From the start, nothing has baffled readers of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six-volume memoir so much as its title: My Struggle, or Min Kamp in his native Norwegian, or Mein Kampf if translated literally into German. Who names their 3,600-page memoir after the most infamous text in history? After all, there seems little connection between the original author of Mein Kampf, a genocidal maniac, and Knausgaard, a middle-aged father whose books about his childhood, his family and his daily life turned him into an unexpected literary sensation. In book two of My Struggle, Knausgaard describes in minute detail escorting his young daughter to a birthday party: Where’s the Hitler in that?
Yet book six, written in 2011 and published in English this September, confirms the feeling I’ve had all along: The title, Min Kamp, is neither an accident nor a prank, but an echo of Knausgaard’s deepest anxieties. It reflects both his fears of sounding like a fascist, and his effort to rise above those fears and create personal and literary meaning in a non-fascist way. Hitler and the legacy of Nazism make up the daring, hugely contentious core of book six: its antithesis, its madness, and its conflicted morality.
Knausgaard isn’t the first to grapple with whether moral and political anxieties might clip the wings of great literature. In a 1940 essay about British novels from the ’30s, George Orwell wrote, “At the worst moments you were expected to lock yourself up in a constipating little cage of lies; at the best a sort of voluntary censorship (‘Ought I to say this? Is it pro-Fascist?’) was at work in nearly everyone’s mind. … Good novels are not written by orthodoxy-sniffers, nor by people who are conscience-stricken about their own unorthodoxy.” Orwell contrasted the tedium of 1930s socialist literature with Henry Miller, whose transgressive, anarchic style recalled the best authors of the ’20s. Though Orwell fought against the reactionary forces of his time, he also understood that good novels demand irresponsibility, which correct politics will rein in.
What astounds me about Orwell’s quote are two things: first, how vividly he captures a paralyzing anxiety that I—and many writers I know—have experienced decades later about the limits of acceptable speech; second, that he was fretting about aesthetic quality in 1940, during the height of fascism. My first reaction is a fist pump for artistic freedom. My second is moral terror that anything other than fighting evil should’ve mattered while Buchenwald was in operation. (It doesn’t help that Henry Miller was an anti-Semite.) Seventy years after Orwell’s essay, Knausgaard uses his sixth volume to dramatize this tension, depicting both his own “voluntary censorship” and his complicated efforts to break it.
Readers of the early volumes of My Struggle will be familiar with book six’s blend of ultramundane experience and high-flown speculation. At 1,160 pages, more than twice the next longest, book six represents a kind of exponential Knausgaard: The slow and the furious. The book may set the literary record for most trips to the supermarket. As before, Knausgaard’s genius is for rhythmic forward motion, so that whether he’s frying fish cakes for dinner, yelling at his three kids to go to bed or describing “the highlight of any vacuuming session,” the reader slips into the banal and hypnotic life stream of an ordinary person. Book six also portrays the reaction of Knausgaard’s friends and relatives to their exposure in books one through five, reactions that fill Knasugaard the character with despair but, perversely and rewardingly, lead Knausgaard the author to reveal even more about those closest to him, including his uncle’s guilt-ridden rage and wife’s manic depression.
However, at the middle of book six lies the inverse of daily life, a 450-page essay that veers wildly from biblical exegesis to intellectual history, from literary analysis of Jewish poet Paul Celan to a minibiography of Hitler. The essay is a mixed bag in every sense. Patches of brilliance give way to fruitless theorizing. At times it feels like Knausgaard is digging into the bedrock of Western civilization; at others, like he’s tossing out every pet concept that’s entered his head for the last decade. A history professor would red-pen the essay with question marks and vigorous strikethroughs. But historical precision is not his goal; instead, he looks to the past to illuminate his experience in the present.
That experience begins, naturally, with Knausgaard lamenting his smallness, his despair at the lack of meaning within liberalism, and his impulse to cut loose:
Oh, how then, for crying out loud, can we make the lives we live an expression of life, rather than the expression of an ideology? All the thou-shalt-nots by which our small middle-class lives were constrained, all the things we weren’t supposed to say or do, or else were obliged to say or do, how I longed not to give a damn and do as I pleased.
“Do as I pleased” is clearly a synonym for “write as I pleased.” Yet Knausgaard is held back by shame, by the forces of the social world that operate inside him: “I imagined I was going to write exactly what I thought and believed and felt … but it turned out to be so incompatible with the truth of the we. … The ‘ought’ of morality is the voice of decency that saves us. But it is also the voice of I-constraint, the antithesis of truth and freedom, the voice that stands in our way.”
The experimental form of My Struggle and its unorthodox sentiments are connected: You don’t get one without the other, despite what some uneasy critics would prefer. Instead of accepting the comfortable middle distance of most novels, in which neither morality nor standard literary forms are transgressed, Knausgaard brings the lens both extremely close (the smell of cleaning supplies at the house of his dead alcoholic father, how his kids look while they’re sleeping) and very high up (legacy of the Nazism, the absence of faith in the West). Abolishing that middle distance requires an explosive honesty, a trespassing of his own shame and a willingness to sound awkward, even childish in his laments about a loss of meaning.
Knausgaard recognizes that if a white European man is to spend thousands of pages on his own spiritual struggle, he will eventually bump into the question: Is it pro-fascist?
The analogy of the title (My Struggle—Mein Kampf) is absurd, but also inevitable. Knausgaard recognizes that if a white European man is to spend thousands of pages on his own spiritual struggle and to voice his unpopular beliefs about, say, how contemporary gender norms make him feel emasculated, he will eventually bump into the question: Is it pro-fascist? After a romantic passage about the inevitability of death, Knausgaard scolds his own imagery for resembling that of the Nazis. It’s easy to mock Knausgaard as suffering from a pathological complex—internalized Hitleritis—but if we’re open and honest we’d have to admit that he’s touching a nerve and that every writer is caught in the space between “the voice of decency that saves us” and the voice that inhibits us, wondering what can be said in an age of taking offense. What’s key is that Knausgaard gets to this vital dilemma not by downplaying morality but by taking it further than most contemporary writers. In this, he’s less an amoralist like Henry Miller than a hypermoralist iconoclast, performing his own taboos at the same time as he smashes them.
As if diving into the depths of taboo, the essay contains a long analysis of Hitler’s life, relying on both Mein Kampf and primary sources. Knausgaard openly states his disagreement with any view of Hitler as innately evil. He claims that only by humanizing the young Hitler will his later crimes come into focus. The wickedness of Mein Kampf, per Knausgaard, is the lack of a you and the rigid presence of a we. Knausgaard reads the absent I/you back into Mein Kampf’s brutal generalizations, searching in the restless, pathetic young Adolf for the abused son, the orphan, the failed artist, the homeless tramp and the trench-bound soldier in WWI. These passages are, in equal measure, riveting and disturbing.
Knausgaard recounts Hitler’s rise to power, portraying Nazism as an attempt to imbue absolute significance into every facet of life, anchored in the supposed glory and greatness of the German we:
Anyone who has seen footage of the rallies of Hitler’s Germany knows what feelings they evoke, the sheer might of the uniformed, I-less community, the strength of the collective, and oh, how one might long to be part of such a we. Some of the images of the age express an almost savage beauty.
“Oh, how one might long to be part of such a we.” Should he … say this? Is this honesty or irresponsibility or both? Either way, the question that looms largest for Knausgaard is the aftermath—namely, what happens to forms of value-creation that the Nazis exploited. To search for meaning in the grand sense, to view death as partaking of spiritual significance, to resuscitate “the idea of the genius, the idea of the sublime, the idea of the divine,” seem to carry Nazi debris. For Knausgaard, this produces a condition in which safe, boring liberalism is the only alternative, in which people in the West gorge on images of beauty and heroism via their screens while their lives grow ever more identical.
It’s fair to wonder if Knausgaard puts too much weight on the legacy of Nazism as opposed to other social and political developments, which would call for different responses, but his exploration of how to make meaning without turning barbaric gets at the core of how we can and ought to live. Knausgaard is drawn to Paul Celan, the Romanian-Jewish poet who survived the Holocaust but lost his whole family. Writing in German, Celan was faced with a world that’d been burnt down, in which not just the people but the language itself was perverted to degrade and kill, a world that Celan describes in the poem “Straightening” as “Ash/Ash, ash./Night./Night-and-night.” Yet out of and through this nothingness, Celan seeks, in Knausgaard’s words, “to establish another coherence after the one that has broken down.” Right after the invocation of ash and night, Celan writes, “Go / to the eye, the moist one.” For Knausgaard, the quest for meaning must start at this level, with “the moist eye” interpreted as a call for tears, emotion, and the recognition of loss.
The passages Knausgaard quotes from Celan clarify the author’s intention of going “beneath the ideologies,” of reconfiguring his own sense of meaning not in terms of grand abstractions (i.e, Nazism) but in the beauty and pain of the everyday I/you, the other 3,000 pages of the My Struggle series. How a thunderstorm looks from a balcony. How a lemon appears through the smoky gray of a grocery store bag, or how a leaf twirls to the ground. The daily agonies and revelations of being a parent, cut with an overwhelming love for his kids. The responsibilities of fatherhood. That none of this comes easily to the angst-ridden Knausgaard is what makes it a struggle.
And yet, despite Knausgaard’s insistence that his project digs “beneath the ideologies,” it’s hard to keep politics out of these books, in part because he gives no way to reconcile the demands for a we with the needs of an I. The taboo about attacking liberal democracy, which Knausgaard saw as unbreakable in 2011, has already begun to crack. Sweden’s recent election saw unprecedented gains for the far-right Swedish Democrats, which, in an essay in the Swedish press, Knausgaard defended against charges of “neofascism,” arguing that while he didn’t support them, he believed their views deserved to be aired.
By far the weakest point of book six is its analysis of anti-Semitism and nationalism. “The simplest is the truest,” Knausgaard writes, “and hatred of the Jews represents the simplest thing of all, the we’s need of a they,” one that proved deadly when mixed with anti-elitist resentments and so-called “race science.” Though Knausgaard recognizes anti-Judaism as an ancient phenomenon, widespread at all levels of society in the 1930s, he understates the extent to which the energies of Nazism got their start in German philosophical discourse of the nation-state, from Fichte’s romantic vision of the volk to Kant’s picture of assimilation as “the euthanasia of Judaism.” What made Jews different was not just a they set against a German or Christian we, but that Jews were caught inside the we, impeding both the Christian narrative of supersession and, later, political narratives of national essence. There’s something to George Steiner’s argument that Nazism was a form of neurosis or self-mutilation, a suicidal revolt against moral ideals, one that led Europe to destroy its own best hopes for the future. (Steiner observes that Hitler declared, “Conscience is a Jewish invention” and then tried to kill his conscience.) This doesn’t negate Knausgaard’s perspective so much as intensify the drama—and danger—of his rebellion against the inner voice of morality.
In his 1940 essay about Henry Miller, Orwell predicted the end of both laissez-faire capitalism and “the literature of liberalism.” Orwell’s prediction was wrong, and similar predictions today about the “death of liberalism” will likely be wrong, too. But in an age hollowed out by technology and conformity, the need to be different, to have a tribe, to be tethered to something greater than your little self becomes extraordinary. The artistic visionaries of the future will be able to show where they are embarrassed, to understand the shifting mores of what is unspeakable, and to grasp that nothing is so crucial as the revelation of our secret yearnings, the rage and vulnerability behind our identities, and the terror of an ego plunging into tech-addled emptiness. And it will answer it not with platitudes or abstractions but with naked emotional honesty, attentiveness to life as it passes, and the courage to be unorthodox. My Struggle is one of the first books to face that blinding light.
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Dan Grossman is a writer living in New York.