The End by Karl Ove Knausgaard: hypnotic tedium and flashes of insight
Sixth and final book in the Norwegian author’s autobiographical project is part literary criticism, part portrait of the artist, part exploration of family life
Karl Ove Knausgaard: some of his most acute thoughts in My End are on the subject of writing. Photograph: Simone Padovani/Awakening/Getty Images
Karl Ove Knausgaard
In 2015 Karl Ove Knausgaard was commissioned by the New York Times to write a piece on a subject of his choice. He ended up writing 70 pages, ostensibly about “nothing”: “I saw nothing, and I was writing about that”. Knausgaard’s English-language readers have been awaiting the release of the sixth (and final) book in his epic autobiographical project, My Struggle (controversially Min Kamp in Norwegian), and The End will certainly keep fans occupied. A long and frustrating journey, with a sort of hypnotic tedium and flashes of sharp critical insight, by turns lucid and then spiralling through rants and digressions, it’s the sort of book that one might say needed a more rigorous editor, if digressions and tedium weren’t so solidly a part of the Knausgaard brand, and so integral to his attraction.
At a little under 1,200 pages, it is by far the biggest book in the series (making the previous, Some Rain Must Fall, at 672 pages, seem slight in comparison). The End’s subject matter is probably the most insular, with the least universality of experience. Whereas the first volume, A Death in the Family, dealt with his father’s death, and the second volume, A Man in Love, dealt with his second marriage (and so on), The End turns backwards, and gives an account of the experience of writing and publishing My Struggle as a whole. It is part literary criticism, part portrait of the artist, part political diatribe, part tender exploration of family life. In other words, it is impossible to sum up, mostly because it doesn’t centre on a single theme, moving loosely and discursively through a maddening range of material.
Some of Knausgaard’s most acute thoughts in My End are on the subject of writing, about autobiography, form, and the novel. In recounting how he came to write novels, as opposed to poetry, he discusses the organisation of a novel as one of the “forms of relevance”, reflecting that “this was perhaps the greatest difficulty in writing autobiographically, finding out how relevant material was relevant. In real life, of course, everything was relevant and in principle equal, since it was all there in existence at the same time”.
Notions of sameness
The digressive, searching nature of Knausgaard’s formal approach, finds a correlative in his theorising. The End is, in many ways, about the struggle to find a form, to find a self from which a cohesive narrative could be spun. In fact, one of the characteristics of Knausgaard is that there is little criticism that Knausgaard has not already pre-empted. If you were to say he was self-involved, immoral, messy, digressive, he has already said it about himself, with brio, and with a dark and anxious self-awareness. Of course, that won’t be excuse enough for many readers, but it all adds up to the sort of compulsive empathy that only comes from vulnerability and contradictory honesty.
Knausgaard’s reputation for controversy, particularly political controversy, will not be calmed by this final instalment. There is a 200-page digression on Hitler and Mein Kampf, in which Knausgaard comes to perform a risky (to say the least) act of empathy. He stops with Marx, Kafka, Proust, Paul Celan, Ulysses, Shakespeare, Rilke, eco crisis, mysticism, and makes some on-the-edge remarks about individuality, multiculturalism and gender which start off as potentially convincing, but then take some (il)logical leaps down the rabbit hole. The End is a tirade “against notions of sameness of nearly every kind”, about misapplied ideas of equality. It is searing in its attacks on Swedish bourgeois complacency, asking how “can we make the lives we live an expression of life, rather than the expression of an ideology?” Knausgaard asks the questions, but is not often in the business of providing answers.
In a letter to an uncle, Gunnar (who subsequently took him to court over the depiction of his family in his first book, A Death in the Family), Knausgaard signs off by writing that in My Struggle “the story I tell is my own, and unfortunately it looks like this”. As both the author and his fans know, the mess is part of the charm, as is the banality, and the often raw honesty.
There is something self-congratulatory about the ability to recognise one’s own faults, and My End doesn’t escape this. But there remains something compelling in its overflowing, frustrating, unbound narrative. This is a book to argue with, to throw across the room in fatigue, to find tender and bruised, and, unwittingly, a book to take back and to go on with, regardless.