by Madhu Kaza
I began to read the first volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle last year after I heard a conversation between two writers who were puzzling over the book. They both agreed that the absence of plot in the novel was not compensated for by a strong prose style. One writer even called the writing “bad.” Yet they both found the book utterly compelling. What they were trying to figure out was why this should be so. Intrigued by this puzzlement of theirs, I began to read the book to look for an answer myself. Shortly after, I went to an event at 192 Books in New York, where Knausgaard discussed the book with Paris Review editor Lorin Stein.
I admit my interest in Knausgaard was also related to a longstanding preoccupation with Scandinavia and the North (from the age of seven I've owed a particular debt of allegiance to Denmark, proof in my mind that one doesn't exactly choose one's imaginary homeland). But even if the nets of affiliation pull in strange catch, they are not cast randomly: Knausgaard noted that My Struggle was originally titled Argentina, which he later explained was the country of his dreams. “I can't believe Argentina exists,” he said. “It's like literature.” He spoke of Borges and also of Witold Gombrowicz, who spent much of his life in exile in Argentina. It makes sense that a Norseman would find himself drawn to Borges (who was obsessed with Old Norse and the Icelandic Sagas), and through Borges imagine that the realm of literature itself was a land called Argentina.
Knausgaard did not mention César Aira that night, but it's this contemporary Argentine writer who comes to mind now when I reflect on Knausgaard. It occurs to me that both Knausgaard and Aira write linearly — forward without much revision– but to quite different effects. In its entirety (six volumes) My Struggle spans over three thousand pages where Knausgaard exhaustively narrates and ponders everyday life. It would seem that to read his book one becomes absorbed in a particular experience of time. The time that is being narrated and the time of reading become durations that feel closer to life than the conventions of art. The novel doesn't leap between plot points or episodes of heightened conflict. Those moments that are usually lifted from the texture everyday life and tasked with carrying dramatic and symbolic value in a conventional novel are not, here, prioritized. Tedious moments remain. Knausgaard writes lengthy, banal passages about smoking a cigarette or making a pot of tea. And spotty prose that might have been edited is left alone. Knausgaard admitted that now and then when he sensed that he had followed a false trail, he would go back to the beginning of the section where he had lost his way and begin again. He would delete that section, but he would not revise it. He wrote with the discipline and constraint of a daily schedule, beginning by forcing himself to write five or ten pages a day; if he had only twenty minutes before he needed to pick up his children from school and had only six of the ten pages completed, he would force himself to write four pages very quickly to meet his daily quota. And he would keep these pages. At some point he found a rhythm where he could write twenty pages a day. On his most productive day he wrote fifty pages. Knausgaard claimed he kept all of this material because he wanted “to let it all hang out.” It's clear that the book has been shaped –and it's not confessional, exactly – but the effect of Knausgaard's kitchen sink approach to writing is that My Struggle gives the reader the feeling of intimacy and transparency.
Aira, who has published more than eighty novellas, writes highly stylized books. He claims that his writing aims toward neutrality, but there is always an intensity to the prose. At times, when reading his work it's necessary to give up on following the logic of his sentences—this is true especially when Aira gets metaphysical, which is to say playful; instead, you have to hand yourself over to the glee of the sentences themselves and simply watch an imagination at play. Whereas, Knausgaard gives us the illusion of transparency in his prosaic rendering of daily life, Aira's work, full of fantastical elements, occasionally slides into opacity. The stories themselves are accessible (if odd) and Aira is interested in plot, at least as an opening gambit. His books are quite dramatic. But the plot engine gets revved up only to have the work find it's energy elsewhere, from Aira's outlandish imagination and gift for narrative pacing. Aira plays with speed; his books have great momentum and many are easily read in one sitting. There are moments when the writing gets knotted and abstract, but the prose usually lifts off again relatively quickly.
At the beginning of How I Became a Nun, the young César is disgusted by his first taste of (cyanide laced) ice cream and desperately tries to convince his father that the ice cream is revolting: “I looked in horror at the pink of the ice cream…. I felt dizzy, but there was no turning back. ‘It's awful! It's sickening!' I tried to whip myself into a frenzy. ‘It's foul.'” It's a funny, absurd, and sad scene in which the young César tries in vain to validate his reality to his father. He laments, however, “Farce was beginning to impinge on reality. Worse than that: farce was becoming reality.” Aira's work is remarkable for the nimbleness with which his stories slip in and out of the mode of “reality” into various registers of the fantastic and surreal. The writing has a delightful quality of prose whipped to a frenzy. I like to imagine Aira himself as a literary Hermes flitting about with tiny wings on his feet. What's odd, though, is that Aira, in fact, works quite slowly. His books have a frenetic feel, but they are short, patiently written works. Knausgaard on the other hand writes very quickly, but because of his exhaustive style and the sheer volume of his output, his prose can feel slow.
Given their modes of composition (of writing without revising) it makes sense that both Knausgaard and Aira should be uneven writers. To call them uneven is necessary and true, but leaves out something essential. The process of writing is fundamental to these writers, and this process is embedded in the texts. Much has been made of Aira's “fuga hacia adelante,” his “flight forward” method of writing, in which he writes a page or two a day (without editing any previous day's work) and builds on what he's put on the page. His books don't have the worked-over unity of a conventional novel. Instead they have the feeling of improvisation; occasionally they read like jazz. The work is imperfect and even structurally unsound when read against the model of a conventional realist novel. A better way to read Aira's work would be as performance.
During Knausgaard's event at 192 Books, Lorin Stein began the discussion by asking whether Knausgaard saw My Struggle as a novel or a memoir and whether the distinction mattered. Knausgaard said the label didn't matter but then added that it was a novel and not a memoir. Stein nodded in agreement and said that he thought of memoir as teleological. He quoted someone as saying that memoir suppresses the parts that make the reader blush. My Struggle doesn't suppress those parts, he said. He noted that the way that memory works in Proust is similar in some respects to what Knausgaard was doing. Both writers were interested in the act of remembering itself, and interested in what it means to write about the past. These writerly concerns, the attention to the very process of writing, were what distinguished My Struggle from memoir according to Stein.
The comparison of Knausgaard to Proust as a novelist makes sense, of course, except there's still the question of the Knausgaard's bad writing. Knausgaard himself admitted that there are parts of the book where the prose falters. “I know that some of the writing is good, and some of it is bad, and I can't always tell, but I have to leave it. I need to include it all. The project demanded it. I wanted the book to be good, but what I wanted more was for the writing to be free. I didn't want to get into self-criticism. I wanted to be free,” he said.
There is a lengthy section in My Struggle in which the teenage Karl Ove walks through snow carrying bags of beer on the way to a New Year's Eve party. Knausgaard noted that this extended scene, which he referred to as “beer in snow,” did not pay off in any climactic event at the party. He claimed that these many pages were “about nothing.” But he added that writing a hundred pages about “beer in snow” allowed him later to write a hundred pages about his father's death. Once he had been able to write at length about something that didn't matter, he could find a way to write about something that did.
It seems apt that “project,” rather than “novel,” was the word that Knausgaard used most to describe My Struggle. Perhaps what Knausgaard does is to write through everything, through the banal events of a life that normally weigh nothing and the momentous events that weigh too much. What My Struggle highlights is this writing through — some of the writing is good, some of it not, but there is the work of finding a way forward through one's days by writing. In this sense, what Stein said is true. My Struggle is not merely confessional because the point of the book is not to reveal a secret, but to engage the process of confronting secretive, difficult things. Even those difficult things are never narrated with conventional drama or tied up neatly. Oddly, I might venture to say that rather than plot or prose style, it's an idea of a self that's at the center of this work. Perhaps what's most compelling about My Struggle is that it provides an experience where reading feels like being in the presence of a self.