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.
An Analysis of A SUPPOSEDLY FUN THING THAT I WILL NEVER DO AGAIN (David Foster Wallace) by Joseph Suglia
I have written it before, and I will write it again: Writing fictionally was not one of David Foster Wallace’s gifts. His métier was, perhaps, mathematics. David Foster Wallace was a talented theorist of mathematics, it is possible (I am unqualified to judge one’s talents in the field of mathematics), but an absolutely dreadful writer of ponderous fictions (I am qualified to judge one’s talents in the field of literature).
Wallace’s essay aggregate A Supposedly Fun Thing that I Will Never Do Again (1997) is worth reading, if one is an undiscriminating reader, but it also contains a number of vexing difficulties that should be addressed. I will focus here upon the two essays to which I was most attracted: “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction” and “David Lynch Keeps His Head,” a conspectus on the director’s cinema from Eraserhead (1977) until Lost Highway (1997). Wallace seems unaware of Lynch’s work before 1977.
In “E Unibus Pluram,” Wallace warmly defends the Glass Teat in the way that only an American can. He sees very little wrong with television, other than the fact that it can become, in his words, a “malignant addiction,” which does not imply, as Wallace takes pains to remind us, that it is “evil” or “hypnotizing” (38). Perish the thought!
Wallace exhorts American writers to watch television. Not merely should those who write WATCH television, Wallace contends; they should ABSORB television. Here is Wallace’s inaugural argument (I will attempt to imitate his prose):
1.) Writers of fiction are creepy oglers.
2.) Television allows creepy, ogling fiction writers to spy on Americans and draw material from what they see.
3.) Americans who appear on television know that they are being seen, so this is scopophilia, but not voyeurism in the classical sense. [Apparently, one is spying on average Americans when one watches actors and actresses on American television.]
4.) For this reason, writers can spy without feeling uncomfortable and without feeling that what they’re doing is morally problematic.
Wallace: “If we want to know what American normality is – i.e. what Americans want to regard as normal – we can trust television… [W]riters can have faith in television” (22).
“Trust what is familiar!” in other words. “Embrace what is in front of you!” to paraphrase. Most contemporary American writers grew up in the lambent glow of the cathode-ray tube, and in their sentences the reader can hear the jangle and buzz of television. David Foster Wallace was wrong. No, writers should NOT trust television. No, they should NOT have faith in the televisual eye, the eye that is seen but does not see. The language of television has long since colonized the minds of contemporary American writers, which is likely why David Foster Wallace, Chuck Klosterman, and Jonathan Safran Foer cannot focus on a single point for more than a paragraph, why Thomas Pynchon’s clownish, jokey dialogue sounds as if it were culled from Gilligan’s Island, and why Don DeLillo’s portentous, pathos-glutted dialogue sounds as if it were siphoned from Dragnet.
There are scattershot arguments here, the most salient one being that postmodern fiction canalizes televisual waste. That is my phrasing, not Wallace’s. Wallace writes, simply and benevolently, that television and postmodern fiction “share roots” (65). He appears to be suggesting that they both sprang up at exactly the same time. They did not, of course. One cannot accept Wallace’s argument without qualification. To revise his thesis: Postmodern fiction–in particular, the writings of Leyner, DeLillo, Pynchon, Barth, Apple, Barthelme, and David Foster Wallace–is inconceivable outside of a relation to television. But what would the ontogenesis of postmodern fiction matter, given that these fictions are anemic, execrably written, sickeningly smarmy, cloyingly self-conscious, and/or forgettable?
It did matter to Wallace, since he was a postmodernist fictionist. Let me enlarge an earlier statement. Wallace is suggesting (this is my interpretation of his words): “Embrace popular culture, or be embraced by popular culture!” The first pose is that of a hipster; the second pose is that of the Deluded Consumer. It would be otiose to claim that Wallace was not a hipster, when we are (mis)treated by so many hipsterisms, such as: “So then why do I get the in-joke? Because I, the viewer, outside the glass with the rest of the Audience, am IN on the in-joke” (32). Or, in a paragraph in which he nods fraternally to the “campus hipsters” (76) who read him and read (past tense) Leyner: “We can resolve the problem [of being trapped in the televisual aura] by celebrating it. Transcend feelings of mass-defined angst [sic] by genuflecting to them. We can be reverently ironic” (Ibid.). Again, he appears to be implying: “Embrace popular culture, or be embraced by popular culture!” That is your false dilemma. If you want others to think that you are special (every hipster’s secret desire), watch television with a REVERENT IRONY. Wallace’s hipper-than-thou sanctimoniousness is smeared over every page.
Now let me turn to the Lynch essay, the strongest in the collection. There are several insightful remarks here, particularly Wallace’s observation that Lynch’s cinema has a “clear relation” (197) to Abstract Expressionism and the cinema of German Expressionism. There are some serious weaknesses and imprecisions, as well.
Wallace: “Except now for Richard Pryor, has there ever been even like ONE black person in a David Lynch movie? … I.e. why are Lynch’s movies all so white? … The likely answer is that Lynch’s movies are essentially apolitical” (189).
To write that there are no black people in Lynch’s gentrified neighborhood is to display one’s ignorance. The truth is that at least one African-American appeared in the Lynchian universe before Lost Highway: Gregg Dandridge, who is very much an African-American, played Bobbie Ray Lemon in Wild at Heart (1990). Did Wallace never see this film? How could Wallace have forgotten the opening cataclysm, the cataclysmic opening of Wild at Heart? Who could forget Sailor Ripley slamming Bobbie Ray Lemon’s head against a staircase railing and then against a floor until his head bursts, splattering like a splitting pomegranate?
To say that Lynch’s films are apolitical is to display one’s innocence. No work of art is apolitical, because all art is political. How could Wallace have missed Lynch’s heartlandish downhomeness? How could he have failed to notice Lynch’s repulsed fascination with the muck and the slime, with the louche underworld that lies beneath the well-trimmed lawns that line Lynch’s suburban streets? And how could he have failed to draw a political conclusion, a political inference, from this repulsed fascination, from this fascinated repulsion?
Let me commend these essays to the undiscriminating reader, as unconvincing as they are. Everything collected here is nothing if not badly written, especially “Getting Away from Already Being Pretty Much Away from It All,” a hipsterish pamphlet about Midwestern state fairs that would not have existed were it not for David Byrne’s True Stories (1986), both the film and the book. It is my hope that David Foster Wallace will someday be remembered as the talented mathematician he perhaps was and not as the brilliant fictioneer he certainly was not.
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
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