EVERYONE IS SO LITERAL THESE DAYS: A review of MIN KAMP: Volume One (Karl Ove Knausgaard) by Dr. Joseph Suglia
“If you are unhappy, you must not tell the reader. Keep it to yourself.”–Isidore Ducasse
“Why is everyone so literal these days? I was speaking metaphorically.”–Mahler (1974)
“Every mind needs a mask.”–Maurice Blanchot, La Part du feu
“Every profound mind needs a mask.”–Friedrich Nietzsche, Jenseits von Gut und Böse
Min Kamp (2009-2011) is the 3,600-page autobiography of Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard. Though the title has Hitlerian resonances, it ought to be stated that the first volume has no perceptible anti-Judaic content. There is no evidence that Knausgaard is a fascist purifier or an ethnic homogenizer. One could say, charitably, that by calling his book Min Kamp (the exact same title of Hitler’s memoir in Norwegian translation), Knausgaard has de-Hitlerized the title.
Knausgaard told the BBC: “I tried to write a novel for four or five years. I wrote every day. This is what I do, you know? It’s kind of hard to fail every day. But I was looking for something, and at the end, I was so frustrated, I told myself, I just write it as it was, you know, no tricks, no nothing.”
Knausgaard has indeed written a book that is almost completely devoid of irony, of figure, of metaphor, of simile, of literary language. Min Kamp seems a transparent book. In it, the author appears to disclose himself as he is. He seems to present his life immediately.
On page 18 of the English translation, the author describes an early experience with sardines:
“This evening, the plates with the four prepared slices awaited us as we entered the kitchen. One with brown goat’s cheese, one with ordinary cheese, one with sardines in tomato sauce, one with clove cheese. I didn’t like sardines and ate that slice first. I couldn’t stand fish; boiled cod, which we had at least once a week, made me feel nauseous [sic], as did the steam from the pan in which it was cooked, its taste and consistency. I felt the same about boiled pollock, boiled coley, boiled haddock, boiled flounder, boiled mackerel, and boiled rose fish. With sardines it wasn’t the taste that was the worst part–I could swallow the tomato sauce by imagining that it was ketchup–it was the consistency, and above all the small, slippery tails. They were disgusting. To minimize contact with them I generally bit them off, put them to the side of my plate, nudged some sauce toward the crust and buried the tails in the middle [???], then folded the bread over [????]. In this way, I was able to chew a couple of times without ever coming in contact with the tails, and then wash the whole thing down with milk.”
Upon reading this passage, I had a number of questions: Were the sardines grilled or pickled? Were the sardines salty, and does Knausgaard have an antipathy for salty food in general? What does Knausgaard think of whitefish? Surely, he has eaten lutefisk before–this is a fairly well-known Scandinavian dish. On page 377, we are given an answer:
“Lutefisk lunches with friends, well, that wasn’t a world I inhabited. Not because I couldn’t force down lutefisk but because I wasn’t invited to that type of gathering.”
What of clams? What of crustaceans? Does he favor crab? Does he enjoy shrimp?
The author answers this last question on page 150:
“Shrimp is what I loved most.”
He also favors American cuisine:
“Hamburger, fries, hot dog. Lots of Coke. That’s what I needed. And I needed it now” .
We learn more than anyone would ever want to know about Knausgaard’s non-mainstream, avant-garde musical proclivities:
“The year before, when I moved, I had been listening to groups like The Clash, The Police, The Specials, Teardrop Explodes, The Cure, Joy Division, New Order, Echo and the Bunnymen, The Chameleons, Simple Minds, Ultravox, The Aller Vaerste, Talking Heads, The B52s, PiL, David Bowie, The Psychedelic Furs, Iggy Pop, and Velvet Underground…” [88-89].
The point of this passage is to show readers that Knausgaard is cool. He is nothing like the unhip residents of Tveit (“In Tveit there was no one who had even heard of all these groups” ). Yes, it is true that this passage resembles a rather typical response to a social-networking inquiry (“What Are YOUR Favorite Bands?”). Yes, it is true that any dolt could write such a list, but Knausgaard’s past is more important than your past, and despite appearances, he is not a literary fraud.
His brother Yngve is not quite as cool as Karl Ove. Flicking through his brother’s CD collection, Karl Ove discovers a number of Queen CDs:
“When Freddie Mercury died, the revelation that shocked was not the fact that he was gay but that he was an Indian. / Who could have imagined that?” .
Again, don’t expect any irony here. What you will discover instead is acres and acres of dumbed-down self-pity; the morose self-pity almost never ends. Dumbed-down self-pity was never Proust’s deal, yo. The result is gruelingly gruesome over-hyped tripe.
The hype surrounding this book is to be expected. Min Kamp is exactly the sort of commodity that would hystericize consumers in Europe and America at the beginning of the twenty-first century. And not merely because of the author’s manifest good looks. Yes, it is true: If Knausgaard were unattractive, no one would know of him or his autobiography. Yet there is another, deeper reason for the predetermined hype.
We live in a culture of unconditional literalism. It is hard to decide what is the worst feature of this culture: its illiteracy or its literal-mindedness. Originally, media theorists theorized that the internet had metamorphic powers, that you could be anything or anyone you wanted to be on the internet. If you are old, you can become young; if you are a woman, you can become a man, etc. However, the precise opposite has happened: On social-media sites, people expose themselves in all of their banality and triviality.
When one reads a genuine work of literature, one is able to inhabit the selves of the characters within that work. One assumes their personae. One translates one’s essence into someone who is entirely different from the reader. For a number of hours, you can become King Macbeth or Emma Bovary. Fiction is adultery by other means.
In the culture in which we live, there are no disguises or masks. Everyone is precisely what one appears to be. Our digital selves tend to be identical to our real selves. This is the most painful joke of the twenty-first century: If you want honesty, go to the internet.
Why translate your essence into another human life? The impulse to project oneself into another self has decayed. The unconditional literalism of the internet has led to the erosion of empathy, of fellow-feeling, of the love for one’s brother and sister.
The internet has killed the human soul.
Dr. Joseph Suglia