Shame in Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle series
Last week saw the release of Boyhood Island, the third volume in Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle series, and over the weekend the Guardian published a piece by Hari Kunzru asking is the author brave or shameless? Here, bookseller Gerard Elson responds.
I can’t think of a less appropriate descriptor for Knausgaard than ‘shameless’. He’s the converse of that, its blue, black and white photo negative. As anyone who’s read even one of the +3600 pages of his My Struggle books will tell you, Knausgaard is governed by shame. His books are so vicariously cathartic for how closely they approximate the totality of his being — petty stupidities, boredoms, impotent furies, cruel snap judgements, failures, cold realisations, banal moments of ecstasy — everything — all despite his near-morbid need to be liked.
To get personal, I’ve spent a lot of my life feeling (self-indulgently, I now realise) pulverised by feelings of ‘male guilt’, and am lately emerging from an intensive period of chronic depression. Knausgaard, by sharing so candidly of his own perceived shortcomings — many of which are androcentric — and his own earnest yearning for a more honest life, continues to play a major role in my pursuit of the same. In short, he de-alienates me. As he does his other dedicated readers, irrespective of gender identity. How, then, can he be said to be the self-serving literary vampire his detractors would have you believe? His books are nil if not almost suicidally generous. There’s no guile at work, just a hurtling lurch toward honesty.
I’m loath to make Knausgaard seem some trite guru for an in-crisis masculinity. His project in My Struggle is more fascinating than that. And yet, I know of no other major literary author doing more — by design or unconsciously, as I suspect is the case with Knausgaard — to challenge imposed notions of heterosexual male identity in the contemporary West.
As a nearly 30-year-old straight male who’s long chafed against the strangulatingly prescriptive expectations our society inflicts upon its young men, as well as the tacit social privilege this bestows, this counts for something. It helps. By shedding penetrating light on those aspects of inner life that tend to go unvoiced — sometimes for fear of seeming too vulgarly masculine (as might be inferred from his Volume 2: A Man in Love recollection of the bitter emasculation he experienced as a new father, perambulating Stockholm, a stroller rolling inanely before him), or contrariwise, not masculine enough (as in the memories of his beta-male childhood that comprise the 70 pages I’ve yet read of the just-released Volume 3: Boyhood Island) — Knausgaard emerges as a still-necessary corrective to the image of the paterfamilias, didactic, resolute and all-knowing. Here’s a 40 year-old man — and moreover, a respected literary author — who still meets the world with the same open-wound sensitivity he did as a child and, extraordinarily, bears indefatigable witness to it all on the page. And so we get Knausgaard the wise, the stupid, the euphoric, the desolate, the eloquent, the hackneyed, the profound, the trite. Knausgaard the petulant, the generous, the narcissistic, the astute, the blinkered, the fearful, the boring, the enthralling. He shits. He weeps. He gets so frustrated with his children that he shakes them. He drowns his self-loathing in liquor and behaves like an ass. But he also loves — wholly, transcendently. And finds solace in human connection and creative expression.
In short, we get as near an analogue as perhaps literature can offer to the unvarnished sum of a single human consciousness.
Were I asked to reduce the profound effect these books have had on not only my reading life, but my very soul, to a single takeaway, my answer would be simple. And that would be how imperative it is that we strive always to truly inhabit ourselves — really explore our own inner terrain with impunity, and refuse to shy from those darker or more forbidding crevasses, just because they may seem testing or treacherous. Do this — really do this — and one’s empathic capacity swells. And empathy, like oil, is a natural resource of perilous scarcity nowadays, one whose importance to sustaining the kind of meaningful, other-oriented relationships that so help minimise those vague, unattributable feelings of guilt or shame under which Knausgaard, like many of us, labours, cannot be overstated.
The Delphic dictum that one must “know thyself” has never felt constructive to me: we’re too mercurial and impelled by emotion, too ever-developing to hope to achieve so definitive an edict. It’s an impossible ask, its object, a myth. Like Montaigne, Whitman, Woolf and Gombrowicz before him, Knausgaard knows this. And so his books suggest, by the very fact of their form — the blow-by-blow accounts of incident and conversation that James Wood describes as unfolding “almost as if in real time”; the pages-long dilations of the river of thought that underscores even the most mundane occurrences — that the best any one of us can do is to inconclusively ‘get to know thyself’. As we would any other person. And in doing this, other people, in turn, become less threatening. And therefore, less remote. Their motivations, their fears, their reticence and emotional vicissitudes start to make sense if we allow them the full, sweeping scope of a humanity similar to — but discrete from — our own.
Is this not the true gift of literature? To reveal ourselves to ourselves? To struggle against the taut elastic boundaries that delimit our narrow worldview? To better implant us in our world, our time, our society, our species?
“Lend yourself to others, but give yourself to yourself”, wrote Montaigne. Do both of these things, and that terrible distance between the self and the world shrinks. It’s in this space that grace flourishes — as Knausgaard comes to realise by the culmination of Volume 2: A Man in Love.
Recalling the day his elderly mother confessed it was love, not meekness, that bound her to his tyrannical father — the man whose violence, detachment and alcohol-expedited death still press upon the author like some giant hand from the sky — he says, “Something around me was changing. Or was it changing inside me, so that now I could see something I hadn’t seen before?”
My Struggle has begat similar changes in me. For this simple reason, I can’t recommend these books highly enough.
Gerard Elson works as a bookseller at Readings St Kilda.
A Death in the Family: My Struggle Book 1
When the author becomes a father himself, he must balance the demands of caring for a young family with his determination to write great literature. This title tells his story.
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A Man In Love: My Struggle Book 2
Deals with the experience of becoming a father, the mundane struggles of family life, ridiculously unsuccessful holidays, humiliating antenatal music classes, fights with quarrelsome neighbours, and the emotional strains of...
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Boyhood Island: My Struggle Book 3
Childhood is exhilarating and terrifying. For the young Karl Ove, new houses, classes and friends are met with manic excitement and creeping dread. Adults occupy godlike positions of power, benevolent in the case of his doting...
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