Nordic incontinence

by Chris Bertram on April 9, 2012

I’ve just finished the Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard’s A Death in the Family, the first volume of his sequence of autobiographical novels, My Struggle . The novel, if novel is the best word for it, is at once brilliant and horrible. Brilliant, because of Knausgaard’s talents for description and for self-observation; horrible because of the meticulous way in which he sets out the decline of his father and grandmother. In the novel, and doubtless in real life, Knausgaard’s father is an alcoholic, who at the end of his life, barricades himself into the house of his semi-demented mother and drinks himself to death amidst his own waste. The final third of the book consists of the author’s description of himself and his brother cleaning up the mess and preparing for the funeral. Incomprehensible to the author – and to the reader – is his father’s sudden mid-life transformation from being reserved, proper, distant and controlling, first to would-be bohemian and then to hopeless drunk. Though this change provides the organizing principle of the novel, it is only one of its parts. Much of the “action” (if action there is) consists of an alienated Knausgaard recalling his adolescence and observing himself struggling to write somewhere in Stockholm. In the course of this, we get his reflections on art – and what it does for him – his feelings towards his pregnant girlfriend and children (less warm than he thinks they should be), on death, alcohol, music and much besides. I can’t say that it is anything other than compelling, even though simultaneously revolting. Of course we cannot know what Knausgaard holds back, but he gives a good impression of total candour: he notices the difference between what he ought to feel and think and what he does, actually, feel and think, and tells us anyway.

The central dimension on which this reflection happens is the parent-child relationship. One thought that his writing prompted in me concerns how different things must be for the childless (for better or for worse). Most of us have the experience of having a parent (and usually of having two). We know how difficult that can be but also, if we are lucky, how rich, interesting, consoling it can be also. Those of us with children are on the receiving end of similar hopes, fears, expectations, longings and resentments to the ones we have directed at our own parents. The childless cannot, at least in the usual case, have that place in the gaze of another. It has the possibility of being a great place to be, but also a terrible and treacherous one: to be loved and admired is one thing, to be hated and resented in a role where the normal expectation is love and admiration is quite another. Knausgaard’s father is the object of his son’s contempt and disdain (after fear and alienation).

Reading Knausgaard brought many (and better!) memories of my own surging to the surface. That he had this effect tells something of the power of his writing. Naturally, I reflected on how much of what I remembered I could ever bring myself to tell. Though my own memories are generally much happier than his, there is much that I couldn’t bring myself to say: out of shame, embarrassment, but also out of care and love for others. I couldn’t and wouldn’t reveal some things because of a duty of respect and privacy to people. Even for people I no longer see or even know, I’d often think it unfair to them to reveal some moment of gaucheness, stupidity or cruelty that might say nothing about who they are now. Knausgaard has no such reservations: in order to serve his art, he is a shit. Though his father may have merited little mercy, it is hard to feel the same about his grandmother who seems to have been a generally fine and vigorous person, with an interesting life, until the return of her eldest son prompted and alcoholic unravelling supplemented by senility in her nineties. Cruel then, for Knausgaard to use his ability at close description to tell us about her bewilderment and incontinence in the days following Knausgaard’s father’s death.

All this is to say that I have considerable doubts about the ethics of Knausgaard’s project, even as I can’t help but admire both his artistic accomplishment and his psychological insight. I shall make a point to read the rest of the series though.

{ 21 comments }

1

Momama 04.09.12 at 9:13 am

I must say I hadn’t expected this to show up at CT! Here in Norway these books have received a lot of attention and sparked a really interesting debate about the limits to artistic expression. In a way, the nature of the work is almost avant-garde (3000 pages about himself, the publisher releasing the books unedited, sometimes receiving the final pages of a volume mere days before it went to press) and yet, it has been a record-breaking best-seller and the talk of the day for several years. I look forward to further reflections on the work from someone outside the national context.

2

Martin Bento 04.09.12 at 11:27 am

This is one of the reasons I am such a fan of strong pseuds. Under a pseud, maybe you could bring yourself to say the sorts of things you otherwise wouldn’t out of respect for your loved ones’ privacy and dignity. This kind of introspection and candor produces a certain sort of great literature, but there may be little reason to humiliate and alienate specific people by identifying yourself. At least that should be optional. I’m concerned that the rise of the ability to self-publish easily and without stigma may be accompanied by the fall of the ability to publish pseudonymously, at least if one wishes to self-publish for money.

3

rea 04.09.12 at 1:51 pm

3000 pages of unedited autobiography, with lots of excrement?

Oh, my.

4

nnyhav 04.09.12 at 2:37 pm

5

mpowell 04.09.12 at 5:07 pm

Martin, I don’t understand your last point. Why would it be difficult to publish pseudonymously in this new environment? The name you make for yourself is just the one you publish under.

6

peterv 04.09.12 at 5:11 pm

“My Struggle”? After Hitler, I would have thought that title unusable.

7

Barry Freed 04.09.12 at 5:29 pm

All this is to say that I have considerable doubts about the ethics of Knausgaard’s project, even as I can’t help but admire both his artistic accomplishment and his psychological insight. I shall make a point to read the rest of the series though.

Do you not feel somehow implicated voyeuristically in his transgression, however artistic that may be? (I raise this because I find it interesting to think through the implications, not to condemn; in fact I find myself disappointed that my public library doesn’t carry any of Knausgaard’s work, nor does any other library in my very populous county).

8

Martin Bento 04.09.12 at 7:07 pm

mpowell, both Amazon and Barnes & Noble explicitly prohibit “false identities” under their terms of service for self-publishers. I imagine the others do as well; it just makes it simpler for them. Since they use your identity information to pay you, and you are legally required to provide it anyway for tax purposes, you probably won’t want to fool them. You could just use your own site to sell your book, I suppose, but those sites are the distribution infrastructure for ebooks, so if you’re not already famous under the pseud, it would be a hard way to publish.

9

chris y 04.09.12 at 7:12 pm

both Amazon and Barnes & Noble explicitly prohibit “false identities” under their terms of service for self-publishers.

Well, that’s George Eliot fucked then. Among others too numerous to count.

10

mpowell 04.09.12 at 7:42 pm

@8: Well good point then. Maybe there could be a push to get this changed. I wonder how committed they are to this policy. Or maybe an intermediary could be used to make this work.

11

Warren Terra 04.09.12 at 8:16 pm

I’m with peterv at #6. I can’t imagine that title being appropriate except in the context of an explicit parody or other discussion of Naziism.

12

peterv 04.09.12 at 9:36 pm

Warren Terra: Mention of parody brings to mind a long-ago New Statesman competition, which asked for incongruous book titles by famous authors. One of the winning entries was an alleged autobiography of Martin Amis, entitled, “My Struggle”.

13

Anderson 04.09.12 at 9:54 pm

Fortunately, the title of the series in Norwegian is Min Kamp, which sounds nothing like … ah … well …

14

Phil 04.09.12 at 10:00 pm

I’m reasonably sure that evoking Nazism in Norway is even more problematic – or open to allegations of appallingly bad taste & frivolousness – than it is in the US or UK.

15

Anderson 04.09.12 at 10:11 pm

Cruel then, for Knausgaard to use his ability at close description to tell us about her bewilderment and incontinence in the days following Knausgaard’s father’s death.

I’m not sure I’m buying the “cruelty” claim here, tho I guess I’d have to read the book to decide.

I suppose I can see it in Nietzsche’s sense that a fear of being cruel makes us back off from the truth. But there’s a relevant difference between inflicting pain for the fun of it and telling the truth without regard for the consequences. Chris, if you think it’s the former and not the latter in Knaussgaard’s case, why do you think that?

16

Eli Rabett 04.10.12 at 6:19 pm

About five years ago, Eli found hisself in Stockholm during the winter. Walking about with Ms. Rabett, he remarked that there sure were a lot of Irish bars around, to which Ms. Rabett, who is a holder of an Erin pass remarked, “The Irish are happy drunk”

17

Martin Bento 04.10.12 at 7:37 pm

mpowell & chris, well, I would be up for a petition on this. Any other ideas? I wonder if PEN would consider this worth taking up.

18

John Schmitt 04.11.12 at 1:07 am

A Death in the Family is also the title of an autobiographical novel by James Agee.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Death_in_the_Family

19

Martin Bento 04.11.12 at 1:52 am

On the title question, it’s hard to think that the Hitler parallel isn’t deliberate. Can anyone tell us what he means by it?

20

Morzer 04.11.12 at 2:09 am

“…sudden mid-life transformation from being reserved, proper, distant and controlling, first to would-be bohemian and then to hopeless drunk.”

AKA The Tea Party evolutionary cycle.

21

Momama 04.12.12 at 9:36 am

Re: the title question: I’m not sure it was originally motivated by anything else than some sort of “burn all bridges”-feeling he had about the project, but since the title created such a stir he actually uses a lot of the sixth volume discussing Mein Kampf, especially in relation to the tragic shooting events in Norway last summer. Some of the claims in this “essay” part have been hotly debated beacuse of the way he tries to really understand where these mass murderers come from.

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