The Author Is Not Dead: Karl Ove Knausgaard
The Role of the SELF in Novels
an article series
the karl ove knausgaard example
There is this bay outside my window, with lazy ripples forming intricate criss-cross patterns that make it hard to determine which way the current flows. The surface of the sea is weaved together with shades of blue, painted by the underwater landscape and the reflections of the sky and white clouds above. A marvellous mosaic, so subtle you feel the urge to reach out your hand and touch it, to make sure it is real. A scene so beautiful, you find it hard to comprehend.
I often think of how nature never fails to put the right colours together and to always create the perfect contrasts between the largest of elements, to the most minute, all randomly fallen into place and presented to our mind as the ultimate authentic, and how we strive to do the same in our art and human constructions; to replicate reality as we see it, or rather, as we perceive it.
Lately, there seems to be an uprising among many of us. A deep felt need to recapture something original and real, to shield ourselves from the onslaught of artificial constructions that we are so easily drawn to. In short, we desire to experience the life of other people; to see behind the curtain and into the privacy of others, perhaps to confirm that they also struggle sometimes, and that their inner lives and emotions are similar to our own. We are basically searching for confirmation, that deepest of human needs: To be recognised for who we are, and to be accepted.
One of the strongest new currents in the world of literature is the rise of autobiographical fiction, or fictionalised memoirs. This can most easily be explained as novels where the author uses their own life story in the narrative, without presuming to separate the reality of their life, with that of their main character or narrator. It is most often written in the first person and the author’s real name or initials might be used, as well as the real names of people from their life.
Currently there is one author who is spearheading this trend: Karl Ove Knausgaard. The Norwegian writer behind the monumental six-volume novel My Struggle has taken the art of 'self-investigation' to a whole new level, pouring his own life into his work seemingly without any fictional filter. He uses his own from the start and frequently talks about his 'real-time' experience: “I am sitting here in my studio trying to write; My children are waking up and I have to prepare them breakfast.” Even talking about the public responses of his first book, or the threats of litigation from family members, as he is writing the second or third in the series. He jumps back and forth from his present, every-day life, into stories from his past, his youth or childhood, or early twenties, with the oppressing presence of his alcoholic father always flowing as a red line throughout the project.
As a Norwegian myself, I had the good fortune of reading My Struggle in the original language soon after each part was published, and I also had the chance to follow first the hefty debates amongst Norwegian critics, and a couple of years later, reading the unravelling critical acclaim (and slight confusion), of the international literature community.
My first thought as I read the first book of the series, was that Knausgaard represents some kind of shift in modern literature, much like Marcel Proust did with his similarly momentous work, Remembrance of Things Past. The role of memory, particularly the involuntary kind, triggering emotional responses with the past, clearly connects the two. As well as their attention to minute details of the world observed in both the present and in the recollection of their minds.
After reading a lot of articles throughout these years (still only the fifth book of the series has been translated into English), it seems as the critics have been struggling to define his work and fully understand its ambition. Lately however, I read an article by Joshua Rothman from The New Yorker, who I believe succeeds in zooming in on the artistic intention of My Struggle, and autobiographical fiction in general, and perhaps even the true intention of literature art itself. He sums it up like this:
“When I tally up the pleasures and surprises My Struggle has given me, I find that they have little to do with intellectual subjects. The book isn’t really about politics, aesthetics, or the nature of society. Instead, My Struggle has pushed me to think more about my own self, and, in particular, my emotions. It’s reacquainted me with the vividness of feelings. It’s a sentimental education.”
Much thanks to these of books, and many others currently published from other authors, I have come to realize that the human mind needs fiction to comprehend, or more precisely, to attempt to comprehend. We fictionalise our lives. Our reality. We create stories in our minds related to who we are and why our lives have turned out to be this and that, often in contradiction to how we thought it would turn out. Often we make up stories from our past that serves as proof of our current existence, and we dream up potential realities for our futures, backed up by our mind’s repetitious statements about who we are, or who we should have become.
Writing true about oneself, the inner Self, seems to me to be the most challenging exercise an author can do. There is no way that we can accurately recollect everything, or even little bits, of our lives. Which would mean that there is no such thing as non-fiction in storytelling. You can never recollect your story, your history, in perfect detail without making something up. It is impossible. So a memoir and a fictional memoir are in the end the same thing. Each author writes through several filters of unreliable memories, often tainted by strong emotional connections. I believe it's these filters that Knausgaard tries to break down, by insistently, doggedly, writing as true to himself as possible, and in the process, jeopardising every personal relationship he ever had. Trying to find a way into the deepest and most true story of the Self, and if he succeeds, we will perhaps all recognise that this story, and this inner truth, belongs to all of us.
Hi, by the way, I am the author, sitting in a little summerhouse overlooking the Cape Kefala bay in the Greek island of Evia, and writing these words to you. What I see, and what I describe, is real. I am trying my very best to communicate this to you in a way that makes it easy to visualise in your head, exactly the way I see it. But this is impossible of course. And not really a desirable outcome. You will read my words and then process these through your own imagination, where all your internal filters will process what you hear/read and mould it into something your mind approve as an appropriate summary, highly related, ALWAYS related, to your own life and current situation. So what I might attempt instead, is to simply tell you what I see, with as little interpretation as possible, but still with a highly subjective point of view, and hope that this will create a resonance that you can relate to, and thereby accept as some kind of universal truth, and a recognition that this exists, which means you exist, and so do I.
In Part Two of this article series we will look at the work of Lidia Yuknavitch. Of particular interest are her ideas on memory, how it works, and how we access it for our artistic purposes.
The "Self" article series is a hunt for authenticity and true artistic output. It investigates the thin line between fiction and non-fiction in contemporary and modern literature, from Bruno Schultz to Karl Ove Knausgaard. Authors who poured their own life history into their novels without compromise, in search for the authentic voice within themselves that resonates so clearly with their readers willing to listen.
Comment below to let me know what you think!
A life balance artist with a determination to get the best out of both worlds while refusing to accept limitation of time and demanding social obligations. He has been a regular contributor on the magazine and his short story "The Weight of Those Flies" was published by Kingston University Press in 2016. He is currently working on his debut novel.