BooksSeptember 9, 2015

Essay: Calling a Spade a Spade – Charlotte Grimshaw on the Literary Phenomenon of Karl Ove Knausgaard


An essay by New Zealand’s best social realist novelist in response to the incredible My Struggle series.

This really happened.

One evening, when I was standing with my siblings at a party, a woman approached who was familiar and yet unknown. We all had the same split-second reaction: who is this stranger we know so well? It was age, of course, the passing of years, that caused the stalled beat of time before we recognised her. She approached and we all made friendly faces and she said, in her immediately familiar, slow and slightly dopey voice, with no preamble, as if we were resuming the conversation we’d carried on decades before, I was just remembering the roll-up lawn.”

And with that, the information arrived at once: her voice, the face she used to have, the faces we used to have, and the roll-up lawn: that tiny detail edging an expanse of green memory, the past opening out before us, the lawn the stage and we the muddy, snotty little players, with our strutting and fretting. The long ago garden, the neighbourhood, where we created ourselves, where our first selves were formed.

She was one of our local gang. We were children of the seventies and eighties. We spent our lives outdoors; we were our own savage, separate little tribe. The way parents did childcare back then was to say, “Go and play. Come back at dinnertime.”

Childhood territory. There was the shed where my father locked himself in and wrote his poetry and fiction, there was the back lawn where we played for hours on the high jump set my father made for us, complete with proper measurements penned on the posts in inches, a bamboo cross beam and mouldy old mattress to land on. At the edge of the grass was a concrete wall and below that the lawn formed a fragrant green mat, which, we discovered, could be rolled at the edges into a long tube made of earth and grass, a thick mud-reeking sausage, veined here and there with writhing worms. Here, in the roll-up lawn, was the essence of memory, the detail, minutiae, smells and sounds: this was the kind of information out of which the early self was constructed. The roll-up lawn was a thing only a child would notice. You had to be close to the ground, in that formative phase where every part of the garden was material to explore. There was no larger meaning beyond “lawn” and “garden”, there was only each vivid constituent part, the distance between hedges, the plum tree, the rat hole under the deck: these things made up a whole world.

Decades later, having become a writer myself, what I began to think of most often was returning to that place: the back garden, the neighbourhood, Hobson Bay, and the idea began to be tied up with two preoccupations: with form and with memory.

I had been thinking for a long time about form. I was bored by the sameness of contemporary novels. I was fascinated with various subjects, with the Nazis for example, and particularly with the Nazi architect Albert Speer, but at the same time I disliked the idea of, say, researching Speer for two years and then settling down to write a historically accurate novel about him. There was something about the conventionality of that notion, when it was suggested to me, that brought me out in a rash. I wanted to go closer to the real, not in terms of writing about it, but of writing with it. I wanted stronger, more immediate ingredients. Starting with the short story collection, Opportunity, I started using events and people from our own contemporary society to create stories, mixing them up, fictionalising them, attempting both to utilise and alter the chemistry, rather than just “representing.” I wanted a broad canvas, so I started linking the books. I wanted to experiment with using readers’ memories and perceptions of real events in the narratives, while at the same time, cannily, trying to create fiction that would live beyond its contemporary resonance, in other words to write fiction that would last.

I was preoccupied with form and memory, and I wrote five books – two short story collections and three novels – in which I used not only my own memories but also what I thought of as our society’s contemporary, collective experience. I didn’t name the collective memories however; I didn’t call a spade a spade. I fictionalised. What events and people readers could recognise, they could also perceive as altered. Names were changed; facts and geography were rearranged. When each book was published I spent time trying to explain what I’d been doing, but the conversations didn’t usually go much past whether or not a character was “meant to be the Prime Minister”, or was “based on experience” or a location was meant to be the real place.”

I was looking for a way to break out of conventional form. While admiring some of it, I disliked a lot of contemporary fiction. A lot of it, I thought, was such shit.

My interest in memory was all about the work at first. And then, as a kind of strange revelation that seemed not unconnected, I become interested for the first time in my self, specifically, what version of myself I had been presenting to myself, and to the world.

You could say that we are all many selves. The self I’d been occupying while I was writing the books was one that never looked back except to use particular incidents as material, that focused on work and bringing up children. It was a self that looked to the future and sought to escape the past.

So I conducted an experiment: I went to a psychotherapist. (On the subject of the self, we hear about young people of our era being “entitled” and “self-absorbed.” My memory is that young people of my era were often, among other things, repressed, squashed, smacked or caned, subjected to sexism, racism and homophobia, over-punished and emotionally hurt for our own good.”)

I went to a psychotherapist, and I talked about my childhood. I told her long stories about it. Early on, the psychotherapist, who was a kind and subtle person, identified a certain level of negative fictionalising in the way I was presenting myself. She had a blunt suggestion: “How about we start calling a spade a spade.”

What I got interested in, while I was telling her (my captive audience) about my childhood, was not only the act of remembering, but the act of relating. If you relate a memory, you are reconstructing it in a chosen way. No matter how committed you are to objective truth, you’re making a million stylistic decisions about how you present the facts: what you include, what you leave out, what you emphasise. Here, it seemed to me, was fictionalising from a particular and very interesting angle. Take a real memory, an objective truth, and tell it. What happens?

This really happened. I’m going to tell you about it. No invention. Today, I would decide in the waiting room, I’ll tell her what happened when I was seven, and my brother and I and our five-year-old friend went down the Pararaha Gorge in the Waitakeres by ourselves. I would tell her the true story and later I’d think about how I’d chosen to tell it. After that I’d go home and work on my latest novel, Starlight Peninsula, a book that uses elements of real contemporary people and events, and also contains the completely fictionalised account of a relationship between a psychotherapist and her client.

So I was obsessed with form and I had a growing interest in memory, and the way memory could be an element in reshaping form. And it was at this point that I started reading My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard.

One reader I mentioned Knausgaard to said dismissively, “Oh, doesn’t he do just one long rant?” Another, a UK publisher, said, “Oh God, I can’t be bothered with Knausgaard. The way he goes on and on.I was well into the second volume of My Struggle by then, and felt that these comments were scandalously lax – here, for once, was something really interesting. Here was something new, experimental, best of all a break with conventional novel form. Not that Knausgaard needed any help with recognition. His My Struggle series, six books, four of which have so far been published in English, has been described as a literary phenomenon, a masterpiece, a tour de force. It’s a raging success that has turned him into a literary star. It’s a widely quoted fact that one in four Norwegians owns his books, and his fame has spread worldwide. Much of the praise involves discussion, by necessity, of what Knausgaard is actually doing. Just what does he think he’s doing?

He has said he wrote the books out of frustration with contemporary novels. He was bored; he wanted to break out of the form. My Struggle consists of six volumes of autobiographical novel that one critic called a masterpiece for the age of the Selfie. He’s certainly pictured himself from all angles, and pretty thoroughly. Over the course of the books, he tells the story of himself, Karl Ove Knausgaard, and also of his real family: his beloved brother Yngve, his mother, and most strikingly his cold and cruel father. He describes his wife and his children. He portrays his neighbours, his relatives, his schoolmates, his teachers. There are no names changed, and, we are given to understand, no details censored. No one’s feelings have been spared. Certain members of his family have apparently expressed outrage along the way, and some have disputed his account; others, perhaps those less brutally exposed, have not complained.

Knausgaard gives us the life of Karl Ove, who grows, over the course of thousands of pages, from a sensitive, buck-toothed little boy, tormented and bullied by his sadistic father, to being a father himself, a husband, and eventually the author of My Struggle. What Knausgaard has done, we are given to understand, is take objective memory, “truth”, and relate it warts and all, creating, in the process, something new and daring: a break with the conventional novel. It’s an act of outrageous courage, given the amount of self-exposure, and an act of ruthlessness, given what he reveals about others.

This really happened. I’m going to tell you about it. No invention.

We are given to understand his material is objective truth because of course we can never fully know what the “real” objective truth is. We only have the author’s word for it. And even if all of it is true and really happened, memory, as writer, makes its own innumerable selective decisions; memory is its own style master and editor and filter. Memory (as I reflected during my experimental sessions with the psychotherapist) is itself an artist.

How, moreover, can Knausgaard retell a scene in vivid, moment-by-moment detail when it happened, on his own account, decades ago? The scene can only come to life on the page with the aid of invention and artifice. More than the prose style, which is sometimes scrappy and uneven but always brilliantly intense and vibrant, the pleasure of reading the books lies in their rich, minutely described detail: from the interior of houses, the physical landscape of neighbourhoods, to the fraught and tragic interactions within the Knausgaard family. As Karl Ove’s father crosses the kitchen, puts on the kettle, says something so cruel and cutting we are shocked, none of this can be related without quite a degree of invention on the part of the writer. It all happened, and the art of it as fiction is not just in the selection and placing of the particular real memory, but in the detail of the telling. The life on the page, the fiction, consists of those elements Knausgaard has chosen, those that formed his world and his self, just as the plum tree, the high jump set, the roll-up lawn were ingredients in my childhood; they were the details that beat time, planting themselves forever in my mind. The author and editor of My Struggle is Karl Ove Knausgaard, and the stylist, the temperamental artist, is Karl Ove’s memory.

He had a cruel, bullying father who eventually drank himself to death. He had a dreamy, vague mother whom he loved. He had a brother whose benign presence saved him from being destroyed by his parents’ emotional neglect. He grew up in a Scandinavian landscape whose beauty he can strikingly evoke. His life is an abundant source of ingredients; why should he look beyond it? And yet there’s more: in Book Four, Dancing in the Dark, the recipe is enriched even further as Karl Ove, a budding writer aged eighteen, living alone and working as a teacher in Northern Norway (all this really happened) sits down and starts to write a short story that is based on an incident that Knausgaard has related as memoir in Book Three.

My Struggle is absorbing, brave and inventive, and it will probably generate many imitators. Yet it’s hard to imagine many writers could go so far, or manage to create such a compelling character out of their own selves. Knausgaard is able to be artless and artful at the same time. He’s a mass of contradictions. He can show us a man in love, and a man ruthlessly willing to put even painful and negative details of his love on the page. He describes himself as a vulnerable, effeminate boy who didn’t copy his abusive father but instead grew up to be a devoted parent – yet at one time he annoyed Scandinavian feminists with his portrayal of himself as a restless, ambitious man who felt emasculated by child rearing. (Actually it’s not only men who can feel “emasculated”, or disempowered, by full-time childcare. After a toddler playgroup I used to feel that only something like army training would be sufficient to defuse my thwarted energy, perhaps a 10 kilometre run followed by hand to hand combat followed by shooting at things.)

His raw material is “truth” but he’s not in the business of telling us what to do. His integrity as a fiction writer is intact, because it’s only his truth he’s telling. He is a mass of conflicting emotions, as we all are; it’s just that most of us keep them hidden. We think we should say the right thing, keep quiet; we soldier on; we bottle stuff up. We can be grateful that Knausgaard does not. He has broken out. He has portrayed something unique in a completely original way: one human being, one single and singular life.

Karl Ove Knausgaard – A Death in the Family (2012), A Man In Love (2013), Boyhood Island (2014), Dancing in the Dark (2015), Vintage $39.95 all available at Unity Books, sponsors of The Spinoff Books

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