My Struggle: Book Six by Karl Ove Knausgaard
Don Bartlett & Martin Aitken, trans.
My Struggle: Book Six
(Archipelago Books, 2018)
Considered as a whole, the six volumes of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s 3,600-page work of autofiction, are not of equal quality. Of course, evaluating the whole project is only possible to do now, with the long-awaited arrival in English of Book Six, translated by Don Bartlett (who translated the first five volumes) and Martin Aitkin. The first and second books of My Struggle, which Knausgaard originally intended to be contained in the same volume, and to exist as a self-contained work, constitute two of the most gut-wrenching, powerfully written novels to appear in the past 15 years. Book Three lacks both the brilliant discursiveness and black comedy of Book Two as well as the bracing honesty of Book One. The fourth is so mediocre as to be nearly skippable. Book Five is not a great novel, but it is a damn good one. All this comes to a head with Book Six, which, in addition to being a coruscating account of how the West destroyed its own ability to make meaning, may be the most ambitious novel published in our century so far.
Much has been written—rapturously, irritably, or both—about Karl Ove Knausgaard’s habit of giving everything he writes about equal weight. To an extent, that style continues with Book Six. But it’s not only the details of mundane family life that accrue here. More than the jetsam and ephemera of domesticity—though there is certainly plenty of Karl Ove taking his kids back and forth from the dagis, cooking sausages for his kids, bantering with his friend Geir Angell, shopping for prawns and wine, and, of course, lighting one cigarette after another—what overwhelms the intimate dramas of family life here in Book Six, on a wider scale than in any of the previous volumes, is ideas.
“The Name and the Number,” a 440-page essay lodged in the middle of the book, is, among other things, a reexamination of the early life of Adolph Hitler. It’s also an attempt to grapple with Hitler’s Mein Kampf—a subject Knausgaard felt he had to address in using My Struggle as his title, which, in Norwegian, is Min Kamp. Knausgaard is concerned with Hitler not merely as the monster he came to be, but Hitler as the boy who suffered beatings at the hands of his father, who was homeless for upwards of two years, who was no monster, but merely a hungry artist down on his luck in turn-of-the-century Vienna, twice-denied admission to art school. Only in the second half of Knausgaard’s account of Hitler’s life do we get the Hitler who made it possible for Germany to attempt to eliminate the entire Jewish people. “This was made possible by a shift in the language, displayed in its purest form in Mein Kampf, which contains no ‘you,’ only an ‘I,’ and a ‘we,’ which is what makes it possible to turn ‘they’ into ‘it.’ In ‘you’ was decency. In ‘it’ was evil,” Knausgaard writes. “But it was ‘we’ who carried it out.”
Knausgaard traces the West’s evolution from a culture whose meaning is primarily derived from myth, art, and God, to one derived from science and rationality. For him the lasting consequence of the Enlightenment, with its inexorable drift toward the systemic, ideological, and rational, has been to devalue the human. Whereas meaning was formerly derived from mystery, now it’s the opposite: “we do not believe in God, in fact we believe in nothing; instead we know” (emphasis mine). For Knausgaard, this may not be a positive development, but it is irreversible.
“I could have kneeled and put my hands together and directed trembling prayers and lamentations to God, Our Father,” he writes, “but I was living in the wrong age, for when I looked up toward the sky all I saw was a vast and empty space.” And yet, in a world deprived of the ability to make meaning of the absolute, art, too, is being drained of its power. The perspective from which lasting meaning can be made has vanished. “The only remaining space where life was taken seriously was art,” he writes. “In art I looked only for such fullness of being. Beauty and fullness of being. I found it on occasion, and when I did it consumed me, yet the experience led to nothing, was perhaps nothing but the projections of an over-tense soul, little lightning flashes in the darkness of the mind.” This is unequivocally a state of despair, and there’s something Kierkegaardian in the way Knausgaard handles it. Yet unlike Kierkegaard, who would’ve looked to the absolute for a way out of this conundrum, for Knausgaard there is no escape, for at the same time as the desire for lasting meaning necessitates the existence of the absolute, the fact of Nazism’s centeredness on the absolute is a major part of what enabled Germany to commit the atrocities of the Holocaust. It’s an unnerving conclusion to reach.
Without meaning, all that is left is death, and death hangs over everything in Book Six. Yet there is beauty in this. On an afternoon spent with his cousin Jon Olav’s family in Vestland, Karl Ove spends time with a terminally ill relative:
Everything he saw would soon be gone to him, and would never come back.
Not just his family, whose fates and destinies he would never know, but also the fjord and the fell, the grass and the humming insects. And the sun. He would never see the sun again.
These thoughts tainted everything I saw that day. The beauty of the world became enhanced, and yet it seemed crueler too, for one day it would be gone to me too, and continue to exist for those who remained, as it had done since the beginning of time.
I kept thinking, the deeper and deeper I got into this 1,150-page monolith of a book: it’s a shame that only people who’ve read the first five volumes are going to read this, because this, Book Six, is the kind of novel that reinvigorates the form of the novel itself. Many writers have attempted to present an account of both the self and the society the individual self inhabits, but few have attempted to be as philosophically comprehensive, or as formally bold as Knausgaard is here.
Aside from the gigantic essay at the book’s center, the rest of the book is written in the granular, blow-by-blow style with which readers of the first five volumes will by now be familiar. Part One covers the period immediately before the publication of the first volume, when Knausgaard’s uncle attempted to prevent its publication. Part Two traces the consequences of his writing the book in terms of his relationship with his then-wife, Linda, who fell into a deep depression the following year. The section is as bleak as anything in the entirety of the project.
Knausgaard has said in interviews that the first five books represent a cycle, and that the sixth stands outside them. Aside from the Mein Kampf essay, Book Six is entirely concerned with giving an account of the various levels and kinds of anger, rage, and pain caused by the writing of the first five volumes. Knausgaard writes: “This novel has hurt everyone around me, it has hurt me, and in a few years, when they are old enough to read it, it will hurt my children. If I had made it more painful, it would have been truer.” It’s a devastating, beautiful observation in a novel full of them.
To my mind, there are two ways in which Book Six comes up short. The first is Knausgaard’s failure—frustrating given his subject matter—to make a meaningful connection between Europe’s ongoing failure to compassionately handle the immigration crisis in the Mediterranean with the West’s reticence to accept Jewish refugees from Germany before World War II. The second is that Knausgaard, in his attempt to describe life’s fullness and life’s despair, in his breathtakingly honest fidelity to his own experience of reality, makes not enough room for joy. “If there is one thing I had learned in the forty years I’d been alive,” he writes, “it was that it was so much easier to carry despair than hope.” And yet it occurs to me that for me to say that Knausgaard should’ve made more room for joy in My Struggle is actually to say that Karl Ove, the character, the person, should have done so. While Karl Ove, the person, would likely agree with that statement, I suspect that Knausgaard, the writer, would not.