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My Struggle 6: An interrogation of the real

This article was originally printed in the Feb. 4, 2019 issue of The Round Table. 

The sixth and final installment of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six-part autobiographical novel, “My Struggle,” was published in English on September 18, 2018. Knausgaard’s novel describes life as it happens. The novel, in each of its installments, moves anachronistically through Knausgaard’s life, orbiting the death of his father, but spanning moments from his childhood, teenage years, adulthood and his life as a father and husband himself. It is about life lived at the ground level. In “My Struggle,” everything that is, is enough.

Though it is an unflinching exposition of self, “My Struggle” is too often misinterpreted as being a singularly self-reflective journey, one that seeks to shock or compel. More accurately, “My Struggle” locates a self, Knausgaard’s own, as a vehicle for grounding the reader in a tangible and physical world, a reality of moments textured in banality, built from clear prose, into which the novel seeks to disappear. “My Struggle 6” sees Knausgaard pushing further into the world than ever before, and to polarizing effect.

“My Struggle 6” alone is a whopping 1,160 pages. It’s a brick of a book, and asks more from readers than any of the previous five. The sixth book is divided into three parts, Part I, an essay entitled “The Name and the Number” and Part II.

Part I takes place in 2009. Knausgaard has written the bulk of “My Struggle” and is set to publish the first installment. Before that can happen, he must send the manuscript to people he’s written about in it. This is a terrifying and deeply confrontational exercise. Knausgaard’s descriptions of others, including his own wife, are compelling because of the oft-uncomfortable honesty he employs in detailing his perceptions and experiences with them.

The writer’s worst fears are realized when his uncle Gunnar responds with an email indicting Knausgaard for having committed a kind of “verbal rape,” of trying to destroy their family by describing the gruesome details of his father’s death. Gunnar says the situation Knausgaard describes, of the wrecked house in which his father drank himself to death, is a complete fabrication, and he intends to take Knausgaard to court unless he makes drastic changes to the manuscript.

Part I sees Knausgaard swallowing the intensity of what he’s doing by publishing “My Struggle” while continuing to live his normal and everyday life. This creates a dissonance that is mostly effective. What Part I seems to do is carry what Knausgaard has done for the ordinary and everyday to its most logical extreme: a day to day catalogue of banal and routine actions, repeated over and over.

Like most of book 6, it’s a polarizing choice. Knausgaard moves between his laptop, his coffee machine, his balcony, drops off and picks up his three young children from daycare, buys them ice cream (but only on Fridays) all while obsessing over the morality of what he’s done. Is he a liar? Is what he is doing, writing about his life and the real people within it, wrong? What is the relationship between literature and reality? These inner dialogues play out as he buys prawns at the grocery store and changes his laundry.

In previous installments, Knausgaard works as a composer in his writing, intuitively organizing moments in prose to create an arrangement with a focused movement. Part I of book 6 challenges this convention, moving instead to chronicle with an obsessiveness the details of everyday life in unrelenting and linear order.

As such, Part I can be criticized as dull. The strongest undercurrent within it is the question of literature’s effect on, and relationship in conjunction with, reality. What is real and not real, and who can judge that? Knausgaard makes the astute point that there is little difference between figures of history and those of fiction once they are past the threshold of living memory. Their truthful impression no longer exists in lived experience, only in the expression and documentation of their lives as carried out by others.

What Part I fails to do is properly blend the terror Knausgaard is feeling about his uncle’s lawsuit with the movements of his every day. I found myself caught off guard when Knausgaard confided to his friend that he was panicking because there isn’t much panic present in the prose, nor is there a tangible dissonance between his internal and external emotionality. It can be argued that numbness and detachment are part of panic, but Knausgaard’s descriptions here don’t fully elucidate any such feelings.

What Part I does most effectively is set up ideas central to book 6. One is the power of the image, which possesses the ability to express things language cannot. Images are visceral. What made the 9/11 attacks most effective was their surreal nature. It was not the numerous of deaths inflicted, but the unforgettable scene of a jet plane flying directly into a skyscraper. The Nazis, too, understood the effectiveness of the image, which Knausgaard explores further as the novel progresses. Two spheres of understanding are thus delineated, the world of language, and the world outside of it.

The other, most crucial idea with which book 6 (and all of “My Struggle”) is concerned, is truth. Knausgaard has written before that the purpose of literature is to search for truth, a specific and yet resonant meaning or understanding. In thinking about literature in relation to reality, in relation to other people, Knausgaard asks: What is the truth of the social world?

Truth is not easy to describe, but Knausgaard does his damnedest. There are larger truths, agreements understood by many, by society and culture at large, and then there are smaller truths, those understood at a localized level, in smaller groups and between individuals. The latter are more true, Knausgaard argues, because they are more intricate, more nuanced, and more specific. The local is what is true.

Truth, he writes, is in the individual gaze.

The real meat of Book 6 is in the over four-hundred page essay at its center, “The Name and the Number.” Knausgaard begins it by pondering what a name truly means, in its presence and in its absence. Pressure from his uncle on the publisher prior to the novel’s release forces Knausgaard to make a choice. Should he change his father’s name?

Knausgaard feels that changing the name of such a pivotal figure in the novel, and in his life, would ring false. Instead, he omits the name entirely, and his father is rendered the looming presence he embodies for the entirety of “My Struggle.” This troubles Knausgaard, so much so that he launches into an essay on the social and physical implications of the didactics of language.

“The Name and the Number” is at once the most punishing and compelling portion of My Struggle 6. The application of Knausgaard’s intuitive and winding style to an essay as dense and theoretical as this makes it a challenge to read. His points circle and wind in loops that are difficult to discern, or immediately understand. He spends roughly thirty pages reading and parsing the multi-faceted implications of each and every word in a small poem, a section that took me a full two weeks to pull myself through, but rewarded my patience, as the entire essay does, if you allow it to.

“The Name and the Number” has, in many reviews, been mischaracterized as Knausgaard explaining to readers why he chose the controversial and provocative title, “Mein Kampf.” Dwight Garner of the NYT described the essay as “a sophomoric exercise” that “purports to explain why Knausgaard’s book shares a title with Hitler’s.”

What Knausgaard does in “The Name and the Number” is very difficult to categorize, and I will not pretend to yet fully understand it, nor will I argue for its overall cohesion. I will contest, however, that it deals with much more than Hitler and “Mein Kampf.” To isolate this subject only, which is, if anything, but one through-line in an essay rife with contemplations on the intersection of art, religion, science, cognitive linguistics, and history, feels an almost willfully incurious and impatient reading.

A great deal of “The Name and the Number” concerns Knausgaard’s reading of the original Mein Kampf, as well as other biographies concerning Hitler, and texts and interviews from people close to him. Hitler, as a figure, is returned to several times throughout the essay.

But what makes Knausgaard’s close examination of Hitler unique is its empathy. Knausgaard takes the time to examine and explore the ways in which Hitler perceived and felt the world, the particulars of his interior thought, his wants, his fears, and his compulsions. In this way, the reader cannot help but empathize with Hitler, not as a Nazi sympathizer, but as one human being can empathize with another. At an individual level.

Knausgaard argues that it is a disservice to paint Hitler as a monster, and to characterize his entire childhood before his ascent to power as a predetermined path towards great evil. To do so is to other him, to remove him from the sphere of the human by labeling him, in language, as a monster. To say you will not examine the similarities between Hitler and yourself is to refuse to understand the conditions that gave rise to his deeds. A refusal of empathy is a refusal to understand, to learn, to see Hitler in yourself, and yourself in Hitler.

Hitler himself seems to lack this capacity for individual empathy, unable to reconcile his inner perceptions with those of the world around him, turning instead to larger, vaguer myths. His skill as an orator allows him to connect to the larger and less distinct truths of the “we,” and manipulate them. The groundwork for the nation as the body is already laid for him by decades of writings on eugenics, and he needs only to push the Jews into the category of other, into the inhuman sphere, removing their names and their identities, pushing them towards the world outside of human language, towards silent death.

       

 

Knausgaard looks at the writing taking place at the time of Hitler’s adolescence, examining Jack London’s “The Jungle” and the proliferation of Marxism. He argues that the mass poverty resulting from centralization and industrialization resulted in a distancing in language, a distortion of people’s perception of human life. Human beings could be looked at as a mass, and as a mass, were less distinct, less individual, more difficult to empathize with.

Communism attempts to correct the problem by redistributing the means of production, economic power, and seeking to empower the average laborer. Knausgaard argues that Marx missed the point, accomplishing only a re-structured version of the same dehumanizing conditions of capitalism. Both social systems fail to adequately address the central emotional source of human suffering, that is, the erasure and devaluation of the individual life.

Language to describe social ills at this time became increasingly medical, describing people as a mass of flesh, each individual life as but a small part of a larger human body, a body that could be cleansed, corrected and healed.

One of Knausgaard’s most astute and pertinent observations in this essay is that when people are afraid of being erased as individuals, they search for truths that are simple and vague. Nationalism and borders rise up, and people double down on racial and cultural identity as a signifier of their values. What precipitates is a war of truths, an argument over what is real and what isn’t, resulting in a steady shift towards the one universal truth, existent in the space beyond all languages: death.

The Nazis were a death cult. They framed the social in terms of the biological, articulated the struggles of a society as the struggles of a species, the struggles of a national body, a biological mass of the human against other biological masses, in vicious and necessary competition with one another, where the stakes were life and death. Germany becomes a land of vague truths built from myth and image. There is only the German “We,” and Hitler’s “I.”

This shift in language resulted in a shift in perception, and is what allowed for the average people of Germany to carry out and remain complicit in acts of extreme violence. The state of reality was altered by language, individual life devalued, complex empathy between individuals discouraged.

All this only examines one small part of the essay’s massive range of subject matter. It is a new and frustrating form, one that requires patience. The Name and the Number is concerned with the truly malleable state of human reality, existent within a system of ideas and their calibrated articulations. It is expressive of moments and formal constructions present in other portions of the My Struggle sextet, and its philosophical and technical concerns can be found echoed through the very bones of the novel at large.

Knausgaard himself has described the entirety of the My Struggle project as a “cave in time,” as well as a “failed experiment.” It seems many, including Knausgaard, are not sure what they are supposed to make of the novel.

Part 2 of Book 6 exists fully outside of what has come before. It is at once harrowing, uncomfortable, and numb. Its most dynamic section describes the effect the release of the novel has on Knausgaard’s marriage and the mental stability of his wife, who suffers a severe bout of depression and mania after the book’s release.

At the same time, Knausgaard goes through all five of the previous installations and makes judgements on their respective successes and failures. He is troubled by his inability to get to the truth he wants to find, feeling always outside the world his prose seeks to become. Knausgaard catalogues the date and time of his writings here, lending Part II a shallower space in the present moment, rather than in memory.

Knausgaard takes time to illustrate his fallibility in Part II. Though he is on his way to becoming a world-famous novelist, he is also nearly tricked into buying a tropical timeshare. He struggles with the demands of his small children, putting them in front of the TV to soothe them, reading them bedtime stories over and over until they sleep or stop fighting. He and his wife make ill-advised real estate decisions, like buying cabin they never use and try desperately to flip. At one point, while cleaning up the burdensome property, Knausgaard tries to hide a bucket of septic waste by pouring it into a hole in the backyard. He gets shit all over himself.

Knausgaard walks calm through the sudden influx of fame following the books, indifferent and troubled by the attention he has wrought on his loved ones. His children will grow up in the novel’s shadow, and those closest to him have been left exposed.

To do this is inhuman, Knausgaard supposes. And yet the novel is deeply humanizing, rich with empathy, exacting in its attention to the local and specific life.

“My Struggle” is grossly misperceived and mis-marketed as a self-lacerating, tell-all, a brooding examination of a life purportedly unique, or else especially dark, or what? Is it a “literary selfie”? An exploration of introspection? What makes Knausgaard’s work so special and why should anyone care?

“My Struggle” is difficult to define. That is because what it is, most consistently, is a commitment to truth, and the frustrations with its exploration and articulation. Knausgaard uses his self as the locus for a novel about individual positionality in the world. The exposures of his behaviors and personality, his relationships and compulsions, his failures, joys, and sins, exist in the novel because they make up the smaller, numerous, contradictory and localized truths of Knausgaard’s small and specific existence within the larger, obliviating truth of death, manifested most closely in the demise of his nameless father, and distantly in all else, in the physical forms of the living and non-living, of those “drawn in sand, stone, and water.”

“My Struggle 6” is the furthest Knausgaard is willing to go. It is a messy and difficult ending to a literary endeavor that is compelling and dull, beautiful and awful, hideous and touching, a dense tapestry of words with nothing and everything to say at once.

Knausgaard looks at the writing taking place at the time of Hitler’s adolescence, examining Jack London’s “The Jungle” and the proliferation of Marxism. He argues that the mass poverty resulting from centralization and industrialization resulted in a distancing in language, a distortion of people’s perception of human life. Human beings could be looked at as a mass, and as a mass, we are less distinct, less individual, more difficult to empathize with.

Communism attempts to correct the problem by redistributing the means of production, economic power, and seeking to empower the average laborer. Knausgaard argues that Marx missed the point, accomplishing only a re-structured version of the same dehumanizing conditions of capitalism. Both social systems fail to adequately address the central emotional source of human suffering, that is, the erasure and devaluation of the individual life.

Language to describe social ills at this time became increasingly medical, describing people as a mass of flesh, each individual life as but a small part of a larger human body, a body that could be cleansed, corrected, and healed.

One of Knausgaard’s most astute and pertinent observations in this essay is that when people are afraid of being erased as individuals, they search for truths that are simple and vague.

Nationalism and borders rise up, and people double down on racial and cultural identity as a signifier of their values. What precipitates is a war of truths, an argument over what is real and what isn’t, resulting in a steady shift towards the one universal truth, existent in the space beyond all languages: death.

The Nazis were a death cult. They framed the social in terms of the biological, articulated the struggles of a society as the struggles of a species, the struggles of a national body, a biological mass of the human against other biological masses, in vicious and necessary competition with one another, where the stakes were life and death. Germany becomes a land of vague truths built from myth and image. There is only the German “We,” and Hitler’s “I.”

This shift in language resulted in a shift in perception, and is what allowed for the average people of Germany to carry out and remain complicit in acts of extreme violence. The state of reality was altered by language, individual life devalued, complex empathy between individuals discouraged.

All this only examines one small part of the essay’s massive range of subject matter. It is a new and frustrating form, one that requires patience. “The Name and the Number” is concerned with the truly malleable state of human reality, existent within a system of ideas and their calibrated articulations. It is expressive of moments and formal constructions present in other portions of the My Struggle sextet, and its philosophical and technical concerns can be found echoed through the very bones of the novel at large.

Knausgaard himself has described the entirety of the “My Struggle” project as a “cave in time,” as well as a failed experiment. It seems many, including Knausgaard, are not sure what they are supposed to make of the novel.

Part 2 of Book 6 exists fully outside of what has come before. It is at once harrowing, uncomfortable, and numb. Its most dynamic section describes the effect the release of the novel has on Knausgaard’s marriage and the mental stability of his wife, who suffers a severe bout of depression and mania after the book’s release.

At the same time, Knausgaard goes through all five of the previous installations and makes judgements on their respective successes and failures. He is troubled by his inability to get to the truth he wants to find, feeling always outside the world his prose seeks to become. Knausgaard catalogues the date and time of his writings here, lending Part II a shallower space in the present moment, rather than in memory.

Knausgaard takes time to illustrate his fallibility in Part II. Though he is on his way to becoming a world-famous novelist, he is also nearly tricked into buying a tropical timeshare. He struggles with the demands of his small children, putting them in front of the TV to soothe them, reading them bedtime stories over and over until they sleep or stop fighting. He and his wife make ill-advised real estate decisions, like buying cabin they never use and try desperately to flip.

At one point, while cleaning up the burdensome property, Knausgaard tries to hide a bucket of septic waste by pouring it into a hole in the backyard. He gets shit all over himself.

Knausgaard walks calm through the sudden influx of fame following the books, indifferent and troubled by the attention he has wrought on his loved ones. His children will grow up in the novel’s shadow, and those closest to him have been left exposed.

To do this is inhuman, Knausgaard supposes. And yet the novel is deeply humanizing, rich with empathy, exacting in its attention to the local and specific life.

“My Struggle” is grossly misperceived and mis-marketed as a self-lacerating, tell-all, a brooding examination of a life purportedly unique, or else especially dark, or what? Is it a “literary selfie”? An exploration of introspection? What makes Knausgaard’s work so special and why should anyone care?

“My Struggle” is difficult to define. That is because what it is, most consistently, is a commitment to truth, and the frustrations with its exploration and articulation. Knausgaard uses his self as the locus for a novel about individual positionality in the world.

The exposures of his behaviors and personality, his relationships and compulsions, his failures, joys, and sins, exist in the novel because they make up the smaller, numerous, contradictory and localized truths of Knausgaard’s small and specific existence within the larger, obliviating truth of death, manifested most closely in the demise of his nameless father, and distantly in all else, in the physical forms of the living and non-living, of those “drawn in sand, stone, and water.”

“My Struggle 6” is the furthest Knausgaard is willing to go. It is a messy and difficult ending to a literary endeavor that is compelling and dull, beautiful and awful, hideous and touching, a dense tapestry of words with nothing and everything to say at once.         

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