The fifth volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, the autobiographical series of novels that has caused a sensation in his native Norway and other countries, covers the years from 1988 to 2002. This was the time when Knausgaard was studying to be a writer and starting to be published, and this volume describes two serious relationships with women, one of which led to his first marriage. We go over a lot of the same ground here that Knausgaard covered in previous books; once again we go through the death of his tyrannical father and once again he describes his own masculinity issues in relentless, worried detail.
Volume Five of My Struggle, which runs to 629 pages, was supposedly written by Knausgaard in eight weeks, and that haste really shows. His own self-loathing is a major theme of the book; it’s tempting to wonder if Knausgaard is deliberately writing badly in this volume in order to get a negative response, which he seems to crave for personal and also creative reasons. Most of the sentences in volume five are long and ungainly pile-ups of short statements separated by commas, and they are sure to drive Jonathan Franzen crazy because so many of them begin with the word “then” without an “and” beforehand.
Here’s an extreme example of most of the sentences in this volume, from page 431: “Through one of Gunvor’s foreign friends I got to know an American about my age, he was interested in music, said he penned his own songs, was enthusiastic and naïve, we talked about forming a band, he knew an Icelander who played, one evening we went out to see him, he lived in a damp cellar, there was something nineteenth century about it, he coughed like a miner and was just as thin, and his wife smoked and carried around a baby and shouted at him, he just shrugged and took us into an even smaller room, crammed with all sorts of useless junk, where we could play, but first of all, he said in English, first we have to smoke.” The problem with this sentence, and so many of the others, is that it’s neither here nor there when it comes to style and rhythm. It just is what it is, as if Knausgaard were saying, in a very irritating way, “Please accept me as I am, and then punish me!”
Supposedly Knausgaard wrote fifty pages about the courtship of his second wife Linda in the second volume of My Struggle in a single twenty-four hour burst, and if that’s true then the speed of the writing actually aided the urgency of what he was describing there, but in volume five it feels like Knausgaard is simply vomiting up what he needs to after a night of drinking, as hurriedly as possible, without ever wanting to stop and wonder about what he is doing or why.
Volume One of My Struggle seemed to be deliberately pedestrian, as if the more mundane the details the more precious they would be or seem, but in the second volume Knausgaard had really gained command over his radical stripped-down style, so that if he took a paragraph to describe an old man sitting in a mall and drinking a Pepsi his simple short sentences really made you see that old man drinking that Pepsi in that mall. The second volume also really revealed his Dostoyevsky/Knut Hamsun side and his self-destructive romantic urges, and there was a thrill in this because his second wife Linda is a woman who fully matches that dark romantic quality herself.
There is a time in the second volume when Knausgaard thinks he has lost Linda’s interest, and so he methodically cuts up his own face with a razor, and this gesture moves Linda and wins her heart. In volume five, we learn that Knausgaard pulled this face-cutting stunt before when his girlfriend Tonje was talking too intently to his brother Yngve, and she is horrified by it, yet she also later marries him. The key difference, though, is that Tonje seems to marry Knausgaard in spite of the face-cutting incident whereas Linda marries him partly because she is impressed by his masochistic recklessness.
Knausgaard does a lot of drinking in volume five, as most people do in their twenties, and he’s a very bad drunk. At school he thinks he is in love with a girl named Ingvild, and he has a dream about his brother Yngve going out with her, and right after this dream he learns that Yngve has been dating her behind his back. Knausgaard melodramatically thinks he will never speak to his brother again, but he falls into hanging out with him soon afterward. When they are deep in their cups and Yngve lightly calls his brother “psycho,” a drunken Knausgaard hurls a glass with all his force at his brother’s face and then runs off. Yngve’s face is bandaged when Knausgaard next sees him, and Yngve says there will be a scar where the glass hit him. This is the worst thing Knausgaard has described himself doing in My Struggle, and it carries a queasy charge because there is something dreamlike about it, something nastily instinctual and subconscious.
Knausgaard wants to be a good person and he feels the need to describe all the bad things he has done in all their hapless detail, and of course his writing about them only compounds the shame they carry. It’s as if Knausgaard is searching for some ultimate absolution, and that search can be gripping, but it’s hard not to question why in volume five, on the other hand, we need to read about practically every cup of coffee he’s ever drunk.
Knausgaard says in the beginning of this volume that he kept no diary of the time he is writing about, and so it’s easy to start to wonder just how he can remember so much detail, especially when so much of it is banal. Perhaps it could be said that the dramatic scenes in this volume, like the drama with his brother Yngve, stand out in bolder relief because they are surrounded by that banality, but there is entirely too much of it here for this stylistic argument to be convincing.
The problems in volume five are all maybe a question of stamina and involvement. It seems clear that Knausgaard is neither fond nor overly interested in the long section of his life detailed in this volume (even though it seems to have been the period most fraught with actual struggle), and so he is just trying to get it over with. The great distinction of volume three of My Struggle, which really could be taken as a stand-alone classic about childhood, lies in how the pile-up of short descriptions of his father’s cruelties, both large and small, takes on the texture of inescapable, childlike reality, and this was achieved through compression. Knausgaard is at his best when he tightens the screws and focuses as minutely as possible, and he is at his worst when he is running through time and haphazardly ringing gongs to signal his bad behavior.
Knausgaard is a romantic figure, tall and good-looking and believably harrowed; in interviews he is disarmingly self-deprecating about himself and his work. Maybe the most haunting thing he has ever said about his father comes not from My Struggle but from the end of a 2015 Vulture interview: “He’s the one who determined everything in it. Sometimes I think if there’s a life after death, and if there is a hell, he will be waiting for me. I can’t free myself from that thought.”
Knausgaard has been so successful in America because he strikes a chord with other literary and semi-literary men his age (and with the Linda-like women who are with them), but he is extremely un-American in his sincerity, in his total lack of irony or wit or sarcasm. He presents himself as a big blundering suffering fool buffeted around by his own shortcomings and imprisoned by his very narrow conception of maleness. Knausgaard meets his first gay guy in volume five of My Struggle and is bewildered by him. “How was it possible to look for the same? To want the same? To love the same?” he wonders. And of course Knausgaard would wonder that because he is the ultimate in male self-loathing, always fretful that he will be considered feminine or unmanly, always repressing himself and worrying about what others think of him until he bursts out into heedless misbehavior as a release.
Knausgaard’s Norwegian heritage makes him exotic to us, too, and the fact that he still does paragraphs of nature descriptions like a nineteenth century novelist who has never seen a movie, and this is getting to be a real trial; how many times is he going to describe trees as “deciduous”? He has been compared to Proust because of the nature of My Struggle as a multi-volume autobiographical novel, but Knausgaard has almost nothing in common with Proust aside from the fact that the more he describes other people, the more opaque and flat they seem. It is in the nature of writing that to make a person live as a character you need to trap them in definite, limited behavior and characteristics, but when you know someone for a long time, or write about them for a long time, their outline starts to fade. And that fading might be a relief when it comes to Knausgaard’s problem father, which is maybe and finally what he is trying to do with these books.
In all the many pages of the five volumes of My Struggle, there is one incident that I can’t get out of my head. Toward the end of the expansive and exhibitionistic volume two, Knausgaard and his wife are stuck with a “neighbor from hell,” an older Russian woman who deliberately plays music far too loud in the middle of the night to annoy them. It is made clear that this woman has a hate-love thing for Knausgaard himself and that she is jealous of his family life, and so she torments him and his family because she is drawn to him and because she is very unhappy herself.
Knausgaard finally has a climactic fight with this neighbor where he loses all patience and yells at her, telling her that no one is ever going to believe her because she’s a broken-down old drunk and he is an established writer and family man. This is justified because of the neighbor’s bad behavior, but it also feels very cruel because Knausgaard remorselessly plays his advantage over this woman. This has stuck with me maybe because he doesn’t seem to feel bad enough about doing this, and he’s always such a virtuoso about feeling bad about everything else he does elsewhere in the books. The collision with the neighbor is one of the most revealing moments in My Struggle, and one of the saddest. Knausgaard never sinks lower than when he tells this obnoxious lady off, not even when he hurls the glass at his brother in volume five (that at least has rivalry and alcohol to explain it). He gives in to the worst temptation here, and the fall comes in not seeming to fully know that he has done so.
Knausgaard hates himself but makes full use of his own condescending privilege when it suits him, especially when dealing with and judging lower class people. In volume five he writes, “A rush of happiness surged through me. It was the rain, it was the lights, it was the city. It was me, I was going to be a writer, a star, a beacon for others.” Knausgaard means this as youthful silliness, and yet he has indeed become a star like that by describing such youthful silliness! And there, at last, is an irony. Mary McCarthy once described Eugene O’Neill as a writer who finally transcended his own banal and repetitive shortcomings simply by being like a cop always patrolling the beat, always just keeping at it. A similar thing has happened, I think, with Knausgaard.
Knausgaard himself feels ambivalent about My Struggle, partly because the second volume caused such pain to his second wife and their friends, but his need to recreate his past, even the most seemingly insignificant moments, does seem genuinely panic-stricken. He is not a fake or a phony; he appears to be a decent but extremely flawed and damaged man who is trying to recapture lost time. Which cannot be done, of course. Knausgaard seems to be honest, and he hangs himself out to dry for everyone to see. He cries so easily in these books over the smallest slights, and he desperately wants everyone to know what it is like to be him, in as much detail as possible. Probably everyone has that same urge somewhere. We all want to be known, even if that means we are mocked and despised for it.
Though this is the weakest and most problematic volume of My Struggle so far, Knausgaard-addicts will still await the final volume to see how he chooses to tie things up. Surely he does not want to be finished. None of us wants to die, and maybe that’s what finishing this book will feel like to him, death. In which case maybe Knausgaard can return to that party where he drank that Coke in 1986 and write it all over again. Marguerite Duras would use and re-use material like that, and Edmund White returns in his memoirs to the same roommates and acquaintances, the people he has lost. This life is our material, and the struggle, at last, is in letting it go.