Meaning Against the Meaningless

At this late stage, two years after the English translation of the first volume of My Struggle, there’s very little to add to discussions of Karl Ove Knausgaard. A Death in the Family, A Man in Love, and now Boyhood Island have spurred so much writing of such a high calibre – by novelists like Sheila Heti and Ben Lerner and by reviewers like James Wood, Rose McLaren, and especially James Ley, whose essay in the Sydney Review remains easily the best I have read – so that it is now virtually impossible to say anything new about the man and his work. There’s one observation, though, that has made frequent appearances in responses to My Struggle and that strikes me as a bit of a sideshow to the main attraction. It’s the observation that My Struggle is compulsively readable even though its often mundane subject matter should make the reading experience somewhat like wading through treacle, and that the source of the compulsion to read on and read on is therefore shrouded in mystery. I don’t think there’s anything mysterious about this. I think that the source of the compulsion to read is right there in Knausgaard’s first ten pages.

Recalling a boyhood encounter with his father in the mid-1970s, reflecting on it now as a man who has reached the age his father was then, Knausgaard meditates on “how great the difference was between our days.” His own days at that time, he writes,

were jam-packed with meaning, when each step opened a new opportunity, and when every opportunity filled me to the brim, in a way which now is actually incomprehensible, [whereas] the meaning of [my father’s] days was not concentrated in individual events but spread over such large areas that it was not possible to comprehend them in anything other than abstract terms. ‘Family’ was one such term; ‘career’ another. Few or no unforeseen opportunities at all can have presented themselves in the course of his days.

Knausgaard’s conclusion is that his father’s life had become largely meaningless simply by virtue of his having lived so long. “Meaning requires content,” he writes, “content requires time, time requires resistance.” Knowledge, on the other hand, involves “bring[ing the world] within the scope of our senses” and “stabilis[ing] it with fixer,” and so this retreat from and stabilisation of worldly phenomena means that “knowledge is stasis and the enemy of meaning.” As an adult looking back on that day in his boyhood, then, Knausgaard comes to see his father not only as an adult authority but also as “a peer through whose life time is blowing and unremittingly sweeping large chunks of meaning along with it.”

“Knausgaard’s world,” as James Wood points out,

is one in which the adventure of the ordinary… is steadily retreating; in which things and objects and sensations are pacing toward meaninglessness. In such a world, the writer’s task is to rescue the adventure from this slow retreat: to bring meaning, color, and life back to the soccer boots and to the grass, and to cranes and trees and airports, and even to Gibson guitars and Roland amplifiers and Ajax.

And Knausgaard’s way of accomplishing this task entails, on one level, revisiting and reconstructing past events in extraordinary, exacting, and often excessive detail. Page after page of My Struggle accumulates detail in what Wood calls an “uncut abundance” and in the absence of “any clear hierarchy of interest.” Knausgaard “seems barely to adjudicate significance,” Ben Lerner agrees, and “appears to just write down everything he can recall (and he appears to recall everything).” For Wood, this amounts to an “artistic commitment to inexhaustibility… which manifests itself as a kind of tiring tirelessness. … He notices everything — too much, no doubt — but often lingers beautifully.”

Too much? Is there really too much detail in My Struggle? Or, rather, can there be too much? Wood contends that “[t]he plenitude of detail… clogs the first half of the book,” and Lerner similarly finds the book burdened by “too much lengthy digression and extremely – at times almost absurdly – detailed description,” but surely this outcome is what Knausgaard’s early remarks on the increasing meaninglessness of adult existence require of anything he might write beyond that point. As Danny Byrne recently wrote, “many critics have noted… with approval, condemnation, or bemusement… [that] My Struggle is characterized by its excessive attention to the banal details of Knausgaard’s phenomenal environment,” but “few have said much about why [this] is so central to Knausgaard’s project.” Wood and Lerner are among the many rather than the few, passing judgment on the effects of the details alone without contextualising them as the effects of Knausgaard’s disposition towards the living of his life, but Byrne explains their significance:

In his emphasis on everyday objects, Knausgaard is like a man in the dark fumbling around for physical reference points as he tries to find his way to the light switch. The flatness of his style is paradoxically infused with the very “uncontrollable longing” for the past that compels the undertaking, present in its very absence. Given the impossibility of reliable recollection, the listing of physical coordinates — kitchen utensils and clothing, the innumerable family meals whose constituent parts are so pedantically itemized — is a way of anchoring his writing in the real, minimizing the inevitable distortions and transfigurations of literary style.

If Knausgaard opens My Struggle by defining a meaningful life as one in which an habituation to the varieties of human experience has not yet occurred, then the recovery of meaning, from the perspective of one who has become habituated, invites a thorough revisitation and a maximally expansive and inclusive reconstruction of the conditions in which meaning once flourished. To some extent, then, it is impossible for My Struggle to ever be overburdened by detail, and in fact the totality of the detail it contains cannot be anything other than insufficient for Knausgaard’s purposes. He begins My Struggle by writing himself both a warrant and a demand to pack his pages full of as much detail as possible, so that even the most obscure, trivial, mundane, or boring detail obtains an epic dimension in order to service something much larger than itself — and much larger, too, than the verisimilitude that conventional literary realism achieves via the inclusion of idiosyncratic but highly selective details.

What makes My Struggle so compulsively readable, I think, is Knausgaard’s exploitation of the inherent tension between this sort of literary project and the nature of literature itself. They are entirely at odds. Every last detail in the book is a minor protest, and a futile one, against the impossibility of the very thing that Knausgaard suggests might be achieved by way of a surfeit of detail. No matter how expansive and inclusive may be the detailing of a meaningful past, the past simply cannot be retrieved and recreated and lost meaning cannot ever be restored – and least of all with building blocks as radically abstract, as divorced from concrete reality, as pages upon pages of written words. Moreover, as the details accumulate around nodes of narrativised experience – Knausgaard’s grappling with death, falling in love, and coping with the demands of parenthood – the narrative nodes break down the life as lived into manageable chunks, countervailing the very rebellion against abstraction that led to the obsessive attention to detail in the first place. Meaning thus becomes for Knausgaard exactly what it was for his father: “not concentrated in individual events but spread over such large areas that it was not possible to comprehend them in anything other than abstract terms.”

And then, of course, even as his struggle against meaninglessness leads him into concrete detail at the sentence level but abstraction at the narrative level, the work he produces is inevitably swept up in his steady drift towards meaninglessness in its most extreme form. “The moment life departs the body,” he writes, “it belongs to death,” and, in death, a human being becomes “[a]t one with lamps, suitcases, carpets, door handles, windows. Fields, marshes, streams, clouds, the sky.” The world he inhabits, as he sees it, has so little respect for human subjectivity that it makes the expression of subjective experience worth little more than mockery. Yet Knausgaard expresses, and expresses, and expresses – recalls, recreates, and revivifies his past – with words each one of which takes him a small step towards an ideal that remains unrealisable even though, because it is an ideal, he cannot do otherwise than attempt to realise it. My Struggle is one very long, very complex contradiction, a book in which not a single word is wasted even though the whole amounts to a waste of words, and it is this quality — this relentless, defiant, desperate onwardness into impossibility — that sets the pages turning almost by themselves.

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