My acquaintance with Knausgård’s writing began on November 14, 2011. Sigrid Kahle and I stayed in Paris at the Swedish Institute’s Hôtel de Marie. We both had a feeling that humanity knows a lot more than its members dare to say in black and white. Sigrid sought her answer at the Centre for Arab Studies down by the Seine – a colossal building made of glass and concrete. I sought to gain more knowledge about the psychiatrist Jacques Lacan – he who asks the question: “Who is speaking when I speak about myself?” The book “Vie de Lacan” had just been published.
At the institute we hung out with Stellan Ottosson who had worked at the embassy in Moscow and Karin Aronsson Ottosson. On November 14, we dined in their apartment. When we parted at twelve, Karin handed me a book. “You have written about Olav Hauge. Here you have another Norwegian.” She gave me Knausgård’s “My Struggle”.
A literary meeting that takes on significance is not forgotten. I clearly remember the atmosphere – we gave thanks and were about to leave. Karin quickly turned around and picked up the book and gave it to me.
That same evening, Sigrid began to read “My Struggle” to me.
And the first impression? – Something dizzying. Something new and risky, almost threatening in its presentation. One felt that things could happen here that no one dares to talk about. – Is it the “conscience” that is put in the spotlight?
Twelve years have passed. I dare not say that I have read everything that my Norwegian colleague has written, but enough to say a few words about this authorship.
It is also Knausgård who drew my attention to his friend Anselm Kiefer – the German artist who has his studio in a disused aircraft hangar outside London. On my walls I have put up pictures that, under the name Existences, express an interesting view of man. She is portrayed as a six-story high, rickety wooden shed where all the windows and doors are wide open. The transcendental, the spiritual must have the opportunity to flow into this shed – provided that it is not packed with opinions, ambitions, future plans – this verbal buzzing of thought which, according to Lacan, is the proof that modern man is psychotic. Her “sane” thinking is in fact insanity. Could she find a stillness like that of a cow ruminating in the meadow – the transcendental would have an opportunity to speak. Man has no priority over animals. (Eccl. 3:18)
It is what Rousseau calls “la philosophie du non-savoir … the philosophy of ignorance.” “Give us innocence, ignorance, poverty!” It is the Bible’s: “Blessed are the poor in spirit!” Could your so-called “self-realization” result in such a state, you would feel like living far ahead in eternity.
The characters in Knausgård’s novels have no “God concerns”. They talk about the devil and the church, but in a relaxed, uncommitted way. They don’t say prayers. They have no religion. They are “ordinary”. As “ordinary” as the patriarch Abraham. He also had no religion. He lived 500 years before Moses and 2000 years before Jesus. He did not have the ten commandments of God. No holy texts. He does not turn to any god where he prays in Mesopotamia. – It is God who gets in touch with him. Completely in accordance with the word of Isaiah 65:1: “I revealed myself to those who did not ask for me!”
God speaks to Abraham – and he abides. He is a “hanif”, that is, “friend of God”. Judaism, Christianity as well as Islam are based on Abraham.
The characters in Knausgård’s novels become enlightened in the same way as Abraham – their conscience makes the transcendental message clear to them.
The interesting thing is that they accept all this as something completely natural. This is the human condition. People talk about the birth of religions – Judaism more than three thousand years ago, Islam fourteen hundred years ago. – But the Stone Age people have not been without divine enlightenment! We are all born with a conscience. We know within ourselves what is right and what is wrong.
Anselm Kiefer has another picture that adorns my study. It shows Jacob’s ladder (Genesis 28:12).
One is reminded of Gogol dying “– Get a ladder!” Kiefer’s ladder that goes from earth to heaven is rickety and precarious – whoever climbed last had to take off his earthly robes – they remain on a few steps. On Jacob’s ladder, God’s angels pass up and down unimpeded – but the person who wants to go up must take off the earthly. The Persians call it “tadjrid”, undressing.
Knausgård’s opening words to “My Struggle” describe this undressing. Death takes us. “The heart stops sooner or later.” – The reader meets the direction of travel in this authorship. What a swarm of human destinies and situations that stand out against the background of the condition of life common to all people – undressing, annihilation. The indirect question that is asked is: How are those sentenced to death doing? – The answer is paradoxical: quite good, sometimes worse, sometimes better.
It seems to be a tough breed.
Now a Swedish writer is going to make a statement about a Norwegian colleague. There has been a mental tension between the two brother nations ever since the dissolution of the union in 1905. The Swedes were rejected in the referendum. Only 184 Norwegians voted for the union, several hundred thousand voted against. It is interesting that our current Swedish king’s grandfathers’ father – he who later became Gustaf V, was crown prince at the time and telegraphed from London to his father Oscar II not to intervene militarily against the Norwegians. There were Swedish patriots who wanted to take up arms. – The Bernadottes were tolerant and wise. King Karl XV supported the anarchist Bakunin when he spent more than a year in Stockholm (1863).
Literarily, free Norway has stacked up magnificently, Hamsun received the Nobel Prize in 1920, Sigrid Undset in 1928 and now this year Jon Fosse! – In my eyes, the foremost poet in the Nordics is Olav Hauge – and I can tell you that his wife Bodil Cappelen is still alive and lives in Tönsberg – we are in contact. Her correspondence with Olav Hauge has been published and is a wonderful read. In Sweden, we envy the Norwegians their national anthem, “Ja, vi elsker dette landet…” – Björnstjerne Björnson wrote the lyrics, Rikard Nordraak, Grieg’s friend, did the music. He died at age 24. “Norwegian Man in House and Cottage, thank your great God! He wanted to protect the country, even though it looked dark…”. Holberg was Norwegian. And Brahms’ grandmother was from Bergen.
You can’t get past Ibsen. When he turned 75, he was celebrated in Trondheim – Laura Fitinghoff’s daughter danced Arabic dance in loosely spun muslin for the old man – Laura had written “The Children from Frostmofjället”. When I was ten years old and a lodger in Östersund to go to the vocational school – it was Laura’s grandson who led me to the library. And I became a reader, in 1934.
When Georg Lukacs, the arch-communist in Budapest, Lenin’s and Stalin’s friend, had read Ibsen’s “Brand” – “What you are, be fully and completely, not piecemeal and divided, not one today, yesterday and something else another year!” – then he went on foot to Ibsen’s home district in southern Norway. It was this Lukacs who started the Hungarian Uprising against the Soviet Union in 1956 – the US wanted to deploy the military to help Lukacs – he firmly refused. He loathed the West. So did Olav Hauge and Bodil Cappelen – if they went out on the continent, then East Germany was the target. And they cheered when the Norwegians voted no to the EU.
But fiction is not opinion. Hamsun paid tribute to Hitler. In Olav Hauge’s diaries, you can see how his thoughts are often devoted to Hamsun. He is one of those who have the most hits in the six volumes of diaries.
A Swede is happy about the recurring tributes that Hauge gives to Vilhelm Ekelund and Baron Eric Hermelin. Hermelin is “matchless!” And in another place Hauge writes: “Should stop reading books – just read Ekelund!”
Edvard Munch – Knausgård wrote sympathetically about this genius. He writes that Munch seeks human presence in the image. Right away I want to have said that this ideal is also what we meet in the novels – and the tone, the very disposition of Munch is reminiscent of that of Knausgård. It’s hard to describe. But it resembles a friendly arm extended from the author and lightly placed behind the reader with the words:
Come, sit down – I’m human, you’re human, now I’m going to tell you the story of my life in confidence, completely open and uncensored – how I cook Salisbury Steak and eat eggs and go to the toilet and masturbate, love, hate, twist and turn to face the rattling, crumbling facades of time. I was born in the year of uprising in 1968 – Jewish exterminations were still relevant thanks to Lanzmann’s film Shoah. And the Utöya massacre, the fighting between Israel and Palestine. All earthquakes, landslides, floods.
The most spectacular moment of the century was given through television as a image memory within me. I will never forget it – the airplanes that on September 11, 2001, rush at full speed into the skyscrapers of Manhattan – the World Trade Center – the very heart of the world economy. The journalist from the New York Times waded through drifts of dust and rubble – suddenly a hand stuck out from a shed – a beggar asked for a penny. Here life went on without any connection whatsoever with the two airplanes and their massacred bodies.
Stay put! – I will tell you what I have discovered about the conditions of mortal life. – You know them well from childhood through the Bible – we are all Christians. It is Jesus who gives us the catalogue of sins: in every person there is a murderer, a thief, a liar, an adulterer, an executioner (Matt. 15:18).
It also means that whoever has a good reputation must be a big phony. God does not want to know of good standing among men (Luke 16:15, Mark 10:18, Isaiah 2:22). You shall see how I bear witness to all this.
Regarding references to the Bible and the Koran, I have yet to see a classic that did not make use of this mighty spiritual wellspring. If you want to compare Knausgård’s novels, you must go to Thomas Mann’s “Buddenbrooks” or Vasily Grossman’s “Life and Fate” or Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” or Balzac’s “Vie humaine” or “Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck. It is at that level that Knausgård operates. A biblical background is also visible in all of these.
– O –
But how to value? What does the reader require from a good novel? – First of all, it should captivate us through its inherent suspense. We want to ask ourselves: “how will it end?”. We should have a hard time leaving the text, it is that exciting.
Does Knausgård meet that requirement? Yes – with good measure. He knows how to lead the reader to the decisive point only to suddenly delay the solution through a hundred pages of another interesting subject – Hitler’s childhood or Russian attempts to prolong human life or studies in Stalin’s way of thinking – these interruptions are in themselves so interesting that we stay in hope for the final resolution of the plot.
To put it briefly: Knausgård is highly entertaining. In addition, there are enigmatic passages that are difficult to interpret but attractive through their enigmatic nature. Here is a surprising example.
Syvert, nineteen years old, unemployed, gets a temporary job at a funeral home. He travels out to a nursing home to pick up a corpse, put it in the coffin and drive on. When they arrive at the nursing home, three horses are seen approaching the electric fence. Syvert’s accompanying manager takes out a bag of carrots, steps forward and feeds the horses. They take turns eating all three. Then Syvert and the boss go in to collect the dead woman.
The reader asks: What does this passage mean? Is it there to testify to the existence of the irrational. Things happen that have their basis in what lies beyond the horizon of understanding.
Or is this passage an allusion to Emanuel Swedenborg’s conception of spiritual counterparts. He claims that in the Bible “star” means the same as “knowledge”. “Gold” means “heavenly goodness”. “Manger” means “spiritual nourishment” – and “horse” means “intelligence”, “equus significat intelligentiam”.
The dead woman in her dress no longer needs any earthly intelligence. She has been transferred to another world. But earthly intelligence remains – the three horses testify to that. And they are thanked with carrots for the service they did the woman while she was alive.
Assume that Knausgård knows this from his studies in Swedenborg (“Spiritual Diary” translated from the Latin by Baron Eric Hermelin, p. 44, 1920), and that he consciously or unconsciously allows the text to contain all this. It is also possible that with the carrots for the horses outside the house where death has just paid a visit, he wants to underline the encounter between earthly life and annihilation.
The fact that such enigmatic parts are found attracts the reader’s attention.
However, the reader makes even greater demands. We read to bring a little joy to life in a quite joyless existence. We readers make the same demands on the book as Horace succinctly formulated: “Jucunda et idonea dicere vitae” (Ars poetica, v.334) “… say what makes one happy and which is favourable to our lives”.
There are, says Horace, “verba et voces … words and voices” that can ease the pain you feel.
The novelists interpret what happens here on earth, each in their own way and based on their experiences. Effects on the reader determine whether this interpretation is healthy or not. It is Rumi who thus lays the foundation for defensible literary criticism:
“The interpretation that makes you warm in the heart, and hopeful, that is the right one;
The interpretation that makes you quick and eager for work, and full of reverence, that is the true one.
But everything that, in the service, makes you sluggish, and ungraceful, and lazy,
Know, and know for certain, that it is a forgery and corruption,
NOT an interpretation.” (Rumi, Mesnavi V. 3125–3126)
How does Knausgård meet these requirements? Does he make the reader happy? This is not some banal humour that will make us laugh. The joy must go deeper. That it happens is evident with all desirable clarity in the fact that we want to read on. The author has succeeded in making us addicted. There is a hidden attraction here – namely our longing to get away from ourselves for a few hours. – We ourselves are, as Jesus pointed out, a very bad company to stick with. Knausgård lets us get rid of ourselves, almost even more effectively than the blessed alcohol. When he makes four-year-old children the protagonists, we recognize ourselves.
Horace also requires what in the text would be favourable for our lives, for our way of living.
Knausgård succeeds with this feat. His gallery of people is highly educated upper middle class. They follow stock prices. Seventeenth of May – then a champagne lunch fits well. They live their lives straight ahead without church, without religion. They resemble the knight in Dürer’s picture – he sits on a horse, looks straight ahead although death threatens him from the side and the mocking devil stands behind the horse’s tail.
“Ritter, Tod und Teufel … the knight, death and the devil” (Dürer 1513), the picture portrays an appealing strategy for one’s life. Despite all threats live in a silent trust in one’s destiny. Persian Sufis praise an existence determined by unconsciousness. You must even make sure that you are “unconscious of your unconsciousness”. Man is nothing and happy is he who has discovered this path through life.
Underneath the horse runs the knight’s dog – the same straight forward gaze, uninterested, trusting. Humans and animals, same kind. We’ll get through. – For! We don’t really belong to this world at all. – Goethe’s words ring in one’s ears – “Ich hab mein Sach auf nichts gestellt … have placed my cause on the foundation of nothingness, therefore I am so well off … “.
Horace calls for texts that “comfort your pain.” It is clear that both the Bible and the Koran fulfil that task. The assaulted prostitute girl reads the words of Jesus about the harlots – they have priority over priests and high placed when St. Peter watches over the gate of paradise (Matt. 21:31). And the frowned upon alcoholic, he reads in the prophet Jeremiah (35:5) God’s command to the sober: “Drink!” – Jesus turned water into wine and demands that all who want to call themselves Christians must drink wine in communion. If the alcoholic is old, he can be referred to the Psalms: “Give wine to the dying and to the despondent”.
Knausgård praises alcohol because it makes the mind clearer. Interesting and informative is the depiction of the meeting between Syvert and his Russian half-sister. A first meeting is unsuccessful. They don’t get any real contact. – Afterwards, Syvert writes to the half-sister that they should meet again “and get drunk”. Then they will succeed better.
One is reminded of the Indian tribe in the Amazon who searched for four missing children in 2023 – they failed at first. Then decided that the ones who searched should get drunk and then try again – then they succeeded.
You can read all of this in Knausgårds books. But Horace’s demands go deeper – they should enlighten us so that we get rid of the existential pain that occupies us. What does this pain consist of?
The main characters occasionally give testimony about the cause. One says, for example: “I have two people in me – one who wants good, one who wants evil.” One of them stands with the air rifle in his hand to shoot a hit and suddenly says to himself: “now I shoot my self-importance. My lack of principles. My dishonesty”.
He is very aware that while he wants to be a decent person, he can suddenly become downright hideous.
He stands with a hammer in his hand to drive a nail in, and then an evil thought enters him: “I can take the hammer and kill my brother and my mother and inherit the house” – he tries to excuse it by saying that this wish lived inside the hammer.
His mother is the widow of a successful bourgeois, Syvert nineteen is unemployed and lives at her house. He clearly notices that she wants him out of the house. He burdens her poor finances. She lives by cleaning jobs. – When Syvert thinks about his situation, he becomes resentful of his mother: “She, this damn cleaning lady!” – he has this outburst of thought. Shortly afterwards comes his reaction to what happened: ”How boring everything became!”
Yeah, no wonder. Honouring one’s parents does not consist of cursing them. – He has a conscience. It gets in touch. It was very sad. – You feel good as long as you are in agreement with your conscience. In disagreement, then the pain is felt at once.
Syvert expresses his temporary displeasure with his brother Joar through a dire prognosis: “You are a loser!” – Of course, Joar gets sad. – And actually, Syvert too, who said the devastating word.
Syvert becomes acquainted with a teacher named Krag who knows Russian. Krag interprets the Russian love letters that Syvert’s father received from Moscow.
At one point, Krag asks Syvert to stay and have a drink: Syvert’s reaction: ”What is this? Is he gay? Damn!”
There is no reason. But suspicions arise. Judgment is passed.
All these examples are about our inner “wolf” who is always glancing towards the forest, away from decency.
When Syvert tells his beloved Lisa that the father made a girl in Russia pregnant, she reacts with immediate condemnation; “Damn it!” – And what does Syvert himself say at this moment? – he agrees and condemns his own father with another “Damn!”
Vilhelm Ekelund has an observation about Ibsen – there is, says Ekelund, “a predator-like agility” – it shows in this fact, what seems to be pure idyll in a moment turns out to contain tragedy. – Isn’t Knausgård’s description of man’s earthly conditions presented with the same calm, low-key, predator-like agility?
It is entirely consistent that the novel “The Wolves” gets a powerful motto: It is taken from the Book of Revelation 21:4: “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.”
It is promising. The motto is set up like a cross signifying “God’s Tabernacle”.
Balzac also had a similar emblem in his study. He lived in Passy down by the Seine – when the creditors sought him, he slipped into the cellar of the house and got out to his boat and escaped.
The study is large, 30 square meters, high ceilings, bare – chair, desk and on the wall a very large cross. No crucifixes. Just a reminder. During the day, Balzac roamed the town. Noticed how people were dressed and how they behaved. Went home and reported what he saw, realistically, truthfully. There was human closeness in the picture. The same goes for our Knausgård. The year 1986 is tiger balm, Marlborough and people take off their shoes when visiting.
The motto in “The Wolves” is reminiscent of Balzac’s cross. “Crux mea Lux” (Strindberg’s grave inscription).
– O –
There are beautiful twists and turns in Knausgårds writing. Such that the reader does not forget. We who live reading surround ourselves with books. I myself have five or six books going at the same time. When there is an interruption in reading, I put the book with the text down and the back up. Such lying books, writes Knausgård, resemble “birds that have landed with their wings out”. Books are birds – the reader flies along.
How someone values a text also depends on the critic in question’s own literary taste. I have read the works that humanity has decided it cannot live without – i.e. the classics including the Bible and the Koran. They have been my frame of reference. If I have a taste of my own, it shows in the preference I now give to Lina Sandell’s “No one can be safer than God’s little band of children” and Viktor Rydberg’s “Shine over lake and shore, star in the distance.” You who in the east were lit by the Lord. Star of Bethlehem does not lead away but home…”
– O –
But – finally, how does Knausgård cohere with Lenin? He mentions Lenin several times. He knows him. Now, if Knausgård has some sympathy for Lenin, let’s see in what company he ends up.
Here in Sweden, we meet Vilhelm Ekelund (wrote in communist newspapers, “hate the upper-class ass kissers”). Branting received Lenin during the Stockholm visit. In Germany Rosa Luxemburg and Lassalle, in Italy Gramsci, in Hungary Lukacs, in Finland Unna and Hagar Olsson. In addition, the entire magnificent Russian cultural elite at the time of the 1917 revolution and up to Lenin’s death. Repin, the one who painted the Barge Haulers, formed a socially oriented school of painters. They lined up on Lenin’s side. One of them, Brodsky, made the first large portrait of Lenin – sitting in an armchair covered with a protective cover inside the Smolny Girls’ School.
Shostakovich wrote his twelfth symphony in 1981. “To the Memory of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin”. The fourth movement is called “The Dawn of Humanity” – it is Lenin’s revolution. The triumph of the holy feeling of revolt. The voice of conscience manifests itself. Humanity spreads light. As a child, the composer had witnessed the tsar’s police shooting demonstrators – an eight-year-old boy fell down dead.
It is important to recall Lenin’s openness to the gains of the bourgeoisie during the previous era. The Soviets would not reject humanity’s most cherished spiritual gains. In his September 1918 great line speech on culture, Lenin warned against the idea of a special “proletarian” culture – what was needed was an open attitude towards all the spiritual achievements of previous generations. According to Lenin, there was a culture loved by mankind – the Soviet Union would now give way to it. Even Kipling is recommended in schools, Shakespeare, Dante, Cervantes. Cheap reprints were distributed to all schools.
Lenin’s speech November 1920: “Soviet culture can only be built on what the past has achieved.”1
Lenin had an openness – definitive conclusions in the spiritual without respect for older generations were directly harmful. That the Soviet cultural elite paid tribute to Lenin has its basis in this generous conception of “apolitical” thinking.
Lenin’s view is reflected in a word by Jan Myrdal that Olav Hauge particularly drew attention to (The Diary 5 April 1975). “To accept paralyzes, to reject blinds!” What is needed is a critical evaluation that is unreserved, open-minded. The spiritual has no party affiliation. The spiritual is a matter of the conscience. We know within ourselves what is false and true.
The circle around Lenin includes Tsvetaeva, Akhmatova, Mandelstam, Bulgakov, Blok, Mayakovsky, Gorky.
In Islam, a distinction is made between “great jihad” and “little jihad”. According to Rumi, little jihad is the external political struggle against the enemies of Islam. The great jihad – is the fight against man’s own insatiable egoism, lust for power, envy, hatred.
We can agree that this is the main theme in the Bible and Koran. (Knausgård worked for two years as a language consultant in the Norwegian Bible translation.) Isn’t that the main theme of the most beloved works of world literature? – That we love these works is due to our need for spiritual enlightenment about who we really are. – Knausgård gives us, in my eyes, a truthful picture of the rather precarious situation. He even has a word for centenarians: The best way to die, “it is to be sated by days and slowly watch the world grow weaker and weaker, lighter and lighter until at last it disappears and is no more.”
It is Kiefer’s image of Jacob’s ladder that applies – undressing necessary.
1 Levan Hakobian (1998) Music of the Soviet Age, 1917-1987, Stockholm: Melos Music Literature, p. 38.