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Knausgaard: norse dwarf, norse god

Knausgaard is a realist in the modern tragic mode. Awareness of death is everywhere in these volumes, eating away in the little things. Death pulls him out of a time that might be used for flourishing, pulls him and all else towards it and never releases him. His complaint is that time can’t be wasted and he has to correct his life to escape what his horrified awareness has shown him. He writes:

Time is slipping away from me, running through my fingers like sand while I… do what? Clean floors, wash clothes, make dinner, wash up, go shopping, play with the children. … It is a struggle, and even though it is not heroic, I am up against a superior force.’ This palpable and fearful awareness runs through everything he writes about. “In the same way that the heart does not care which life it beats for, the city does not care who fulfills its various functions. When everyone who moves around the city today is dead … the sound of people’s comings and goings, following the same old patterns, will still ring out. The only new thing will be the faces.

He can’t see the faces of others, they are anonymous threats to his own existence. What Knausgaard does is whirl around through his own time, and it is a frenzy of movement, despairing of finding meaning in the face of death, then finding it, then losing it, then finding it again in some totalising act of ventriloquism. Knausgaard gives us one great impersonator of one distinct peculiar voice. Its overwhelming sense of the biographical is easily mistaken for being that of the author himself. “Meaningful, meaningless, meaningful, meaningless,” writes Knausgaard in Book Three, “… this is the wave that washes through all our lives and creates its inherent tension.” And the immense fear becomes personified in his father, a distressing character in this latest volume translated into English of whom Knausgaard writes:

I was so frightened of him that even with the greatest effort of will I am unable to recreate the fear … His footsteps on the stairs – was he coming to see me? The wild glare in his eyes. The tightness around his mouth … And then his voice: Sitting here now, hearing it in my inner ear, I almost start crying.

In Childhood, he writes “every rock, every tree, has a meaning and because everything is seen for the first time and because it is seen so many times it is anchored in the depths of your consciousness not as something vague or approximate the way a landscape outside a house appears to an adult … but as something with immense precision and detail.” What Knausgaard does throughout is assert an outlook rather than assume a world.

“It fills me with sadness every time I talk about it ” he says. Perhaps, but there is also throughout a tone of assertiveness and assurance. There is an indomitable strength in the writing so that even the banalities become somehow asserted as immense and unconditionally significant. He portrays his conflicts and contradictions, fears and defeats, in a way that suggests he knows what all this adds up to. Mondull is chased by the monster Grimr underground and defeats the monster because he has more friends down there. A similar strategy is employed by Knausgaard in defeating the monstrous father. He drags his father into his own underground, blowing and whispering his private lore, and gains the upper hand through his craft. Here is another source of the alarm reading Knausgaard can evoke. It is a sense that everything, from Cornflakes to Hitler, is within his power to assert and control. And that’s got to be a fraud and it’s got to be manipulative and whether it is exactly that or not, it’s not comfortable.

He can reach into a domestic moment of eating cereals and make it a moment of triumphant soliloquy:

After she had put out a bowl and a spoon for me, and I had poured milk over the golden, somewhat perforated, irregularly formed flakes, I came to the conclusion that cornflakes were best when they were crispy, before the milk had soaked into them. But after I had been eating for a while and they were beginning to go soft, filled as it were with both their own taste and that of the milk, plus the sugar, of which I had sprinkled a liberal quantity, I changed my mind; that was when they were at their best.

His intense isolation becomes his intense subject matter: ‘I am sitting alone watching, it is some time in spring, I suppose, for my father is working in the garden. I stare at the surface of the sea without listening to what the reporter says, and suddenly the outline of a face emerges. I don’t know how long it stays there, a few seconds perhaps, but long enough for it to have a huge impact on me.’ What Knausgaard does is reverse the thought that solipsism reduces to Realism and runs with Wittgenstein who supposed that Realism reduced to solipsism. The immensity of Knausgaard’s reality is just himself. All the details he recalls and recounts are packed into his skull and their significance is never beyond his own will. His phenomenology excludes everyone and everything unless they exist for him.

He writes: ‘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.’ This fear of erasure drives his writing. He wills his actuality. But to do so, he erases the independence of everything else. His peculiarity is to “evoke all the things that are a part of our lives, but not of our stories – the washing-up, the changing of diapers, the in-between things – and make them glow.’ This glowing thingy-ness of his writing, and his refusal to tell stories, is again what draws the reader to him whilst at the same time registering alarm at the dwarf spirit animating this, a domineering and heartless sentimentality familiar in many a hard man.

Knausgaard continually moves away and finds distance: ‘Then the topic moved to buying CO2 quotas, and after that to the newly introduced chartered train journeys. I could definitely have offered an opinion about that, but I didn’t, small talk is one of the infinite number of talents I don’t master, so I sat nodding at what was said, as usual, smiling when the others smiled, while ardently wishing myself miles away.” Rather than remembering people he says: “I remember rooms and landscapes,” and where there are people he says: “What I do not remember [is] what the people in these rooms were telling me.’

Even his own children bore him: ‘I got up and went into the kitchen, put a plate of meatballs and spaghetti in the microwave, because I hadn’t eaten since the lunch the day before, went into the bathroom and showered, mostly to pass the minutes it took for the food to heat, dressed, found myself a knife and fork, poured a glass of water, fetched the plate, sat down to eat.’ he writes of looking after his childen: ‘It was wonderful sitting with her, but also a bit boring. I wanted to be out on the veranda, alone with a cigarette and a cup of coffee.’ Time goes on and on, and this is something that he fears and resists whilst feeling it crush his hopes:

Inside, it is a question of getting through the morning, the three hours of diapers that have to be changed, clothes that have to be put on, breakfast that has to be served, faces that have to be washed, hair that has to be combed and pinned up, teeth that have to be brushed, squabbles that have to be nipped in the bud, slaps that have to be averted, rompers and boots that have to be wriggled into, before I, with the collapsible double stroller in one hand and nudging the two small girls forward with the other, step into the elevator, which as often as not resounds to the noise of shoving and shouting on its descent, and into the hall where I ease them into the stroller, put on their hats and mittens and emerge onto the street already crowded with people heading for work and deliver them to the nursery ten minutes later, whereupon I have the next five hours for writing until the mandatory routines for the children resume.

He moves from brooding on the time of this and that, and the universe, to his own inevitable time, and death: “Soon I will be forty, and when I’m forty, it won’t be long before I’m fifty. And when I’m fifty, it won’t be long before I’m sixty. And when I’m sixty, it won’t be long before I’m seventy. And that will be that.” The fear of his own death is a very personal fear, but one that doesn’t accumulate force as he moves back and forth from adulthood to childhood and back again and this leads to a crisis of receptiveness. Death, even his own, is just a thing. It lacks drama. It lacks tension because very quickly, as with the cornflakes example given earlier, Knausgaard will confidently resolve its actuality. The thing will not only exist but will be resolved as itself, and the resolution is total and without doubt. But this brings with it a different and paradoxical tension. A solipsism chock full of actualities threatens to erase the solipsist. The mythic dwarf has been associated with absence and Knausgaard’s constant fear of erasure, death and absence links him to this. The more he writes to assert himself, the greater the risk that he vanishes. It reminds us of Goethe’s Faust who, in digging a mountain to heaven, is also digging the pit to hell.

[Photo: Håkon Eikesdal]

“I was almost thirty years old when I saw a dead body for the first time. It was the summer of 1998, a July afternoon, in a chapel at Kristiansand. My father had died.” The monster lies dead, and yet the writer has brought him to live for as long as the work lives. The defamed father now lies both in and out of the solipsist. And the solipsist can’t control the logic of this.

It’s in distance and the impersonal that he registers a sort of guileless bliss: “The sun rose in my life. At first, as dawn breaking on the horizon, almost as if to say, this is where you have to look. Then came the first rays of sunshine, everything became clearer, lighter, more alive . . . ” What is strange is how little psychology we actually get from the book. “We got up, went to the nearest café, ordered breakfast, that is, porridge, yoghurt, toast, eggs, juice and coffee. I read the papers, Linda stared down at the table or into the room, said at length, do you have to read, couldn’t we talk? Yes, of course, I said, closing the newspaper, and we chatted, it was fine, the tiny black spot in my heart was barely noticeable, a little hankering to be alone and read in peace without anyone demanding anything of me was forgotten in a flash.’ He seems only a little way actual. He is cold and devoid of a psychology that can register anything that might transform him. He just puts up with others. The great confrontation that we are supposed to be reading about between memory and the present, life and death, love and sexuality and the things of life seem to make no significant difference to him. In this respect his mythic shadow really is one of a void, a negativity of absence.

So much is just one thing then another thing. So we read passages like this: ‘When the last item of clothing had been carried out, I sprinkled the Klorin over the floor, using half of the bottle and then I scrubbed it with the broom before hosing it all down the drain. Then I emptied the rest of the green soap all over it, and scrubbed it again, this time with a cloth…’

Knausgaard uses repetitiveness to concretise his dwarfy incantations. His repetitive lists and details are used to animate himself who, for much of the time, seems little more than a dead and mean spirit.

‘For, while previously I saw time as a stretch of terrain that had to be covered, with the future as a distant prospect, hopefully a bright one, and never boring at any rate, now it is interwoven with our life here and in a totally different way. Were I to portray this with a visual image it would have to be that of a boat in a lock: life is slowly and ineluctably raised by time seeping in from all sides. Apart from the details, everything is always the same. And with every passing day the desire grows for the moment when life will reach the top, for the moment when the sluice gates open and life finally moves on. At the same time I see that precisely this repetitiveness, this enclosedness, this unchangingness is necessary, it protects me. On the few occasions I have left it, all the old ills return.’ What is fascinating is how he writes in order to enclose rather than disclose. The dread of ‘old ills’ returning curtails his ability to do anything other than write a fortress, a great stone in which he can remain unchanged and powerful. For such a self-absorbed work the absence of inner life is perverse. It accounts again for the unease the work provokes – as well as its appeal. And like the mythic Norse dwarf, he lives in the stone.

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First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, May 25th, 2014.