After I recommended My Struggle to a friend, she texted, “What if a woman wrote it?” I wrote back, “or an American?” and I began to wonder what would happen if the literary sensation were written not by the handsome Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard but by Carla Olivia Krauss of Cobble Hill, Brooklyn. Would Lorin Stein, the editor of the Paris Review, still have declared in the New York Times book review that it “solved a big problem of the contemporary novel?” Would Lorin Stein of the Paris Review even have opened it?
I don’t think we would be able to tolerate, let alone celebrate, this sort of domestic diarylike profusion from a woman. A 30-page riff on going to a party with children, and trying to balance your food while watching your child, and what exactly happens to her shoes, would appear, if a woman wrote it, both banal and egoistic. (Knausgaard writes, “I felt a surge of warmth in my breast. Leaned over and picked up a diaper and a pack of wipes while Heidi clung to me like a little koala bear. There was no changing table in the bathroom, so I laid her on the floor tiles, took off her stockings, tore off the two adhesive tabs on the diaper and threw it into the bin under the sink while Heidi watched me with a serious expression. ‘Just wee-wee!’ she said. Then she turned her head to the side and stared at the wall, apparently unmoved by my putting on a clean diaper, the way she had done ever since she was a baby.”) Reviewers and readers alike would think it was narcissistic, well-traveled, self-indulgent.
The novelist Hari Kunzru told the New York Times that Knausgaard “has the courage to say ‘my ordinary life as a father in a regional town is going to be enough to hold a reader’s attention.’ ” But what in a male writer appears as courage or innovation or literary heroics would be read, in a woman, even by the liberal, enlightened, and literary, as hubris or worse. As even Knausgaard’s passionate fans admit, he walks the line between the boring and the profound—one review in the London Review of Books was titled “Each Cornflake”—but Carla Krauss would pretty universally appear to be nattering on about inanities. And I am not just talking about the parenting sections but even the long, shapeless passages about wandering as a teenager through parties.
I am not trying to make the point that male readers and critics would dismiss Carla, which they would, but that female readers and critics would as well. I mention this because of the enduring fantasy of a shadowy male literary establishment that discriminates against women writers, when in fact the discrimination is much trickier and more pervasive than that. When Carla Krauss’s My Struggle hit the stores, there would be a barely subterranean question embedded in the response: What makes her think her experience is so important or interesting or special?
The particular variety of rage aimed at women who document their daily lives, especially if they don’t involve a childhood of poverty or abuse or illness, is deeply entrenched and irrational. It’s not just that we don’t think of what they are doing as art, but that it annoys us, riles us. It feels presumptuous, vain, narrow, feminine, clichéd. It is not chic the way Knausgaard’s stormy ruminations on the minor oppressions of family life are chic. Take Rachel Cusk, who was accused of being “petty and irritable” in her artful memoir, A Life’s Work.
I imagine to this committed Knausgaardians would say that they are responding to the quality of his writing and thinking. But I’m convinced that even if Carla Krauss were writing and thinking on an equally excellent level, readers would still be impatient and irritated. They would take her equally well-observed sprawling minutiae as an impingement on their time and attention. What seems novel and fresh in a tall, craggy male writer would appear grandiose and humdrum in a female one.
In part this is because the form, insofar as it is “solving a big problem of the novel,” is solving that problem only for men. Women have long written about the anomie of domestic life. In Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf intelligently gives us all of life through shopping for flowers for a dinner party; in 1962, Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook described menstruation, and the difficulties of raising a child on one’s own, and went deep into the preparation of scalloped veal and mushroom cream sauce for a lover. (Even in Irving Howe’s largely positive review of The Golden Notebook, at the time, he wrote of its heroine, “She whines, she is a bit of a drag, she often drives her men crazy,” and mentions “her steady groaning about her writer’s block.”) In the ’70s we had a great blossoming of feminist novels on the private angst of the playground (including my mother’s novel Up the Sandbox). What is new or unfamiliar or stirring is a man taking on these topics.
If a woman wrote it, it would not have the same glamour; it would be drab, familiar, whiny.
In fact part of the pleasure of My Struggle is that it imbues ordinary bourgeois liberal life with a stylish and edgy glamour; it affirms for a generation that its concerns, its alienations, its small resentments are dramatic, important. For a certain set of readers, My Struggle casts a moody romantic light on picking one’s kids up at the nursery or shopping for pasta for dinner or worrying about whether you have a nice enough apartment or quarreling with your spouse. It elevates our struggles to Struggle, and for this we are grateful, admiring, effusive. Cooking lobster for a dinner party is transformed into: “all the attractive intricate details, like the grooves in the claws or the armor-like tail shell: didn’t they look as if they had been forged in the workshop of a Renaissance craftsman?” But if a woman wrote it, it would not have the same glamour; it would be drab, familiar, whiny. Some reviewers have pointed out that there is something “bloglike” in Knausgaard’s style, but if he were a woman, that compulsive recording would evoke not formal innovation but Mommy blog.
It seems like other contemporary male novelists may be moving in the Knausgaardian direction. Take Jonathan Lethem’s story “Pending Vegan,” in The New Yorker a couple of months ago, which is about a man taking his daughters on a trip to an aquarium and going slightly and poetically bananas. He writes in a very Knausgaardian passage: “There, while the twins got their picture taken with the Queen, and jousted on Lego horses riveted to a train track, he’d been able to sneak off to Castle Ice Cream and obtain a double espresso. That had been something. Hidden with espresso in a shady quadrant of the castle courtyard, he’d silently toasted his daughters as they’d one after the other rounded the rail. … He supposed he had Legoland to blame: its tolerability had led him too easily into agreeing to SeaWorld, which even on Celexa, he now saw, would have been another prospect entirely.”
In some legitimate sense, male novelists taking on the topic of the new, equal (or equalish) parenting is pioneering. One of the cultural currents Knausgaard struggles with is changing definitions of masculinity. There is a scene in the novel where his pregnant wife gets locked into a bathroom and no one expects him to be the one to break down the door and get her out. The tormented, sensitive father, who is actually caring for the children and shopping for dinner, yet nonetheless suffering from nameless malaise, is a relatively new territory for literature in a way that similar ruminations would not be for women.
However a large part of our intolerance toward women writers closely reading domestic life is simply plain old-fashioned, deeply entangled sexism, of the variety Virginia Woolf took on in A Room of One’s Own. It seems very likely to me that in spite of huge political progress, an ambitious literary female writer would still feel constrained, she would feel she had, for instance, to be funny, in order to earn or woo her readers' attention. She would never get away with the dead seriousness (and self-seriousness) of Knausgaard’s approach.
I’m not arguing that less attention should be paid to Karl Ove Knausgaard, or that he is not justifiably celebrated and cherished, but rather that Carla Krauss, hard at work in a coffee shop around the corner from her children’s school, should be tolerated, given a chance, heard.
My Struggle: Book 3
Karl Ove Knausgaard swept through New York City last week as the literary sensation of the moment. No writer has emerged on the world stage to more acclaim in at least a decade, and readers had to be turned away at all three of his events. On Friday at the New York Public Library, where prominent writers and journalists packed the front rows, the crowd seemed spellbound even while the Norwegian paused for nearly a full minute to consider a question from the novelist Jeffrey Eugenides. Book One of Knausgaard’s six-volume autobiographical series, “My Struggle,” a ruminative account that treats no detail of middle-class life as too banal to recount, has hit the extended Times best-seller list, one slot above James Patterson. With the recent release of Book Three, readers of every stripe, it seems, are talking about Knausgaard.
But one element of Knausgaard’s story is spoken of more often in a whisper: What is it with that title? In Norway, the appropriation of Hitler’s words is only more obvious; Knausgaard’s series is called “Min Kamp.” I interviewed his editor, Geir Gulliksen, in Oslo for a profile of Knausgaard, and when he described his initial response to the title, his thinking sounded familiar: “Why should you link it to Hitler? Why?”
In February, a retired high-school teacher and critic named Emil Otto Syvertsen showed me around the area where Knausgaard, who is his former student, grew up. Along the way, Syvertsen stopped the car at an unmarked spot in the town of Grimstad, on a road that winds along the southern coast. He wanted to show me a large white farmhouse situated behind a gate and a veil of trees. Buried on the property are the remains of the most famous novelist in the nation’s history, Knut Hamsun, who lived there for several decades in the latter half of his life.
A major influence on Henry Miller and Ernest Hemingway, Hamsun in many respects anticipated the twentieth-century novel in works such as “Hunger” (1890), his début, a nearly plotless first-person account of an impoverished and self-denying young writer as he wanders about the capital shedding all sources of stability or belief. Hamsun published his early output during a period of great artistic ferment in Norway; Knausgaard pointed out to me that the country’s consensus triumvirate of artistic giants—Hamsun, Henrik Ibsen, and Edvard Munch—all came to prominence in, broadly speaking, the same era.
While we looked at the farmhouse, Syvertsen told me something that raised the hair on the back of my neck: in the postwar years, Norwegians would stand just where we were and throw copies of Hamsun’s books over the fence, as a gesture of rejection.
Hamsun had become, in old age, a supporter of the Nazis. His backing persisted even while the Germans set up roadblocks and military installations all along the southern coast during their occupation of Norway. (Fewer than eight hundred Jews currently live in the country.) Hamsun flew to visit Hitler in Bavaria in 1943, and described him in a newspaper obituary as “a preacher for the gospel of justice.” It is one of literary history’s more eerie and repulsive facts that Hamsun, the author of “Hunger” and other classics, gave his Nobel Prize as a gift to the Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels.
Just after the war, Hamsun was set to be tried for treason but instead was committed to a hospital. (According to one theory, the idea was to protect his reputation—he’s lost his mind, that’s all.) Much of his fortune was seized by the government. He died, at the age of ninety-two, in 1952. His novels are still widely read and assigned in schools, but as late as 2001 political opposition doomed a proposal to name an Oslo street after him. A museum in his honor finally opened in the north of the country in 2010, amidst controversy. “We can’t help loving him, though we have hated him all these years,” Ingar Sletten Kolloen, the Hamsun biographer, told the Times in 2009. “That’s our Hamsun trauma.”
The two seaside places where Knausgaard grew up—Tromøya and Kristiansand—are located about an hour’s drive apart on the southern coast, and Hamsun’s house is on a major road that connects them. Knausgaard’s family would probably have driven past when they moved in his early teens, a moment recounted in Book Three of “My Struggle.”
The image of Hamsun’s books being thrown back at him, right there on Knausgaard’s home turf, underscored for me the bizarre audacity of Knausgaard’s title. He is an admirer of Hamsun’s work and is of course well versed in his country’s deeply conflicted relationship with their novelistic giant. And yet Knausgaard went ahead and borrowed the title of Hitler’s autobiography for his own.
It would be unfair to tie Knausgaard too closely to Hamsun; Knausgaard’s views on Hitler bear zero resemblance to his forebear’s. “My Struggle” bears no mark of anti-Semitism and in fact contains few expressions of political opinion of any sort, beyond some good-natured shots at the extremes of Swedish political correctness. When Knausgaard has addressed the topic of Hitler directly, he has argued that a frightening characteristic that connects “Mein Kampf” to the writings of Anders Breivik, the perpetrator of the 2011 Utøya massacre (which Knausgaard writes about in Book Six), is that in the mind behind both texts there seems to be an “I” and a “we” but no “you,” reflecting a dangerous blindness that allowed an otherwise impossible evil.
Still, readers who are holding out hope that their concerns about the title will be resolved by the end of the series may be disappointed. Book Six includes a four-hundred-page essay on “Mein Kampf” and Hitler’s early years, but Knausgaard decided to write it only after settling on the title, and the essay has not put the matter to rest in Norway. Knausgaard’s attempts in those pages to humanize the young Hitler and cast doubt on the notion that he was already evil at age of twelve seems to have generated some unease. Knausgaard counters that the real danger lies in deceiving ourselves that Hitler is some unreal monster that no man could ever match.
When asked why he called the project “Min Kamp,” Knausgaard often remarks that he had working titles that he found unsatisfactory (“Argentina” and “Parrot Park”). Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” came up in conversation with his best friend, the author Geir Angell Øygarden, and Geir—as he is called in the book—said, “There’s your title.” Knausgaard says that he agreed right away, though Geir told me that he recalled some hesitation. But all this is more of a narrative than an explanation, and it seems notable that Knausgaard frequently refers to Geir’s role, as if to deflect some responsibility.
Knausgaard also told me that when the German publisher said that the work would have to be published there under a different name, he of course understood and did not object. This, too, was a comment that served to distance himself from the title. Geir, meanwhile, believes that the German publisher made a huge mistake, because they had a chance to “overwrite” Hitler and missed it. Geir, who has written about boxing and reported from war zones, is something of a provocateur, as readers of “My Struggle” can observe. When I remarked that some people believe that the title shows poor taste, he laughed and said, “Yeah. I obviously don’t think so, but yeah. And if it was, so what?”
Knausgaard defends the title adamantly in at least one respect: he insists he was not aiming for shock value or sales. (He believed that the project would have no commercial appeal, he says, and felt that the initial print run of ten thousand copies was optimistic. Together, the six books in the series have sold about half a million copies in Norway alone.) Knausgaard allows that the title was “a way of saying ‘fuck you’ to the reader.” But that reflected, he felt, the aesthetics of his project: he would give no thought to pleasing the audience, never mind family or friends. He told me, “If it was boring, I wanted it boring.… No compromises were made in this book. The title kind of makes that statement.”
Knausgaard sometimes speaks in interviews and public appearances of an irony inherent in the name of the book; where Hitler is all ideology and rigid perfection in “Mein Kampf,” Knausgaard’s struggle as a middle-class dad is quotidian, messy, faintly ridiculous. But his book is not all that ironic or clever. In fact, its directness and sincerity—to the point of frequent, unembarrassed cliché—contributes to the almost shocking immediacy of the voice. “My Struggle” makes no apologies. Knausgaard does not protect himself from the charge of narcissism by turning to self-deprecation or rationalization or literary tricks. Go ahead and say it’s nothing much, he seems to say, but this is my struggle. For me, it counts.
To write “My Struggle,” Knausgaard borrowed not only Geir’s idea for a title but some of his friend’s devil-may-care abandon. Knausgaard was always the one with a tendency to shrink away from conflict, a desire almost to disappear rather than be a hindrance to anyone else. That reached a breaking point. Perhaps the title amounted to an almost violent act of self-assertion, both confrontational and masochistic, that announced he was going to take up space in the world. If that meant making us uncomfortable, so be it.
Evan Hughes is the author of “Literary Brooklyn.”
Photograph by Gunter Gluecklich/laif/Redux.