My Struggle is described by its American publisher as “the provocative and brilliant six-volume autobiographical novel by Karl Ove Knausgaard.” Over 3500 pages long, the book is divided into six volumes, originally published in Norwegian between 2009 and 2011. The first five volumes (each called “book” by the publisher) are available in English; the sixth is due in spring 2018. It’s called “autobiographical” because it describes, draws from, and reflects nothing but Knausgaard’s personal experiences, thoughts, emotions, and opinions, from the minute to the magnificent.
Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle surfaced the memory (among many other things) of a childhood project that captured my imagination for several years.
My project was to read minds. Curiosity, not personal power, drove this yearning; only strangers were eligible. What went on inside the man sitting in front of us at Mass, the substitute teacher, the lady browsing in the library? Various modes of concentration and focus didn’t break through skin and skulls, though, and eventually, I came up with a compromise. I would film someone night and day, waking and sleeping, for their whole life. Constant observation would surely yield the inner man or woman. Caught up pondering logistics such as choosing a subject and arranging for cameras, it took me a while to come to the central problem. When I did, even at the tender age of twelve I could laugh at the absurdity of it.
Knausgaard’s My Struggle nearly fulfills the near-forgotten mind-reading / life-observation project. Its many, many pages of vivid prose put you right inside not just the mind but the body, too, of someone looking out at the world and in at himself. The someone, the fictional/nonfictional protagonist, the stranger, is Karl Ove Knausgaard himself.
My Struggle includes real family, real friends close and distant, real artists living and dead, passers by, dark forests, shining lakes, bustling cities, drunken binges, stinky stairways, sex ecstatic, abysmal, and just plain fun, the simple pleasure of smoking a cig and drinking a cup of coffee first thing in the morning. It avoided the problem of my project, it left me time for my own life, not by omitting detail or clarity, but by selecting episodes.
While its aim is for truth, the book isn’t a documentary, an autobiography, or a memoir (though it’s been called all of these). It’s fair to say that if Proust’s In Search of Lost Times and Joyce’s Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man (Knausgaard loves these works) are auto-fiction, located in Lily Tuck’s illuminating essay as “part autobiography and part fiction,” so is My Struggle.
For me, the work’s ambitions bear a remarkable parallel to Walt Whitman’s. Toward the end of his life, after citing many lofty aspirations political, poetic, and social for the volume of poetry and essay he spent a life-time constructing, Whitman finally says: “Leaves of Grass indeed (I cannot too often reiterate) has mainly been the outcropping of my own emotional and other personal nature — an attempt, from first to last, to put a Person, a human being (myself, in the latter half of the Nineteenth Century, in America,) freely, fully and truly on record.” Knausgaard, in sumptuous prose — sumptuous though plain, and even when it lapses into cliche and buffoonishness — constructed from his own emotional and personal nature, in novelistic form, a person, a human being, himself, living in the latter half of the twentieth century, in Norway and Sweden.
The process resembles that used by Jeannette Walls for Half-Broke Horses: A True-Life Novel, a work Walls described as “in the vein of an oral history, a retelling of stories handed down by my family through the years, and undertaken with the storyteller’s traditional liberties.” Knausgaard’s scenes are handed down by his own memories and reflections, his emotions and thoughts, his deepest psychological formations.
In some respects My Struggle is a coming-of-age novel. Although the protagonist is, at times, a man in his forties, the “struggle” in the book, his impetus to begin the project, as I gather from interviews, was to move from being a son to being a father, to realize himself as an individual human being separate from the parent, to be a mature man. His native form being the novel, to accomplish this movement Knausgaard wrote a novel. But for this novel, he put away some fundamental contrivances of the novel: there is no plot in which made-up characters work something out in a world created just for them.
This is weird to me as a fiction reader and, as a fiction writer, threatening. I love making stuff up, and I gravitate to redemption stories and love stories, which demand a particular plot to carry a central conviction or quest that is fulfilled or failed by the protagonist in some way or other at the conclusion of the work. So amidst My Struggle, I had thoughts that this writer Karl Ove Knausgaard has kicked the novel to shit. I thought, he’s destroyed it now. Finally, someone’s done what literary writers have been trying to do for decades. I think I’m over this crisis in faith, or at least I’m willing to keep reading fiction, and of course I keep writing fiction, no choice.
It’s all been done before. It’s being done more. In an article whose title includes the words “death” and “novel,” Jonathan Sturgeon groups My Struggle with Ben Lerner’s 10:04 and Nell Zink’s The Wallcreeper. And there’s Rachel Cusk. And more. What’s different (more destructive to fiction?) about Knausgaard’s work is its rawness, its lack of contrivance, the lack of construction. These “devices” (to quote the Ben Lerner quote in Sturgeon’s essay) both efface the writer and create a narrator brimming with life.
It’s possible, reassuring, to see that My Struggle is supported by novelly stuff like world-building, characters, narrative drive, with (real-life) places, people, and events selected and formed into scenes. Knausgaard is as keen as any writer of category romance (of which I’ve read plenty) to convey emotions, love above all. Conflicted family love, deep friendship love, romantic love: for love, he goes all in. But he doesn’t create a love story, whether a tear-jerker or an HEA (category romance lingo for happily ever after). Even the conclusion — it’s conclusive, all right, but not as the end of a fictional build. Knausgaard started the six-volume book with the last line in mind: “I am happy I am no longer an author.” The final volume isn’t yet available in English, but Knausgaard himself has quoted this line in interviews. The question that follows is inevitable: Did you really mean that? The gist of his answer: Not literally. It’s the persona of My Struggle: that author is finished.
The book begins as sincerely and as deceptively as it ends.
For the heart, life is simple….
I gather that the Norwegian word hjerte includes the same figurative meanings as the English word heart. So, this is to say: In the seat of the most authentic emotions, in the throne of love, the place inside us where all is raw truth, life is simple.
For the heart, life is simple: it beats for as long as it can.
No, no. This is the heart that beats. This is the muscular organ that pumps blood through the living body.
Then it stops.
This is the heart, contracting inside our chests, that is mortal. It stops. It cannot hold undying love or eternal enmity. It has a strict and final end.
For the heart, life is simple: it beats for as long as it can. Then it stops.
The trickstery ambiguity of these opening lines pulls you in, pushes you out, while luring you yet further in. Because in this observation of the internal organ called the heart, and even in the clinical description of the death process that follows, somehow that other heart, the heart whose purpose and meaning cannot be explained, the heart that can be probed only by literature, undeniably makes its presence felt.
Knausgaard’s project was instigated by the need to write out the trauma of his father’s death. But I gather that what he really wanted to get at, by the rawest and most direct path, are death and love as they are placed in life.
The human heart as the physical organ, contracting at ease, racing with exertion, responding to the charge of adrenaline, throbbing with physical ecstasy, inert and decomposing in the chest of the dead father; the human heart as the enigmatic throne of love, fear, loathing, black despair, blissful transcendence. What can possibly be more engrossing?
When he writes, Knausgaard keeps his awareness of potential readers at bay. Yet the exploration that is My Struggle rejects and embraces the enchantments of fiction to close the distance between the reader’s (my) body and heart and a stranger’s (his) body and heart, evoking whatever we have inside ourselves, maybe a soul, that occasionally and fleetingly frees body and heart to be at last in union.
SOURCES: Karl Ove Knausgaard. My Struggle. Translated from Norwegian by Don Bartlett. 6 volumes. Brooklyn, NY: Archipelago Books, 2009–2017.
Jonathan Sturgeon. “2014: The Death of the Postmodern Novel and the Rise of Autofiction.” link | The article quotes Ben Lerner’s intriguing fiction-killing-fiction take on My Struggle: “Breaking of the vessel of art, the renunciation of fiction, literary suicide – these are fictions, and they’re the devices on which the power of My Struggle depends.” Ultimately, Sturgeon claims victory for the novel: “Fiction includes the narratives we tell ourselves, and the stories we’re told, on the path between birth and death…. …The rise or return of autofiction isn’t the work of a movement, campaign, or vanguard: it’s more of a murmur in the heart of the novel, one that lets us know that literature is alive, still-forming — a living hypothesis.”
Lily Tuck. “True Confessions of an Auto-Fictionist: Lily Tuck on the Novelist’s Documentary Impulse.” Literary Hub, October 23, 2015. link | Of My Struggle, Tuck says: “Although our writing styles are very different, I can’t help but mention Karl Ove Knausgaard whose work—I’ve read the first two memoirs—I admire. I have also read a bunch of interviews that he has given and I identify and agree with a lot of the things he has said.” Her praise is unqualified, but “I can’t help but mention” and “agree with a lot”—but not all—implies that she avoids placing My Struggle square in the genre of auto-fiction.
Walt Whitman. “A Backward Glance o’er Travel’d Roads.” Leaves of Grass. Philadelphia: David McKay, 1891–92. The opening lines, too, of the Inscription in the 1867 Leaves of Grass could introduce My Struggle: “Small is the theme of the following Chant, yet the greatest — namely, ONE’S-SELF — that wondrous thing, a simple, separate person….” I can’t resist pointing out a few more parallels between Whitman and Knausgaard. One is that they published their first major works in the same year their fathers died. Another is their copious use of “catalogues,” lists of sense impressions, objects, places, and people, actions and qualities, sometimes similar, sometimes disparate. The sometimes loping, sometimes jagged cadences of these catalogues are integral to the gestalt they create in the reader.
Photo of Karl Ove Knausgaard: Anne Edelstam article
Many interviews with Karl Ove Knausgaard can be found online. I enjoyed these two most (both videos): Karl Ove Knausgaard and Stephen Grosz in Conversation, May 2014, and Karl Ove Knausgaard & Jeffrey Eugenides | LIVE from the NYPL
(inspired by William Kennedy’s novel)
All Saints retire leaving
the graveyard to dead souls
a moss-green child opens his box
The right-hand thief
rattled by cough and bottle
maudlin: Newton invented gravity
to drop my baby son on his head
coal smoke, an ashwood shillelagh
ice cobbles loose and slippery as old teeth
He kills again to save his pal
and loses. Fugitive again
he runs to dreams
of warmth and home
After a rocky road to publication, William Kennedy’s novel Ironweed got the 1984 Pulitzer Prize and National Book Critics Circle Award. Though it’s the third book in Kennedy’s Albany Cycle, Ironweed reads strong and splendid on its own.
Francis Phelan is a down and out drunk, a tramp who makes a few bucks digging graves. A has-been ballplayer, he spent his prowess to pitch a rock that killed a man and to run from his family after accidentally dropping his infant son. His team’s a bunch of bums.
A rundown Irish hero, the baseball bat his shillelagh, a mad, stumbling demi-god with a corpse-gnawing dog at his heels, he can’t stop fighting and running no matter how futile fight or flight might be.
Now he’s run back to Albany. Here lives his loving wife who never blamed him for their son’s death. Here two living children wrote him letters filled with hope for his return. Here stands a house warm and filled with the smell of regular meals, hot and delicious, breakfast lunch and dinner. He’s even stopped drinking, at least for a couple of days. He’s close but hasn’t yet touched home.
He visits the graveyard that holds his mother and his father, his kin, his infant son, his first lover, a fellow from his baseball team. It’s Halloween, when the defunct take on a certain substance. The power of his love and remorse is enough to raise the dead. Emotional graves undig themselves. His sodden mind judges himself.
Maybe he goes home at last; some believe he does. I couldn’t trust this redemption to be anything more or less than the intensity of his yearning and the confused flow of time in a drink-damaged brain — but who can say? Maybe redemption is always and only what we believe.
The early tarot cards — used for gaming, not divination — emblemize the midpoint of fifteenth-century Italy, a crossroads of Medieval imagination and Renaissance intellect. They may have been inspired by Petrarch’s circa 1374 The Triumphs. The poem is modeled on ancient Roman triumphal parades, but rather than celebrating conquerors, it celebrates virtues that successively “triumph” over one another: Chastity, for example, triumphs over Love, and Death trumps both.
Lombardy, December 1450: Francesco Sforza, the duke of Milan, orders “carte de triumphi, della più belle poray trovare,” “triumph cards, of the most beautiful that can be found.”
Francesco’s triumph cards are called tarot today. His order is one of the earliest historical references to tarot, and the hand-painted cards attributed to his court artist Bonifacio Bembo are among the earliest extant tarot decks.
Inspired by the true story of the 15th century “Popess” tarot card, The Bones You Have Cast Down, by Jean Huets, will transport you to a medieval village and a lush Renaissance court, to long ago times not unlike our own, when the keepers of faith conspired against the faithful, and the rich and powerful embraced war and corruption even while fostering works of artistic brilliance revered to this day. “Enchanting and richly historical … dazzling and dark, heart-wrenching and intoxicating.” — Stuart R. Kaplan || Amazon/Kindle | INDIEBOUND | iTunes | B&N |
Poetic as the allegorical cards were, and although tarot is now used by occultists and fortunetellers, Francesco’s beautiful triumphi were used primarily for a trick-taking game—and for showing off.
Francesco Sforza and Bianca Maria Visconti are celebrating their first Advent as ducal couple in grand style. The triumph deck is but one of the amusements. Their guests gather at a knee-high card table of thick, dark, carved wood.
Renaissance fashion has not arrived in conservative Milan. Not yet, the low-necked, tailored dresses with laced bodices and sleeves. The ladies still wear houpelandes, full-cut garments of wool and silk damask (milled in Lombardy) over colorful underdresses. Belts below the bosom define the body. On the men, hose-clad legs are permitted to show under the bulky, midthigh-length tabardlike vests belted at the waist. The young men may favor that Florentine folly, the short-short doublet–but not in front of the duke.
The children are pretty miniatures of their parents; their dolls are miniatures of them. Skinny little dogs (now known as Italian Greyhounds) shiver by the fireside; the lucky ones are cuddled in laps. The company—including the dogs—exudes a chaos of perfume, though all are well-bathed.
Francesco’s guests pick up their cards. They are awkward to hold: large–nearly seven inches high–and thick. But what beauty! What richness! The exquisite figures are set off by gilded and embossed backgrounds. The cards and the setting have all the sumptuousness to be expected from one of the richest men in the world.
Francesco Sforza did not inherit his wealth and status. He fought for his place in the sun as a condottiero, a hired military commander. His prowess won him Bianca Maria Visconti, the only child of the duke of Milan. He fought again to claim the duchy when his irksome father-in-law named another man heir. Nearly three years after the old duke’s death, Francesco rode triumphant into Milan. The artist Bonifacio Bembo was one of Francesco’s supporters in the key town of Cremona. Loyalty’s reward was a steady stream of commissions.
The cards attributed to Bembo belong to the world of the painted book, a world that was passing away. Most playing cards were already mass-manufactured as woodblock prints, and the printing press would soon transform the world.
Bembo’s artistic style, too, was passing out of fashion. International Gothic art clings to the magical, iconic qualities of Medieval Gothic, even as its fluid lines break from the old rigidness and hint of what is to come: the sway of secular life in a world that is not necessarily a Fallen world.
Which is all very well, but the young man beside Francesco is more interested in a good marriage than philosophy. The woman must be well-born; the parents won’t have it otherwise. But it would be sweet to draw the Lovers, a couple holding hands under the auspices of Cupid.
Bah. It’s the Madman. The feather crown and the club are his traditional accoutrements in art. But the youth has seen this fellow in real life, too, right out on the piazza in front of the cathedral, a living reminder of the need for charity. Like other such unfortunates, his bulging neck and doleful, addled eyes reveal a feeble mind.
For all his lowliness, though, this beggar, this madman, this Fool, is a trump card. Come spring, it is he who will lead the raucous Carnival parade into somber Lent.
The Carnival King embodies drunken abandon and the fertile madness of spring. But as his feather crown is plucked apart, all are reminded that revelry must be trumped by austerity, in honor of the Lord who trumped Death itself.
The Fool’s triumph is as short-lived as Carnival itself. His lumpy neck is goitered. Congenital hypothyroidism (CHT, previously cretinism) was endemic where mined (rather than sea) salt was used and where the soil was low in iodine. Its cause was unknown, but the outcome was all too familiar. Mental deficiency dooms the Fool to homelessness and the charity of those better off.
The poor are poor; the rich are rich: the medieval hierarchy holds. The four suits of the tarot correspond to the classes: swords for soldiers, batons for rulers, cups for clergy and coins for merchants.
By this scheme, peasants, laborers, and beggars do not even make the cut. (Nor do artists, for that matter.) No rule books survive from the time, but everyone would have known that, for example, the Emperor trumped the Fool card and the Empress, too.
And the Popess?
Bianca Maria Visconti smiles at her favorite card. The gentle-faced woman wearing nun’s robes—and an incongruous papal tiara–is her ancestral kinswoman, Maifreda da Pirovano, leader of a cult that revolved around a mysterious and saintly laywoman known only as Guglielma. The saint preached salvation for all—even Jews and Saracens, and her followers considered Maifreda her vicar on earth, a female counterpart to the pope.
Does the duchess know that Maifreda was burned for such heresy 150 years ago? Maybe not. Evidence indicates that the Inquisition records were concealed. Or it could be that the Popess may be Bianca’s way of covertly defying the Papacy, as her husband and her ancestors have done overtly in battle. In fact—Bianca smiles again, wryly, though the next card could be considered inauspicious—a pope once cartooned her husband like so, hanging upside down as a traitor, when they were tugging a piece of territory between them.
Italy was not to undergo a mass religious reform, but the Middle Ages gave rise to scattered but fervent grassroots movements such as that of Maifreda and Francis of Assisi. Most were suppressed; some endure to this day. Spiritual urges changed as the Quattrocento progressed. The earthy ecstasies of the poor were eclipsed by the brilliance of more educated mystics.
But one trusty old symbol still has a say in the brilliant ascents and devastating downfalls of people and powers.
Francesco is not pleased to see the Wheel in his hand. At the top rides a crowned man holding the orb and scepter of dominion. Below, a ragged old man grovels. An eager hopeful rides up the side to take a turn at the top. He is oblivious of the unfortunate one heading down on the other side.
Then the corners of Francesco’s eyes crinkle; his sense of humor wins out. He’s ridden this wheel, sure; he knows its ups and downs. But he earned his scepter by the sword—not to mention wits and ability. He rose, and so will his sons rise, and his grandsons…
Little does Francesco know that the next generation will lose the duchy through mismanagement, extravagance and, after all, bad luck. He is yet striding toward the Renaissance with the resolve to bend the stiff Wheel into an upward spiral.
Just so, philosophers reach toward the heavens. The cash—and credit–of men such as Francesco Sforza and his sons fuels the swelling flood of translations and commentaries on Hermeticism, Kabbalism, and ancient texts. Literature, art and architecture are loaded with symbolic puzzles whose unravelment brings transcendental insight.
Some tarot scholars claim that the allegorical triumphs themselves were created as esoteric tools by Renaissance philosophers. However, the tarot images are rooted in popular Medieval imagery. The tarot sprang into, not from, the Renaissance.
A Triumphal Procession
Artworks of the Middle Ages have a mystical, emotional impact. Men and women love and fight, pray and die in rambling, weird landscapes whose proportion and composition are dictated by sacred narration rather than nature.
Renaissance art, on the other hand, is defined by naturalism, formulas of perspective, and the urge to unify wide-ranging schools of thought into a system animated by love and beauty.
The tarot embraces both: it is a triumphal procession bearing images of age-old wisdom from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance, and on to our time. It speaks across the centuries, whether as Quattrocento portraits, symbolic riddles, or pictures in the game of life.
Even the most jaded of the triumph players fall under the spell of the sweet-faced allegories.
Praise and pleased laughter, flirtatious verse-making, guesses and gossip as to who is portrayed on the cards, demands to know where such cards can be bought, boastful laments about how expensive artists are these days. A philosophical type might reflect on a hand that includes a man and a woman clasping hands and a woman holding a star aloft.
Hopes, intrigue—ahimé!—it’s the skeleton. How ugly—how unpleasant! Death intrudes on the fun to let everyone know: all these vanities so bravely built by art, intrigue, war, and wealth are as flimsy and fleeting as life itself. Indeed, look at the great palace of the World: a mere bubble held up by child angels. Like a dream, like an illusion; fragile—and yet, life is wondrous!
This article was first published in Fantasy Magazine
Walt Whitman gives beauty to the soldiers dying under his care in the hospital. The goriest, most wrenching passage in his Memoranda During the War is for the dead on the field: “Slaughterhouse!—O well it is their mothers, their sisters cannot see them—cannot conceive, and never conceiv’d, these things.” He continues with the horrors of the body parts strewn, the chalk-white face, the bowel shot.
Frank Wilkeson’s Civil War memoir also opts for brutal honesty. In the chapter devoted to battlefield death he debunks his comrades’ reports of friends’ dead faces “wreathed in smiles”:
I do not believe that the face of a dead soldier, lying on a battle-field, ever truthfully indicates the mental or physical anguish, or peacefulness of mind, which he suffered or enjoyed before his death. The face is plastic after death, and as the facial muscles cool and contract, they draw the face into many shapes. Sometimes the dead smile, again they stare with glassy eyes, and lolling tongues, and dreadfully distorted visages at you. It goes for nothing. One death was as painless as the other.
Ambrose Bierce writes of Shiloh’s dead: “The contraction of muscles which had given them claws for hands had cursed each countenance with a hideous grin. Faugh! I cannot catalogue the charms of these gallant gentlemen who had got what they enlisted for.” This description, though, isn’t bluntly honest, as Bierce’s personal bitterness evokes sarcasm and emotionally loaded words such as “cursed” and “hideous.”
The dead soldiers on Civil War battlefields, as photographed, mostly wear neutral expressions. The eyes may be open, but they’re just blank, not “staring” as the usual description has it. The mouths don’t necessarily gape, though they tend to be open. The cheeks look a bit sunken, but not as much as one might expect. The aspect of the bodies, if photographed as they fell, merely reflect where death came from: if from the front, the bodies lie on their backs, face to sky, often with arms flung overhead. If from above, as with artillery, the body can end up in any position: curled on the side, prone, or supine. (No photos here, but you can go to the Library of Congress Civil War Collection of images, search “dead” and see for yourself.)
The photos aren’t repulsive. But they are of men, humans, and hence profoundly sad. The cumulative effect of viewing them is of melancholy and dreary horror.
Letters sent home during the Civil War tried to paint a gracious picture of a comrade’s death, something to comfort loved ones. But the “expression” on a dead person’s face doesn’t display the state of mind at death, or the kind of death suffered, violent or peaceful. It reflects only the ultimate physical process: death’s grip. Comfort can’t be found in the myth of the beautiful corpse.
Religious people have an alternative at hand, with dreams of salvation and heaven. Others may be inspired by the possibility Walt Whitman presents, that we live eternally in others and in the earth, even if we are forced to abandon the form to which we are so attached. And the leap of faith: whatever the circumstances, passing into death is passing into the unknown, and “luckier” than we can guess.
What do you think has become of the young and old men?
And what do you think has become of the women and chil-
They are alive and well somewhere,
The smallest sprout shows there is really no death,
And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait at the
end to arrest it,
And ceas’d the moment life appear’d.
All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.
Read my article “The Union Dead” in New York Times Disunion.
Sources: Library of Congress. Faust, Drew Gilpin. The Republic of Suffering. Whitman, Walt. “Song of Myself.” Drafts: Collection of University of Iowa. Wilkeson, Frank. Turned Inside Out: Recollections of a Private Soldier in the Army of the Potomac.
Walt Whitman called Washington, D.C. a city of “romance,” “of things begun.” It might seem an odd description by a man who spent countless hours witnessing in D.C.’s military hospitals every insult nature and man’s ingenuity could inflict on the human body.
But while Walt’s residence in D.C. is known mostly for his work helping soldiers, he stayed on after the war (and continued visiting soldiers still hospitalized). Altogether, he lived in D.C. for about eleven years. He likely would have stayed for the rest of his life, but in 1873 a disabling stroke forced him to move in with his brother George in Camden, NJ.
The following links offer words and photos that bring us near Walt’s life in Washington.
CivilWar.net / DC images (images)
CivilWarPhotos.net / DC (photos)
Civil War Washington, D.C. Blog with descriptions of D.C. in the Civil War era, including the “pestiferous ditch of water” that ran along what is now Constitution Avenue.
Ghosts of DC/Civil War “You are there” type posts, blended with a solid knowledge of today’s D.C.
Capital Poetry On Walt’s words carved into the wall at the Dupont Circle Metro Station.
Streets of Washington. Search Civil War. This blog includes rare, privately owned images.
U.S. National Archives, Civil War collection (not all DC, but some)
Vintage Everyday (photos)
The Whitman Tour Focuses on Walt’s lodgings in D.C.
Whitman Walking Tour of D.C. Includes Walt’s workplaces.