Book One of the six volume work “My Struggle” by Karl Ove Knausgaard, begins with a two sentence description of life and death in terms of a beating (or non-beating) heart.
More than the last half of the book (close to three hundred pages) follows Karl being informed of his father’s death and then together with his brother Yngve literally cleaning up the unholy mess their father left behind, while arranging his funeral. He had been an alcoholic who drank and drank until his heart finally gave out.
I have read that in volume six, Knausgaard explains how his struggle differs from Adolf Hitler’s, even though he chose the same title for his autobiography. That the author defers that explanation does not deter me from coming to my own conclusions about what his struggle is about. He certainly gives us enough material to form an opinion.
Unlike the French existentialists Sartre and Camus, Knausgaard neither philosophizes about the meaning/non-meaning of life, nor does he write a novel in which the main character sees no meaning in life. Rather than dumping hot coals in the lap of the reader and saying, “now you deal with this”, he simply recounts his everyday life with maximum transparency and minimal judgment. Not trying to persuade, impress, excuse himself, or elicit sympathy or compassion. His approach is “this is what was”. His accepting what was, and who he was, I found deeply refreshing.
Life and death are the bookends of Book One. The mortal limits have been set, the prerequisite and ground for accepting what is. How then to fill in the space between, and create meaning between the two most important parts of our lives that we do not control: our birth and our death?
The author succeeds in creating meaning in the book /his life in straightforward and subtle ways. There are two passages in the book where Knausgaard speaks directly to the reader, as if he were a friend sharing a valuable secret about human existence. In both he uses painterly art as the stepping stone between the miracle of creation and human consciousness. Firstly, in a reflection on Rembrandt’s self-portrait at the age of his death, where Knausgaard brings our attention to the way eyes can hold immortal spirit within them, no matter the aging folds of skin that surround them. Secondly, in a rant against contemporary conceptual art, pointing out that it is “all intellect” and cuts us off from experiencing the wonders of nature and reality itself.
These two straightforward examples are sufficient evidence for me that the author does find meaning in life – a meaning transcending intellect ideology, or morality.
On a more subtle sustained level, like the sound of a river rushing by its banks, there are his choices and actions. We make our choices, carry out our actions and are in turn formed by them. His behavior seems simple enough, but I consider it radical and meaningful.
When Klaus walks into the house his father occupied for the years before his death, he encounters not only an Augean stable of accumulated filth, (which I will not describe as indescribable because he succeeds in detailing it in page after page teeming with putrefaction, odor, viscosity, and vileness) but also his somewhat demented grandmother, who watched her son drink himself to death and shared alcohol with him on a daily basis, albeit in a more limited manner.
How the author chose to actively and whole-heartedly deal with that horrific situation reflects the seriousness with which he held life. A seriousness grounded in the meanings and values he embraced. Those values then became manifest in his deeds. The deeds in turn sustained the meaning and seriousness he invested in them. Klaus did not think about creating meaning, he created meaning by acting from a deep, intuitive place.
In Book One we really get to know Klaus Ove Knausgaard, an existentialist who walks the talk without even talking it. I look forward to reading Book Two.
Frank Rubenfeld, December, 2013