The Chronicle Review

A Norse God Among the Lit-Critters

What happens when the author of the moment becomes canon fodder?

February 14, 2016

Mark Shaver for The Chronicle Review
Hemingway got one. So did Faulkner, his stylistic rival. Nabokov, naturally. Austen, of course. Conrad made the list; Twain, too. Wilde. Both Woolf and Melville merited a pair. Beckett, three. Six for Shakespeare. The writers with entire sessions devoted to their oeuvres at the Modern Language Association’s annual meeting last month require no first names: They are the thoroughly anthologized, the universally acclaimed. They are on the syllabus and in the canon. They are the inextinguishable lights of the Western literary firmament. Also, they are long, long dead.

Most of them, anyway. A select few writers-with-pulses slipped past the organizing committee. A panelist in the session on Joan Didion, whose best-selling memoirs about the deaths of her husband and daughter pushed her into the Oprah-sphere, noted that the essayist is experiencing a late-career "moment." The session on Richard Rod­riguez, another author known for writing about himself, was titled "Past, Present, and Future," which reads like a heading slapped on a freshman-comp essay the night before.

Also pre-mortem is Karl Ove Knausgaard, still in his 40s, still churning out pages at a clip that makes Joyce Carol Oates look like Harper Lee (neither of whom, incidentally, made the MLA honor roll). Knausgaard was the subject of two whole sessions, the same as Melville and Woolf, a remarkable fact given that he’s become well-known outside of his native Norway only in the past few years; the final two volumes of his 3,600-page novel-about-nothing-and-everything, My Struggle, have yet to be published in English. Knausgaard’s name was invoked in unrelated sessions as well, once as an example of a writer blurring the boundaries between fiction and non, and once as an example of a supposedly beloved author no one actually reads.

Maybe you’ve heard of Knausgaard. Maybe you’re unsure whether the "K" is silent (it’s not). Maybe you’re wondering why you should care, why this brooding, verbose Norwegian fascinates an ever-growing and often-annoying subset of literary types, people who cart around thick books emblazoned with his grim, bearded image as if he were cigarette Jesus and attempt, usually with much sputtering and little success, to explain their bent-knee devotion. See, it’s a plotless novel focused on the excruciatingly mundane life of a hypersensitive guy in Norway and — get this — it includes a several-hundred-page digression about Hitler … hey, wait …

Even more irksome are Knausgaard’s A-list admirers. They include the novelists Jeffrey Eugenides ("the opposite of dull"), Jonathan Lethem ("brilliant"), Ben Lerner ("a work of genius"), and Zadie Smith ("I need the next volume like crack"). Writing in The Guardian, Rachel Cusk called My Struggle "perhaps the most significant literary enterprise of our times," an assessment the publisher couldn’t resist quoting on the cover of the subsequent installment.

To be fair, not everyone is shining up their superlatives. William Deresiewicz, in a withering piece for The Nation, expressed bewilderment at the adoration attending My Struggle: "The prose consists, for the most part, of a flat record of superficial detail, unenlivened by the touch of literary art: by simile or metaphor, syntactic complexity or linguistic compression, the development of symbols or elaboration of structures — by beauty, density or form." In a comment on Amazon, Titan28 renders essentially the same verdict more succinctly: "Duller than @#$@#$# Dishwater."

So the jury is split.

I thought it might be edifying to watch what happens when someone like Knausgaard, a simultaneously much-heralded and much-derided newish author, gets sucked down the alimentary canal of academic literary criticism. That digestive process is already well underway: A regularly updated online bibliography of work by and about Knausgaard now runs to 34 pages, though critical work in English remains fairly sparse.

Before I go further, though, I should make the following clear: I am already a convert to the Gospel According to Karl Ove. I advocate the book to friends, casual acquaintances, and, in one case, a bemused stranger at the grocery store. I have been known to sputter. I even conned my book club into taking up Knausgaard — a move that led to an unfortunate schism. As one unenthused member of the club put it: "What is the engine in this book?"

Perhaps someone with a Ph.D. in comparative literature can answer that.

It would be ideal, for my narrative purposes, if the Knausgaard sessions at the MLA were standing-room-only, a fidgety mob of red-eyed, chain-smoking fans queueing up to get inside, his doorstop novels tucked under arms and clutched to chests. It would also be better, story-wise, if a poster-sized photograph of the author were affixed to the wall just behind the podium, his visage staring down upon the assembled academics like an emaciated Norse god. I am, however, stuck with facts. The Knausgaard sessions were about half-filled and, as far as decor goes, unremarkable. In contrast, another session I peeked into, "The Anthropocene and Deep Time in Literary Studies," was packed to capacity and then some. The PowerPoints were cooler, too. Apparently there is significant interest in mulling how we’ve screwed the environment in what is, geologically speaking, the blink of an eye.

Whatever. I was still excited.

One Knausgaard presenter, Espen Børdahl, a lecturer at Goethe University, in Frankfurt, focused on the "potentially distasteful act of recycling the most notorious book title of the 20th century for the purpose of describing one’s own life." Potentially, indeed. In the original Norwegian, My Struggle is Min Kamp, an intentional echo of Mein Kampf, a book so radioactive that it was only recently unbanned in Germany.

Something happens in a genuinely great novel that you can't ever fully unpack. Only bad novels are easy to explain.
Peter Schwenger, a professor emeritus of English at Mount St. Vincent University, in Nova Scotia, eschewed the political for a close reading, arguing that in Knausgaard’s work we "recognize the dense material accumulations that make up our lives, and which are essentially trivial. This hardly ever happens in literature, where details do not go to waste but are charged with some degree of significance. But here, as in life, details present themselves only to come to nothing." Making a related point, Peter Sjølyst-Jackson, a lecturer in English at Birmingham City University, in Britain, examined the boundaries between the interior life of the author and his detail-heavy descriptions of the physical world. Those descriptions, Sjølyst-Jackson said, seem "wholly absorbed in the task of registering shapes, forms, and colors without any symbolic layering or ‘deep meaning.’"

To recap: The title is offensive, the events are trivial, and the descriptions lack meaning. Get your copy now.

Afterward I buttonholed the presenters and subjected them to the questions that interested me most under the guise of reporting for this article. I spoke with Schwenger, whose paper, despite the passage quoted above, is largely laudatory, and so I was surprised to find that he doesn’t believe Knausgaard to be much more than a literary fad. "I don’t see enough in the writing and the layers and the implications, and that’s what I look for," he said. "He’s got a gimmick. That’s unkind — it’s more than a gimmick. But I don’t think it will last."

Schwenger, whose first book was on masculinity, back in 1984, compares the regard for Knausgaard today to the admiration of Norman Mailer’s work a generation or two ago — i.e., fleeting. The professor was already rolling his eyes by Book 2. "There’s one description after another of these beautiful girls, and it’s entirely about his desire to lose his virginity, and it’s like, For God’s sake, lose it already so you can stop obsessing!," he said.

Børdahl confessed that he found the lengthy Hitler essay dropped into Book 6 tiresome and not terribly profound. "Maybe that’s because, in Germany, all of this is well known," he said. But that’s a quibble. Børdahl, unlike Schwenger, is an unabashed fan, and even after a couple hours of Knausgaard chatter he is ready for more. "I think he will be a canonical author," he said, leaning forward. "It’s so massive that I can’t imagine that it’s going to go away."

After accosting Børdahl, I flagged down Sjølyst-Jackson, the guy who zeroed in on Knausgaard’s descriptive powers. He grew up in Norway and is fluent in the language, so he felt almost forced to reckon with the phenomenon. At first he resisted. "Why would you want to read such a self-indulgent piece of work?" he asked. "But when I did read it, I really really enjoyed it. There is something about his thinking about memory that is compelling, which has to do not so much with memory as a series of events but as a landscape. The way that he describes his childhood landscape: the house, the rooms. After I read it, I was thinking of places I grew up."

If Sjølyst-Jackson’s approach stayed close to home, Inge van de Ven engaged in aerial observation. Van de Ven is a postdoc at Utrecht University, in the Netherlands. She wrote her dissertation on authors of "monumental" books, the sort of novelists who impose their endless texts on an unsuspecting public (see: Roberto Bolaño, Jonathan Franzen, William T. Vollmann). In her paper, she calls Knausgaard "Proust for the Facebook generation," comparing him to people who obsessively track the humdrum data of their daily lives — how far they walk, how deeply they sleep, how many scones they consume on a Sunday morning. She writes that Knausgaard "presents events in a quantitative way, marked by seriality rather than causality, inclusion rather than selection."

Of course, as she would acknowledge, he is still making selections according to his own idiosyncratic sense of what’s worth telling. Knausgaard tends to breeze past major events in favor of the less obviously consequential. He mentions only in passing that he wrote and published a novel, but his account of using the downstairs bathroom at a friend’s house 30 years earlier reads like a deposition. As Van de Ven points out, "He devotes sixteen lines to making tea, and nine to the attacks of 9/11."

Appropriately, then, Van de Ven and I went out for tea after her session. Like Sjølyst-Jackson, she’d been reluctant to commit to Knausgaard initially, even though the novel fitted neatly within her research project. It sounded too sentimental for her taste. But once she started reading, she found certain scenes, like those about his boyhood, in Book 3, "almost painfully recognizable at times," she said. "The way he thinks he’s so special and at the same time that he’s shit and below everyone else. It’s that fluctuation in the ability to look at yourself. It’s like someone you know — look, now he’s whining about this again!"

"Right," I said. "And now he’s bursting into tears, which he does so often."

"Yes exactly!" she said. "Man up, you know?"

That sounds harsh, but we were talking about Knausgaard the way you would talk about a mutual friend, a person whom you love and admire but whose quirks can be exasperating. I wondered aloud what Knausgaard would have thought had he been hovering in the back of the airless conference room during the MLA sessions, a silent witness to his own vivisection.

"Oh," she said, "he would have hated it."

Even if you don’t care a whit about Knausgaard — in which case, congratulations on reading this far — how his novel was treated in these sessions provides a keyhole view of what you might call, if you were feeling grandiose, the Current State of Literary Studies. Or at least the current state of literary studies when it comes to analyzing a specific author as opposed to, say, grappling with the Anthropocene and the nature of deep time.

Note that several scholars tried to place Knausgaard in cultural context with references to social media or to the contretemps over the republication of Mein Kampf in Germany. Rather than dip into the disputed glossary of literary theory, I’m going to call that "going big." What they’re asking is, Why does this book matter at this moment in history?

At the same time, and sometimes in the same papers, they took a molecular approach, cherry-picking passages, attempting to extract meaning from a scene or turn of phrase. Schwenger’s paper looked hard at the use of the word "there" to describe distance. Sjølyst-Jackson questioned whether the adjective Knausgaard uses to describe strawberry fields should be translated as "enormous" (he doesn’t think so). Let’s call that "going granular." You could apply my crude categories to other sessions as well. There was a forum dedicated to the use of time in the plays of Harold Pinter. Granular, I’d say. At the other extreme, I listened to a scholar try valiantly to establish a connection between Didion’s memoir about the death of her daughter and the Black Lives Matter movement. That is going big.

Literary studies gets mocked so routinely, reflexively almost, that whenever the field is discussed, it feels necessary to acknowledge its sorry public image. Fine. But literary studies itself is so fractured, the methodologies so numerous and overlapping, that generic praise or condemnation is impossible and beside the point. For what it’s worth, I found a lot to chew on in these papers, insights that hadn’t occurred to me, perspectives that made me think more critically about my own. I also found what the scholars said later, when they weren’t stationed behind a lectern, equally engaging, if not more so. They were willing to express enthusiasm or admit uncertainty. They tended to draw on their personal reactions, though still informed by close reading, still making unexpected connections — but not as, I don’t know, distant. Why doesn’t more of that vulnerability end up on the page?

As for Knausgaard, whether he will turn out to be, as Schwenger suggests, a passing fancy or, as Børdahl believes, too massive to fail, is unguessable. Canon-forecasting is a mug’s game, and authors who not so long ago appeared destined for enduring renown get relegated to the margins. I called up Allan R. Chavkin, a professor of English at Texas State University, who edited a collection of interviews with John Gardner, the late novelist and critic. Once upon a time Gardner was a serious literary player, and his books — like Grendel (1971), a reimagining of Beowulf from the monster’s point of view — earned him considerable praise and fame, while his polemic, On Moral Fiction (1978), inspired and provoked. "Now I’m not sure half the people in my department would know his name," Chavkin said.

Fading is one fate. Another is what’s happened to David Foster Wallace. Since his suicide, in 2008, Wallace’s legacy has become an industry: Jason Segel played him in last year’s The End of the Tour; this year marks the 20th anniversary of his best-known novel, Infinite Jest, which is being celebrated with public readings and yet another round of ardent appreciations and critical re-evaluations (one recent headline is typical of the clickbait culture that Wallace isn’t around to fret about and/or mock: "Here’s How I Finally Read Infinite Jest And How You Can, Too"). On the scholarly side, there are now several collections of essays devoted to DFW; the third annual David Foster Wallace conference will take place in July; and two monographs on him will be published in coming months.

Wallace also figures prominently in the forthcoming book Cool Characters: Irony and American Fiction (Harvard), by Lee Konstantinou — which you should expect given the title and the fact that Konstantinou, an assistant professor of English at the University of Maryland, helped edit one of those essay collections on Wallace. So what’s the reason for this "rapid canonization," as Konstantinou calls it? "Literary scholars, like other people, are going to be drawn to write about texts they connect to and think are moving," he said. "That’s part of the phenomenon with Wallace, the sense that you feel you know him personally after reading him."

Konstantinou doesn’t have an opinion on Knausgaard yet. He’s just 20 pages into Book 1.

I met Jakob Holm, another Knausgaard panelist, in Austin, near the University of Texas campus, at a Starbucks buzzing with warmly dressed undergraduates at varying levels of caffeination. Holm, who is from Denmark, is a lecturer in Scandinavian literature and culture at the university. In his paper, Holm calls Knausgaard the "anti-Facebook" author because, while most people advertise their successes in their short status updates, he catalogs his humiliations at length in his books. Holm also writes that My Struggle could be taken as "one long indictment of the welfare state and how it has depersonalized its citizens through a highly efficient and all-out leveling bureaucracy that has led to politically correct complacency."

We didn’t dwell on any of that. Instead for a solid hour we talked mostly about the personal lessons we drew from Knausgaard, what he reveals about authenticity and masculinity, what he has to say about parenting and love and the daily push/pull between creative endeavor and domestic obligation. We talked about literary studies, too. "Our reading experience is an honest, subjective experience that is full of enjoyment, really. Many scholars, they neglect that," Holm said. "That’s what’s so weird. In literary studies you hear people talk about a literary work and they don’t really like it, but they like theory. I think it’s ridiculous. They just like to blind themselves to the actual reading experience. Why do that?"

So, I asked, plagiarizing my book-club friend’s question, What is the engine in this book? "The engine is the narrative voice," he said. "You can’t really say ‘Why do you like that person? Why do you feel sympathetic to that person?’ When you like the voice, it can write about anything. It’s like listening to a piece of music." That seems true enough, though there’s something that happens in a genuinely great novel that you can’t ever fully unpack. It’s about narrative voice, yes, but there’s also some odd, sweet alchemy of empathy and wit, familiarity and amazement, tension and satisfaction that resists summary. Only bad novels are easy to explain.

I mentioned the book club to Holm and invited him to the next meeting. Up for discussion: Knausgaard, Book 3. I did warn that the meeting could be a little boozy, that there were frequent personal digressions, that it wouldn’t feel at all like an MLA panel. But if he were game, he would be more than welcome. He tapped the table. "Count me in," he said.

Tom Bartlett is a senior writer at The Chronicle.