother of his father, but ten years younger -- is absolutely outraged. He complains to both Knausgaard and his publisher, and vows to take legal action. Knausgaard tries to placate him -- he has no problem changing the names of anyone who doesn't want to be identified by their actual name, for example -- but Gunnar's outrage is beyond reasoning with. His objections also aren't about his own portrayal, but rather the more fundamental (and essential) one of how Knausgaard's father is portrayed.
The e-mails he receives from Gunnar disturb Knausgaard ("Verbal rape", the subject-line of the first e-mail he gets reads ...), as he worries about the possible consequences, and dreads the thought of a court-battle -- though, as his close friend Geir points out to him, Gunnar taking him to court would be great publicity:
But that'll be excellent ! You should hope he does, it'd be the stupidest thing he could do. You'll be rolling in money ! Everyone'll be wanting your books if it comes to a court case ! This is literary history in the making. And you'll be a millionaire. There's no better scenario.Though his My Struggle is a work of 'fiction', it is important -- vital -- to Knausgaard that it be 'true': the most essential aspect of the project is that it reflect reality. So when his wife tries to calm him by reminding him:
"But it's a novel, Karl Ove."So he is not only upset by Gunnar's reaction and the possible consequences surrounding the publication of the book, but specifically by Gunnar's claims that Knausgaard distorted reality, and lied, bringing up a few examples which immediately cause Knausgaard to doubt himself:
Maybe that was what I had gotten into my head in 1998, and what to begin with had been little more than a vague theory had now become a solid truth ten years later.The tension simmers throughout this long first section, building up to the publication of the book, but for all that it's also anticlimactic: typically, Knausgaard is less concerned with outcomes than process, going on at great length about his reactions to his uncle's rantings and threats, but barely addressing the actual consequences for the book (in part, admittedly, because the uncle's threats apparently manifested themselves largely in noise rather than action -- there was no dramatic court show-down, for example). So also Knausgaard leaves until very late the revelation that he was right after all, about some of the things that his uncle had been so certain of (so certain that they had caused Knausgaard to doubt himself and his work). He finds himself furious -- "I don't think I have ever been so furious" -- but placing this scene so late in the book makes for an odd sort of resolution; Knausgaard is vindicated, and finds some satisfaction -- and no doubt it's useful to him, in completing the book, to find this validation, that his truth-seeking is more reliably fact-based and -grounded than his uncle's raving had led him to worry they were. But, tellingly, even with this documentation, questions remain: Knausgaard has some certainty about the events, but he can't have all of it. At least it suffices for closure:
I am his son. The story about him, Kai Åge Knausgaard, is the story about me, Karl Ove Knausgaard. I have told it. I have exaggerated, I have embellished, I have omitted, and there is a lot I haven't understood. But it isn't him I have described; it is my image of him. It's finished now.That so much of Book Six focuses on My Struggle: Book One is because of the significance -- and difficulty -- of finding this closure -- including beyond just writing it. Hence also Knausgaard going on at such great length about the slow, scary (but at that point practically unstoppable) process of releasing Book One to the world. (The other volumes also do come up in the novel, both the writing and some of the subjects they variously addressed, but they are not discussed anywhere near as thoroughly as Book One.)
Much of the first -- and the last -- section of the book is basically entirely domestic. Knausgaard occasionally discusses actually getting down to writing, but mostly -- even when he's alone in front of the computer -- it's the everyday mundane, from him noting: "Googled myself, finding nothing new, surfed around a bit" to countless examples of basic childcare (brushing the kids' teeth, taking them to and from school, trying to get them to eat, dragging them along to various places) to his managing to smoke a cigarette. And while he does repeatedly wonder about aspects of writing -- and literature, more generally -- there's a bit of a disconnect (in the sense that he doesn't give a good sense of how the one translates into the other) between theory and his praxis. The limited insight is interesting, but he could certainly expand on it:
All of them had to be edited and marketed, three of them also had to be written, at the same time I couldn't let Linda carry the whole burden at home, so the solution was to write fast, I set a quota of ten pages every day, and if, an hour before I was to pick up the children, I had done six, I had to write for in that hour and then go and get them. It worked fine, I liked the feeling that something new was happening all the time and never knew where what I was writing would end. The pressure to write so much made it possible, and though I didn't like what I wrote, I liked the situation, everything as open and there wasn't a gatekeeper in sight.(Potential readers might not be fully convinced or reassured by his assurances (and admissions ("I didn't like what I wrote" ?) or, later: "I wrote Book 5 in eight weeks"), but, surprisingly, it mostly works out fine.)
Occasionally, the explanations he gives can seem almost too convenient -- a vision of how the (or this) artist works to create the specific image he's trying to sell:
I had thought about none of this while I had been writing, neither the manufacture of reality, representation, nor my father's integrity, everything took place intuitively, I began with a blank page and a will to write, and ended up with the novel as it was. In that there lies a belief in the intuitive that is as good as blind, and from that basis a poetics might be derived, and an ontology tooHis friend Geir sums up Knausgaard:
It's how you work. Your head's this simmering pot, everything goes into the soup.And My Struggle is a huge cauldron, the contents slopping around. Surprisingly, the detailed observations and recounting of the mundane remains quite consistently compelling. Occasionally, the layers complicate the juggling -- a cabin they own, and then try to sell, for example -- but when he stays close to home he's on solid footing.
The kids are a constant distraction -- and an interesting mix of the tedious basics (their sleep patterns and habits; changing toddler John's diaper) and the parent's fascination with these developing personalities and their independent (and their predictable) streaks. Knausgaard's wife, Linda, and their relationship -- shifted also from the initial head-over-heels passion to a more complex one of mutual dependence and strong (and not always positive) feelings -- are also a complex constant simmering in the back- and occasional fore-ground. Linda's own literary and professional ambitions, her mental fragility -- culminating in a manic-depressive episode as the book comes to a close --, and her presence/absence in taking care of the kids and household constantly, changingly factor into Knausgaard's own actions and reactions -- a constant tension heightened by the professional obligations (readings, festivals, interviews) that he increasingly faces as the books come out.
In his introspection (occasionally also very amusing, as in describing: "my teenage years, my Bjørneboe period"), Knausgaard tends to be pretty hard on himself, acknowledging also that: "I have always had such a weak ego, always felt myself inferior to all others, in every situation" -- a sense of doubt that racks him throughout the novel (and only occasionally becomes enervating ...). Among the books he repeatedly mentions in this volume -- and he turns repeatedly to literature in it -- is Witold Gombrowicz's grand Diary -- including specifically commenting on the famous opening, the repeated: "Me." -- as he considers the self-focus of this project -- despite the fact that that, for a long time:
I almost never confided in anyone, thinking nothing I had to say could be of interest to anyone, and from that perspective, which was the social perspective the expectations of the you as constructed by the I, confidence was a nonstarter for me, and this was basically how i was with everything. I was mute in the social world, and since the social world exists nowhere else but in each individual, I was also mute toward myself, in my inner being.With My Struggle, of course, he seems to reverse tack: suddenly, he says and reveals everything -- not just to himself, but to the world. (The exception being sex, regarding which he explains: "'I'm discreet, that's all,' I said. 'Besides, as I see it sex is overamplified in our culture.'") That transition from the private to the public, however, remains problematic:
When I was writing this wasn't a problem since what I wrote was how things were for me, sitting alone in my room. This novel was tightly drawn around me and my life, but as soon as it all came out into the open, everything changed. An immense distance appeared within this private world that belonged to me and my family, it became an "object," something public, while in reality that which we moved about in, without this ever being formulated, was not a thingKnausgaard (selectively) addresses the reaction(s) to the book(s) -- from the personal, of the first readers, those appearing in the book whom he showed it to before publication, to various public and media reactions, including to specific parts of it. The reaction of his uncle takes up the most space -- even if it largely fades into the background after the first section of the novel -- but hanging over much of the book is the concern about Linda's reaction.
Early on he mentions:
every time I said I was dreading her reading it she would reassure me an tell me everything was bound to be fine. There's nothing to be afraid of, she said. I can handle whatever, as long as it's true.(Interestingly, this passage is among the few examples in this dialogue-heavy novel where speech isn't presented in quotation marks .....)
But this fear of her reaction continues as he works his way deeper into the multi-volume epic in which she figures so prominently:
The cloud hanging over everything, the book I had written about us that Linda hadn't read yet, I cast from my mind. There is a time for everything.If he can put it out of his mind briefly, there's still no way around it. Yet it's also interesting to note that regardless of her reaction (it's not great ...) he plows on ahead in My Struggle: Book Six as before, Linda figuring prominently, both in the contemporary action and in reminiscences, such as about their wedding. A few names may get changed, but nothing can stop him otherwise in his relentless soul- and life- (with its everyday warts and all) baring project.
'Truth' is important to Knausgaard --- from basic factual veracity (one reason why his uncle's allegations bother him so much) to a larger concept of 'truth'. So also he considers some of the differences in approaches, and the consequences when he strays -- specifically with the fourth volume in the series:
I gave different names to all the pupils and teachers and I also furnished them with made-up characteristics or idiosyncrasies, all to escape the commitment to reality I could no longer fulfill. In this book, therefore, I committed neither to the novel nor to reality. For this reason it became a strange book, in which I do the opposite of what an author should, I cover over the truth. In Out of the World, which deals with the same theme, I wrote the truth by committing to the novel; in the first two books I wrote the truth by committing to reality. In Book 3 the link is weaker, only to fall away entirely in Book 4. However, everything I said about myself was true. [...] The public had me and the publisher in its grip, and the novel became hostage to reality. This is not an excuse, and this is not my way of saying Book 4 is a poor novel [.....] But it is not the truth.Repeatedly, Knausgaard contrasts his efforts to others, such as Gombrowicz's diary or, for example, Peter Handke's very different approach to writing about the death of a parent, A Sorrow Beyond Dreams -- finding: "the book I had written was the direct antithesis of Handke's its antipode". He also turns to Hitler's Mein Kampf, finally buying a two-volume edition of "literature's only unmentionable work" (that shares its title with his) -- and immediately faces the problem of how to even read it: he can't even imagine putting it on his shelf or desk, and instead hides it: "in the bottom drawer". Still, he decided he has to: "write a few pages about Hitler's book" -- which turned into four hundred pages more or less focused on it, the fat middle section of this novel.
Knausgaard also discusses Hitler at length -- especially his youth and young adulthood, when the artistically inclined Adolf seemed destined for a very different kind of life. Knausgaard is emphatically non-judgmental of the young Hitler -- something of a lay-about, and not a particularly pleasant personality, but with a genuine interest in the arts -- and thinks it unfair to judge the young man before he went off the deep end; indeed, Knausgaard surely identifies to some extent with the young Hitler -- and wonders where it all went wrong. Mein Kampf gives some -- if peculiar -- insight, and Knausgaard's close reading is an interesting gloss on man and work (indeed: men (both Hitler and Knausgaard) and works (Mein Kampf and Min kamp)).
Knausgaard is fascinated by Hitler's book -- including its odd non-style:
Hitler's Mein Kampf exhibits no style whatsoever, not even low style, its I simply gives vent to its opinions on a variety of different matters without at any time showing the slightest sign of being able to see itself; in other words it is uninhibited and excessive, seeking no legitimacy anywhere other than in its own self, which can say exactly what it wants because that is what it is, and because it knows no better.Knausgaard is easily able to differentiate himself (and his writing) from Hitler -- emphasizing even that: "The written word was of no use to him, it led to nothing" -- but Hitler's odd experiment here, another form of I-exploration, coupled with later Nazi use of language (as brilliantly explained in a book Knausgaard discusses at some length, Victor Klemperer's Language of the Third Reich ('Lingua Tertii Imperii', as he called it)) -- and the contrast of Paul Celan's poetry -- do usefully prod Knausgaard in his reflections on his own project and the use of language. And there are times when it properly shakes him up, too:
But the sun beat down, the grass grows, the heart pounds in its darkness.This Mein Kampf-focused middle section of My Struggle: Book Six isn't solely Knausgaard going on a wild detour; it is tangential, but ties in to the larger undertaking throughout (though there are times when Knausgaard gets rather caught up in details of Hitler's biography). Still, it probably warrants separate, or bracketed, discussion. There are many strands to My Struggle, but this is one of the ones that stands out, if not quite apart, most strongly.
Knausgaard addresses some of the fundamental shift from private to public his life/story undergoes in/via My Struggle, but it is the one aspect of the novel he could easily and usefully have devoted more space to. Admittedly, at the time (2011), the full extent of it was still unclear, but whereas he is so good in capturing being in the throes of the entirely domestic, he's far more cautious in how much of the public reaction and his increasingly public role to present. Occasionally, he lets his narrative go there, but -- perhaps also because so much of it was so public, and hence is (or seems) somewhat familiar from elsewhere -- he also seems to gloss over a great deal.
(There's also the odd sensation of reading the novel now, about these real-life figures, with knowledge that the characters did not have at the time, such as that the marriage would not survive.)
Turning back on itself and examining the writing and publishing (i.e. also public-making) experience, My Struggle: Book Six had the potential of being a conclusive summa of this grand undertaking, but Knausgaard doesn't quite pull it off -- or try to. He's still too caught up in it at the time: what distance he has is the distance he's always had; process remains more interesting to him than outcomes. Indeed, when he is 'done', he (believes/hopes he) is done with process: the novel's closing line has him looking forward to reveling in: "the thought that I am no longer a writer". (It is a conclusion that, tellingly, he formulates prospectively rather than as-it-happens (or retrospectively) -- and, as we know, it didn't work out that way.)
Familiarity with the previous volumes -- especially the first -- is very helpful to the fuller understanding and enjoyment of My Struggle: Book Six, and it probably seems a bit odd(er) if one picks it up without any familiarity with either what came before or the surrounding, public stories and coverage, but it can stand, a bit shakily, on its own as well. (But, really, you might as well start at the beginning and make your way through all six volumes -- it is more satisfying (if also more frustrating, through some of those middle volumes) that way.)
It has been an experiment, and it has failed because I have never even been close to saying what I really mean and describing what I have actually seen, but it is not valueless, at least not completelyIndeed, in its parts and its whole, and for all its frustrations, My Struggle remains an awesome, or awing, achievement -- a deeply personal, revealing work of self-reflection. It's easy to see how readers might find it exasperating, or simply too much, yet it is also truly rewarding; there is no doubt that it is one the major literary works to have appeared so far in the twenty-first century.
- M.A.Orthofer, 15 August 2018
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Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard (Karl Ove Knausgård) was born in 1968.
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