You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Still Waters Run Deep: Reassembling Karl Ove Knausgaard

How do you distinguish between the man and his protagonist?

Ulf Andersen/Getty

When people talk about My Struggle, the wildly popular series of autobiographical novels by Karl Ove Knausgaard, they often use title and author interchangeably: “Have you read the new Knausgaard?” sounds as normal as, “When you finish Book Five, can I borrow it?” This isn’t a fluke. It isn’t even (entirely) because Knausgaard is Norway’s hunkiest narcissist. At its core, the book and the man are distinguishable but inseparable. And My Struggle’s popularity shouldn’t be understated. Every tenth person in Norway owns a copy; Americans have bought more than 200,000, with hardcover sales increasing for each new volume. 

Which is great if you like the book and Knausgaard himself. By “Knausgaard” I mean Knausgaard’s Knausgaard: the whatever-aged protagonist, not the 47-year-old author currently playing with his kids, sleeping, perhaps, or buttering a roll. But what if you like one and not the other? Because there is a lot in Knausgaard the man for a woman to not like.

A sampling of how young Karl Ove thinks, writes, and feels about women: Consumed with lust and woefully without game, he fantasizes about the good old days—circa 3,000 BCE—when a man could bash a woman over the head with a club and lug her into his cave to have his way with her; he describes a woman as “soft and good and not unwilling,” picturing her “soft body, downcast eyes, new breasts, a new backside, she bends forward for me, on all fours for me, doggie position, and I, and I, well, I ram it in.” Knausgaard pens lyrics with the chorus: “Give me a smile/don’t be unfair/just want to undress you”; he masturbates to Rubens’s The Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus; at the end of Volume 4, he finally “loses his virginity” to a girl at a music festival, whereupon they proceed to share a Bacchanal of two—when she half-falls out of the tent to vomit uncontrollably from all the wine they’ve drunk, he sidles over, “sticks it in,” and keeps “pumping away”; and so on.

Detached from its larger import, perhaps there’s an amusing haplessness to young Karl Ove’s foibles. But if you’re a woman, when you think back and realize that the boy who checked you out in eighth grade homeroom wasn’t thinking about kissing you but rather secretly wondering how hard it would be to knock you unconscious, drag you under a desk, and rape you—it becomes neither amusing nor hapless.

Yet I have not only read but continue to read My Struggle. Once, in graduate school, a fellow student refused to discuss Rabbit, Run on the grounds of Updike’s, to borrow a phrase from Amy Bloom, “writing every female character like she takes a piss standing up.” While I shared her anger, I found the idea immature—and I still do. Take or leave an author as you like, but look for quality first; as history bears the prefix it does, a woman’s fencing herself off from phallic literature is self-defeating. Men have had a lot of time to write well: Ingest, digest, and metabolize what’s worthy. Shit the rest back out.

The most recent English installment of My Struggle, Volume 5: Some Rain Must Fall, spans Knausgaard’s twenties. Geographically, this means Bergen, with a dash of mainland Europe and various islands both big (England, Iceland) and small (Norwegian miscellany). Quantitatively, this means 14 years, one major relationship, one marriage, three infidelities, one Writing Academy course, several literature, philosophy, and art history courses, six weeks working in a nursing hospital, two years working in a psychiatric hospital, two-and-a-half months on an oil rig, three family deaths (grandmother, grandfather, father), one debut novel, a few short stories, numerous reviews, and near-infinite instances of pathos, self-loathing, drinking, frustration, megalomania, love, and shame. Qualitatively speaking: Knausgaard grows up. He grows out of himself. This isn’t to say our pied-piping panty-dropper has changed his tune—only that he plays it better.

Knausgaard refers to this era as “limbo,” but it’s more like purgatory. In terms of the series, it’s as if, upon reaching puberty, Karl Ove changed gears—and spent the next two-and-a-half books in the protracted moment between the chain’s slipping one cog and catching the next. By the end of Volume 5, however, we see he’s notched up. Which is why even if Book Five is, as some have said, a book of sadness, it is also a book of hope: The chain has caught. The wheels may keep spinning, but they are eating pavement as they go. 

How Knausgaard reached this point is akin to how doctors measure hearing: A stimulus is played continually, at louder and louder volumes, until, if you’ve been listening attentively, you suddenly perceive it. Midway through Volume 5, a man tells Karl Ove: “You have to cross a kind of threshold where nothing matters, get into a zone where you’re not afraid. Then you can do whatever you want.” Knausgaard considers himself weak for being unable to do this: He panders, in action and in writing, to other people.

“I was scared of myself, not in some make-believe way, not to make myself interesting but in reality, scared of what I might do,” Knausgaard writes of his year teaching in Northern Norway, his first after gymnas. That Northern Norway forms a sort of primeval forest bounding Knausgaard’s memory is not incidental. This period, which seems to menace him more than any other, comprises three elements: darkness (the plight of subarctic winter), drunkenness, and 18-year-old Karl Ove’s falling “slightly in love” with a 13-year-old girl—one of his students. Drinking and sex are, to Knausgaard, a kind of darkness; the darkness of the reptilian brain. 

It is here that you need to understand Knausgaard’s relationship to Christianity: He’s not a Christian, but you could easily call him a man of God. And a man of God does not sanctify sex. Depending on orthodoxy, sex may be seen as necessary, even pleasurable, but it will never lead to holiness. And be it natural or be it theater, the brutal side of male arousal cannot be shrouded in the sacred. Which is why, paradoxically, what makes My Struggle so upsetting to a female reader is also exactly what may redeem it: Sex and souls are separate. 

In Book Two, Knausgaard writes of his children: “[W]hat they “are” has been present in them ever since the first day. ...  [T]he little bit they could do, like sucking on a breast, raising their arms as reflex actions..., what they ‘are’ has nothing to do with [this]..., but is more a kind of that shines within them.” It doesn’t matter if you don’t believe in souls as such. It’s enough that Knausgaard does. Male and female bodies are different; defined by social experience, men and women are different. But souls, being of neither body nor experience, have no such separation. When Knausgaard looks at a woman, he becomes a man. When Knausgaard looks at heaven, he becomes a person. His writing from the former forces a woman to dissociate. His writing from the latter, finally, fully, allows her access. Knausgaard is no longer “for men” or “for women trying to understand men”: He is for anyone who craves a glimpse of the divine. 

This brings me to something a friend once said about My Struggle. In Book Two, upon being rejected by Linda, his future second wife, Karl Ove gets very drunk, goes home, breaks a bottle, and proceeds to take one of the shards to his face: over and over, staring in the mirror and methodically slicing into his skin until everything is gory and die-cut. In Book Five, he does nearly the same thing. While among the series’ most-referenced scenes, these are not so much acts of self-harm, as some have said, as they are religious mortifications of the flesh. My friend suggested that the same unflinching, clinical willingness it took for Karl Ove to carve open his face with a piece of glass—an Opus Dei-esque self-flagellation—was exactly the kind of intensity it took to embark upon a project like My Struggle. Show me a man gazing into the abyss, and I’ll show you Karl Ove Knausgaard looking in the bathroom mirror. He has survived the abyss gazing back.

And yet, it isn’t enough to simply peer into the void: permanent trespass is required. The turning point seems to come in the final hundred pages of Volume 5, after Knausgaard has hit existential bottom—or perhaps he has felt the give of his final safety net.

Looking at Knausgaard’s fiction from his middle twenties, which he includes verbatim in Volume 5, the writing is—as Karl Ove was told in the Writing Academy—superficial, derivative, immature. The pronouns are first person or gendered third, the characters boys and young men and men, with women as mobile objects to populate the frame or energize the plot. The perspective is most often first-person-shooter: claustrophobic and self-conscious.

What he wrote after, in his debut novel and ensuing stories—in “a state in which you are out of yourself,” a period in which Knausgaard would reread his writing from the night before and feel as if it were a divination—are entirely different. The perspective is first person; a delicate omniscient; or second person, as if, indeed, the reader and Knausgaard both have become angels hovering above the earth: “You go there to get the best possible view,” he writes in his first book, Out of the World. He has solved the problem of his consciousness; Knausgaard the man has gone so deep he’s come out the other side. It’s akin to what Maggie Nelson has said of writing poetry versus writing prose, and how the former permits the near-entire immolation of gendered pronouns. There is only the voice and the “you.” In much the same way, Knausgaard’s writing, now that he’s doing it right, has a similar refinement.

Even so, as a man, Karl Ove is still perturbingly sexist and self-involved: Two paragraphs after recognizing the incredible self-effacement he has achieved in his writing, Knausgaard allows Tonje, his wife, to use his computer, for half an hour and only grudgingly. He writhes with impatience outside the office while she works, “so that she would understand what a sacrifice” it was for him. But that’s the point: Here, the writing and the man are no longer the same. In Volume 5, we have watched as Knausgaard the writer and Knausgaard the man finally cleave apart.

It’s only after you see the two Knausgaards separating that you can understand My Struggle’s singularity—because, of course, what we have been reading for five volumes is the result of not only a splitting but also perfect reassembly. This is the real achievement of My Struggle, and while it requires immense strength, this is something different than power. One necessitates a hierarchy: Power is power over. The other is an ability to absorb near-infinite force and survive, if not unscathed, then in one piece—a rarer trait by far. In physics, power equals work divided by time. There’s no equivalent formula for strength.

Karl Ove Knausgaard’s first book was titled Out of the World, and not At Time for EverythingThis article has been updated to reflect the correction.