The Pilgrim and the Poet
by Ben Leubner
Harvill Secker 1168pp ISBN 9781846558290 £25.00
Borges’s short story, ‘Funes, el Memorioso’, relates the tale of Funes, a young man who, after being thrown from a horse, regains his consciousness to discover two things. Firstly, that he is paralysed from the waist down; secondly, that his perception and memory are now infallible. He considers the first a cheap price to have paid for the second. The first-person narrator tells us of Funes’ prodigious feats of memory: ‘He knew by heart the forms of the southern clouds at dawn on the 30th of April, 1882, and could compare them in his memory with the mottled streaks on a book in Spanish binding he had only seen once.’ No single detail escapes him, to such an extent that ‘two or three times he had reconstructed a whole day . . . but each reconstruction had required a whole day.’ As he tells the narrator, ‘My memory, sir, is like a garbage heap.’ While most people might be able to ‘fully and intuitively’ understand the geometric form of a circle or triangle, Funes is able to ‘do the same with the stormy mane of a pony, with a herd of cattle on a hill, with the changing fire and its innumerable ashes, with the many faces of a dead man throughout a long wake.’
Readers of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six-volume autobiographical novel, My Struggle (Min Kamp in the original Norwegian), often find themselves under the impression that they are reading a novel that consists of Funes-like recollections and reconstructions of its author’s past. In Book 6, his friend Geir even refers to Knausgaard as a ‘garbageman of the soul.’ Knausgaard will indeed tell us exactly what the clouds above Kristiansand in southern Norway looked like on, say, the 5th of December, 1983. Or whether or not there were clouds in Malmö, Sweden on the 3rd of June, 2003. He’ll recall, step by step, from the perspective of middle age, exactly what he did on a stroll through the woods as a young man one evening well over a decade ago: ‘Stopped in front of an oak and stared up into the foliage for a long time. Pulled off an acorn and walked on, turning it round and round in my hands, studying it from all angles,’ and so on. He reconstructs entire days regularly; pages are spent conveying the manner in which he sits at a pre-flight airport café after receiving news of his father’s death.
Yet unlike Funes, Knausgaard’s memory and perception are not infallible. His memories are as much inventions as they are recollections; My Struggle is as much fiction as it is autobiography. Indeed, it is this particular manner, the way in which Knausgaard collapses the distinction between the two, that has brought a breath of new life into the novel form in the early 21st century. His past experiences form the basis of his inventions, which are then in turn designed to give the impression of total recall of all past experiences, leaving no need for invention. Infamously, he seemingly spares nothing and no one, least of all himself. Members of his extended family on his father’s side have tried to sue him, and those unsympathetic to the aim and form of his art consider him something of an inhumane monster who callously exposes the lives of others in his fiction: his parents, his friends, his wives, his children. Just about all of Norway, it seems, has read at least some portion of the six books that constitute the series, and Knausgaard is now not just a local literary sensation but an international one, too. At six volumes and nearly 4,000 pages, My Struggle’s constituent parts have been recurrent best sellers that had people eagerly anticipating each subsequent volume. And suggestively folded right into the title is, of course, the shadowy figure of Hitler.
Readers of Knausgaard in English have long been waiting for the connection between Min Kamp and Mein Kampf to be made clear. Of course, there were already links to be drawn and echoes to be heard throughout the first five books. Knausgaard wrote them in early 21st-century Sweden after growing up in Norway in the last decades of the 20th century. Signs and relics of the Second World War were everywhere – some literal, many figurative, and they appear regularly in books One through Five. Knausgaard makes this unequivocally clear in Book 6 when he flatly declares, ‘the values in our sky of images are Nazi values, though everyone says differently. Beautiful bodies, beautiful faces, healthy bodies, healthy faces, perfect bodies, perfect faces, heroic people, heroic deaths.’ Anti-Semitism, the pseudo-science of eugenics, and all manner of theorising on racial hierarchies were widespread in the early 20th century, practiced and endorsed not just in Germany but all over Europe and across the US Knausgaard, like Hannah Arendt before him, points out that there is basically no way in which such a wide dissemination of specific ideas and conceptions wouldn’t continue to spread and trickle throughout our society and to exert their influence long after the war itself had ceased. They even reside as a splinter in the heart of liberal middle-class Europe.
Still, the direction in which I thought Knausgaard was going to take his connection to Hitler in Book 6 was different from the one that he does. Throughout the series, I thought I saw him establishing himself as someone at the whims of a moody and impetuous tyrant, his father. His father was an ominous figure whose shadow dominated Knausgaard’s life long after he died when Knausgaard was thirty. This was the track that had been laid, it seemed, and it would have been daring, but not original. It’s the same kind of connection that Sylvia Plath made in poems like ‘Lady Lazarus’ and ‘Daddy’, likening her father or husband to Hitler – herself, his victim, to the Jews. Plenty of people still loathe Plath for daring to make such a comparison, for having the audacity to compare her struggles in 1950s suburban Massachusetts to those of the victims of the Holocaust. And one could loathe Knausgaard for daring to make a similar comparison, which he does make when he writes that after reading Mein Kampf, ‘I had exactly the same feelings in relation to my father, seeing the same synthesis of remoteness and vulnerability in him.’ But it turns out this is not the main, or certainly not the only, comparison Knausgaard is making throughout the first five books. The main comparison is actually one between himself and Hitler. A quick synopsis of Knausgaard’s project:
The book takes the form of a bildungsroman. At the heart of it is the narrator’s relationship with his father, where there is a great remoteness that exists between father and son; the son had not loved his father, had been frightened of him, and felt hatred, terror, and respect for his authority simultaneously. The book is also about the struggles of a would-be artist who finally attains immense renown, renown on such a scale that he can no longer have a private life and cannot do what [he likes] as others can. But even from early on in his life, he was so interested in art, it afford[ed] him peace in which to devote himself to something else, something grand and beautiful and majestic. He needs this, because there is an abyss between his inner emotional life and his outer behavior. He is clearly a damaged individual, presumably by a process that began in his childhood and which because of some innate dynamic became reinforced in his youth and early adulthood.
Oddly enough, the majority of the above synopsis is provided by Knausgaard himself. All of the italicised passages come from the middle of Book 6, where he discusses Hitler and his struggle, his Mein Kampf. What Knausgaard says of Hitler and his book can also be said of Knausgaard and his own, a fact he eventually spells out clearly: ‘Hitler’s youth resembles my own,’ he says, ‘his remote infatuation, his desperate desire to be someone . . . his love for his mother, his hatred of his father, his use of art as a space of great emotions in which the I could be erased.’ He continues, writing about Hitler’s ‘problems forming relationships with others, his elevation of women and his anxiety in their company, his chastity, his yearning for purity.’ Young Karl Ove was like young Adolf in these respects, too. Consider, also, the kinds of words that his detractors most frequently level at Knausgaard: he is unethical, monstrous, inhumane, even inhuman for the manner in which he exposes the lives of others. We have heard this language used before to describe much worse things than autobiographical fiction.
As suggestive as comparisons between the violence of art and literal, political forms of violence may be, this is not Knausgaard’s main reason for establishing a likeness between young Karl Ove and young Adolf. The main point is, quite simply, to actually humanise Hitler. Knausgaard paints him in his early years, before he’d committed unforgivable crimes against humanity, stripping him of the labels ‘monstrous’ and ‘inhuman’. He suggests to readers that we should not read the monstrousness and inhumanity of what he later did into the whole of his being, as we are no doubt wont to do. After this, Knausgaard tries to see the Holocaust for what it actually was: not something that took place outside of the purview of ordinary human conception and experience, but something that was in fact very much within it. It was a decidedly local, decidedly human affair, something very recently done to human beings by human beings – on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays, etc., in a country that had long embodied ideals of culture and civilisation. Something, in short, that is probably not as far away from us as we would like to think it is. However, even as Knausgaard thus sets out to humanise and localise Hitler by way of a careful consideration of the conditions of his life, especially when he was a young man, in the same act he also differentiates himself from Hitler. For this is precisely what Hitler himself refused to do with respect to the Jews: to see them as no less human than himself. Therein lies the main discrepancy between Min Kamp and Mein Kampf: to establish human ties with Hitler is actually to distance yourself from him more effectively than you could by way of loathing.
Knausgaard notes of Hitler’s book, ‘What little it says about its author and his life mutates into lengthy political ventings after a few lines.’ And that: ‘If the book has any biographical axis at all, it is considered from such a remote distance that everything personal and private, everything relating only to him, to his own person and character, the idiosyncratic, vanishes from sight.’ In this regard Knausgaard’s own project is of course the antithesis of Hitler’s, going into greater idiosyncratic detail concerning both its author’s life and the lives of those around him than perhaps any book before. What Knausgaard says Kafka’s writing possesses that Hitler’s doesn’t can be said, too, of Knausgaard’s own: within it there is ‘a proximity to his own life in its truest nature.’ And this proximity then generates a sense of intimacy between the reader and the author. In Mein Kampf no such relationship between reader and author exists; there is no intimate ‘you’ to the author’s ‘I.’ There is only, instead, a ‘we’ and a ‘they’ that exist in an antagonistic relationship to each other. This was the most radical shift that Nazism generated on the level of language: it vacuumed the intimate ‘you’ right out of discourse, a critical psychological tactic at the heart of the Holocaust.
While Knausgaard was writing Book 6 of My Struggle, the deadliest attack in Norway since World War Two occurred: the Utøya massacre. On 22 July, 2011, a 32-year-old man killed 69 people and injured many more, most of them children and young adults. ‘In the days following that horrific event,’ writes Knausgaard, ‘a story came out about a boy who had swivelled to face the killer, who in turn had looked into his eyes and told him he was unable to shoot him. And he did not. He shot everyone else he could, with this one exception.’ Hitler’s friendship with the Jewish woman Bernardine Nienau, Knausgaard continues, is worth looking at in a similar vein. She was ‘a child, a blue-eyed girl . . . whom he invited out of a crowd and treated to strawberries and whipped cream. So taken was he by the child and the conversation they had together that he told her she could come and see him whenever she wanted.’ When Martin Bormann informed Hitler that the girl’s grandmother was Jewish, Hitler grumbled, ‘There are some people who have a positive genius for spoiling all my little pleasures.’ But he stayed in touch with Nienau for half a decade longer; they exchanged letters, and she visited him at the Berghof.
In both of these instances the ‘you’ had been allowed in, a sense of intimacy, however small, developed against the tendencies of people bent on mass murder. If we look at a large group of people from afar, writes Knausgaard, ‘we see simply a mass of bodies,’ and ‘this is what made it possible to incinerate those people.’ ‘If, however,’ as Knausgaard continues, ‘we stand up close to each individual, so close as to hear each name as it is whispered, to look into each pair of eyes . . . and listen attentively to the story of a day in the life of each and every one of them,’ then people cease to be numbers, and atrocities might be prevented. Nienau notwithstanding, Hitler refused to do this, and in a number of ways, we still refuse to do this today. But this is what Knausgaard is trying to do in My Struggle, to emphasise the intimacy of the ‘you.’ And one of the key figures he tries to do this through is Hitler himself, when he was young and starving and homeless in Vienna. But how can he possibly attempt to humanise Hitler? It’s simple: out of a desire to cease perpetuating the conditions that made what Hitler did possible in the first place. And for all of Knausgaard’s readers, made privy to the comings and goings of his life, all of his own idiosyncrasies, foibles, cares and ignominies, he himself becomes the ‘you’ whose eyes we can look into and whose story we can attentively listen to. In the process, he tries to develop a non-discriminative empathy, the only kind there really is. On two occasions Knausgaard thus insists: ‘I am you.’
Book 6 of My Struggle is divided into three parts. Parts One and Two sit at either end of the book; in between them a long essay, ‘The Name and the Number’, contains a biographical sketch of Hitler. Part One is Knausgaard at his very best, weaving a riveting 400-page narrative which centres around his compulsive email checking over the course of several days. On the cover of Archipelago’s English translation of Book 6 is Edvard Munch’s painting The Sun, which would also serve well, I think, as a cover to Dante’s Purgatorio. And, indeed, Book 6 begins on a bright note, with Knausgaard driving to a friend’s house to be photographed on the eve of Book One’s publication. He describes himself driving with ‘an intense feeling of happiness in [his] chest.’ The sun is out, the sky is blue, and he sings along to David Bowie’s ‘Cat People.’ Nevertheless, there are shadows even as early as the first page, and they soon multiply. Bunkers and turrets from the war still dot the Swedish coast. There is a nuclear power plant nearby. The sunlight is suddenly like a ‘bomb’ and species are disappearing: toads, nightingales. ‘“We used to hear nightingales here,”’ says Knausgaard’s friend. ‘“What happened?”’ ‘“They just vanished.”’ This last phrase will reappear when Knausgaard writes about the Holocaust. The absence of nightingales on a bright day at the outset of Part One, however, is balanced in its conclusion with the image of a ‘blue sky . . . teeming with tiny black dots I knew to be ladybugs’, ladybugs that seem equal parts plague and host of angels, bent on both vengeance and benediction.
While Part One is thus vintage Knausgaard, ‘The Name and the Number’, it must be said, is at times perhaps the weakest segment of all six books of My Struggle. It is absolutely vital to the overall project, and insofar as it provides the life sketch of Hitler it is highly effective, but beyond that, when Knausgaard dips into larger forms of historical and literary exposition, he falters. There are passages here that are too long and not particularly well written – a reader is tempted to skim a few pages here and there for the first time in all six books of My Struggle. The same kind of quick, casual, breathless prose that works so well for Knausgaard’s narrative simply doesn’t work when it comes to scholarship. There are mistakes, and at times his catchall freewheeling through Western history reads more like a half-baked manifesto than anything else. Much of what he says is thought provoking and insightful, and the life sketch of Hitler does indeed take up the bulk of ‘The Name and the Number’ so that its weaknesses don’t dominate, but they nonetheless mar it considerably, and this is unfortunate.
Upon beginning Part Two of Book 6, a reader’s main question will undoubtedly be: how is My Struggle in its entirety going to end? The answer, fascinatingly: twice. It ends first on page 1,039 with the words ‘I have told it . . . It’s finished now,’ where the sense of finality and closure here is unmistakable. Then, however, it continues for another 113 pages, where this next conclusion leaves us with the image of Knausgaard revelling in the fact that his time as a writer is now finally over. Of course, this ending, too, has since proven to be false, as he has continued to go on with the Seasons Quartet, where what happens in the last 113 pages of My Struggle actually belongs as much to the Quartet’s best volume, Spring, as it does to My Struggle, as both pieces of writing focus exclusively on his second wife’s depression. Where there was supposed to be a cessation and a vanishing, Knausgaard has instead contravened his own sentence and continued to make himself both seen and heard.
A prominent first-person narrative strategy employed from Dante to Proust works in such a way that by the time the character’s story comes to an end, they’re ready to become the writer who will then relate the story we’ve just read. Dante the pilgrim becomes Dante the poet; Marcel becomes Proust. Their stories begin as soon as they cease. This is not so in My Struggle, in which the pilgrim and the poet are identical; Karl Ove Knausgaard is Karl Ove Knausgaard. His struggle is less to get to the point where he can now finally write My Struggle than it is to actually write it, which he is in the process of doing throughout all six books. Consequently, his story doesn’t end with him now ready to write; instead, it ends with him having just finished writing. Rather than picking up the pen on the last page, he puts it down – or, at least he tries to. But it seems he can’t. The struggle is continuous; he must go on, he can’t go on, he’ll go on.