Intertextuality (Me and Karl Ove #1)

What I think I’m doing here: This is me getting Knausgaard’s My Struggle out of my system. “Intertextuality” is the first of three short, linked essays I will be posting (“Intertextuality” will be followed by “Identity” and finally “Identification“). There are many different possible approaches to My Struggle but this is my attempt at pulling at some different threads.

All writers are readers first. Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle hides its textuality under the immediacy and intimacy of its authorial voice, but the novel is as much a literary exchange with other texts as it is the strangely engaging record of a gloomy, middle-aged Norwegian’s reflections on life. Along with all the descriptions of making coffee and smoking cigarettes, there’s an intertextual conversation rumbling along, usually in the background, but every once in a while taking center stage in essayistic digressions and explicit references.

My Struggle is “literary” fiction, but the way in which it is may be slightly obscure. “Literary” can mean many things: a marketing term that determines where a book is shelved and the graphic design of its cover, a boundary to determine what “counts” as serious fiction and, in America at least, a label to justify publishing another dreary tale of adultery among middle-aged academics.

For me, one of the things that separates literary fiction from non-literary fiction is the degree and subtlety of a work’s engagement with other books and texts. This conversation among texts, the lines of influence and engagement, are what I’m thinking of when I refer to intertexuality (I’m not trying to defend any particular carefully delimited academic definition). Clichéd fiction is clichéd in part because it has no such discussion and it pretends the stories that have come before do not exist (or is ignorant of them) and so tells the same thing over again in the same way (and this might include many books that are captured under the literary-as-marketing label such as the aforementioned tales of adultery). A writer’s ability to write this sort of multi-dimensional fiction is influenced by their ability as a reader and Knausgaard is a good reader.

I resisted reading My Struggle for a number of years in part because so much of the discussion of the books foregrounded the “scandalous” and memoir-ish aspects of the project. Many of the English editions are plastered with photos of Knausgaard, and early reviews spent a good chunk of time dwelling on the novel’s status as an unexpected bestseller in the author’s native Norway. I realize that “contains some interesting essayistic digressions on Dostoevsky” isn’t going to send most people running to the nearest bookstore (although, it’s not totally clear why “includes extended portrayal of a boring children’s birthday party” did the trick), but Knausgaard’s subtle engagement with other stories and books is part of what drew me in and eventually won me over.

If I had read Knausgaard’s A Time for Everything before encountering My Struggle I might have been quicker to start into the six volume project. A Time for Everything is a weaving together of a variety of stories and influences – a text of texts. To pick a couple of examples: Knausgaard improvises on the story of Cain and Abel, Noah and the flood, Knut Hamsun’s Growth of the Soil, the prophet Ezekiel, fabricated medieval treatises on angelology, the history of medieval visual art in the west, and (audaciously, given the heft of most of the other works engaged) Knausgaard’s own debut novel (which has not yet been translated into English). Through the conversation of these stories, from primordial myth to his own earlier fictional creation (and ultimately his later one, as there are number of threads tying My Struggle to A Time for Everything – the seagull tapping on his grandmother’s window in Book 1 resonates differently if you have read the earlier novel), Knausgaard tells the story of the modern western world’s disenchantment.

Intertextual conversation is less foregrounded in My Struggle, to the point of being missed by some readers who become enchanted by the distinctive introspective voice of the novels, but literary dialogue is still central to the project as a whole (and it isn’t always in the background: in Book 5, Knausgaard discusses his discovery of Julia Kristeva and the idea of intertextuality at university). One could build a library based on the various texts that are referenced in each volume and I’m sure some enterprising Ph.D. students are currently working through the implications of the Dostoevsky references and echoes in Book 2 or Hunger‘s importance for interpreting Book 5.

For a more in-depth example, in Book 3, the Wizard of Earthsea is mentioned only in a short two page passage, but it hovers over that particular volume as well as the project as a whole. The child Karl Ove clearly identifies with Le Guin’s Ged as someone who is “set apart” from the context in which he finds himself, who feels endowed with special abilities, but who ultimately suffers due to his pride. The theme of self-inflicted wounds runs parallel to the one of a terrible father in the story of Knausgaard’s childhood. But, even outside Book 3, one notices the influence of Le Guin’s classic: Karl Ove’s reflection on the importance of names in the extended essay in Book 6 is an echo of the importance of true names in the Earthsea mythology, and Karl Ove’s embrace/exposure of his own shame and darkness in My Struggle is similar to Ged’s embrace of his shadow in the climax of Wizard of Earthsea, and within the context of the narrative, seems to provide a similar sense of release – with Knausgaard famously declaring at the end of Book 6 that he is no longer a writer after the revelations of the previous six volumes. It’s unclear if Knausgaard ever read the later volumes of Earthsea that followed the initial trilogy, stories where Le Guin wrote a something of a repudiation of the heroic aspects of the earlier books (Ged, having lost/given up his wizarding powers, becomes an ordinary goat-herder/farmer), but Earthsea’s repudiation of the isolated hero for a more “ordinary” story of family and belonging in its own way echoes the tensions between domesticity and artistic creation found throughout My Struggle. This final example points to how the intertextual conversation can (potentially) extend beyond the intention of the author (and keep the engine of criticism and interpretation going – for better and for worse).

This emphasis on intertextuality may seem like it places a buffer between the reader and Knausgaard’s novel – a way to turn the project into an analytical game, and a chance for the reader to demonstrate their erudition and interpretive sophistication (or stupidity). Isn’t part of the point of My Struggle that it resists this sort of artificiality? This sort of “literariness”? But, I don’t think it’s so simple. As I wrote at the outset, all writers are readers first. To recognize the texts that Knausgaard interweaves with his descriptions of everyday life is not to somehow lose the intimacy of the authorial voice. It’s not so easy to separate the writer from the reader. The weaving of text and identity in My Struggle does not set Karl Ove at arm’s length, but instead is part of the alchemy that draws us in.

Next essay: Identity

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