Identification (Me and Karl Ove #3)

What I think I’m doing here: This is the final essay of three linked essays on Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle (the first two are “Intertextuality” and “Identity“).

I abandon a thought mid-sentence, leaving it stranded in white space, and begin a new paragraph. I sit with my fingers on the keyboard but typing nothing. I stare into space (there is no window nearby in which to gaze at my own reflection). I shuffle disconnected bits of prose around, hoping that some coherent whole will emerge. This is embarrassing, I think. I am embarrassing myself. But embarrassing how? I will hit the little blue “Publish” button and the message will float out on the tides with the rest of the day’s virtual flotsam and jetsam. I am only embarrassed before myself.

There is a scene I particularly like in Book 6 of My Struggle where Karl Ove has just won an award for Book 1 (intertextuality and identity all wrapped up in one package):

When the evening was over, Linda and I, holding the statuette in one hand, walked to the hotel arm-in-arm. She was hungry, I went down to the 7-Eleven to buy some food for her, and on the way back I burst into laughter, it came from nowhere, and I stopped and turned to the wall. Ha ha ha, I laughed. Ha ha ha. Then I carried on walking, through the rain and darkness, over the shimmering asphalt, to the hotel, which was the Savoy, where I stopped again and lit a cigarette, the last before going to bed. I didn’t know what I had been laughing at, but just the thought of it made me laugh again. Ha ha ha. Ha ha ha. Ha ha ha.

I enjoy Knausgaard’s laughter (again with the Tintin comic “ha ha ha” – is “ha ha ha” different in Norwegian, I wonder? Is there some sort of specialized Norwegian orthography involved?). I enjoy the “to the hotel, which was the Savoy,” and the fact that after spending thousands of pages with Knausgaard I could be confident that one of his purchases at the 7-Eleven would be Pepsi Max (confirmed in the subsequent paragraph). But, what I really enjoy the most, what I hear when Karl Ove is laughing by himself on the sidewalk, is the sound of success.

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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.

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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.

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The Various Struggles in Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle: An Incomplete List

  1. The struggle to be a good father.
  2. The struggle to get over his own father.
  3. The struggle with readers who don’t recognize that naming the books My Struggle is partly a joke.
  4. The struggle with readers who don’t recognize that naming the books My Struggle is partly serious.
  5. The struggle of isolation and loneliness.
  6. The struggle to write.
  7. The struggle to write.
  8. The struggle to write.
  9. The struggle of being a younger brother.
  10. The struggle of shyness.
  11. The struggle with car seats, strollers, and trying to get from point A to point B with small children.
  12. Shame. So much shame.
  13. The struggle with alcoholism and its legacies.
  14. The struggle of a marriage (or two).
  15. The struggle of what to say at parties.
  16. The struggle of what to say at home.
  17. The struggle of mental illness.
  18. The struggle of being oneself (Monday. Me. Tuesday. Me. Wednesday. Me. Thursday. Me.).
  19. The struggle to find a home.
  20. The struggle to escape the home one has. (Argentina, a working title for the novel, still fits, I think).
  21. The struggle to remember what to pick up at the grocery store.
  22. The struggle between the Romantic ideal of The Artist and the reality that the children need their muesli and yogurt in the morning.
  23. The struggle for meaning in the face of absurdity and death.
  24. The struggle of a Norwegian living in Sweden.
  25. The struggle of navigating masculinity in an increasingly feminized society.
  26. The struggle of desire.
  27. The struggle of standing in the middle of an airport with a mound of luggage and gaggle of crying children and no luggage cart in sight (“Help!” She shouted in a loud voice. “Help us!”).
  28. The struggle of being seen.
  29. The struggle of being hidden.
  30. The struggle of the toddler as 5am alarm clock.
  31. The struggle of literature’s distance from real life.
  32. The struggle of this particular literary work’s closeness to real life.
  33. The struggle of trying not to cry (and failing).
  34. The struggle to get the beer to the party in the snow on a New Year’s Eve.
  35. The struggle to prevent the apartment from degenerating into a visible incarnation of the universe’s drive towards entropy.
  36. The struggle of friendship.
  37. The struggle of finding and celebrating beauty under the cynical eye of modernity.
  38. The struggle to find a moment to enjoy a cup of coffee and a cigarette in peace.
  39. The struggle towards that point where the author can finally say: “I am no longer a writer.”