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16th of October 2018


The End review: Karl Ove Knausgaard brings his personal saga to a close

The End is a novel of reckoning. It begins in 2009, as the first two books in the series, A Death in the Family and A Man in Love, are being readied for publication. Having written heedlessly about his family and friends, Knausgaard now faces the uncomfortable task of sending out the manuscripts for approval and consulting with his publisher about scenes that might need to be cut and names that might need to be changed or omitted.

A serious problem soon arises, when his uncle Gunnar (not his real name, one assumes) reacts with outrage to the first book's account of the squalid circumstances surrounding the death of Knausgaard's domineering, alcoholic father. Gunnar not only charges Knausgaard with getting his facts wildly wrong; he accuses him of deliberate dishonesty. He begins sending furious emails asserting that his devious nephew has set out to defame his late brother, with the encouragement of Knausgaard's mother, who, he claims, has always hated their family. He threatens legal action. Word of the dispute eventually leaks into the public sphere, feeding the publicity surrounding the novel's impending release. As is the way with such things, the controversy ensures that when A Death in the Family is published it is an immediate succès de scandale.

Gunnar's outrage draws The End back to the basic issue of veracity. Throughout the earlier volumes, Knausgaard drops many hints about the unreliability of his narration, the large gaps of his memory. The sanitised version of events that Gunnar proposes cannot possibly be true, yet the very fact that he disputes the details of such an important incident exposes the contradictions in Knausgaard's autobiographical endeavour. It serves as a reminder of the subjective nature of our impressions and the inevitable falsification that occurs when we try to capture reality in writing.

More importantly, it invites us to consider the morality of Knausgaard's monument to his own self-involvement, to consider whether the "existential intellectualism" that pervades My Struggle, and which Gunnar's lawyer derides as ''pretentious rubbish", is sufficient justification for co-opting the lives of real people. "To write these things you have to be free," Knausgaard reflects late in the book, "and to be free you have to be inconsiderate to others. It is an equation that doesn't work."

The implications of all this extend well beyond the personal. The centrepiece of The End is the long-awaited essay in which Knausgaard explains his objectively outrageous decision to name his novel sequence after Hitler's autobiography, Mein Kampf.

He warms up with a 50-page close reading of Paul Celan's poem Engführung (1958), which he interprets as a brilliant response to the problem of writing poetry after Auschwitz. Celan's achievement, he argues, is to have found a way to salvage the possibility of genuine expressiveness from the wreckage of the German language, after it had been so thoroughly debased by the Nazis that even the most elementary words – blood, soil, people – had become tainted.

From there The End segues into an extended account of Hitler's formative years. In grappling with the problem of evil that Hitler embodies, Knausgaard is particularly anxious to avoid mystifying his subject. His ambition, it transpires, is to try to arrive at some kind of understanding of the psychology of fascism, to gain a clear view of Hitler when he was still an insignificant ordinary citizen, and to examine the process that turned the mind of a socially isolated son of a brutal father in such an abominable direction.

You might think that drawing some kind of credible parallel between the anxieties of a domesticated Norwegian solipsist and the man who bears ultimate responsibility for the Holocaust is a task that presents some considerable formal and intellectual challenges, and you would be right. The Hitler essay proves to be a fitting culmination to My Struggle, if only in the sense that it is absurdly ambitious, shambolic, unscholarly, balanced precariously between profound insight and banality, and yet somehow still manages to be strangely compelling thanks to Knausgaard's raw exposure of his thought processes, his willingness to air his confusions and doubts.

His idiosyncratic 400-page argument about "how times and psychology, art and politics are closely linked" is far too involved to summarise, but the crucial point Knausgaard seeks to make is that there is a fatal symbiosis between the kind of angst-ridden insularity he has documented throughout My Struggle and the powerful countervailing desire that manifested itself in Nazi Germany – namely, the desire to give oneself over to a grand abstraction, to dissolve the self's private troubles in some form of collective identity, a liberating "we" that necessitates an excluded "they".

In the midst of this convoluted argument, Knausgaard proposes a surprisingly moralistic definition of art: it is that which says "I am you". He may consider My Struggle to be a failure, and in a sense he is right. It is a work that, quite explicitly, aspires to artlessness – and does not quite succeed.

For all its flaws, for all its doomed striving to break down the artificiality of literary style and arrive at a direct apprehension of reality, for all its baggy indulgences, My Struggle is nevertheless a remarkable testament to the paradoxical power of art. In turning his life inside-out, placing his private experiences in the public domain, Knaugsaard has sought to go "beneath the surface, beneath the ideologies, which you can only stand up to by insisting on your own experience of reality, and not by denying it". No one can say he has failed on that count.

James Ley is the author The Critic in the Modern World, which is published by Bloomsbury at $39.99.

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