Conceited Idiot


“And writing was such a fragile thing. It wasn’t hard to write well, but it was hard to make writing that was alive, writing that could prise open the world and draw it together in one and the same movement. When it didn’t work, which it never really did, not really, I would sit there like a conceited idiot and wonder who I thought I was, supposing I could write for others. Did I know any better than anyone else? Did I possess some secret no one else possessed? Were my experiences particularly valuable? My thoughts about the world especially valid?”

— Karl Ove Knausgaard, The End (trans. by Martin Aitken and Don Bartlett)

It is characteristic that Knausgaard would think and express this sentiment in his book. (At a much lower level, it is a thought constantly on mind as I contribute in any way to blogging and other social media.)

Knausgaard Immersion: Week 4

It is nearing a month of my immersion into Karl One Knausgaard’s My Struggle. His voice is woven throughout my day. I began reading the final volume this weekend. It will I think take much longer to reflect on the fullest possible understanding of what this project means or does to the body of literature.

It raises that old adversary: the will of a text, its puppetry and attempt to dominate a reader through its explicit demand for a suspension of disbelief. It is of course a fiction in the same way as any journal or autobiographical work, but if feels less (beneficently) aggressive than those occasions when a writer tries to charm readers with a set of characters and situations conjured out of the ether and directed in some way towards spiritual or moral salvation (or damnation). It is a resistance to this sort of textual contrivance. Its effect, for me at least, is a reduction in distance, a micro-engagement with the very substance of life, not in any speculative or existential sense, though that is also present, but with the day to day struggle to understand another consciousness.

It is also, at least in Don Bartlett’s translation (shared with Martin Aitken in The End), a challenge to the Flaubertian obsession with the sentence. There is plenty of exquisite writing in My Struggle, particularly with Knausgaard’s painstaking observation of nature and place, but it doesn’t induce the queasy unease of overworked prose.

This work is closer to Balzac’s aspiration to incisively trace the modulations and inconsistencies of social and class structure, but through the lens of a microscope incisively directed inward. Whatever disinclinations readers have for Knausgaard’s style and form, for those who engage fully with the work, it is difficult not to admire its scrupulous essence.

How does he see?

“He wanted to write like Cezanne painted. / Cézanne started with all the tricks. Then he broke the whole thing down and built the real thing. It was hell to do. … He, Nick, wanted to write about country so it would be there like Cézanne had done it in painting. You had to do it from inside yourself. There wasn’t any trick. Nobody had written about country like that. … You could do it if you would fight it out, if you’d lived right with your eyes. / It was a thing you couldn’t talk about.”

Ernest Hemingway, The Nick Adams Stories

Gertrude Stein did this more than a decade earlier, learning from Cézanne how to see. I think of Hemingway often as I read Knausgaard, now reading his fourth book and wondering how his vision is formed. It is writing that gets close to another consciousness, perhaps more than any other writer, yet there is still that distance that comes from the unanswerable question: how does he see? A question that goes back to Altamira and Lascaux.

Language and Forms (Knausgaard)


“Language is aired, we grow into it, and the forms we use it in are also shared, so irrespective of how idiosyncratic you and your notions are, in literature you can never free yourself from others. It is the other way around, it is literature which draws us closer together. Through its language, which none of us owns and which indeed we can hardly have any influence on, and through its form, which no one can break free of alone, and if anyone should do so, it is only meaningful if it is immediately followed by others. Form draws you out of yourself, distances you from yourself, and it is this distance which is the prerequisite for closeness with others.”

Karl Ove Knausgaard, Man in Love: My Struggle, Book 2 (trans. Don Bartlett)

Martin Hägglund’s This Life

“The brevity of my life is made salient by the forms of time to which I am recalled.”

“What I do and what I love can matter to me only because I understand myself as mortal.”

“The sense of finitude—the sense of the ultimate fragility of everything we care about—is at heart of what I call secular faith.”

“I call it secular faith because it is devoted to a form of life that is bounded by time.”

“I seek to show that any life worth living must be finite and requires secular faith.”

The “idea of secular life as empty or meaningless is itself a religious notion.”

The central thesis of Martin Hägglund’s This Life is summarised in his introduction. His book then labours to go beyond critical philosophy, developing his arguments through readings of the Bible, Buddhist philosophy, Greek and Roman Stoics, and writers like Augustine, Kierkegaard, Spinoza, Augustine, C. S. Lewis and Charles Taylor. In the most rewarding chapter, he reads a secular confession in Knausgaard’s My Struggle. Finally, he turns to Marx’s argument that renders spiritual freedom the essential attribute of human labour.

The book seems unnecessarily verbose, not to disguise weak reasoning, but an excessive use of circumlocution. I was also surprised that Feuerbach is missing from Hägglund’s pantheon of writers, as from what little I understand of this undervalued thinker, his is a highly elegant argument that dissolves religious essence into human existence, without finding, it necessary (a strength of Hägglund’s) for an aggressive tearing-down.

That said, Hägglund’s thesis is substantive and thought provoking. It succeeds in moving Knausgaard forward in my reading plans, and reminds me to reread Feuerbach, a thinker I read with great enjoyment in my twenties.

Here is a proper review of Hägglund’s book.