Knausgaard: norse dwarf, norse god
By Richard Marshall.
How should we think about Knausgaard? – which is already a question being raised in the same way it was asked about Celine and Hamsun, Francis Stuart, Houellebecq, Stewart Home and other writers who straightforwardly disturb us with views. He’s a writer some people are saying is worth being troubled by. This may be premature. Whatever, if we do take him on then we have no option but to face the things we might find disturbing as part of the package. That he says he finds himself and what he has done disturbing is part of the fascination. Initial attempts to separate the man and the work or, when that fails, the work from the ideas are evasive. Knausgaard is not evasive. Starting over, it’s just not enough to fix him via historical literary research. Similarly, claims that he is too authentic to be literature are ludicrous because they deny the very idiom he uses to create his critical readership. Writers work their miracles out of whatever they want. And merely commenting on the various troubling ideas he has is not enough if that is all that is done. It wouldn’t help us understand how readers react to his power or where that power lies.
What is so troubling? Well, there’s the whole ‘exposure of real people’ thing to begin with. The aftermath of his writing outside the work is the subject matter of the later volumes. He claims that if given a choice between saving a cat or a Rembrandt from a blazing house he’d take the cat. But he knows he didn’t take the cat. His family, friends and everyone were left in the burning house of his writing, and he lit the fire and bolted the door with them inside as he left. That this act of writing is then worked out through extended meditations on Hitler and Brievik does nothing to alleviate the sense that if the work transcends its autobiographical particularity its author nevertheless holds himself and the writing responsible for a strange personal wrong done to these innocents. He is as aware as many of us are that the work isn’t good enough to excuse this. This is different from saying it’s not good. The issue is whether anything could be good enough to justify what he’s done.
‘How can you sit there receiving applause when you know that what you have done is not good enough …’, he confesses, and then goes on, ‘I realized, of course, this is really going to explode and it’s dangerous. And I was very, very scared.’ ‘I … am … the guilty one,” he says in an interview. “And I can’t defend myself. I can defend myself in principle, but not in those individual cases…. I would never have the ability or the power to do it now. But I could then, because I was so, in a way, fucked up in my life. I was so desperate, and I didn’t really care. And now I care, you know?’
Afterwards he says he would have chosen the cat, but he didn’t then, when it was a real choice rather than a hypothetical, and though it’s a small evil (no one actually died, he didn’t invade Poland) it was an evil thing he did. Bluntly, he was fucked up and fucked up.
To claim that he has written an Everyman, that he is writing about each of us and the daily grind of our small domesticated lives, this too avoids the freighted ideas that run through the whole enterprise. It avoids the scale of his ethical decisions, the immorality of his dark romance that lies at its heart and around which the details and digressions swirl. It avoids the sheer violence of the whole act of writing Knausgaard fetters to those imagined details. And it avoids the stink of nasty ideological echoes that can’t be just dismissed on his, or anyone else’s, say so. Sexism and fascism are very close by. But to make it just about us and our empathic identification of so many of the details is also to avoid the strange miraculous powers in the writing that bind the mundane and the prosaic with the monstrous and gargantuan, the sacred and the mythic, things which really do reach beyond the powers of most of us. This isn’t reality tv writing, it isn’t a pure confessional, it isn’t a lament for emasculated masculinity nor a subliminal appeal for subterranean authentic Gods to banish modernity like some erstwhile Danish Heideggerian.
Knausgaard conjures up an immense solipsistic myth of fears and furies, monsters and agonies, a perpetual fury against a realisation that death is his fate and that his life, each viciously wounded and maimed moment of it, from childhood to the present, is precariously hovering at the brink of a terrifying emptiness, a meaningless hole into which everything is falling. In a state of panic he rages against this and chases a world through improvised language written down at speed that runs out towards the primitive vivacity of his own subjectivity. It is against erasure that he casts his spells: ‘The force of the sudden shame was the sole feeling from my childhood that could measure in intensity against that of terror, next to sudden fury, of course, and common to all three was the sense that I myself was being erased’ he writes and as he does so he becomes both terrifically powerful and knowledgeable and at the same time small and ugly and strange. Who wouldn’t want to read this?
The power and knowledge is transcribed in the lists and descriptions which fix the world of his books. But the fix has a desperate reach, a desire to find a rebirth out of the criminality of writing, to reach an ultimate union and sacred peace where he no longer has to write. In a recent piece he writes: ‘Spring came to the housing development, and with it came lightness: one day I put on my new sneakers, and to run out in them, after having stomped around in boots and heavy winter shoes for six months, felt pretty much like flying. The quilted trousers and down jackets which made all movement so cumbersome and ungainly were replaced by light trousers and jackets. Mittens, scarves and caps were put away. Skis and skates and sleds and toboggans were stored in basements and garages, bicycles and footballs were brought out, and the sun, which had hung low in the sky for so long, and whose rays had then been only for the eye, rose higher and higher, and soon became so warm that the jackets we put on in the morning had been stuffed into our backpacks by the time we came home from school at midday.’ This is meticulous, as any magical equation has to be. The hypnotic power of such writing snares the ordinary into a submarine occult force-field that is lovely and dazzles.
A mythic world is being animated and the author poses in it casting two animalized shadows. One is Norse God, all transgressive and queer. One is Norse dwarf, evil but working for good. Despite its madly prosaic surface a spiritual refinement breaks through the cracks of the writing and we get to glimpse a matrix of greater meanings, like Valhalla glimpses through the flames of a she-warrior’s funeral pyre:
But the greatest sign of spring of all was the smell of burning grass that spread all over the housing development during these weeks. The cool evenings, the bluish dark, the cold which rose from the ditches that were still filled with snowdrifts, hard as ice and with gravel embedded in them, the steady hum of children’s voices, playing outside, some running after a ball on the road, others bicycling up and down ditches or rearing up on the sidewalk, all of them bubbling with life and lightness, for you were suddenly free to run, to bicycle, to shout, to laugh, and always in your nostrils there was the stinging yet rich smell of last year’s withered grass burning, which was suddenly everywhere. Once in a while we would run up and watch; the low, dense flames resembled orange waves, almost moist in the intensity of colour brought on by the evening dusk, guarded by a proud mother or father, often with the handle of a rake over their shoulder and gloves on their hands, like an order of knights of the lower middle class.
He doesn’t write sentences. He writes pages and pages. He piles on his descriptions and lists to ensure a blaze. These fires lingering in the nostrils recall Brunhilde and her transfiguaration, and the great yearning Amazonian energies of the Gotterdammerung. Odin in this company is not simply a patriarchal Alfather but is matriarch and mother and Sybil. Knausgaard hints at these other forces creating the doubling mythology that entwines with his memories.
He asks of this spring fire: ‘What was it about fire? It seemed so alien here, it was so deeply archaic that nothing about it could be associated with the surroundings it appeared in: what was fire doing next to Fredriksen’s camper? What was fire doing next to Tone-Lill’s toy excavator? What was fire doing next to Hansen’s waterlogged, sun-bleached garden furniture?
In every shade of yellow and red, it stretched towards the sky, devoured crackling branches of pine, melted sputtering plastic, flared up here, then there, in completely unpredictable patterns, as beautiful as they were incredible, for what were they doing here, in our midst, among ordinary Norwegians on these ordinary 1970s evenings?
Another world appeared with the fire, and vanished with it. It was the world of water and air, earth and mountain, sun and stars, clouds and sky, the ancient world which was always there and always had been, and which one never thought about. But fire came, you could see it. And once you had seen it, you couldn’t help seeing it everywhere, in all fireplaces and ovens, in all factories and manufacturing plants, and in all the cars driving around on the roads, parked in garages or outside the houses in the evenings, for the fire burned in them, too. Even the cars were deeply archaic.’
As Odin Alfather he switches identity, shape-shifts, gives birth to prodigous wastes of memory and time, everything happening one last time as the first time. Critics have said the view point is child-like but Odin is child-like too, as all Gods’eye-views are, busy making a world and then curating it, scampering about in disguise, cross dressing, transgressing all boundaries between sexes and beasts and even families, practicing witchy magic and patching together a domesticity like a matriarchal trickster. This fluidity and deviancy of sexuality, gender, this role-playing, tricksy diversity is attested to in recent scholarly work by Armann Jakobsson on Odin. Jakobsson’s Odin is mother, witch, serpent and deviant. Britt Solli argues Odin was androgynous and a queer God. Snorri Sturluson’s early depictions of Odin show the God to be a deviant without being condemned as such, of tricking people into believing in him again without condemnation. Knausgaard presents himself as moving across barriers and limits in order to wrestle back his life and time against chaos and death. His child and adult version shape-shifts back and forth. He fights monsters – both the dread of his ordinary domesticity, his lost youth and his fearsome father – and flits like a bird or a snake through heights and lows – but who he is, who he will become, who he once was, whatever identity he exposes is likely to be prematurely identified as the real and true. That he doesn’t seem to need a disguise nor want one, that in fact the whole sequence claims to be about not having one, is just another disguise.
Cleaning up shit, cooking, hanging around with kids, a tired and worn-down boredom – these are traditionally gendered attributes of the female and mother and this white male author crosses the border to this tradition. Women readers identify with this as well as his regurgitation of a kind of poetic soul which has also traditionally had gendered connotations. The curious patriarchal possibilities of Knausgaard’s rebellion, one pushing a clichéd ‘middle class successful white male having mid-life crisis’ reading, just doesn’t explain what he’s done and why it commands such enthusiasm. He is being read as a kind of weird amazon and witch, transforming through mighty incantations the banal and crushingly meaningless into tendrils of what in the end might reach to the end of the world, the roots of the tree of life (often rendered as a beanstalk) and the three blind norns. It has an unspoken, uninterpreted mythic implication. He is tapping everything into his need for a meaningful actuality. He draws on wimmin powers to achieve this. When Snorri Sturluson writes in the Ynglinga saga of Odin he makes Knausgaard’s deviancy – his crafty writing craft – the skill of a Goddess:
Óðinn knew the most powerful art and practiced it himself, that which is called sorcery, and that is how he knew men’s fate and things not yet passed, and he could cause death or unhappiness or illness to others, or take their senses and powers from them and give to others. But this magic, in its execution, is so queer that men could not practice it without dishonor and thus the goddesses were taught this art.
Armann Jakobsson’s research into Norse myth suggests another source of the power, the second shadow that is cast by Knausgaard as he stands inside ‘My Struggle’. Knausgaard shape-shifts into a dwarf with evil powers who oddly engages and battles greater evil forces and so does good. Knausgaard is writing about the beginning and end of his world, not necessarily in that order, and takes on the role of Mondull the evil helper from the Norse Gongu-Hrólfs saga. Mondull is a dwarf from the underground armed with healing powers and a craft, a lust for a replacement woman and like Knausgaard confronting and defeating great evils. Those last confrontations in Knausgaard – with Breivek and Hitler – buckle the queasy perspective of everything Knausgaard has opened up. By doing so he has ensnared any image of ornate idealism that might have lingered and let him off the hook. The dwarf image dismantles the treachery of hubris or excuse that might creep into any of this. Knausgaard vows endlessly – in the book and out – to resist any sense of exculpation or redemption. The mythic substrata retains its noxious powers and synchronises each crisis and image, returning him to the stone in which Mundull lives, and simultaneously back to Odin as Queen of Hell living upon the ‘vapour of a dungeon’, that being his life before the crisis, before these books. These two shadows – Odin the transgressive trickster God and Mondul the helpful evil dwarf – draw us to his world and help explain why ‘My Struggle’ is so appallingly gripping.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, May 25th, 2014.