‘In my beginning is my end’, says Eliot in Four Quartets, and (to cut a long story short) vice versa. Those of a poetical bent might choose to see this cyclical structure reflected in the Cyclopean glass eye of the communal washing machine in Karl Ove Knausgaard’s apartment building, into which he must regularly shovel a hecatomb of soiled children’s clothing – though when he forgets to empty the machine, he must also suffer the humiliation of returning to the utility room to find his clean load extracted, folded up with passive-aggressive exactness and laid into his two blue nylon IKEA bags by another resident. Well, he’s got a lot on his mind.
The End begins with Knausgaard domiciled in Malmö with his second wife, Linda, and their three children (they’ve since had another one and split up). He is gearing up for the publication of Min kamp 1 (2009), the first instalment of his speed-written, henge-sized, six-volume ‘autobiographical novel’, later to be published in English as A Death in the Family (My Struggle: Book 1). He has shown extracts to people he thinks may object to their depiction in it: the responses range from a grudging message of support from his brother (the subject line of whose initial email, ‘Your fucking struggle’, might itself make a good title for a book) to furious threats of litigation in the case of his uncle, who strenuously disputes the book’s account of the events surrounding the death of Knausgaard’s father. Linda’s struggles with bipolar disorder quietly intensify: in the last section, with the first half of the sequence out in the world and Knausgaard juggling succès with scandale, she is briefly institutionalised, though an improvement in the family’s material fortunes and the resumption of her own writing career seem to augur well.
The sixth instalment sticks to what must for seasoned Knausgaard readers be a pretty familiar recipe. Long-winded evocations of everyday life, from the laundry room to the nursery, the supermarket and beyond, alternate with even longer-winded flashbacks and lucubrations on life and literature, this time including a lengthy excursus on the early career of Adolf Hitler – another famous struggler, of course. (German editions of Knausgaard’s cycle prudently eschew the Norwegian series title in favour of Das autobiographische Projekt, followed by a series of portentous infinitives such as Sterben, Lieben and so on, though, interestingly, this volume is called Kämpfen.)
I must confess that I hummed and hawed about reviewing The End. First, I knew it was long (more than a thousand pages), and it was to be my summertime beach paperback, and if you’re flying Ryanair and want to take anything heftier than Four Quartets along with you, you’re liable to find yourself waddling through Stansted wearing seven pairs of underpants. Secondly, I hadn’t read any of the previous five volumes, and hadn’t greatly wanted to. All the qualities I admire in writing are to do with style, tone, voice: things that Knausgaard, frustrated in an attempt to write about his father in a more conventionally ‘novelistic’ way, appears to have discarded, preferring a sort of stenographic approach. The fact that everyone’s so hot for ‘autofiction’ at the moment just seems like a massive generational delusion that I’m unable to participate in, like craft beer. I like a dash of observation with my lucubration – something with a bit more meat to it than a few banal utterances about why eating octopus might be wrong, or how alienating airports are. (Tell me about it.)
In this respect Knausgaard scores highly compared to most other autofictioneers I have read. He isn’t exactly enraptured by the realm of the objective in the way that, say, Nicholson Baker was in his pomp, but he does at least acknowledge its plenitude: the life-denying indignity of those plastic wheelie supermarket baskets, say; the way his daughter’s hand curls into his; the simple pleasure of a bread roll. There is a carelessness with detail, though, sometimes: he thinks prawns’ antennae are tentacles, for example, or that you can see the Venetian Lagoon from a cafe outside the Accademia.
Nonetheless the book is much, much too long. The writing is terribly uneven in quality. A lot of the big-idea stuff isn’t even sophomoric: it’s a first-year undergraduate, two joints in, boring his date stupid. His hostility towards Ian Kershaw, whose image of young Adolf he finds teleological and negative (both of which it is, in a sense, and more or less has to be), isn’t just distasteful, it’s impertinent, like a man in the pub barracking a professional footballer on television.
He is at least partly aware of his own shortcomings. They are, indeed, what he is struggling against. The book has a bone-dry wit, a certain knowingness about the project’s grandiose archetypes (in brief, Shelleyan sensibility, Dostoevskian abjection and Proustian windbaggery, plus a preoccupation with ‘authenticity’ that seems to stem partly from the Norwegian novelist – and admiring obituarist of Hitler – Knut Hamsun, partly from reading too many interviews with rock stars at an impressionable age). He laments the gulf between vaulting ambition and its haphazard realisation. He is also funny about his appearance – ‘a has-been heavy-metal-musician rapidly heading for his fiftieth birthday’ – though by the time he’s writing this one he must be aware that he has been heavily marketed as a sort of Poldarkish super-hunk. There’s an unforced and maybe unintended comedy in what a bog-standard bloke he is, with his Sunday football, his black jeans and his terrible indie music tastes. There’s even something rather bog-standard about his morbid interest in fascism.
Knausgaard’s version of the pram-in-the-hall trope seems in the earlier part of the book to be anecdotal and lightly comic: the counterpoint between Karl Ove and his friends sitting up late, nursing small beers and talking big ideas, and the chaos of a cash-strapped 21st-century middle-class parent’s life, a maelstrom of mislaid credit cards and mismatched socks (though it’s painful to see how little joy his children bring him sometimes). But in the last hundred or so pages, with Linda’s condition worsening, we begin to see what a knife edge the household has been resting on: heartbreakingly, she reveals that she doesn’t trust herself to be alone with the children.
Ultimately the central thing about My Struggle, the unreflective transparency of it all, the mindless daily observance of just writing absolutely everything down, does begin to resonate after a couple of hundred pages. It’s a bit like listening to Can or La Monte Young – even if the quasi-mystical experiences recorded by higher-grade Knausgaard adepts still elude me at the time of writing.
As for the ethics of the project, there’s no easy response. Set against the bashful tricksiness of his fellow travellers (most of Geoff Dyer’s books could accurately be retitled ‘What am I like?’), I much prefer Knausgaard’s straightforward, no-nonsense acceptance that to write this way about real people was a reckless and destructive act, and that doing it this way was creatively necessary for him, but that yielding to that creative necessity was nonetheless an act of pure selfishness on his part. And as for his ultimate belief that the project failed to provide either catharsis for him or anything of distinctive value to the reader, it’s probably too early to say. Apparently he is now working on something in a magic-realist vein. I suppose it’s too much to hope for a novella.