An Analysis of My Struggle (Min Kamp): Volume Two (Karl Ove Knausgaard)
by Dr. Joseph Suglia
“The artist is the creator of beautiful things. To reveal art and conceal the artist is art’s only aim.”
–Oscar Wilde, Preface, The Picture of Dorian Gray
“Woo. I don’t know how to sum it up / ’cause words ain’t good enough, ow.”
–One Direction, “Better Than Words”
If I could accomplish one thing in my life, it would be to prevent people from comparing the Scandinavian hack Karl Ove Knausgaard with Marcel Proust. Knausgaard does not have a fingernail of Proust’s genius. Comparing Knausgaard to Proust is like comparing John Green to Proust. Those who have actually read À la recherche du temps perdu know that Proust’s great novel is not the direct presentation of its author, a self-disclosure without literary artifice. Those who compare Knausgaard to Proust have never read Proust and have no knowledge of Proust beyond the keyword “madeleine.”
Knausgaard calls his logorrheic autobiography, My Struggle (Min Kamp), a “novel,” but in what sense is it a novel? It is completely devoid of novelistic properties. There is not a single metaphor in the text, as far as I can tell, and the extended metaphor (perhaps even the pataphor?) is one of Proust’s most salient literary characteristics.
The first volume dealt with Knausgaard’s unimportant childhood; Volume Two concerns the middle of the author’s life, his present. He is now in his forties and has a wife and three children. He spends his time, and wastes our own, recounting trivialities, stupidities, and banalities. All of the pomposities are trivialities. All of the profundities are stupidities. All of the epiphanies are banalities.
For most of this review, I will refer to Karl Ove Knausgaard as “Jesus,” since he resembles a cigarette-smoking Jesus on the cover of the English translation of the second volume.
We learn that Jesus dislikes holidays. We learn that raising children is difficult. Jesus takes his children to a McDonald’s and then to the Liseberg Amusement Park. In the evening, Jesus, his wife, and his daughter attend a party. Jesus thanks the hostess, Stella, for inviting them to her party. His daughter forgets her shoes. Jesus gets the shoes. He sees an old woman staring through the window of a Subway.
Jesus smokes a cigarette on the east-facing balcony of his home and is fascinated by the “orangey red”  of the brick houses below: “The orangey red of the bricks!” He drinks a Coke Light: “The cap was off and the Coke was flat, so the taste of the somewhat bitter sweetener, which was generally lost in the effervescence of the carbonic acid, was all too evident” . He reads better books than the one that we are reading (The Brothers Karamazov and Demons by Dostoevsky) and tells us that he never thinks while he reads. For some reason, this does not surprise me.
Jesus attends a Rhythm Time class (I have no idea what this is) and meets a woman for whom he has an erection.
Jesus’s daughter points her finger at a dog. “Yes, look, a dog,” Jesus says .
Jesus assembles a diaper-changing table that he bought at IKEA. The noise irritates his Russian neighbor. He cleans his apartment, goes shopping, irons a big white tablecloth, polishes silverware and candlesticks, folds napkins, and places bowls of fruit on the dining-room table.
In the café of an art gallery, Jesus orders lamb meatballs and chicken salad. He informs us that he is unqualified to judge the work of Andy Warhol. I agree with the author’s self-assessment. He cuts up the meatballs and places the portions in front of his daughter. She tries to brush them away with a sweep of her arm.
Almost ninety pages later, Jesus is in a restaurant eating a dark heap of meatballs beside bright green mushy peas and red lingonberry sauce, all of which are drowning in a swamp of thick cream sauce. “The potatoes,” Jesus notifies us, “were served in a separate dish” .
(Parenthetical remark: “[A] swamp of thick cream sauce” is my phrasing, not Knausgaard’s. Again, Knausgaard avoids metaphorics.)
Upstairs in the kitchen of his apartment, Jesus makes chicken salad, slices some bread, and sets the dinner table while his daughter bangs small wooden balls with a mallet. And so forth and so on for 592 pages of squalid prose.
Never before has a writer written so much and said so little. The music of ABBA is richer in meaning.
Interspersed throughout the text are muddleheaded reflections on What It Means To Be Human. We learn (quelle surprise!) that Knausgaard is a logophobe, “one who fears language”:
Misology, the distrust of words, as was the case with Pyrrho, pyrrhomania; was that a way to go for a writer? Everything that can be said with words can be contradicted with words, so what’s the point of dissertations, novels, literature? Or put another way: whatever we say is true we can also always say is untrue. It is a zero point and the place from which the zero value begins to spread [here, Knausgaard seems to be channeling Ronald Barthes]. However, it is not a dead point, not for literature either, for literature is not just words, literature is what words evoke in the reader. It is this transcendence that validates literature, not the formal transcendence in itself, as many believe. 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 [129-130].
The only value of literature, then, according to Knausgaard, resides not in words, but in the transcendence from words. Literature is not composed of letters, for Knausgaard; literature is the feelings and the impressions summoned forth within the reader. After all, any idiot can have feelings. Very few people can write well.
It is clear that Knausgaard, then, does not think very much of literature. He is much more interested in LIFE. Everyone alive has life. Yes, palpitant life–throbbing, living life. Life is the most general of generalities, but talent is much rarer, to channel Martin Amis.
This might be the reason that Knausgaard dislikes Rimbaud’s verse, but is interested in Rimbaud’s life.
“Fictional writing has no value”  for Knausgaard. After all, fiction is distant from life, isn’t it? This Thought is at least as old as Plato. Knausgaard is unaware that fiction is, paradoxically, more honest than autobiographical writing. Autobiographical writing is fiction that cannot speak its own name, fiction that pretends to be something more “real” than fiction.
(Parenthetically: Despite what Knausgaard tells you, Pyrrho did not practice misology. He affirmed the uncertainty of things. Following Pyrrho: One can never say, “It happened” with certainty; one can only say, with certainty, that “it might have happened.”)
Hater of words, enemy of literature: Such is Knausgaard. He despises language, presumably because he does not know how to write. What is one to say of a writer who hates writing so much? One thing ought to be said about him: He is alarmingly typical.
Knausgaard is at home in a culture of transparency, in a culture in which almost everyone seems to lack embarrassability. Almost no one seems embarrassed anymore. People go out of their way to reveal everything about themselves on social-networking sites. Average people reveal every detail of their lives to strangers. The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution is violated, and almost no one seems to care. We live in a culture in which our privacy is infringed upon countless times every day, and where is the outrage? Those who are private–or who believe in the right to privacy–are regarded with malicious suspicion. Seen from this cultural perspective, the success of My Struggle should come as no surprise. An autobiography in which the writer reveals everything about himself will be celebrated by a culture in which nearly everyone reveals everything to everyone.
Art is not autobiography. As Oscar Wilde declared in the preface to his only novel, the purpose of art is to conceal the artist. Literature is not auto-bio-graphy, the presentation of the self that lives, the “writing of the living self.” It is, rather, auto-thanato-graphy, the writing of the self that dies in order for art to be born.
EVERYTHING IS ILLUMINATED by Jonathan Safran Foer
Though I have no idea what he looks like, on paper, Jonathan Safran Foer is a dumpy magician garbed in a tattered black cape with a red velvet underside, waving his hands wildly, brandishing a cane purchased at Woolworth’s, a shabby magician’s hat propped on his balloon-shaped head, forever mugging and attention-grubbing, radiating spittle and a desperate need to be liked, nasalizing the same stale jokes ad infinitum, while the audience laughs wanly and with painful politesse. His overeager face comes too close to yours, his tongue impending over his lower lip, which is bespattered with saliva.
Consider Foer’s massively popular Everything is Illuminated (2002). While it is not the worst book that I have ever read, it is easily the smarmiest. Nearly every page is dripping with dollops of cynically contrived pap, mawkish kitsch that appeals to the child in all of us. You know, that child who is beguiled easily and who doesn’t know the difference between art and tripe.
The novel is structured according to two temporal continua. The first continuum is narrated from the perspective of Alexander Perchov, The Loveable Ukrainian Tour Guide of one “Jonathan Safran Foer” (also known in the text as “the hero” and “the ingenious Jew”). “Foer” is searching for the woman who saved his grandfather from death at the hands of the Nazis. To create Alex’s language, the writer takes ordinary sentences in English and substitutes certain infelicitous words for more felicitous ones. This gimmick grows tedious after the first three pages, and nothing, of course, is more uncouth than an American writer who mocks the speech patterns of those who speak English as a foreign tongue. Alex’s malapropisms, however, are more pleasant to read than “Foer’s” prose in the second continuum, a turgidly narrated history of Trachimbrod, a Ukrainian shtetl, from its foundation in the late eighteenth century until its destruction during the Second World War.
Both continua are interlaced–as the first continuum culminates in the discovery of Trachimbrod by “Foer” and his tour guide, the second culminates in an account of the mass murder of its inhabitants; the fatality of Alexander’s grandfather is superimposed on the fatality of “Foer’s” grandfather, and so forth. The point, plangently, is that “everything” in the present is “illuminated” by the past. The alleged “cleverness” of this narrative device escapes this reviewer.
Every one hundred pages or so, a striking passage or sentence emerges from the thick, grey, monotonous mass that surrounds it, a passage or sentence that seems, at first glance, almost profound. And, on further examination, these profundities reveal themselves as specious banalities.
Let me allude to two examples of Profound Truths in Everything is Illuminated:
“God loves the plagiarist… God is the original plagiarizer… the creation of man was an act of reflexive plagiarizing; God looted the mirror” [Olive Edition, 185].
In other words, if you paint a portrait of yourself, you are “plagiarizing” yourself. If you photograph yourself in a mirror, you are “plagiarizing” yourself. To say that the creation of man was an act of plagiarism is to void the word “plagiarism” of all meaning. There is, nonetheless, genuine theft in Everything is Illuminated: Foer does God’s work by pilfering the entire final section of David Grossman’s See Under: Love, “The Complete Encyclopedia of Kazik’s Life.” Foer isn’t so much influenced by Grossman as he is dominated by him.
Another “profound” moment:
“The only thing more painful than being an active forgetter is to be an inert rememberer” .
Foer here forgets that active forgetting (a term taken from Nietzsche, aktive Vergesslichkeit) is the same thing as inert remembrance.
Friedrich Schlegel once said of Denis Diderot: Whenever he does something truly brilliant, he congratulates himself on his brilliance. In my essay on Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, I write the same thing about Tom Robbins. The term brilliant must be supplanted in the case of Jonathan Safran Foer, however: Whenever he writes something sentimental, Foer congratulates himself on his easy sentimentalism. It is difficult to sell a crowd-pleasing novel about the Shoah unless everything is sentimentalized.
Dr. Joseph Suglia