Identity (Me and Karl Ove #2)

What I think I’m doing here: This is the second of three linked essays on Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle (the first one is “Intertextuality” final one is “Identification“).

Does it matter that when the protagonist of My Struggle answers the phone he says “Hi, Karl Ove here” and not “This is Henrik Vankel”? It certainly seems to matter to Karl Ove Knausgaard, the author, but should it matter to me, Thomas Cairns, the reader? Henrik Vankel is the central character in Knausgaard’s (as yet untranslated) debut novel, Out of the World and also appears at the end of A Time for Everything. Vankel shares a number of biographical details with Karl Ove Knausgaard, the protagonist of My Struggle, a character who, the author Karl Ove Knausgaard insists, is himself (or, was himself, at certain points of time).

But, how much to trust this insistence? The instability in this question of identity is not just due to the fictional nature of the project (which Knausgaard admits throughout in asides regarding his own faulty memory and other narrative indicators of unreliability), but Knausgaard’s own inability to see himself clearly. I am willing to accept, up to a point at least, that Knausgaard sat down and simply wrote down his life, but the person that ends up on the page is not identical with the one who is typing at the keyboard. This is basic to art, even art that flaunts its artlessness like My Struggle (I admit to laughing whenever Knausgaard drops in a “ha ha ha” as if the dialogue was pulled from a speech bubble in a Tintin comic). There is always some reduction and expansion in the transition from art to life, a gap between the ideal and the actual – even when the ideal is an intense attempt to depict the actual.

Of course, Karl Ove does not actually answer the phone with “Hi, Karl Ove here” but with whatever the Norwegian equivalent is – there is a barrier of translation for a reader like myself, further complicating the identity between the real and the fictional. The “scandal” aspect of the books is undoubtedly blunted by the fact that I am reading them in central California more than ten years after their initial publication in a different language. Perhaps I would feel differently if I was a former acquaintance at the University of Bergen. I know I would feel differently if I was one of his two (now) ex-wives. So, maybe my ability to view the books as fiction, as genuine novels rather than fake memoirs, is a consequence of this distance – it allows me to start from a position of noticing the literary echoes of the work, its constructedness and fictionality, rather than dwell on its personal revelations.

The funny thing is, despite reading thousands of detailed pages of one man’s ruminations on his relatively mundane life, when someone writes a biography of Knausgaard (you know someone will) I will definitely read it (and I’ll pick up Linda’s October Child, which I believe covers some of the same time period as the Seasons Quartet, when it is published in English this year). This seems absurd if Karl Ove the character is Karl Ove the author. I have more intimate knowledge of Karl Ove’s inner thoughts than I have of most people I know in real life. What more could I possibly hope or want to know? But, I can’t escape the fact that I only know about Karl Ove the character through what Karl Ove the author has told me, and the intensely introspective filter of the books, the compressed timeframe in which they were written, their formal constraints, all give a particular color to the portraits presented.

A useful point of comparison are J.M. Coetzee’s “fictionalized memoirs,” his Scenes from Provincial Life trilogy (I wrote this after finishing Youth). Coetzee’s Scenes are self-lacerating examinations of shame, the struggle of writing, relational failures, masculinity, and the meaninglessness of the modern world … which should all sound familiar to the reader of My Struggle (Knausgaard in Book 6 on Coetzee” “… a writer like Jonathan Franzen. Him I could match, and probably even surpass. The same was true of Coetzee … what he wrote didn’t seem out of reach to me, and he’d been given the Nobel Prize”).

Coetzee does not adopt Knausgaard’s intimate, confessional first-person perspective, nor does he deliver thousand page bricks packed with detail. Instead J.M. Coetzee the author writes the story of John Coetzee the character in a more distant third-person, the books are slim and austere in structure, and just to ensure we don’t miss the fictionality of the project, the third volume is the story of a biographer examining the life of the now deceased John Coetzee (written by the very much alive, J.M. Coetzee). We know that John Coetzee the character both is, and is not, J.M. Coetzee the author. Coetzee foregrounds the “is not” stylistically, and through the plot of the third volume, killing “himself” off; Knausgaard foregrounds the “is” through his lack-of-style style, and the surface plotlessness of the story. But, there remains an “is not,” just as much as there is for Coetzee – both authors are producing fiction.

So, why not name the character Henrik Vankel? Knausgaard gives his own answer to this question in the “Name and the Number” essay (aka the “Hitler essay”) stuck into the middle of Book 6. Knausgaard explains that when he started his project, he wanted to write about his father, and he felt he could not write about him under a fictional name: “If I called him, say, ‘Georg Martinsen,’ then it would no longer be my father I was writing about, the way he was to me, a body of flesh and blood that was also my own flesh and blood, because the name is the only element of reality that can exist unchanged in the novel, everything else is a reference to something … only the proper name can be the same in the novel as in reality.”

The name, the real name, matters for capturing what is. As noted earlier, Knausgaard was a fan of The Wizard of Earthsea as a child, a story where the possession of a true name of someone or something gives the possessor power over the person or thing named. The name is deeply, magically, connected to its reality. Knausgaard the middle-aged novelist makes a similar connection in “Name and the Number”: a person’s “name is intimately connected with [their] secret and particular self … There is a remnant of magical thought in the fact that the word is what it refers to, or may awaken it. I am my name, my name is me.”

The essay goes on to discuss names and namelessness, naming and silence, the anonymity and alienation of the modern world – the loss of the connection between the name and the thing named: “That was the feeling I had: the world was vanishing because it was always somewhere else, and my life was vanishing because it, too, was always somewhere else. If I was to write a novel it would have to be about the real world the way it was, seen from the point of view of someone who was trapped inside it … That was the idea, or the urge: reality. And the sign of such reality, its only transferable component, was the name.”

For Knausgaard the use of the name, the real name, is an attempt to bridge the gap between art and life, to give some reality to what he was creating. In an echo of Earthsea it is an attempt by the artist-as-wizard to perform some magic. And, it seems to work. We do believe in the reality of this gloomy, struggling novelist and his young family. These people seem real to the reader who has never met Karl Ove or Linda or Geir or Yngve – even to the reader, like me, who is unsure how to pronounce the names without the help of YouTube pronunciation guides. To introduce different “fictional” names would seem to “pull the novel into the shimmer of enfeebled reality it had been written to engage against.” But, maybe it only feels this way after thousands of pages spent with Karl Ove. If page one had started off with Henrik, would I have noticed?

Page one of My Struggle does not start off with any names at all, it starts off with death. The unnamed father, all the unnamed dead: living identities reduced to dead bodies hidden and concealed underground. Death is the reality which undoes any of the fictions we might create; it is the looming presence, the great silence, which overshadows all Knausgaard’s thousands of words. When Knausgaard finally names his father towards the end of Book 6, it hits the reader in the face. The unnamed ghost (he is always “Dad” or “my father” up to this point – ostensibly for legal reasons, but arguably it plays a formal role too) that has haunted all six volumes suddenly takes on flesh. There is an undeniable sense of intimacy at that moment when the name is revealed – this menacing, disturbing figure suddenly becomes a real individual in a way he was not before. Yet, this naming, this connection with the real, is also the moment when Knausgaard emphasizes that this story, the story about his father, “… is the story about me, Karl Ove Knausgaard. I have told it. I have exaggerated, I have embellished, I have omitted, and there is a lot I haven’t understood. But it isn’t him I have described; it is my image of him. It’s finished now.” Even at this moment when the real is claimed in a way that it has not been over the past six volumes, we’re reminded that it isn’t real at all. It’s a story we are being told.

But, why am I, Thomas Cairns the reader, so focused on this gap, on this “is not” of Knausgaard’s artistic creation? To answer that, I need to wrestle with the issue of identification, the subject for my final post on My Struggle.

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