Saint of mediocrity
Karl Ove Knausgaard, A man in love, Vintage Books, 2014, pp664, £8.99
Recently a friend gave me A man in love, which is the second novel in Karl Ove Knausgaard’s saga, My struggle. Previously I had been content to formulate a rough criticism, based on my reading of the reviews, without actually getting it from the horse’s mouth. But now I was obliged to read the book. This prompted me to attempt a proper critique.
A man in love was published to universal applause by the media in 2014. TheObserver described it as “compelling” and “breathtaking”; TheSpectator’s literary critic hailed it as “my book of the year”, whilst The Independent said: “... he gives readers impetus to reflect on their lives”. Knausgaard’s latest novel, Some rain must fall (hats off for his titles) has just been published. The fly leaf informs us that it starts with him becoming the youngest ever writer to be admitted to Bergen’s prestigious writing academy; only to discover, by his own admission, that his writing is “puerile and clichéd”. This drives him into a cycle of heavy drinking; he is in danger of becoming a helpless alcoholic, like his late father (the subject of an earlier novel). Nevertheless his latest novel too is heralded by TheSunday Times as the “literary sensation of the decade”.
So does Knausgaard stand up to all the hype? He would be the first to admit that he cannot believe his luck; but, although he feels that he is a fraud - a mediocre writer, as he constantly reminds us, who also feels uncomfortable about being a celebrity - he remains at the top of the bestseller list and possibly the highest paid author in Scandinavia. Poor Knausgaard! He is a compulsive writer. He chose My struggle for his saga, because he’s determined to be compared with his fellow greats, Ibsen and Strindberg (to whom he frequently defers). He believes that this can be achieved as a result of a “Protestant work ethic”, if not talent. Furthermore, along with the booze, it is another way to forget he is a fraud.
But, according to the literary establishment, Knausgaard has invented a new genre for the novel called ‘life writing’. The notion of truth through fiction is abandoned: ie, a story based on imaginary characters and situations, situated in a specific present or the past, which is fructified via experience, imagination and reflection (and maybe a degree of research). As he says himself, “The truth does not have to be one to one.” Yet this is the method which he uses to write most of his books, for which he is acclaimed. He writes in the first person - this is a story about him; every incident is described from his point of view. (Therefore he runs the risk of offending relatives and friends, his future wife - who comes across as a manic-depressive - and not least other public figures, who do not have a chance to tell their side of the story.)
But the danger of causing offence is obfuscated by the fact that “One meaningless day’s work follows another”. The everyday in all its mundane detail is what he focuses on. Despite being a heavy drinker, he appears to have a prodigious memory. To safeguard himself, he says that some of the bad things he writes about might not be true; and that there are holes in his memory. Moreover he says - and once again, this is part of the narrative - I have never thought about issues which are “only about life, the way it is lived and which are not about philosophy, literature, art or politics”. But that is precisely what he does. He devotes 664 pages to meetings in cafes, drinking alcohol with his mates, parties, cooking (lobster in the shell washed down with champagne is a favourite), falling in love after a bad start, becoming a father (“We are going to have a baby, and so it was”), sharing the household tasks, such as washing up, changing nappies, childcare, holidays, the occasional funeral and shopping, of course. This is a book which starts and ends with the IKEA society.
James Joyce, on the other hand, does the banality of everyday life much better in Ulysses; because he makes it transcend itself. Shopping, cooking? Joyce vividly describes the butcher and his trade. When the hero of Ulysses,Leopold Bloom, prepares breakfast, Joyce makes sure you can see, hear and smell the pork kidney sizzling in the pan. He even makes Bloom’s visit to the outhouse interesting - running to several pages - because he is reading a “titbit” from a newspaper at the same time. Ideas pop out as well! We get inside his mind; we share what he is doing, thinking and feeling! A day in the life of a secular Jew in “dear dirty Dublin”? It is depressing. He is an outsider; he knows that Molly, his wife, is unfaithful, and he has to attend a funeral at 11am … Then there is the way Joyce plays with language itself. Whereas Knausgaard’s language is mostly dull - his treatment of the banality of everyday life never rises above the banal. So much for this ‘new’ ‘life writing’ thing!
Knausgaard name-drops the works of Spengler, Marx (only once!), Kierkegaard (of course), Sartre, Bergman, Tarkovsky et al; but he never explores the relevance of these thinkers/artists to his own life experience. Once in a while he goes on a shopping expedition to buy erudite books. But he admits that he never reads them and they end up on his bookshelves, which are impressively large (a handy backdrop for his next interview). He starts to talk about the meaning of Tarkovsky’s film, Stalker, but comes to a stop a few lines later, confessing that he has never got past the opening frames. Whereas he spends several pages describing a scene in a cafe: ordering food, meeting his relatives, dealing with his daughter’s tantrum, and so on. As for his politics, he is, at best, a good Swedish social democrat (though he is Norwegian-born). Along the way we learn that, unlike Britain, thanks to decades of reformist governments and a degree of public planning, Swedish flats have communal laundries; but the walls are thin and the neighbours can be a nuisance!
Occasionally there are brief moments of lucidity amongst this morass of tedium: Money commodifies dissimilar things, he says; therefore even our dreams are alike. We live in an undifferentiated world, which leads to indifference: “That’s where our night is” (surely it’s not that bad!). Several hundred pages later, he returns to this theme (briefly): “… sameness … mass production … uniqueness invalidated”. On the other hand, TheIndependent’s review of A man in love tells us that the author “reflects plenty about himself and his loved ones, but the people we learn most about … are ourselves”; (a soothing reassurance that if submission to the IKEA society is Knausgaard’s default position, it’s OK for us too!)
His friend, Geir, a fellow Norwegian, is a humble erstwhile writer. Geir tells him: “You put everything into yourself [including the negative things - those which reveal his lack of self-esteem]. That takes courage.” “I don’t give a shit about myself,” Knausgaard replies. But he does really; because he makes a virtue out of self-deprecation. It is a sly form of narcissism. (Still he does reveal that he has yellow teeth! But, of course, he smokes too much and, despite countless descriptions of prosaic actions, such as opening a beer; taking a shower, he fails to mention cleaning his teeth. Perhaps he doesn’t bother to use toothpaste with ‘whitening’?) Despite Geir’s sycophantic praise for his friend, Knausgaard describes him as a “hack”; to which the former replies that his hard-working, unassuming friend from Bergen is a “saint”. For a moment he is tempted to compare himself with Beckett! (Really! One has verbal diarrhoea, whereas the other polished and repolished his words; brevity is a virtue, as well as a sign of aphasia.)
Knausgaard does not just “reflect plenty about himself”, because a large part of this concerns his role as a successful writer and all that this entails. He describes not just the discipline of writing for several hours a day, meeting his agent, giving interviews to magazines about his forthcoming book, book signings, as well as public readings of his work. (How could he possibly make this interesting?) Unlike the past, to be a successful writer today, you have to be manufactured by writing academies, linked to the publishing business. But the masses - the educated middle classes, to be precise - are gullible. The media and its literary hacks are there to convince them that he is a ‘must read’; how else can one stay in touch with the cultural Zeitgeist?
Looking at the broader context, there are other, more important reasons behind this conundrum: how did a mediocre writer like Knausgaard become a runaway success; a hack writer who is applauded by the literary establishment, because he can evoke a sense of happiness, an “intense feeling of being alive”? (Well, not really!) Yet, at the same time, he is comfortable with the IKEA society? I think the answer is twofold (and interrelated): firstly, he gives succour to the middle class, by writing about the tedium of everyday existence within the societé de consummation; assuming that everyone else, like him, is reconciled to the irreconcilable. It somehow makes the daily grind of “work, buy, consume, die” more bearable; it helps to suppress the nasty thought that this sort of existence might be irrelevant, because everyone wants to conform to the image that the system has created for them, whilst it goes on exploiting them. But once you’re dead, you’re soon forgotten - what does life mean?
Secondly, his success underlines the fact that literature - once a part of high culture, which required the reader to be a “cultivated person” (Marx’s own term) - is being subsumed by the culture industry (compare film, which has already lost out to this, as the “last great art form”). Literary and artistic decadence was anticipated by Marx in his Theory of value:
Milton, who wrote Paradise lost, was an unproductive labourer ... [He wrote this] for the same reason that a silk worm produces silk. It was an activity of his nature. Later he sold the product for 5 pounds. But the literary proletarian of Leipzig who fabricates books … under the direction of his publisher … is a productive labourer; for his product is from the outset subsumed under capital, and comes into being only for the purpose of increasing that capital.1
Is this what the Knausgaard phenomenon means? If so, are we therefore closer to the nadir of the novel? Compare the classic novelists of the 19th and 20th centuries, who struggled - without knowing why necessarily - to defend the human essence in the face of an increasingly commodified society.
Besides, the sheer density of prosaic detail in his work does not create a new genre. It undermines the form itself, because it leads to a weakening of structure and the dimming of insight.
1. K Marx Theories of surplus value part 1, Moscow 1956, p389.