Karl Ove Knausgaard Harvill Secker; $32.99
Much of the notoriety associated with Karl Ove Knausgaard’s monumental series, My Struggle, is due to its autobiographical claims, which occur on an extravagant scale. In these exhaustive, tell-all novels, Knausgaard purports to be accurately describing his life, and the people in it. Books One to Five cover the bulk of Knausgaard’s life: from childhood, through to adolescence, the alcoholism and death of his father, life with his children, his second wife’s illness, and his artistic ambitions – recounting in great detail everything from the eating of cornflakes to the appearance of his own shit. This volume, The End, is the sixth and final book in the series, bringing My Struggle’s overall word count to something close to 1 million.
Throughout the project, Knausgaard has demonstrated his ongoing preoccupation with what he calls “extreme form” – put together, the novels are so massive and unwieldy that they risk the appearance of having “no form”. It is an aesthetic, Knausgaard argues, that brings us “closer to a real experience”. But what happens when Knausgaard’s claims to veracity, and his commitment to the raw representation of life, are suddenly called into question? The real experience that this final volume attends to is the publication of the My Struggle series. The book opens in 2009, shortly before the first volume is due to appear. Knausgaard is in the process of sending out the manuscript to family and friends, and seeking their permission to publish the work. What emerges from this correspondence, however, brings the whole project into doubt. It becomes increasingly clear that what was expressed in the previous volumes as comprehensive and accurate recollection is no such thing. If the “very premise” of the project lay in “describing reality”, in this volume Knausgaard’s ambitions are swiftly undermined. He spirals into crisis, and ultimately acknowledges that the project “has been an experiment, and it has failed”.
The chronological narrative dealing with the fallout of the project bookends the novel. But the bulk of The End consists of a bizarre essayistic digression, lasting more than 500 pages, in which Knausgaard discusses his fascination with Nazism and its relationship to his project, and his interest in Stefan Zweig, Friedrich Hölderlin and James Joyce, among many others. He also spends much time dwelling on the poetry of Paul Celan: “the question posed is this: how to name that which is nothing without making it something?” We swerve in and out of an indigestible rant, where narrative continuity is downplayed for the sake of his to rico philosophical rumination. Frequently bemoaning our loss of the sublime – a dimension of experience that “has become almost extinct” and has been “abandoned” by contemporary art – The End does not narrate a life in the way of previous volumes so much as endeavour to reinstate the primacy of this experience through the gigantean form of the novel, and by divulging the content of the mind at work behind it. What the reader encounters is something so vast, immersive and bewildering that it seems to threaten annihilation, as only the sublime can. M