Book of the Week: Charlotte Grimshaw reviews the profound final volume of the My Struggle series by the one and only Karl Ove Knausgaard.
The first thing to say about The End, the sixth and final volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s series, My Struggle, is that it’s 1153 pages long. It’s enormous and it’s a conundrum, representing a struggle for the conscientious reviewer: first the task of concentrating on subject matter ranging from the minutiae of child-minding and housework to the Bible, to Joyce’s Ulysses, to the poetry of Paul Celan, to Hitler’s Mein Kampf, then the hours spent sorting through notes, heaving the giant volume about, trying to create an orderly response to each discrete topic while also, on another level, wondering what exactly it is that Knausgaard has achieved here, what the correct taxonomy should be, whether the book can be accurately described, whether there is a method to it, in the sense that he’s been in control of the project all along, or whether he is simply (although not simply) a writer who has compulsively set about listing his thoughts, experiences, memories, relationships, in an undertaking that’s original for its very disorderliness, its intrinsic lack of architecture and forward planning, a creation that’s spilled out of him, forming itself into a thing that can be described in a bewildering number of ways: a chronicle of a writer’s life, a dissertation on reality and art, an intellectual deconstruction of the civilisation around him, a love letter to his family, a study of male shame, an intimate description of living with his wife’s bipolar disorder, a disturbingly relevant warning (first written in 2011, although only translated into English now) about the threat of nationalism and populism in Europe, a reminder that everyone in 2018 should be reading about the Weimar Republic, the rise of fascism in Europe in the thirties, the seduction of the German people by Hitler, the intricate ways that the Nazis used language to dehumanise the Jews, to create a society where they could be killed with no one questioning, because the new language didn’t have space for them, they had been linguistically and conceptually erased.
Has he, in the course of this strange and highly original project, in which he’s constantly agonising over the trouble using real people and names has caused him, while at the same time benefiting from the excitement and literary stardom the use of real people and names has earned him – has he created a new, hitherto undiscovered relationship between writer and reader? Does his confessional style, his insistence that the people and places and memories are genuine, bring the reader closer in, so that we’re not considering a man or a father or a writer, we’re thinking all the time about Karl Ove himself; has Karl Ove been a jerk, has he been a coward, is he a good father and husband or a bad one, do his ideas stand up?
And he, as he writes, is thinking about us, about our reaction; he’s inviting it as he welcomes us in – all the while telling us how taciturn he is, how he doesn’t want to talk, no he seldom has anything to say and his self-esteem is so low that even waiters frighten him, he feels inferior to everybody – he draws us in, to his messy flat, to his marriage, to his mind. And then he unleashes it all on us: his experiences, his opinions, his torrent of ideas.
How do you deal with a writer who, while constantly chucking another nappy in the bin, taking the kids to kindergarten, brewing coffee and grimly shopping while herding the toddlers (all that stuff one did for years and years – how well he brings back the agony, the way happiness and love survive amid the grind and exhaustion) and then abruptly draws you into a fifty-page disquisition on the sublime in art? Well, in life, some people make themselves impossible by being large, difficult and complicated. Once you’ve decided they’re worth it, once you’re on board, all you can do is buckle down, pay close attention and take each new development as it comes.
Messaging me on Whatsapp recently, my son Conrad made a nifty suggestion: Knausgaard should publish an autobiography, and everything in it should be completely different from the life portrayed in My Struggle. I thought this was a clever and amusing idea (typical of Conrad – this reviewer has three kids too, Karl Ove, spent years doing childcare don’t get me started on housework and nappies sorry I digress). Meanwhile though, we’re all working on the assumption that events taking place in The End are real.
Knausgaard makes it clear that his aim was to create a new fiction to respond to our times, specifically our world of screens: “…we inhabit two realities, one abstract and image-based, in which all kinds of people and places present themselves before us with nothing in common but being somewhere other than where we are, and one concrete, physical, which is the one in which we go about and are more palpably a part – when we arrive at a point where everything is either fiction or seen as fiction, the job of the novelist can no longer be to write more fictions.”
He wants “reality” and wants to depict it “not shrouded in literature’s pall, not ingeniously illuminated in prose’s darkened studio, but described in full daylight, swathed in reality. I wanted to get to what was raw and arbitrary about that reality.”
So, we get the enormous amount of realistic detail about domestic life, which is undeniably absorbing and satisfying to read. More than the previous books, which deal with his youth and relationships, The End is centred around the writing and publication of the series, and opens with Knausgaard’s uncle flying into a rage on reading the first book, which contains a portrayal of Knausgaard’s father’s death from alcoholism. The uncle denies the book’s version of events, and threatens to sue. Knausgaard is thrown into confusion and anxiety, and begins to doubt his own recall.
While that drama is playing out, Karl Ove is working himself up into a train of thought that eventually develops into a very long essay: on the poetry of Paul Celan, on art, on Ulysses and the Bible, all heading towards his analysis of Mein Kampf, his exploration of Hitler’s youth as depicted in Mein Kampf, and a broader examination of the language and culture of the Nazis as it relates to the treatment of the Jews.
He challenges Ian Kershaw’s biography of Hitler, specifically Kershaw’s representation of Hitler as unmistakably evil, even in his youth. In this, Knausgaard argues, Kershaw portrays Hitler as an alien “other”, whereas Knausgaard’s thesis, vast and complex and impossible to summarise as it is, could be said to be headed towards emphasising that Hitler was, although exceptionally bad, a human being, “one of us”, the point being that each of us, if we’re not vigilant, is capable of “being a Nazi”, or at least of intellectual and moral laziness, of being drawn into complicity without noticing until it’s too late that evil is happening around us, in our name.
Knausgaard’s analysis of Paul Celan’s poetry explores the limits of language. In his poem “The Straitening,” Celan, whose parents were murdered in the Holocaust, portrayed Jews placed by the Nazis outside language: “Nowhere does anyone ask after you.”
As Knausgaard puts it, the Nazis had “separated you after you from the community of the we and recategorised them as a ‘they’ and then an ‘it’, expelling them from the language and from the domain of the human.”
Hitler, he says, could perceive an “I” and a “we” and a “they” but not a “you”. In this he was pathological, as was his whole regime.
Written in 2011, the essay seems prescient now, impossible to read without thinking of the current rise of nationalism and the Far Right in Europe and the US.
Here is Knausgaard on Hitler’s uncanny ability to mesmerise the German people: “That his appeal should be so vast… seems unfathomable to us today; we read the arguments and the perils are plain to us, the idiocy, the sheer contempt for fellow human beings, yet it was not by arguments he won over the people, but by the very abyss that ran through his soul, or by what it generated within him, for what he thereby expressed, his inner chaos and his yearning for that chaos to stop, were curiously congruent with society’s inner chaos and its yearning for that chaos to stop.”
You could say that Knausgaard is delving into Hitler’s pathology here, territory that inevitably, in 2018, brings Donald Trump to mind. The essay has a quality of universality: it leads you to extrapolate to the present. Using its ideas as a starting point you could speculate now, for argument’s sake, that the Fuhrer’s was the same pathological narcissism as has been diagnosed in Trump (see The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump, in which 27 psychiatrists and mental health professionals diagnose the current President): an inability to empathise, a need to externalise inner chaos and to live by divide and rule, a compulsion to categorise certain types as “other”, in Hitler’s case the Jews, in Trump’s case immigrants and the migrant caravan.
Further extrapolating, and keeping in mind Trump’s recent assertion, “I am a nationalist”, you could argue that by externalising his inner chaos, the narcissistic demagogue manages to infect the whole nation with his own pathology, that the resulting collective narcissism can be called nationalism, and that nationalism, following the same course as individual narcissism, seeks out an “other” to subjugate, to denigrate, and ultimately, potentially, to kill.
In Mein Kampf, Hitler outlined ways to rally the base. He wrote, “All propaganda must be popular and its intellectual level must be adjusted to the most limited intelligence among those it is addressed to. Consequently, the greater the mass it is intended to reach, the lower its purely intellectual level will have to be.”
Build a wall! Drain the swamp! Lock her up!
Writing in 2011, Knausgaard didn’t stop at history. He wanted to get closer to home. It wasn’t enough for him that we should view the Nazis as an appalling alien phenomenon. In his usual way, and in conformity with his overall literary project, he draws us nearer – nearer to him, and through his experience, to ourselves.
He asks us to consider our own susceptibility.
On July 22, 2011, Far Right nationalist Anders Behring Breivik murdered 77 people, including 69 young people on Norway’s island of Utoya. When he heard the shocking news, Knausgaard was swept up in powerful emotions of outrage, empathy, and a sense of national belonging. He describes feeling deeply moved and intensely Norwegian, part of a great social “we.”
Then he hits us: “Only afterwards did I realise that these must have been the same forces, the enormous forces that reside within the we, that came over the German people in the 1930’s. That was how good it must have felt, how secure the identity they were being offered must have appeared to them. The flags and banners, the torches, the demonstrations: that was what it must have been like.”
He finishes his warning against nationalism with this: “If evil comes it will not come as ‘they’, in the guise of the unfamiliar that we might turn away without effort, it will come as ‘we.’ It will come as what is right.”
It’s possible to imagine some readers, British ones especially perhaps (because the Brits are so salty and blackly humorous and resistant to solemnity and “learnings”) wriggling away from Knausgaard’s Mein Kampf essay, finding it a bit of a liberty (saying thanks for that and by the way we did win the war) and diverting off to discussing, legitimately, how his project can properly be labelled in literary terms, whether it can be taken seriously or whether he’s pulling the wool and having a laugh. But the book is so vast, you can foresee a thousand different reactions. It’s a matter of choosing which bits you want to focus on.
Overall, despite some oddities in the prose, clichés, awkward phrases and various banalities, which could be blamed on the extraordinary speed of writing and difficulties with translation, and despite parts where Karl Ove’s opinions become exhausting and impenetrable, The End is a wonderfully rich reading experience: dense, complex, challenging, forceful and scarily relevant.
And there’s more – way more than just Hitler and the Bible and art and reality. There are stories, incidents, small and large observations. One of my favourite passages is an anecdote about the sublime in art, in which Knausgaard is confronted by the sight of a cruise ship appearing above ancient buildings in Venice. Each thread of family life is a complex narrative in itself – the disastrous purchase of a summer allotment, the kids’ lives, a grim package holiday in the Canary Islands. The story of Karl Ove’s wife’s bipolar disorder and the way he struggles to manage the family in the midst of her episodes is a whole novel in itself.
To use the kind of quaint cliché that pops up in the book, you have to take your hat off to Karl Ove. He draws you close, and takes you to a strange new place – facing him, while he’s facing you. Each intensely wondering, how do we affect each other? He is real, but is his description of himself real? Is his “reality” distorted by the Hawthorne effect, where the subject changes his behaviour as a result of being observed?
Maddeningly contradictory, he’ll describe his low self-worth while lecturing you on what matters. He hates talking, and he’ll take a thousand pages to say it. He’s inventive, and he has urgent things to say. He’s like a song, probably one from the 90s – no really, he’s a work of art. Unique, idiosyncratic, often taking a liberty, brilliant, unable to be categorised, authentic, the real deal, worth it.
The End by Karl Ove Knausgaard (Vintage, $26) is available at Unity Books.
The Spinoff Daily gets you all the day's best reading in one handy package, fresh to your inbox Monday-Friday at 5pm.