Book Six, the final volume of Karl Ove Knausgård’s My Struggle, is a massive 1,161 pages. According to my Kindle, it takes the typical reader more than 25 hours to get through it.
How does the most celebrated and scandalous work of 21st century literature end? More than 400 pages are dedicated to Hitler’s life, including critiques of his previous biographers. It is also an intellectual history of Europe in the 1930s and the social and economic forces that enabled the rise of Nazism. 100 pages are dedicated to Paul Celan’s relatively brief poem The Straightening. (Ruth Franklin describes this section as “essentially live-blogging his line-by-line effort to make sense” of Celan’s poem.) It is an unflinching, brutally frank depiction of his wife’s struggles with bipolar depression and mania. Finally, the book is a tally of the damage done, the pain he caused others and himself, by having shared his most shameful thoughts in public, his “transgressive blurring of the borders between the public and private, sayable and unsayable.” As Evan Hughes puts it, “reading My Struggle is like opening someone else’s diary and finding your own secrets.”
My Struggle is an awe-inspiring effort, which Knausgaard says in the end he did not fully achieve, to break free from the self-censorship imposed by the social world, to attain total liberation from inhibition.
I find visits to bookstores and libraries almost unbearable, an in-my-face representation of all the information I won’t have the time to read, the knowledge I’ll never attain. As a writer staring enviously at shelves upon shelves of published books, I confront the inevitable truth that every story has already been told. There may be a different setting with new characters, but the basic plot and principles and ideas have already been retold millions of times through the same archetypical story structures.
Until Knausgård. Somehow it occurred to a sensitive man from Norway struggling with writer’s block to attempt something that has never been tried before: he would be unsparingly honest about his most treacherous thoughts while describing the banalities of modern life with microscopic detail. The thoughts we all have but would never share with anyone else, except for perhaps a therapist.
A therapist. Writing is clearly a therapeutic, confessional act for Knausgård. As he tells Ryu Spaeth in an interview, “there must be a place where you can be, where you can write, where you can think, without a façade at all.” For most people, that place is a therapist’s office. But toward the end of Book Six, as he describes his wife’s worsening mental health (which he fears he caused by sharing so much of her life publicly), he writes:
She wanted me to help her go back into therapy. Most of all she wanted us to go together. She had wanted that for many years. She knew I would rather die than go to couples therapy, and actually I meant it. If there were a choice between couples therapy and death, I would unhesitatingly choose death.
He repeats the same line in an interview with Ali Tufan Koc: “I’d rather shoot myself than go to therapy.”
How is this possible? How can a writer who demonstrates such self-awareness through his writing be so fearful of therapy? How can he expose himself to relentless criticism by journalists and critics, but not speak with a therapist trained to listen without judgement? If he is racked with guilt for what he has done to his wife, can he not at least give her this?
Writing is the way Knausgaard expresses the emotions that he’s not courageous or mature enough to tell his loved ones in person. Instead, his family, his wife, his friends, (and presumably his children) discover his resentments and regrets when they are given manuscripts to review. He joins a long lineage of mostly male writers who demonstrate startling self-awareness in their prose and yet a total lack of emotional intelligence in the social world: Ernest Hemingway, Norman Mailer, Charles Bukowski, Bob Dylan, Isaac Brock, JD Salinger, Ryan Adams, Henry Miller, Jack Kerouac.
How were these writers able to endow their characters with such sentimentality while totally cutting themselves off from the emotional lives of their loved ones in real life? Or is it the inverse? Perhaps their inability to express emotions in person allows the writer’s inner torment to distill through the pen into compelling prose. Perhaps the well-adjusted person, who shares his vulnerabilities honestly in the social world, lacks the burning impulse to produce great writing.
Book Six was too long, too intense, too interesting for me to read in one go. I took several breaks to read other books, including Lori Gottlieb’s Maybe You Should Talk to Someone, in which she describes her role as a therapist to her clients, and as a client to her own therapist. I read the book because I was just beginning therapy myself for the first time and I wanted to know what I was getting myself into. Like Knausgaard, I had been resistant to therapy. Like Knausgaard, I preferred facing my fears and insecurities through my writing.
As I read Gottlieb’s descriptions of her patients, I began to wonder what she would write about Knausgaard if he were her patient. What would she think about his tendency to consider literary theory or philosophy while his wife was yelling at him? How would she connect it to his descriptions in Book One of escaping to his room as a young boy to read comic books when his angry, alcoholic father lashed out at him? How would she try to help him remain present and grounded when confronted by anger?
On the last day of a beach vacation before coronavirus put an end to beach vacations, my wife and I had a brief exchange of mutual annoyance, the kind of interaction that happens nearly everyday between couples, the type that Knausgaard describes so poignantly. But this time, for reasons I couldn’t understand, I was hurt and offended. I didn’t say anything in the moment, for the intensity of my emotions was totally disproportionate to what had happened. I spent much of the afternoon sulking like a fool and the next day I spent by myself.
Once I was able to write, everything came pouring out with surprising eloquence. I was triggered, of course. The words staring back at me revealed the obvious connection between what happened and how I was treated by my mother growing up. I saw how the minor interaction was a symbol of something larger, a departure from my idealized notion of a caring relationship. Now I knew what I needed to communicate to my wife; not so much what she did, but how it made me feel — and why.
We met that evening for dinner. I ordered a mezcal and she had a cocktail. She knew I felt unsettled and she was waiting for me to explain why. But I couldn’t find the words. Just hours earlier I had written with poetic eloquence what I wanted to express. I had metaphors, stories from my childhood, raw vulnerability. And now, even after my mezcal, all I could muster up was, “So, how was your day?”
How was this possible? Did I lack the ability to communicate, or did I lack the courage to express myself? The next day we were laying in bed and I managed to tell my wife, the person in this world who cares the most about me, that I was hurt. She acknowledged my feelings, she expressed her remorse, and we agreed that we could both do more to communicate better in the future.
It was a liberating conversation. I wasn’t trapped by the trauma of my past; I could break through and become a different person. But why was it so immensely difficult?
Karl Ove Knausgaard and I share similar childhoods and dispositions. We share the same taste in music, literature, and film. Deep down we are both committed progressives, and yet we rebel against the social pressure of political correctness. When we were young men, we wanted more than all else to become great writers, to develop an authentic voice, and to push the boundaries of literature. Knausgaard did this by turning his attention inward to the self, where he encountered a subject that had never been fully, honestly treated despite the thousands of memoirs and autobiographies. My curiosity drew my attention outward to the larger world, where I spent my 20s trying to make sense of the cultures, people, and places I encountered.
We were both seeking a form of liberation. I sought to transcend the boundaries of my own culture by embedding myself as much as possible in other cultures. In his own words, Knausgaard, “tried to transcend the social world by conveying the innermost thoughts and innermost feelings of my most private self, my own internal life, but also by describing the private sphere of my family as it exists behind the façade all families set up against the social world.”
In the end, Knausgaard became the great writer. I became an office worker in Silicon Valley. Just a couple months shy of 40 without having published any work of significance, I ask myself, would I rather be a great writer or a good person? Would I rather be creative or kind? And is it possible to be both? These are the questions for the next 40 years of my life.
There is a tension in life, one that I feel every day, between being present in the moment, attentive and kind to our loved ones, and producing great art. By focusing all of his attention on his writing, Knausgaard gave his readers an inspired work of art. By ignoring his wife, violating her privacy, and sleepwalking through his social life, he lost his family and has surprisingly few friends.
“What reality does, and brutally so, is to correct,” writes Knausgaard in the section on Hitler. “And a prominent trait of the young Hitler’s character is precisely an unwillingness to accept correction.” From recent interviews, it seems that Knausgaard is accepting correction. Divorced and living in London with a new partner, he no longer yearns for liberation from the social world. Perhaps he even sees value in liberation from the trauma of his childhood.
He certainly sees value in being more present. In an interview with Joshua Rothman, he acknowledges his unhealthy tendency to be pulled “away from home and into art.”
It’s much better now—I think I’ve managed to fasten my gaze somehow—but I’ve struggled with that throughout my life. Because nothing is as defined in life as it is in literature or in art. If everyone fastened his gaze on life, there would be no art.
It’s true. A world of constant attentiveness would be a world without culture and art, not the kind of world I want to live in. Like Knausgaard, I will continue to seek insight and beauty through writing. But all in moderation. I will also fasten my gaze on life, and on the people I love.