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Knausgaard: norse dwarf, norse god

He rolls out list after list of things that accumulate and expand a self-consciousness and reflection that lacks ambivalence or hesitation. His work is laden with descriptive tropes from a hackneyed and stereotyped high naturalistic realism. The philosophising veers towards cracker-barrel faux-wisdom and at times is mundane and unabashed. The aggressively anti-art, anti-literature, anti-intellectualising posture is not a mere suggestion but the writing’s issue. He is condemning the refined types with their latin and fine sentences. He will write out the concrete, the base, the materiality of his world, and that will be flesh shit real.

‘I also loved all the accessories guitar-playing involved, the fuzz box, the chorus pedal, the leads, the plugs, the plectrums, and the small packets of strings, the bottleneck, the capo, the lined guitar case and all its small compartments. I loved the brand names: Gibson, Fender, Hagstrøm, Rickenbacker, Marshall, Music Man, Vox, and Roland.’

‘After a while I picked up the teapot and poured. Dark brown, almost like wood, the tea rose inside the white cup. A few leaves swirled and floated up, the others lay like a black mat at the bottom. I added milk, three teaspoons of sugar, stirred, waited until the leaves had settled on the bottom, and drank.

‘These motionless, foliage-laden, air-bathing beings with their boundless abundance of leaves. . . . For whenever I caught sight of them I was filled with happiness.’

‘From the top they were dark-brown like rotten leaves, underneath yellowish-white bones. . . . It was a marvelous adventure that they came from the deep, and had been hauled up here, as all live fish had.’

‘Most were plastic 1.5 liter bottles and vodka bottles, but there were a few wine bottles as well.” “We took Jif for the bathroom, Jif for the kitchen, Ajax all-purpose cleaner, Ajax window-cleaner, Klorin disinfectant, Mr. Muscle for extra difficult stains, an oven-cleaner, a special chemical product for sofas, steel wool, sponges, kitchen cloths, floor rags, two buckets and a broom…’

‘The smell of Klorin and the sight of the blue bottle took me back to the 1970s, to be more precise, to the cupboard under the kitchen sink where the detergents were kept. Jif didn’t exist then. Ajax washing powder did, though, in a cardboard container: red, white, and blue. It was a green soap.” images—“becoming smaller and smaller as far as the eye could see. But what happened behind what the eye could see? Did the images carry on getting smaller and smaller?”

‘You could still buy Slazenger tennis rackets, Tretorn balls, and Rossignol skis, Tyrolia bindings and Koflach boots. The houses where we lived were still standing, all of them. The sole difference, which is the difference between a child’s reality and an adult’s, was that they were no longer laden with meaning. A pair of Le Coq soccer boots was just a pair of soccer boots. If I felt anything when I held a pair in my hands now it was only a hangover from my childhood, nothing else, nothing in itself. The same with the sea, the same with the rocks, the same with the taste of salt that could fill your summer days to saturation, now it was just salt, end of story. The world was the same, yet it wasn’t, for its meaning had been displaced, and was still being displaced, approaching closer and closer to meaninglessness.’

What all this means is that Knausgaard is treading a different path. He has in interviews claimed that the work is anti-ideological. There is a precedent for this. In Germany the idea of Sonderweg is that of an alternative to the shallow urban pretentiousness of ‘Zivilisation.’ Thomas Mann wrote his ‘Reflections of a Non-Political Man’ in 1918 when the notion wasn’t toxic. Hitler made it toxic, claiming to transcend politics. As the late philosopher Bernard Williams writes: ‘Hitler was far from unpolitical, but he pretended to be, and perhaps believed that in him the nation had transcended politics: that the politics which brought him to power and which, together with terror, kept him in it was indeed a politics of transcendence.’ This again recalls that whiff of deceit and manipulation that hovers around Knausgaard’s performance, and it’s troubling. Breivik the mass murderer, who also figures large in the work, also professed a batty politics of transcendence linked to nationalism and anti-urban rootedness. So here is another nest of wasps in Knausgaard. At times he sounds like Harry Lime in ‘The Third Man’, dismissing vast swathes of human lives, devaluing them so that they become worthless like ants. Meditating on his father’s death he writes:

‘Now I saw his lifeless state. And that there was no longer any difference between what once had been my father and the table he was lying on, or the floor on which the table stood, or the wall socket beneath the window, or the cable running to the lamp beside him. For humans are merely one form among many, which the world produces over and over again, not only in everything that lives but also in everything that does not live, drawn in sand, stone, and water. And death, which I have always regarded as the greatest dimension of life, dark, compelling, was no more than a pipe that springs a leak, a branch that cracks in the wind, a jacket that slips off a clothes hanger and falls to the floor.’ Throughout the books we are shown a mind continually pushing himself away from people, deleting them, of being bored by them, of being disinterested to the point of psychotic blankness. In such a context the musings becomes lifeless and nasty.

But Knausgaard is performing. The conceit that this is nakedness is just an act. In an interview he more or less confessed as much:

‘The tricky thing was, indeed, to refuse my older and more experienced self any space in the text. Everyone wants to be clever—it’s hard to give up that side and go blindly for stupidity. But even more frightening was the fact that it was so easy—that this combination of cockiness and cluelessness, as you so precisely pin it down, was apparently still very close to my present self. I guess I have a talent for humiliation, a place within me that experience can’t reach, which is terrible in real life, but something that comes in handy in writing. It seems as though humiliation has become a career for me.’ And this is important to acknowledge. He is ventriloquizing his childhood self, building up a set of memories from just the few he recalls, trying out a voice that may or may not be accurate. He is inventing like a magic manipulator, a sorcerer, finding magical objects, such as rooms, that lead him back to where he used to be, or where he imagines he might have been.

But now it sounds as if I’m drawing a line between the work and the man. But rather than do that I’m saying that you can’t prejudge that in advance. The facts about the man may or may not be relevant in the end, positively or negatively. But if the lines of invention structure the work then it is important to recognise a source of the power of the work, on why we may want to read it. He’s not as clear as I make him sound about where invention begins, and perhaps he thinks he’s retrieving the unadulterated past rather than remaking it. This sure sounds like it may be the case when he says:

When it comes to memories of that iconic type, memories that are burned into you, I have maybe ten or so from my childhood. I’m a bad rememberer of situations. I forget almost everything as soon as it happens. But when it comes to landscapes and rooms, it’s different. I think I remember every single room that I have been in from the age of seven. What I did was to place myself in those rooms, and when I started to write about them it was like unlocking a thousand small doors, all leading further into childhood. It’s all there, you know, inside us, it’s just a matter of finding the way.

But that’s no reason to go with what he says is happening just on his say so. He could be wrong. Nietzsche said that grandiose gestures can reveal the world. Knausgaard seems to be moving into a dream of transcendent anti-politics. If this dream is an illusion then it created a gap which Hitler went and filled. Knausgaard is perhaps reckless in thinking he can write into that contaminated dream again. But in taking on Hitler what he does is make a grandiose gesture that reveals the world and its indelible historical contingencies. This is why childhood memories are important to what he’s doing. They serve as a special metaphor for this accommodation of historical memory reeking of guilt and vengeance and lives being lived in all the abundance of the thingyness of life. Refusing stories as he does, Knausgaard is insulating his dream from the stories of history and pushing everything inside, away from history until there’s just the fictional pure phenomenal self again.

He says: ‘That’s the dynamic force in this book, its motor: the difference between the freedom outside and the prison-like state inside, and how the latter very slowly influences the former, and in the end changes it fundamentally. Another word for that would be integration, I think. The eye of God ends up inside, so that, in the end, you take care of judgment and punishment yourself. When I look back at that freedom of childhood, which is in a way infinite, and at all the joy and the intense happiness, now lost, I sometimes think that childhood is where the real meaning of life is located, and that we, adults, are its servants, that that’s our purpose.’

So now we can see Knausgaard as doing something other than just spewing out. He’s actually working both as a single-eyed God creating his own unifying and totalising universe, and as a diminished and diminutive creature, inside a hard stone of protective writing out of which comes magic powers. If in the first image he is the Norse God Odin, in the second he is an evil dwarf, a Mondull Pattason dwarf of late medieval Icelandic romance who walks out of his stone to work magic on the Danish court.

And out of this dwarf comes the negative absence of the past becoming a metaphor for romance and love. He has no wives, but former wives. Even the present wife will be former one day. He occupies a negative place where the past is a hole. Everything is a metaphor for the past that vanishes to make way for a bloated consciousness. The writing is a gigantic stone. He lives in the stone, but works outside and has huge magic power. Its negativity speaks to the positive romance of liveliness. Everything else other than Knausgaard is defined by absence. Yet he continues to vanish before us as he piles up things that have also vanished. He is a romancer of himself as a disappearing act. He lives in an enchanted world with children near creeks, streams, and he delights in his ugliness, his treason towards those he betrays, the broken oaths. He disappears at will, but not from us. And not from himself. He ensures he is not subject to morality. He is a sorcerer and shape shifter, tricking humans by his magic and remaining above suspicion as a writer. It is the writing that means that he cannot be judged deviant. Human restrictions are beneath him.

The writer is also an androgynous God and Knausgaard plays with this as a sign of his enforcing of sacred nature. As writer he is female and animal and exists in the freedom of an old God, or the bleak dwarf. What is sinister and immoral is cancelled by his craft. An old Norse God can be guilty of all transgressions and not be condemned. His writing justifies his deviant behaviour, his limitlessness, his queer indefinability. He is a writer disguised as authenticity itself. Odin is patriarch and matriarch. In Snorri Sturluson’s ‘Edda’ he is ‘…called Alfather in our tongue … He lives forever and rules all his kingdom and governs all things, great and small … He created heaven and earth and the air and all their properties.’ He ‘…is the highest and the oldest god. He decides over all matters and even with their own great powers, the other gods all serve him as children serve their father’.

But there are contradictions in Snorri’s and Heimskringle’s thirteen century representations of Odin. They have him as patriarch but also as a deviant figure, a shape-shifter, shaman, prophet, sorcerer and witch that can’t be amalgamated into a single figure. In one story he uses magic to animate the dead head of the giant Mimir. Knausgaard’s recollections of his father recall giants terrifying the landscape. Writing them brings to life the lifeless head of his own personal Mimir. Like Odin he knows the fates of everything and causes unhappiness. In the old stories of Odin he possesses magic yet we are told that magic is not manly. Knausgaard’s father continually goads the child Knausgaard with accusations of unmanliness. The source of his magic is his femaleness, and the sign of his femaleness is his writing and his domestic manly emasculation. Odin is linked to the Sybil disguised as a male. Just as twelfth century imagery of Christ and God was often linked to the maternal, similarly Odin was fused with Amazons and motherhood, witchcraft and femininity.

What does he do with his writing but slip inside the theft of his narratives and descriptions. He metamorphises the world into his memories and prolix abundance. This is his sorcery, and as with all sorcery he crosses boundaries as he does so, as if he has left his body asleep somewhere and is travelling now in flight as an eagle or owl or along some grassy ridge a snake, sometimes a woman or girl as well as boy and man. Sometimes when you read he is more mother than father, unconfined by gender role despite his brooding masculinity. All heavy metal has in it the glam rock transgendering potentiality, and Knausgaard contains, in all its flush and flow, denim and Grunge but also the border crosser Bowie. He’s like Bowie the way he takes from those around him but performs them in a twisty elaboration away from the source.

‘When I was with other people I was bound to them,’ he writes, setting out his credo as part-man, part-artist, ‘[b]ut the moment I was alone others meant nothing to me.’ ‘Zeitgeist comes from the outside,’ we read in Boyhood Island, ‘but works on the inside.’ The ‘only genres I saw value in, which still conferred meaning, were diaries and essays, the types of literature that did not deal with narrative… but just consisted of a voice, the voice of your own personality, a life, a face, a gaze you could meet’. And this ability to focus down to just one character, oneself, yet still be many – adult, child, lover, loner etc etc recalls the uniqueness of Odin in the Snorra-Eda where he is an assortment of names – ‘Grímnir, Hárbarðr, Hárr, Gangleri, Viðrir, Hnikarr, Yggr, Þundr, and Hroptatýrr’ and so on. Disguised in these names much of the time, he is also like Loki, who not only was a shape-shifter and trickster God but a mother too, giving birth to Sleipnir as a woman. And shape-shifters and witches are often sinister and subhuman. It is this that may echo in the writing of Knausgaard and make him the troubling fantsatic read he is. For all the claims of bluff honesty there is an uncanny blend of the disguised trickster deviant working against that open-faced claim like a ‘painted tyrant.’

There is nothing here but the love marriage retribution theme played out as soliloquy as disguised solipsism. A romantic idealism looms through Knausgaard’s nature. He is not drawn to the fullness of life, despite the hundreds of pages of lively details, but rather the narrowness of his own employment. His inferiority is what he lauds as a precious object that we are forced to swallow. Despite the gigantic size of the project what we have is something small, a role diminishing as we move through it. He is threatened by his own treachery, writes so he has no leg to stand on but out of the blue becomes the evil dwarf who does good. He is small and comes from an underground nature of wonders and healing. He has a miserable youth and pleads for his life, sees off the father dragon, and stays with us as being both good and bad. His magic ability is his writing. It is his skill. All this fits in with the dwarf role. The dwaf lusts after women and performs the role as unsuitable suitor. Of the seven Eddic dwarves two are killers, one makes a king disappear, three are reluctant donors and one is turned to stone. The Eddic dwarves aren’t Disney’s, although even those relate directly to those found in Old Norse-Icelandic romances. Eddas dwarves are linked to spirits of the dead, though indirectly, and echoes. They link lust with romance. The lust isn’t repressed. One kind of dwarf looks uncannily like the devil but turns out to be helpful. They often turn out doing good, through shame. Knausgaard’s sense of supernatural reciprocity pervades his dark late volumes where two monsters congregate. Children and domesticity are often where they are found.

But these dwarves are defined by their absence, are negative, small, ugly and create the hole by which we may see the meaning of our own existence. They are metaphors for the past which makes way for the present. Similarly, the dwarves vanish to make way for us.

Davíð Erlingsson, discussing the dwarf Mondul argues that Möndull may be regarded as Eros:

‘Möndull is a great fornicator and lover. His name, apart from being the technical term for an axle, can mean penis, and the original Indo-European root would have meant “turn.” The physician who finally heals the wound is thus really a love spirit or love god, Eros himself, but his nature is, of course, demonic.’

Readers gripped by Knausgaard may well be responding to a whole bunch of this. Out of his death-centred volumes emerges Eros, a dwarf out of stone, which awkwardly but immediately chimes with his listening to Cobain and Nirvana: ‘Music goes straight to the heart, it doesn’t have to check in on the intellect first, so, yes, music is still important to me. I’m very much frozen emotionally—that’s how it is to be an adult; it wouldn’t work if the world was as close at it was in childhood—but in music, everything is melting. For a while, that is…When it comes to music, I’m hopelessly lost in the indie-world of the eighties, no longer capable of being saved…’

Reading Knausgaard’s ‘My Struggle’ in the shadow of a mythic one-eyed God and a helpful bad dwarf will falter somewhere (probably between Joyce’s bad pities on the plain and Milton’s Satan) but I like the fertile transformations these two figures offer. He was going to call the work ‘Argentina’ because that was a place he thought would be a great place to run away to. Like suicide, running away is about taking the Rembrandt and leaving the cat in the blazing house. In the end this is probably what troubles us and makes what he did so fucked up and enticing.

Because when all’s said, who hasn’t dreamt of running away?

Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

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