Illustration by Jesse Draxler; Martin Lengemann / LAIF / Redux

How Writing ‘My Struggle’ Undid Knausgaard

The iconoclastic author, whose six-volume autobiographical novel is now complete in English, has lost his faith in radical self-exposure. What happened?

I know more about the Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard than I do about my parents, my children, my friends, and possibly my husband. I know how he lost his virginity, what he buys at the supermarket, how he makes his coffee, what kind of cigarettes he smokes and how many, the quality of his bowel movements. I know how he shapes the narrative of his life: his initial difficulty writing novels, his relationship with his parents, his two marriages. I know that he loves his children but feels emasculated pushing a stroller. I know there are youthful crimes he still feels ashamed of. I know the pin for his bank card.

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I know all this, as do Knausgaard’s readers around the world, because he has written about it in My Struggle, the massive autobiographical novel that has been the most unlikely international literary sensation of the past decade. Brutally candid in its banality and sordidness, forsaking conventional strategies of narration and characterization for a heady rush of words on the page, this great disruption of contemporary fiction has sought nothing less than to break the form of the novel. Its 3,600-some pages, at once weirdly self-deprecating and breathtakingly egoistic, began to appear in English, at the rate of a volume a year, in 2012, culminating this fall with the translation of Book Six. The fascination of this Brobdingnagian paean to the self, which follows the outline and essence of Knausgaard’s life but fictionalizes scenes and dialogue, lies in watching him fight his way to the creation of himself as a writer—the most important of the “struggles” contained within it.

Somehow he manages to keep us rooting for his success, even as his disgraces accumulate with the volumes. Karl Ove, as he depicts himself—the narrator is explicitly identified with the author—is not an appealing character. As a child, he finds amusement in dropping rocks onto cars driving on the highway. At one point he and a friend set fire to the woods. Starting around age 16, he habitually binge-drinks until he blacks out, frequently waking up surrounded by blood, vomit, or both. His sole interest in girls and women lies in how far they will let him go. After Tonje, his first wife, is suddenly admitted to the hospital, he leaves her alone there so he can keep a previous engagement with his editor. When the inspiration for Book One strikes, he moves into his office for six weeks, leaving his second wife, Linda, with their newborn baby.

This portrayal is, of course, deliberate. The spiritual confession is among the models for My Struggle, though it is truly a confession for our time: Knausgaard finds not God, but himself. For this reason, criticizing his character, even at its ugliest moments, is beside the point. The uglier he is, the more powerful his redemption becomes. “These are things you are not supposed to say … [But] I am just describing life,” Knausgaard once said. “I may live that life wrong, but it certainly makes it more interesting to write about than if I lived it right.” His uncensored honesty also makes that life more interesting to read about. Part of the propulsive energy of these books is their train-wreck quality: You can’t look away.

Knausgaard has been called a writer for the “selfie generation,” and there is indeed something of our oversharing culture in his exhaustive approach. His idea, he has said, is “to get as close as possible to my life.” The immersive effect of his work, together with the extraordinary speed at which he wrote it—he spent four months writing Book One and just eight weeks on the 626-page Book Five—is such that, as the novelist Zadie Smith has observed, it feels “as if the writing and the living are happening simultaneously … You live his life with him.” We see him sitting at his desk in his apartment in Malmö, writing, reading books, doing kindergarten drop-offs and pickups. He is particularly effective at conveying the comedic tedium of life with children and all their incessant and irrational demands.

Book Six includes a hilarious account of a package tour to a miserable family resort in the Canary Islands, during which Karl Ove and Linda unwittingly agree to sit through an aggressive sales spiel for a time-share while their children whine to go to the beach. There is also a stomach-turning episode in which, clearing out a cabin that he owns to prepare it for sale, Knausgaard has to figure out how to dispose of two buckets of human waste. Though the stench makes him retch, he digs a big hole in the backyard and pours the contents in, then covers the pit with dirt and branches from the garden. Still, he can smell it, and the dirt above the filled hole wobbles beneath his feet. He leaves the spot as it is, hoping the potential buyers scheduled to visit won’t notice.

“I’m an engineer of the soul,” Knausgaard says at one point to a friend, who wryly responds: “I’d say garbage man of the soul would be more accurate.” Indeed, the volumes of My Struggle are an enormous dumping ground for aspects of life not ordinarily found in fiction, to which Knausgaard turns his deliberate, insistent attention. His book does everything that students of writing are told not to do. People do not just enter the room: They arrive at the threshold, put their key in the lock, open the door, and take off their outerwear. Many, many cups of tea and coffee are made. Banal phone conversations are reproduced verbatim. In a notorious passage in Book Three, which takes place when Knausgaard was a boy, he and a classmate relieve themselves in the woods; the act is described in the most exacting terms. “It’s unheard of to go into such detail, but for a kid it’s very important how the shit looks, how it smells, all the differences between one shit and the other,” Knausgaard said in an interview with the New Yorker critic James Wood. “That’s a child’s world.”

Through the work of Rachel Cusk, Ben Lerner, and Sheila Heti, among others, autofiction has become one of the dominant strains of contemporary writing, dissolving the boundaries between imagination and reality in a hybrid of autobiography, essay, and novel. But there is no coy blurring of subject and narrator in Knausgaard: What’s on the page, he insists, is his life. Not surprisingly, his approach has evoked strong responses. Wood, an early admirer, heralded the elegiac streak that runs through My Struggle; he was swept up by Knausgaard’s quest to reclaim the sense of meaningfulness that characterizes the experience of childhood and gradually fades as one gets older. The critic William Deresiewicz felt impatient and bored, unable to share in the generally rapturous response to Knausgaard’s hyperrealism and honesty. In The Nation he faulted the writer for his sloppy language and reliance on cliché, symptoms of a superficial “blogologue” method and mission.

After spending the better part of two summers reading my way through My Struggle and then the quartet of short, memoiristic books that have appeared in English over the past year and a half—Knausgaard names each after the season in which it takes place, starting with Autumn—I find myself maddeningly ambivalent. The lack of discipline in some of the volumes is dismaying, but the surrender of inhibition can be revelatory. His sheer force of will elicits awe. So does the audacity that has propelled him through his dissatisfaction with contemporary fiction to a wholly new method of writing. And as he wraps up his one-of-a-kind undertaking, he doesn’t let up. The spectacle of the writer wrestling with what he has created, having emptied out his life on the page, proves as riveting as it is frustrating.

How Knausgaard himself understands his endeavor has been a constant, yet less than consistently articulated, theme of that endeavor. The first five volumes of My Struggle are a bildungsroman, a chronicle of the author’s journey toward his magnum opus. In Book Five, having emerged as a writer, he has this to say about his vocation:

It was beyond investigation, beyond explanation or justification, there was no rationality in it at all, yet it was self-evident, all-eclipsing: anything other than writing was meaningless for me. Nothing else would be enough, would quench my thirst. But thirst for what?

In Book Six, he sets out on a fuller reckoning, which turns out to entail an investigation in the form of an essayistic interlude—440 digressive pages long—titled “The Name and the Number.” To say that it defies easy explanation (even if you’ve read it more than once, as I have) is an understatement.

Many readers may be tempted just to skip this middle third of the 1,160-page book, and you can do just that without missing any of the plot, such as it is. The first third describes in characteristically ample detail the completion and publication of Book One, and the repercussions for Knausgaard’s personal life and literary reputation; the last third jumps ahead to the aftermath of Book Four’s publication, by which time he’s become famous. But for Knausgaard, I suspect the middle section actually constitutes the heart of My Struggle: This is where, in search of a clearer idea of the purpose of his exhaustive odyssey, he pursues the roots of the relationship between reality and fiction, the theme that has preoccupied him from the start. And this time the writer—who once said, in a line that might serve as his motto, “Wherever I turned I saw only myself”—tackles the theme in a broader social context.

As always, we experience Knausgaard’s process in what feels like real time, thinking through his ideas with him. When Book Six begins, he has sent the manuscript of Book One to the major figures mentioned in it and is anxiously awaiting their reactions. Most respond favorably, but his uncle is enraged by the description of the circumstances surrounding the death of Knausgaard’s father, his brother, which forms the centerpiece of the volume. He disputes the details of the scene and accuses his nephew of “verbal rape.” Knausgaard’s publisher advises him to resolve the matter by changing a few names, but Knausgaard eventually chafes against any weakening of the novel’s particularity: “The whole point of the novel was to depict reality as it was.” He seems genuinely shocked that the people he portrays may not see “reality” in the same way that he does or may object to being immortalized at such length and with such specificity.

Yet why is it so important to him to refer to his father by his true name? The contemplation of this question kicks off “The Name and the Number,” in which he tries to adjudicate one of the essential questions underlying his work: How should a writer negotiate the competing claims of imagination and reality in rendering his or her personal experience? In what amounts to a long flashback, Knausgaard remembers the moment when he was about to begin writing My Struggle. Troubled by the tension between the specificity of life and the generality of literature, which requires that some particularity be sacrificed in the service of shaping a narrative and creating empathy and connection, he longs for an alternate form of fiction—one that will allow him to portray his own experience of growing up, “raw and arbitrary,” in all its authentic randomness. “Every name that went from being real to being fictional weakened that feeling and pulled the novel into the shimmer of enfeebled reality it had been written to engage against,” he argues.

Carried onward mostly by association and allusion, he proceeds to wrestle for nearly 100 pages with a poem by Paul Celan, frustrated to find it “closed” to him. Yet in the course of essentially live-blogging his line-by-line effort to make sense of it, Knausgaard finds a different way of asking a related question that occupies him: how to render the immediacy of subjective reality in a language that is “bound up with a society and a history attaching to that society.” Musing on Celan’s burden of working in a language corrupted by the Nazis—who deployed German as the medium for propaganda, euphemism (“final solution”), and dehumanization—he is in turn led to Mein Kampf, a Norwegian edition of which he and his brother found (along with a Nazi pin) while cleaning out the house after the death of their father and their grandmother. For anyone who has wondered at Knausgaard’s appropriation of Hitler’s title—and who among his readers hasn’t?—he delivers an illuminating surprise. He hadn’t yet read Hitler’s work when he decided some years later (for reasons he does not explain) that his novel-in-progress would share its title—but then he plunged in. The writer who was proceeding at a careening pace, obsessed with “getting as close to my life as possible,” was also deeply engaging with Mein Kampf—a monster’s approach to capturing his own life on the page.

If Knausgaard is daring to consider the darkest possible lineage for his own work, he never comes out and says it. But Mein Kampf, he recognizes, is also a kind of bildungsroman, and he initially tries to understand it as a literary work, situating it in the context of modernism alongside Joyce’s Ulysses, the first volumes of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, and Kafka’s The Castle. He grows impatient with Mein Kampf’s lack of transparency and its easy slippage from the personal into vague, platitudinous generalities, whether the topic is Hitler’s family, his failure as an artist, or his experiences in World War I. And so Knausgaard rigorously attacks the book, marshaling an astounding arsenal of research to correct Hitler’s omissions and essentially constructing a mini-biography of his early years.

Focused as ever on the personal, Knausgaard insists on viewing Hitler as a human being—not as the embodiment of evil but as a struggling and pathetic youth whose creative dreams outstripped his talents. He writes that he refuses to see Hitler “as if his whole life were tainted by what he would become and do,” even comparing him to Rilke as an artistically aspiring teenager. He leans heavily on the memoirs of August Kubizek, Hitler’s friend and roommate in Linz and Vienna, who found him “a young man fired with enthusiasm for life.” Knausgaard includes anecdotes that display Hitler’s early failures of confidence. When 18-year-old Adolf arrived in Vienna hoping to study at the Academy of Fine Arts (he gave up after he was rejected twice), he had a letter of recommendation addressed to a famous professor, but was so shy that he fled from the man’s office when someone asked what he was doing there. He fell in love with a girl he saw on the street in Linz, but never found the courage to introduce himself; from Vienna, he sent her a postcard asking her to wait for him, but left it unsigned. (I found these stories, in Knausgaard’s telling, improbably touching.)

Knausgaard notes, perceptively, that both episodes reveal Hitler’s lack of courage to take the step that would unite his fantasy life with reality by testing the plausibility of his dreams. “What reality does, and brutally so, is to correct,” he writes. “And a prominent trait of the young Hitler’s character is precisely an unwillingness to accept correction.”

Without being explicit, Knausgaard invites the idea that My Struggle can be read as a reaction to Mein Kampf, a rewriting of it—that one of the ways in which he strives for authenticity is by doing exactly what Hitler avoids in his book. Where Hitler is vague, he will be specific. Where Hitler subordinates personal experience to ideology, he will wallow in the idiosyncratic and scrupulously avoid anything that smacks of a higher cause. Hitler’s work is fundamentally dishonest. Knausgaard presses for a radical honesty, which means trying to express, somehow, an innerness that seems unshareable—and daring to let fantasy life collide with reality, to flaunt rather than bury an acute sense of shame.

Yet when Knausgaard turns, in the last third of Book Six, from reflection to reimmersion in the day-to-day business of his life, he himself seems poised for “correction” as he confronts a social reality well beyond an irate uncle. In the space between the appearance of Book One, where we left him, and the publication of Book Four, to which he fast-forwards, he’s become famous. Repercussions multiply. Journalists have interviewed everyone he knows, including the people who work in the Chinese takeout place next to his apartment building. His first wife has expressed the desire to make her own documentary about the experience of being a character in one of his books.

And then, with only a few weeks to go before his deadline on Book Six, his second wife, Linda, who is bipolar, suffers a breakdown. Knausgaard blames the novel and the way it made visible the discrepancy between his and Linda’s narratives of their marriage; he says he especially dreaded showing her Book Two, a mostly dark portrait of their relationship and his experience of the travails of fatherhood. Now he has been so preoccupied with his work that he has failed to notice that she is falling apart. Not until she checks herself into the hospital does he fully grasp what has happened. His understandable anxiety about missing his deadlines—he is the family breadwinner—coupled with his grief at her condition is harrowing to read.

“Depicting reality as it was,” in language as true as possible to his immediate experience of that inner and outer reality, now presents itself as a more fraught challenge than Knausgaard understood when he set out. His encounter with Paul Celan and Mein Kampf has reminded him that “all language presupposes an I and a you, together a we.” The “I” and the “you” are easily understood: One cannot speak without expecting to be heard. The “we” is more complicated—as the Nazis’ “extreme reinforcement of the we, and the attendant weakening of the I,” made frighteningly clear. Knausgaard has never considered himself to be part of a “we,” always feeling, he says, like an outsider in any group. Still, he lives in society and is subject to social forces. And as Book Six winds down, with his wife’s mental stability in peril, he announces that he can no longer elude the irreconcilable tension between those forces and the personal voice—the “we” and the “I.”

His books, he writes, have “tried to transcend the social world by conveying the innermost thoughts and innermost feelings of my most private self, my own internal life, but also by describing the private sphere of my family as it exists behind the façade all families set up against the social world.” The social pressures, however, are too powerful to withstand:

I imagined I was going to write exactly what I thought and believed and felt, in other words to be honest, this is how it is, the truth of the I, but it turned out to be so incompatible with the truth of the we, or this is how it is meant to be, that it foundered after only a few short sentences.

The sentences may have flowed, but his work, he now concludes, has not only refused to abide by social norms but has fallen short of capturing the truth of the “I.” In violating prevailing standards of appropriate personal disclosure, “this novel has hurt everyone around me, it has hurt me, and in a few years, when they are old enough to read it, it will hurt my children,” he writes. “It has been an experiment,” he continues,

and it has failed because I have never even been close to saying what I really mean and describing what I have actually seen, but it is not valueless, at least not completely, for when describing the reality of an individual person, when attempting to be as honest as possible is considered immoral and scandalous, the force of the social dimension is visible and also the way it regulates and controls individuals.

By the end of the volume, after Linda has spent weeks in the hospital, he vows that he is finished with writing: “I will never do anything like this to her and our children again … I will revel in, truly revel in, the thought that I am no longer a writer.”

Readers can be forgiven for feeling that Knausgaard is overcorrecting. In declaring that he has sabotaged his endeavor by capitulating to social conventions and at the same time saying that his brutal honesty has caused his wife’s breakdown, he is at his most self-lacerating—a writer professing failure at both art and life. Or is Knausgaard actually having it both ways, doing penance by claiming that My Struggle has gone too far even as he preserves the aura of a pioneer who would have gone further if he could have? Certainly those of us who are reading his volumes in English now, unlike Knausgaard’s Norwegian readers in 2011, can’t take his renunciation of writing seriously. His next four books—the quartet named after the seasons—have already been published. Within only a few years, Knausgaard had already broken his vow.

And yet this ending also feels inevitable. Once Knausgaard has completed the excavation of his life, what else is left to do? He is a writer who prizes newness. He cannot repeat the substance of what he has done, and he seems to have lost faith in his method, or at least to feel that it’s not worth the cost. Where does he go from here? When he said, back in Book Five, that all he knew as he started out was that nothing but writing would quench his thirst, perhaps he was at his most honest—especially since he also confessed that he still wasn’t sure what he was thirsting for.

He hasn’t yet figured it out, to judge by the seasonal quartet, published in Norway in 2015 and 2016, and now complete in English with the appearance of Summer nearly a year after Autumn came out. Knausgaard is as preoccupied as ever with capturing the essence of life before it vanishes. Gone, however, is the “frustrated father of small children who strips himself naked for the reader,” as he described himself in Book Six. Signs are, in Autumn and Winter, that he has been spooked: This is writing that will not hurt anyone, addressed to an intimate, innocent “you,” a baby, by an “I” eager to take in the world rather than expose the self.

With the completion of My Struggle four years behind him, he and Linda (who will soon write two books of her own) have moved from their cluttered apartment in Malmö to what seems to be a very comfortable house outside the city. They are about to have a fourth child, to whom Knausgaard writes a series of letters, filled with aperçu-laden observations of the world. Some of the brief meditations on the stuff of everyday life—teeth, otters, ice cubes—are charming; some are breathtakingly banal. Knausgaard the maximalist is fascinating, enraging, consuming; Knausgaard in miniature is, at best, mildly entertaining. So it’s almost a relief when, in Spring, he returns to fraught domestic terrain. He chronicles a visit with the baby, now three months old, to Linda in the hospital, where she has been on and off ever since suffering another major depression during the pregnancy and taking too many sleeping pills (whether this was an accident or a suicide attempt is unclear).

Yet to compare his treatment of Linda’s travails—her breakdown as his work on Book Six was nearing an end and now this difficult period—is to be struck by a radical change in the narration. The Knausgaard who in My Struggle aired his version of the tensions between them, and who in its final volume wrote as a guilty “I” aware of the harm he may have caused an intimate “we” in doing that, has pulled back. What his role, if any, might be in her recent trouble is never broached. (Could his resumption of writing have had something to do with it?) Instead, in a plaintive epilogue, the “you” whom Knausgaard is addressing has clearly ceased to be his baby daughter and become his wife, and his message is a discomfiting blend of facile uplift and self-absolution. “What happened that summer nearly three years ago, and its repercussions, are long since over,” he writes of the breakdown described earlier in the book. “Sometimes it hurts to live, but there is always something to live for. Could you try to remember that?”

In Summer, Knausgaard tries yet another exploration of what he is living, and writing, for. Dispensing with the letter-to-his-daughter conceit, he alternates between the now-familiar evocations of the natural world and brief diary entries, composed in something like real time, mostly dealing with details of his literary life. And then, with barely an explanation, the journal metamorphoses into fiction of an unexpectedly conventional kind, as if Knausgaard is attempting a break with the self-parasitic form that brought him such fame and frustration. The first-person narrator is no longer himself, but a character based on a woman his grandfather knew during the war, a Norwegian who fell in love with a Nazi soldier from Austria.

The wartime romance, narrated plainly, has haunting moments but is largely unremarkable. Yet, Knausgaard being Knausgaard, his furtive backing into a tale of two “I”s, rooted in very different “we”s, can’t help prompting speculation about what new experiment might be in progress. Why introduce a new novel under the heading of a diary? Why surround historical drama with vignettes about the quotidian phenomena of summer—lawn sprinklers, chestnut trees, ladybugs? After the intense self-focus of My Struggle, does Knausgaard now feel he can write fiction only in disguise? Is there some connection to the breakup of his marriage, which happened (according to press reports) a few months after he finished writing Summer?

We’ll probably find out soon enough. The effect of the quartet reminds me of the hole Knausgaard dug in his cabin’s backyard: Everything looks basically all right on the surface, but the earth feels unsteady under our feet. Perhaps Knausgaard fears the consequences of his continued honesty—for his wife, his children, and other family members. Or perhaps the thoroughness of his excavation has devastated his life the way mining devastates a mountain, making it no longer usable as material.

This article appears in the November 2018 print edition with the headline “Knausgaard Devours Himself.”