Since the appearance of the first volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s autobiographical narrative My Struggle, the subject of authenticity in literary enterprise has once again lurched out of its crypt to spook us to attention. This critical discussion—which bears on Maylis de Kerangal’s new novel The Heart—dates to Plato and Aristotle’s opinions on the stories we should tell and how we should tell them and involves matters of vitality and utility. What are the essential qualities of literary art, and what means should be brought to bear to achieve them? In the case of Knausgaard, to distill down a lot of gassy talk, the idea has been that his six-volume, 3,600-page account succeeds because of a method of radical inclusiveness that ratifies the truthfulness of his undertaking.
Knausgaard takes as his project to write with the same tirelessness about everything, from child care to marital monogamy to forgotten bowls of corn flakes to remembered shits in the woods to unforgettable vomits in toilets to a range of inglorious sexual experiences—all the ejecta of the premodernist novel, stuff once thought so commonplace there’d be no point in including it. “In a novel, or a biography,” Ford Madox Ford’s narrator is given to say, in The Good Soldier (1915), “you take it for granted that the characters have their meals with some regularity.” Contemporary novels now teem with characters having their meals, so to say, and Knausgaard’s newness has much to do with his focus on ejecta to the exclusion of more typical narrative concerns.
“The only way I could trick myself into writing,” Knausgaard said, in an exchange with James Wood, “was by…setting myself the premise that I would write very quickly and not edit, that everything should be in it. Without that, I wouldn’t have been able to do it.”1 Knausgaard’s ability to “do it,” to compose some 1.2 million publishable words in three years, was a result of his decision to write prose he didn’t edit, prose he doesn’t like:
The whole time I was writing these six books I felt, This is not good writing. What’s good, I think, is the opening five pages of Book One, the reflection on death. When we were publishing that first book, my editor asked me to remove those pages because they are so different from the rest, and he was right—he is right—it would have been better, but I needed one place in the book where the writing was good. I spent weeks and weeks on that passage, and I think it’s modernist, high-quality prose. The rest of the book is not to my standard. [Laughter from audience.] I’m not saying this as a joke. This is true.
Knausgaard didn’t merely include “not good writing”: he all but excluded what he deems “high-quality prose,”…
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