I read an international bestseller this summer: the second volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle. Or, at least, so the front cover told me. It turns out that ‘international bestseller’ in the case of Knausgaard means something like 22,000 sales for the translations of the three volumes in the UK, and 32,000 for the same three volumes in the US, excluding e-book sales. So ‘international bestseller’ seems to mean ‘sold well in Norway’. Which, to be fair, it did. Apparently so well that offices had to mandate Knausgaard-free days because employees were too busy talking about Karl Ove going out for multiple cigarettes and arguing with Linda to do anything productive at work. Except, this too, maybe, is exaggerated: it seems likely that these Knausgaard free days were just something an inventive PR person came up with.
I give these examples to illustrate the intensity of the coverage of My Struggle and its author. The novel has received so much hype that the backlash is already starting. (One sensitive Amazon reviewer has picked up on this, declaring My Struggle “a peculiarly virulent case of the emperor’s new clothes”, and going on to postulate that “if he were my son, I think I’d drink too”.) Knausgaard has been praised and valorised by pretty much every literary and semi-literary gatekeeper available. He has been read and reread, courted and dissected, discussed at dinner parties and carried hopefully onto aeroplanes. The world, or at least certain more bookish parts of it, are paying this Norweigan man an awful lot of attention.
Knausgaard writes about the problems of receiving this kind of attention in volume two of My Struggle. He writes about the attention his first novel (if novel is the right word to describe a six volume series of highly autobiographical but highly fictionalised almost structureless splurges of words) earned, which can only be less than the attention that My Struggle has subsequently received. He writes about how he is expected to be interesting because he is now a person of interest: how his opinions, as stupid and irrational as everyone else’s, gain worth in the eyes of those who recognise his literary talents. This is not just his fans and fellow writers, but the people he meets at dinner parties who find out he’s a writer, and, picking up on that cultural signpost, ask him with bland flattery where he gets his ideas or how he finds time to write, or mention that they saw his book once in a bookshop (they were only there buying a colouring book for their son, perhaps; they are not themselves bookish) but didn’t buy it.
Knausgaard, as any sane person would, finds this attention uncomfortable and frustrating. It is an unfortunate by-product of his desire to write that he has to do things like give valedictory speeches and book talks and hear what people think about his work. He is worthy of attention, but isn’t entirely sure why. There is more to this confusion than its obvious humility and the fact that considering yourself worthy of worldwide attention is not healthy. Knausgaard, in his novels, struggles with attention: he struggles to pay attention to the right things, or not to pay attention to the wrong things, or to give the right level of attention when required. He will lock himself in an office to write just after the birth of his first child, and sit through his daughter’s nursery thinking about how attractive one of the mothers is, and how emasculated being there with his daughter makes him feel. He will describe a vast number of cigarettes that he smoked and a vast number of coffees that he drank, and all kinds of other minutiae. He’ll write of all the arguments he had with his wife, and all the awkwardnesses, and all the times he was an ass.
Readers are quick to perceive that Knausgaard seems to have an artistic inability to filter the attention of his prose. He seems to just describe everything that comes to mind indiscriminately and without worrying about his writing being flat or boring or inartistic. (James Wood remarks that “He notices everything—too much, no doubt—but often lingers beautifully”.) Every critic picks their own favourite example of some egregiously banal bit of Knausgaard; mine is about making tea:
On the worktop behind me the kettle boiled and switched itself off. I got up, put a tea bag in a cup, poured the steaming water over it, went to the fridge to get a carton of milk, then sat down. Dunked the tea bag a few times until the brown billowing liquid slowly issuing from it had completely changed the colour of the water. Poured in a splash of milk and flicked through the paper.
There seems to be a slavish hyper-realism here, a bloated cataloguing of all the mundanities of life that must be excluded for the realist novel to succeed. But equally, as Ben Lerner argues in the LRB, there is a kind of postmodern flatness to Knausgaard’s prose:
If your attention as a writer is so egalitarian that your memoir describes a bowl of cornflakes and, say, your brother’s face with the same level of detail, how do we determine a hierarchy of value? Differences break down when everything seems equally worthy of differentiation.
Difference breaks down and flatness remains, a kind of lack of meaning, the novelist’s dead-eyed, vacant stare.
The world’s lack of meaning – to the writer, and possibly to everyone – is one of My Struggle‘s concerns.
The life I led was not my own. I tried to make it mine, this was my struggle, because of course I wanted it, but I failed, the longing for something else undermined my efforts.
What was the problem? […]
was the revulsion I felt based on the sameness that was spreading through the world and making everything smaller? If you travelled through Norway now you saw the same everywhere. […] The same, the same, everything was the same. Or was it perhaps that the light which illuminated the world and made everything comprehensible also drained it of meaning?
Or, to summarise a thesis that is not entirely original: modernity happened, God died, things lost meaning, and we’re all fucked, and this is what Knausgaard’s long undifferentiated hyper-realist anti-realist six-volume autobiographical novel is about. Maybe not fucked. But bored. We’re all bored.
Lars Svendsen, in A Philosophy of Boredom (1999), follows Heidegger in identifying boredom, as an existential state, as a viewpoint in which the world has been drained of meaning. This seems, on an anecdotal level, common sense enough: think of the difficulties of paying good, serious attention to anything when you’re sitting in an airport waiting lounge, or on the platform of a train station. It’s possible to read your book, but the reading is of a different sort, which flicks between tracking the line on the page and looking at your smartphone and watching the clock and the departures board and the other passengers. Your attention struggles to settle because the things that it tries to settle on don’t seem meaningful, except the clock and the departures board, neither of which has enough information or depth to hold the attention. Everything else is a distraction from this meaning.
In modernity, the boredom of waiting for a train becomes the state of day to day existence. We have all, I’m sure, experienced those periods of listlessness when we don’t know what to do with ourselves, where our attention flits from potential activity to potential activity without finding any satisfactory. Usually these periods pass – but this kind of boredom may be our defining existential state. Certainly, it is Knausgaard’s existential state, broken briefly by moments of transcendence like the birth of his first child or the months when he first fell in love with Linda: “The spring I moved to Stockholm and met Linda, for example, the world had suddenly opened, the intensity in it increased at breakneck speed. I was head over heels in love and everything was possible, my happiness was at bursting point all the time and embraced everything.” I think what Knausgaard’s writing shows is that this state of perpetual boredom is maybe not as bad as it sounds. Being bored allows Knausgaard to be attentive in the way that waiting at a train station allows you to be attentive: the eye can’t settle, so it flicks around, and notices that woman’s hat, that boy’s teddy, that old man’s blindness. This kind of distracted attention can be boring and unsatisfying, but it is also the material for Knausgaard’s writing. If writing can be transcendent – which, for Knausgaard, it definitely is, if his manic devotion to writing for its own sake is to be believed – then its transcendence is facilitated by using mundane inattentiveness as its content.
Knausgaard has transfigured his ability to pay half-hearted attention to a lot of things into prose that pays more writerly attention to a lot of things. The remarkable thing about it is that, when this prose is being read, it commands attention, so much attention that Karl Ove is a celebrity, bestselling author of a kind. This is a strange kind of fascination: not with something interesting, but with something boring.