Saturday, November 24, 2018

Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle Book 6

I read the sixth and final book of Karl Ove Knausgaard's autobiographical My Struggle, which was far longer and less cohesive than its predecessors.

The first part of the book is meta, and not necessarily in a good way. The previous books were about his life, but now he has caught up and his life is centered on the reception of the books. So you end up in a loop as people you've already read about now themselves read the same for the first time and respond to Knausgaard. His uncle is apoplectic, which worries him. That got old for me fairly quickly, though Knausgaard is just so good at capturing emotion that I was still drawn to it.

Since the book came out so long ago in Norwegian, I knew there was a long middle part about Hitler. Knausgaard was trying to figure out whether he, in the midst of his own struggle with life, could have ended up the same way as Hitler if placed in the same context. So he reads Mein Kampf (it's a bit of "I read Mein Kampf so you don't have to"). Hitler as a youth was into art and did not stand out in any particular way, then as he matured figured out how to give a "we" to people that he could manipulate. I actually found this part interesting mostly because of our current political situation than as a connection to Knausgaard. Since it was written so long ago, it is totally unrelated to the fascism (or proto-fascism) that we face today but it's still relevant. People search for meaning and fascism gives it to them, with ready made enemies.

As he tries to explain his feelings about his own place in the world, and how he wants to relate to it, he tends to fall back on what to my untrained eye feels like literary theory jargon, citing novels, poems, and paintings (sometimes densely packed together in a string) and using words like "intertextuality" in sentences that seem never-ending. Here, in the middle, the book slowed to a crawl for me.

"Explanation is anathema in these texts, all meaning must be extracted from the events portrayed, which are not relative, only unfathomable" (p. 682).

That gets old. Hundreds of sometimes overwrought pages bring us to his conclusion that we find "we" in being human. "I am you" (p. 830). It took me weeks to get through it. The "I" vs. "we" permeates his life after the first volume of My Struggle was published, because writing alone about your life is "I" but as soon as it is published, the "I" becomes "we" since so many other real people are portrayed and, more importantly, hurt. That is where all the angst comes in.

After the Hitler digression, Knausgaard returns to his life, but again it is primarily about being the author of a biographical novel. Unlike all the other books, I can't connect to this. The previous books all had universal qualities (at least, I hasten to add, to a cisgender middle aged white male who grew up in the 80s), parts of growing up that I could see in myself. That was not so often the case with this book. But he is still such evocative writer that I enjoyed it, albeit less on a personal level. The same goes with his discussion of his wife Linda, with whom he seems perpetually annoyed and who he seems not to be in love with at all. He describes her manic episodes, both high and low, in detail that must be awful to her. He loves his children but not her so much. It is sad to read and clear that they will not be married much longer (they are divorced now).

I'm glad in a way. With the five previous books, I wanted to read the next one immediately. Now the narrative is done and that feels right.


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