A Defense of Knausgaard (Gun to My Head)

The work of Karl Ove Knausgaard fascinates me, but not in a way that compels me to defend his work. That’s different than for most of the authors I admire — DOSTOEVSKY! EVERYBODY SHOULD JUST READ DOSTOEVSKY OKAY?!

I mean, Knausgaard is the guy who wrote 3,000 pages about his own, not-that-significant life, and called it My Struggle. And he’s the guy who wrote not one, but two several-thousand-word pieces in the New York Times Magazine, which were in theory about traveling to see the area that his Scandinavian forbearers settled in Minnesota, but were actually about him taking an ill-fated dump in a hotel and about fat Canadians and the like. Telling your friends you’re really into a guy like this isn’t a good way to earn their respect.

But who cares about respect?

In that spirit, here’s what I’d say if somebody really wanted me to defend Knausgaard.

He’s one of the most unpretentious writers I know. It might seem a bit counterintuitive, being that he really only seems to care what’s going on in his head, but who else would have the balls to say, “You know what Times? I’m going to write it like it is.”

It was liberating to see how small and insignificant each separate part of this history was, compared with our notions about its grandness. It felt liberating, because that is what the world is really like, full of insignificant trifles that we use to blunder on as best we can, one by one, whether we happen to be 19th-century immigrants building a log cabin in some forest glade, cold and miserable, longing to sit motionless for a few hours in front of the fire; or a local museum director in a Norwegian children’s sweater; or a crafty Swede, carving runes into a stone and burying it in a field in an attempt to change world history. Or for that matter, an inept Norwegian writer who has spent 10 days on assignment in the U.S. without discovering anything, apart from this.

He’s self-deprecating to a fault. But he writes what is in his head, and the reader can tell how close he is to it — how he’s just willing to put it out there. He has these grand thoughts about the beauty and tradition of Russian Orthodoxy compared to the American plastickiness of Christianity, then he totally shrugs it off and says he’s wrong. There are no language games, no post-modern cleverisms — the guy shoots straight.

knausAnd on a separate but related thread, he writes about things as they actually happen. That’s kind of a horrible thing for a magazine. Narrative storytelling is inherently manipulative … but to read about how things really unfolded — and in a way that I completely sympathize with, in the sense of all that self-doubt and angst and whatever along with the mundane details — is not only novel, it’s refreshing.

Finally, a lot of what he does is actually really beautiful. If I’d picked up Book III of My Struggle and started in the middle, I might not be having to order the next book from the UK because the American version comes out weeks later. But I didn’t; I started with Book I, and to begin there’s this beautiful essay about death, and in a certain section he asks why it is that, if somebody died during a movie showing, we don’t just finish the show — why does death terrify us? I mean, granted: a lot of these essays are sprinkled in among thousands of pages of him changing diapers, fighting with his wife, thinking about his father. But at times it’s really good, and can even be great.

And even for the rest of that stuff, there’s something to be said for the reckless abandon of the work over the careful precision of a novel or memoir. Most of the time I would prefer the latter, sure, but like with Proust the guy is just going somewhere, and you feel compelled to go, because you’re in somebody’s head, and, surprise!, that experience turns out to be really normal, but, still, you’re actually in somebody else’s head who happens to be really thought-provoking. And though putting it this way makes it sound like I’m toking it in between paragraphs, reading Knausgaard can actually be a really compelling experience, in that you’re following along with his diary, caring about what he cares about, recognizing yourself as a kid, feeling that same insecurity. It’s a different kind of beauty, and a different kind of literature, but at its best it is wonderful.