At the Close of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s ‘My Struggle,’ a Magician Loses His Touch
Posted September 17, 2018 4:45 p.m. EDT
The most elite of the world’s white, male, under-60 novelists sometimes seem to ride together as if in a peloton, as if they were competitors in the Tour de France, coasting in and out of each other’s slipstreams. When one breaks from the pack while up in the mountains — witness Jonathan Franzen or Norwegian Karl Ove Knausgaard — a target surfaces on his jersey.
Sensing this ancient dynamic, Tom Wolfe once replied to an attack by Norman Mailer by commenting, “The lead dog is the one they always try to bite in the ass.” Mailer casually responded: “It doesn’t mean you’re the top dog just because your ass is bleeding.”
Knausgaard’s new novel, the sixth and final book in his diaristic “My Struggle” series, is a gift to his detractors, those who have found the books to be solipsistic and overwrought. At nearly 1,200 earnest pages, Book Six is a life-drainer, so dense and so dull that time and light seem to bend around it. I had to flog myself through it. I carried it under my arm like a football, giving the Heisman Trophy push-off to friends, family, basic hygiene, Netflix and the pets. When I finished, I felt there were fang marks in my neck; I wanted a blood transfusion. There are few books I will more avidly not read again.
Especially trying is Book Six’s 400-plus page excursus into Hitler and the etiology of the Third Reich. It is a grindingly sophomoric exercise that sits undigested under this novel’s skin, like an armchair inside a snake. This section purports to explain why Knausgaard’s book shares a title with Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” — in German, “My Struggle.” But its salient points could have been made in 40 pages, or even four.
I write all this as a Knausgaard admirer. The earlier books in this series, notably the first three, and especially Book Two, were for me among the great reading experiences of this decade. In his commitment to the quotidian details of his life as a boy and as a man, Knausgaard writes like a whale filtering krill. He has an uncanny, nearly magical gift for isolating his details, for holding them to the light until they shine.
What once felt like sorcery in his work now sometimes seems, in Book Six, like fumbling tricks. A spell has been broken, a thermometer shaken down.
It’s simplest to talk about this novel as if it were three 400-page books, which arguably it should have been. In the first, Knausgaard comes to grips with the fame the early books in the series brought him. There is a freight of unwanted attention, especially a threatened lawsuit from his uncle Gunnar, who was incensed that so many family secrets were spilled in Book One. The author smokes and frets and tries to keep writing.
The second section contains the Hitler material. It includes a close reading of “Mein Kampf,” and considers that book’s ideas and impact through many lenses — through Dostoyevsky’s consideration of nihilism; Heidegger’s yearning for simplicity; the weird and barbed images of the Old Testament, still lurking somewhere in our minds. He spends pages on a favorite poem by Paul Celan. He winds through the socialism of Jack London and Karl Marx, through the art of Rembrandt and J.M.W. Turner, through Wagner’s triumphal music and Victor Klemperer’s analyses of fascist language. Knausgaard doesn’t bite off more than he can chew, for he chews with a morbid enthusiasm, one that the reader never quite comes to share.
In the third and final section he shows his wife, Linda, what he has written about her and their children in his first book. She weeps, but she seems strong enough to take it.
She is not strong enough to take it. In the very affecting final section, Linda has a mental breakdown (she had spent time in a psychiatric hospital before they met) and the author tries to care for her. He pulled the pin on a grenade when he wrote the first novels in this series, writing unsparingly about the people close to him, using their real names. In this final book the grenade has gone off; it’s too late for him to throw himself on it.
“This novel has hurt everyone around me, it has hurt me, and in a few years, when they are old enough to read it, it will hurt my children,” Knausgaard writes. Yet he would not, you sense, have changed a word.
Knausgaard remains Knausgaard. There is vital writing in this book on many subjects, from male vanity and supermarket carts to fruit labels and how we view the changing faces of loved ones over time. About prawns, for example, he writes: “Alive they looked almost like office workers of the ocean, in death like a company of ballet dancers.”
At least once, he made me laugh out loud. “If there were a choice between couples therapy and death,” he writes, “I would unhesitatingly choose death.” He’s seldom this vivid here, however. This book feels like it was written quickly, and indeed it was. But then so were the previous books in the “My Struggle” series. He says amazing, terrifying things about his productivity in this book, such as: “I would have to write three new books in 10 months. Which wasn’t implausible, I’d been doing about 10 pages a day for the past six months as it was, in the region of 50 pages a week given the fact that I wasn’t allowed to work weekends.”
Several major ideas boil to the surface in Book Six. The first is about how Hitler’s memoir and politics were all about the obliterating “we,” not the individual “I.” This way leads to herd instinct, to madness. This is among the reasons Knausgaard’s books so strongly insist on the facts of one life.
A second is the way that liberal society denies and buries so many of the dark instincts that lurk inside us. We hide death and disease. We pretend that beauty and charisma, Nazi ideals both of them, don’t matter, when in fact they have never mattered more. We spend our hours playing epic-quest video games that stir the grandiose instincts absent from our daily lives. Knausgaard fears another dark figure will come along to tap our inchoate longing to be part of something greater than ourselves.
These ideas are interesting but they are not new, and they’re buried in an endurance test of a novel. This book is the largest in the absorbing “My Struggle” series, but curiously it’s the runt of the litter.
‘My Struggle: Book Six’
By Karl Ove Knausgaard
Translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett and Martin Aitken
1,156 pages. Archipelago Books. $33.