Knausgaard: Who Is the ‘Me’ in ‘My Struggle’?

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September 18, 2018

Knausgaard: Who Is the ‘Me’ in ‘My Struggle’?

In the long-awaited final volume of his epic novel, the author confronts the central mystery of autobiographical fiction.

What does it mean to write? First of all it is to lose oneself, or one’s self.CreditCreditIllustration by Najeebah Al-Ghadban. Source photograph by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images.

By Karl Ove Knausgaard
Sept. 17, 2018

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Editor’s Note: This excerpt is from the sixth and final volume of the novel “My Struggle,” which was translated from Norwegian by Don Bartlett and Martin Aitken and will be published by Archipelago Books on Sept. 18.

I am alone as I write this. It’s June 12, 2011, the time is 6:17 a.m., in the room above me the children are asleep, at the other end of the house Linda is asleep; outside the window, a dozen feet into the garden, the early sun of dawn is slanting down on an apple tree. The leaves are mottled with light and shade. A short while ago a small bird sat in the fork of the tree, in its beak was something that looked like a worm or a grub, it paused there for a moment, throwing its head back as it tried to swallow. It’s gone now. Behind that same fork in the tree, the girls’ swimsuits have been hung out to dry; all day yesterday they were in the wading pool further down in the garden, behind a willow. The grass outside, mostly in shade, is still wet with dew. The air is filled with the twitter and song of birds. Six months ago I sat in exactly the same place, in the early mornings, the children sleeping above me, Linda at the other end of the house. There was a fire in the stove then, and outside it was pitch dark, the air filled with whirling snow. For more than three years I have spent my mornings in the same way, sitting here or at home in the apartment in Malmo, bent over the keyboard, writing this novel, which is now drawing to a close. I have done so alone, in empty rooms, and as I have worked, my publishers have published what I have written, five volumes so far, about which I know there has been a lot of talk, much written and said in newspapers and blogs, on the radio, in journals and magazines. I’ve had no interest in that discourse and have kept out of it as much as possible, there’s nothing there for me. Everything is here, in what I am doing now. But what is that, exactly?

What does it mean to write?

First of all it is to lose oneself, or one’s self. In that it resembles reading, but while the loss of the self in reading is to the alien I, the protagonist — which, by virtue of being so obviously apart from the reader’s own singular I, does not seriously threaten its integrity — the loss of the self in writing is complete, as when snow vanishes into snow: no foreground or background, no top or bottom, only sameness everywhere. Such is the nature of the written self. The identity of the literary I resides in the choice of one word rather than another, but how poorly held together and centered that identity is. In a way it resembles the I we have in dreams, where the conscious self struggles to distinguish us from our surroundings, and our I is in effect deposited inside a room in which the green bench to our left is as central to who we are as the wriggling fish to our right, or the Neptune-like figure rising out of the water that at that same moment floods the floor beneath the sky across which a red biplane passes. Dreams are beyond our control and without purpose, whereas writing is controlled and goal-oriented. But in each, the I is dislocated and no longer centered, and the question is thereby raised: Is it not the property of being centered that in actual fact makes up the I? The very act of holding together? Yes. But the truth of the I is not the truth of our own particular being. What rises between all the various fragments, far out in the realm of all that is not held together, is also the hum of the own, the peculiar timbre of the self that resonates throughout our lives, that part of us to which we wake up in the mornings, beyond any thought we might happen to think, any feeling that situation might give rise to within us, and which is the last part of us we release before succumbing to sleep. And is it not this hum of the own, this distant reverberation of the self, that pervades all music, all art, all literature and moreover all that is alive and able to sense? It has nothing to do with the I, even less with the we, only with our very being in the world. When I look at the little sparrow outside, the way it perches on the branch in the sun and throws back its head to swallow the worm or the grub, I cannot imagine that it should be completely without awareness of its own being. Perhaps that awareness is even stronger than ours, because it cannot possibly be overshadowed by any thought. The thoughts that hold together the I can be dissolved in the acts of reading and writing, though in two different ways, in the first instance by entering that which is alien and comes from without, and in the second instance by entering that which is alien and within us, which is the language at our own disposal, in other words the language in which we say I. In writing we lose control of that I, it becomes incalculable, and the question is whether the uncontrollable and incalculable properties of the singular I in actual fact are a representation of its true state, or at least the closest we can get to any representation of the actual self.

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