Karl Ove Knausgaard’s Feats of Shame and Openness

Kim Adrian on My Struggle's Experimental Vision

Thursday, July 12th

At the little sushi restaurant near my husband’s new office, I fish a flat sliver of ice out of my water glass and rub it against the inside of my wrist. David asks how a person can get carpel tunnel from reading a book, and I take the final installment of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s novel My Struggle out of my backpack to show him, again, how thick it is.

‘‘Mostly it happened at the beginning. When all the weight was in my right hand.’’

‘‘Wow. Dedicated.’’

The waitress comes over to take our orders. David gets the eel bento box. I get the spicy tuna roll with flying fish roe.

‘‘Actually, it goes pretty fast. His tone, diction, the whole energy of it—it’s very natural feeling. You’d like that aspect of things. You’d like his descriptions, I think.’’

‘‘Like what?’’

I pick up the brute (according to my kitchen scale it weighs three pounds) and start leafing, but—it’s weird—crammed as I know it is with incredible descriptions of the most ordinary, everyday activities—from making a cup of coffee, to holding an infant’s tiny bottom, to mowing a lawn—I can’t seem to find anything really terrific to read out loud.

‘‘How about: ‘Above me a pigeon cooed, the sound came suddenly and was very close. I looked up, it sounded like it came from inside the roof.’’’

David shrugs.

‘‘Yeah, that is a bit flat.’’ I search some more. ‘‘Okay, how about: ‘I picked up the butter dish and put it down in front of me, drawing the knife toward me across the dark yellow surface which by now had been softened by the sun, then spreading the small curl that had gathered on the flat of its blade over the bread. The crusts were brown, verging on black, quite smooth on top, with a powdering of flour here and there, though porous in the cross section, tightly enclosing the soft white substance of the bread itself.’ ’’

‘‘Well, that’s a little drawn out.’’

‘‘Yeah, he does that a lot. It’s very immersive. There are thousands of descriptions like that. But it changes things to pull one out of context. When you’re reading, it just seems very real. Like, very concrete.’’

David says he can see what I’m saying.

‘‘The whole context thing is a serious problem though. It makes it impossible to sum up. Summary just feels wrong when you’re talking about a novel that’s essentially about expansion, inexhaustibility.’’

‘‘Every time I look at that thing,’’ he says, nodding toward the book on the table, ‘‘I think about Maurice Smith’s comment on my thesis.’’ David is an architect. He went to graduate school ages ago, but stories about Maurice Smith, his favorite professor, are perennial.

‘‘What’d he say? I forget.’’

‘‘Too long. B minus.’’


Sunday, July 15th

We’re walking along the Muddy River (a shallow band of opaque water that runs through the outskirts of Boston), and I’m telling David about shame and how it works in My Struggle as a kind of deep thematic structure, an underlying foundation.

‘‘Why shame? Isn’t that kind of a low-rent emotion?’’

My husband has little interest in the Norwegian writer, but he indulges my obsession and listens patiently as I explain how shame is connected to Knausgaard’s fixation on the inner and the outer, on the personal landscape of emotion and the shared realm of human ideas, on the flow of individual consciousness and the world of social interaction.

“Summary just feels wrong when you’re talking about a novel that’s essentially about expansion, inexhaustibility.’’

Basically, Knausgaard views shame as a kind of membrane stretching between these two realms—the inner, the outer—a semipermeable barrier that functions to keep unacceptable feelings, antisocial, radical, or obsessive thoughts, any action or reaction that could be considered socially deviant, destructive, or simply undesirable, from leaking out of the self and into the social sphere. And every time we transgress this membrane, we experience those painful emotions associated with shame. Of these, the most powerful is almost certainly mortification, which, etymologically speaking, is so traumatic as to simulate the sensation of actually dying.

‘‘Huh,’’ says David. ‘‘That’s interesting.’’

‘‘Ultimately, I think his insistence on openness—or, to put it another way, personal freedom—is really an experimental confrontation with shame conducted on the ground of literature.’’ I stop to take a picture on my phone: some puffy white berries dangling off a vine. ‘‘At least, that’s one way of looking at it.’’

‘‘Hey, a tanager.’’ David points to a tiny spot of vermillion twitching high up in a pine tree near the two-lane roadway that traces the same path as the river.

‘‘But the really interesting thing about My Struggle,’’ I continue, ‘‘is how Knausgaard uses writing very strategically as a way of bypassing this membrane. Because the act of writing is a curious hybrid: both public and private. Public in the sense that it’s essentially a social act—as all linguistic acts are, at root, social; private in the sense that it’s done in isolation, when we’re alone with our computers or our notebooks. And because shame doesn’t enter into the equation when we’re alone, because we can have the most radical or antisocial or disgusting or simply idiotic thoughts and not be ashamed of them, because they exist only inside of us, it’s much easier (though not exactly easy), when writing, to circumvent the kneejerk reactions and repressions shame has taught us over the course of our lifetimes.

In other words, for this particular experiment, writing happens to be the perfect tool. With writing, Knausgaard lets everything from the inside flow onto the page and quite consciously refuses to let it filter through the membrane of shame. At the same time, throughout the entire novel, he inspects the way that membrane works very closely, because it’s a huge part of his life. He’s a very shame-ridden person. He’s really haunted by that emotion.’’

David has stopped to watch a warbler perched on the tip of a dead branch on an uprooted tree. He doesn’t say anything for a long time. I’m used to it. It’s something he does. After the bird flies off and we start walking again, he says, ‘‘I’m sorry, but isn’t that kind of self-indulgent? Whenever you explain it to me, it just seems so self-obsessed and immature.’’

‘‘Yes, it’s true. You probably wouldn’t like it. But it’s not really self-obsessed. Though that is a criticism he gets a lot. But if shame exists between the self and society, paying attention to it means paying attention to what’s on both sides. Knausgaard may focus on his inner life, but that life is always pressing against the outer sphere—the people around him, his personal relationships, larger society. Even really huge cultural and historical forces. He writes about all these things but always from the perspective of the self.’’

David says he can see that. Then he tells me about the lighting fixtures he’s ordered for his new office space. It’s been a long process, setting up this office space. Outside of the kids, it’s the main thing we talk about these days, next to Knausgaard.


Wednesday, July 18th

Milk, grapes, lettuce, butter, sauerkraut, limes, eggs, hot sauce . . . David is unloading the groceries into our fridge. I’m folding the bags and telling him about my day, which consisted of frustration.

‘‘I tried to get some of the overarching concerns down, but the book is just too big. Too meta. And then there’s the Hitler essay, which is super long, and super random, and stuck right in the middle.’’

‘‘What do you want for dinner? Salmon?’’

I say the salmon is good—better when it’s fresh—and that I’ll make some tofu for Isabella, our daughter, who’s been a vegetarian since freshman year of high school.

‘‘There’s something sort of didactic about it. Almost formulaic. Like he’s actually trying to solve some kind of equation, some kind of linguistic formula. He uses these terms—the ‘I,’ the ‘You,’ the ‘We,’ the ‘Them.’ It’s in a completely different mode, with a totally different diction, different tone. It’s philosophy. It reminds me a little of Giorgio Agamben.’’

‘‘Giorgio A-who?’’

‘‘Remember that book I liked so much about time and memory? I think it was about time and memory. Anyway, it’s just plunked there in the middle of the book—400 pages long. Thematically, there’s some overlap, but basically it’s separate. There are connections but nothing that specifically relates to the larger narrative. Except maybe his idea about names.’’

‘‘What do you mean ‘names’?’’

‘‘Peoples’ names. Knausgaard uses everyone’s real name in My Struggle. It’s part of the point, the whole premise. It’s all supposed to be true. Totally unvarnished, unedited, unmodified. But he can’t use his father’s name because of his uncle, his father’s brother, who threatens a lawsuit when he reads the manuscript of Book 1. That’s the nubbin of conflict that starts things off in Book 6. His uncle gets super angry, says everything Knausgaard wrote having to do with his father’s death—which was horrible and the basis of Book 1—was a pack of lies.’’

‘‘Was it?’’

‘‘I don’t think so. But there are a lot of ugly details, like how his father used to shit his pants because he’d be too drunk to go to the toilet, and how Knausgaard’s grandmother was an alcoholic too, and also incontinent because she was so old. She should have been in a home, but his father wouldn’t let her go. On and on. There are a lot of things. Like after his father dies, Knausgaard and his brother arrive at their grandmother’s house to find its floors strewn with empty beer and vodka bottles. There are empties everywhere: on the stairs, in the living room, the kitchen, all over the house, which is filthy. That’s a decent chunk of Book 1—Knausgaard just cleaning his grandmother’s house after his father’s death. It’s an incredible section, probably my favorite part of the entire novel. But you can understand why the uncle would be upset by it.’’

‘‘I don’t get it. What does that have to do with Hitler? There’s no connection.’’

‘‘It’s pretty forced, but the link, as far as I can make out, is that Knausgaard wasn’t allowed to use his father’s real name because of his uncle’s lawsuit. So as a result, his father is sort of vague, almost an abstract presence in the novel, because, Knausgaard says, without a name—a real name—a person loses their reality. Their individuality. Their actuality. And that’s what happened to the Jews that the Nazis killed in masses. Nameless masses. They were stripped of their individuality, their specificity. It’s almost like they became unreal.’’

David makes an impatient sound, opens the fridge again, tugs a beer out of a six-pack, shuts the fridge, twists off the bottle cap.

‘‘It’s actually a really elegant argument with hundreds of tangents. He calls it ‘The Name and the Number,’ but mostly I think it’s about a kind of . . . devolution of something. Some essential human quality we’ve lost track of. A spiritual connection to life, maybe, or to the mysteries of life.’


Thursday, July 19th

We’re walking to the Russian store to pick up a bottle of green soda for Isaac. The Russian store sells very interesting things: mosaic-like deli meats and miles of smoked fish and ornately iced cakes and intriguing jams (walnut, pine cone), as well as cheap, vaguely Soviet-era-seeming ice cream bars—excellent, actually. Our son likes the birch-flavored soda.

As we walk, I tell David about how My Struggle, as a whole, is practically shapeless, even though each of its six books does have a narrative arc, no matter how slight. Book 1 deals with Knausgaard’s bewildered grieving process following the death of his father; Book 2 draws a portrait of his complicated relationship to Linda Bostrom, his second wife, fellow writer, and mother of his children; Book 3 describes his early childhood years; Book 4 is his attempt at the ‘‘artist as a young man’’ thing; and Book 5 focuses on his development as a writer, an intellectual, a wannabe musician, a romantic lover, a high-functioning alcoholic . . .

‘‘In other words, they all look at a discrete chunk of his past. But Book 6 is different because the past it examines is so recent that it starts getting mixed up with the present. Basically, Book 6 is about My Struggle. Its composition, publication, its critical and public reception . . .’’

‘‘You don’t like self-involved people. Why do you like this book so much?’’

‘‘I guess it is self-involved. But it also makes sense, because he’s writing about his life—that’s the whole idea from the very beginning. And eventually his life obviously includes writing this giant novel, so it’s got to come into play at some point. Though I admit it does get pretty airless. Which is kind of weird in a book that’s all about openness.’’

“There’s something sort of didactic about it. Almost formulaic. Like Knausgaard is actually trying to solve some kind of equation, some kind of linguistic formula.”

Inside the Russian store the AC is blasting. I find the green soda and put it in the cart. David inspects a large carp in the freezer case.

‘‘Isaac would love this,’’ he says. Isaac is very fond of fish. He shows me how each C-shaped scale is clearly visible. That’s how he knows it’s a carp even though the label is in Russian. ‘‘This thing must weigh over twelve pounds!’’

Inside its cloudy plastic bag, the fish looks like a slightly dingy piece of marble carved in a hyper-realistic fashion.

‘‘It’s like a metaphor for everything that’s wrong with everything.’’

‘‘Don’t be so gloomy. It’s fantastic,’’ says David, then he takes a picture on his phone so he can show it to Isaac later. ‘‘Should we get some potatoes while we’re here? And dill? Could you make those chicken cutlets you’re so good at? Maybe they sell ground chicken.’’

In the end, we buy so many things that the cashier gives us a gourmet chocolate bar as a thank-you. On the way home, we walk quickly because we don’t want the ice cream to melt.

‘‘Their marriage is rocky, for obvious reasons. Like he’s insanely ambitious. And a workaholic. And she’s super fragile. Actually mentally ill.’’

‘‘Are we on Knausgaard again?’’

I nod, then tip back my head so my sunglasses will slip back along the bridge of my nose. My hands are full of bags.

‘‘He never actually comes out and says it, but it’s kind of a hovering thing, the idea that maybe part of the reason she gets so sick at the end of Book 6 is because she’s been crushed by the whole process of his writing the other books. Not to mention, she doesn’t come off so great in them. She usually seems extremely needy. Very weak. His depiction of her is hard on her.’’

‘‘Well, that’s just really weird,’’ says David.


‘‘That you never told me this whole time that his wife is mentally ill.’’

‘‘Really? She’s manic depressive. But you don’t get that right away. At least I didn’t. It took a while to sink in. I don’t know if that’s me or just the way he wrote it. But in any case, he’s always trying to pick up the pieces around her. Taking care of the kids, doing the shopping, the cooking, the diaper changing, because she just can’t a lot of the time. Then, at the end of Book 6, she gets really ill and commits herself to a psychiatric hospital.‘‘

‘‘He writes these incredible descriptions. They’re so much like my mother. Like, at one point, she does her makeup all crazy with blue eye shadow and glitter. He gets the whole charming-hyper thing down. But for a long time, he’s in denial because at first she claims she’s just checking herself in to get some sleep. She has really bad insomnia. It only hits him a couple of days later that she’s there for another reason.’’

David puts his bags down and bends to pick up a pencil stub from the grit at the side of the road. It is extremely tiny.

‘‘You are so not listening.’’

‘‘Yes, I am.’’

‘‘What did I just say?’’

‘‘If you did crosswords you’d understand. This pencil is perfect for crosswords.’’


Full essay originally published in the Gettysburg Review Spring 2019 issue. Used with permission of the Gettysburg Review. Copyright © 2019 by Kim Adrian.

Kim Adrian
Kim Adrian
Kim Adrian is the author of the memoir The Twenty-Seventh Letter of the Alphabet (University of Nebraska Press, 2018) and Sock, part of Bloomsbury’s Object Lesson series (2017). Her book Letters to Knausgaard is forthcoming from Fiction Advocate in the spring of 2020. Learn more at kimadrian.com.

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