Friday, March 15, 2013

Light is the lion: My Struggle – Book 2 by Karl Ove Knausgaard

The focus of the first volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard's six-book series My Struggle is in the foreground of its narrative and in the title of the UK edition – A Death in the Family – which for the book-devouring industry mitigated such a prolonged presentation of one man's relatively ordinary childhood and youth. And you can expect the content of the second – A Man in Love – to do the same: the author's romance, marriage and parenthood will occupy review coverage alongside doubts as to the value such indulgence has now that the initial hit has been absorbed. Isn’t this now going a bit too far? What purpose can repetition serve?

It should at least contradict the impression that My Struggle is a traditional bildungsroman, a genre in which the book we are reading is the vantage point from which all the missteps and miseries, all the highways and byways of the individual on his path to the summit, can be surveyed: the relief of a landscape. Knausgaard is not an old man; a knowing distance is not an option.

Archipelago Books’ bold decision to place the original title in the foreground of the US edition enables us to focus on what's key to Knausgaard's struggle: the background. After all, in terms of the writing there is little difference between volumes one and two: in both the prose is straightforward, the characters memorable and the chronology clear, even when Knausgaard interrupts a domestic cliffhanger to plummet back in time only to resolve the issue in one sentence 236 pages later. The writer himself vindicates the impression when he says the length and speed of the writing were important formal constraints. Let's be clear: My Struggle is not about the life of Karl Ove Knausgaard. The interminable specifics of the content are superficial necessities for an experiment in stretching the everyday to such a degree that it becomes translucent, for light of a kind to shine through.

Light is a constant in book two. When the writer falls in love “everything was light”; his new girlfriend was “filled with an inner light” and, when their daughter is born, “she was the light”. Light reveals something otherwise absent. He sees it elsewhere in the “endless summer nights, so light and open”. He sees it in his father-in-law’s face, so “utterly open; it was as though there was nothing between him and the world”. Too easily, the light fades and habit shadows his life. He sits on a balcony of an evening and ponders: “the life around me was not meaningful. I always longed to be away from it. So the life I led was not my own. I tried to make it mine, this was my struggle.”

He turns to literature and reads Hölderlin’s poetry and Dostoevsky’s novels and discovers “that was where the light was. That was where the divine stirred”. Light and the divine were also the focus of the fictional speculations in Knausgaard’s remarkable novel A Time to Every Purpose Under Heaven. As a child Antinous Bellori witnesses two angels at the riverside in a dark forest and spends the rest of his life pursuing the nature of their existence on earth. The task of My Struggle might be similar. Why does Knausgaard respond so powerfully to works art and literature? It wasn't always this way. The angel of poetry was once closed to him.
The poems looked into another reality, or saw reality in a different way, one that was truer than the way I knew, and the fact that it was not possible to acquire the ability to see and that it was something you either had or you didn’t condemned me to a life on a lower plane, indeed, it made me one of the lowly. The pain of that insight was immense.
This is perhaps a common experience if not a common revelation. Knausgaard realises it is “entirely possible to stay afloat in that world without literature ever opening up to you”, but he does not want to settle for this world. A Man in Love covers the same time as Knausgaard was writing the angels novel and it’s disconcerting to read of his determination to write at all costs; he is willing to sacrifice his marriage and family life in order to pursue the work. Clearly My Struggle follows the same personal imperative, only more explicitly. But in this personal element lies its danger. For the fictional Bellori, writing had conjoined the world with human concepts of the world rather than revealing the one beyond the other. “Christ never wrote”. The incarnation of divinity is abstracted by writing; literature takes possession of God. For Knausgaard, however, writing can resist this self-confirming circularity, and provides a precise example:
Paul Celan’s mysterious, cipher-like language has nothing to do with inaccessibility or closedness, quite the contrary, it is about opening up what language normally does not have access to but that we still, somewhere deep inside us, know or recognize, or if we don’t, allows us to discover. Paul Celan’s words cannot be contradicted with words. What they possess cannot be transformed either, the word only exists there, and in each and every single person who absorbs it.
      The fact that paintings and, to some extent, photographs were so important for me had something to do with this. They contained no words, no concepts, and when I looked at them what I experienced, what made them so important, was also nonconceptual. There was something stupid in this, an area that was completely devoid of intelligence, which I had difficulty acknowledging or accepting, yet which perhaps was the most important single element of what I wanted to do.
The danger here is revealed in the form: Knausgaard is merely describing this in essayistic fashion, and no matter how aware the author is of the contradictory direction he has taken, the familiar mode of discourse envelops the world, casts a shadow on the open. “Everyone can write essays! It’s the easiest thing in the world” his friend Geir complains. But Knausgaard is not a painter or photographer, and he certainly isn't Paul Celan. For this reason he must fill his books with the sensory particulars of existence – the storm blowing through our world, as he puts it – as a means of approaching the nonconceptual. So while Knausgaard contextualises and investigates his experience with exceptional clarity and intensity – which alone justifies My Struggle as a project – it is a struggle lost in advance. “Come on! Into the open, my friend, as Hölderlin had written ... But how, how?”.

A book review pursues the same circular path without asking the same question, tending to light upon statements and notable events as an alibi for disregarding the silence within writing. It is the regrettable fate of literary genre. Knausgaard’s method then is to use length and speed to evade the tyranny of form, and speed is the best method for the reader too, enough to appreciate that dwelling on the author's life and opinions is to close the door upon the light.


  1. I've yet to start reading My Struggle, but this review certainly makes it more urgent.

  2. As someone who is only now discovering Knausgård, my sense is that this reviewer gets to the core of some essential questions in the question of the sensory and the nonconceptual. After all, Knausgård is not a speculative German philosopher but a Nordic empricist. This enlightens his sense of light, if you will, because light is the light, the light where the speculation becomes something else.
    I love your reading of books...

  3. Thanks Falkenburger. I'm glad it's some use or interest. Let's see how the print reviews respond to the new book...

  4. I sincerly hope that the print reviews stop with the marketing reference to Proust. It has nothing to do it, a rather obvious point if one has read both auteurs...



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