Sometime in May, 2012, I was standing by a mass grave in a forest near Łopuchowo, Poland. I was seventeen and, along with many of my classmates, I was taking part in a large, mostly Jewish international group trip known as the March of the Living. We spent one week in Poland, visiting old Jewish synagogues and cemeteries, and the remnants of ghettos and concentration camps; the official photographs from this part of the trip were in black and white—we were meant to look somber, reflective, mournful. Following that, in a sudden explosion of color and sun and wide smiles, we spent one week in Israel, sampling the local cuisine and floating carelessly on the sun-drenched Dead Sea. No, this is not a joke.
I have a vivid memory of that gloomy Polish forest, not because of what we were looking at—I had seen so much of death’s residue already on that trip—but because of what was said about it. After the resident rabbi said a prayer over the grave, one of the tour guides told us that, for several nights after the scores of Jews had been buried there, their moans could be heard in the nearby town, emanating from the ground. I was shaken. Moaning? From the ground? I tried to imagine the horrific event, the Jews being led to the forest, being made to stand at the edge of a ditch, being shot in the back or the head, but not to effect in all cases; some were still alive, and were buried that way. And I realized that this was the first time I had ever thought about the sounds of the Holocaust.
The Holocaust, as I had been taught about it over twelve years of education at Jewish day schools, was about numbers. Six million Jews, eleven million total. An entire people, nearly erased. By whom? By the Nazis, by Hitler, by a nation so evil and so indifferent to its own evil that for the first time in modern history a systematized extermination of human beings could be executed with astounding efficiency. And if it wasn’t numbers, then it was individual names. From a cross-section of time and place, into which we zoomed from the mass of millions, we learned about a person or a family, who they were and how they died or survived. In fact, there were survivors on our trip, who could tell their personal stories and relate what they witnessed—a fact for which I will forever be grateful.
But between the numbers and the individuals, something was missing, something that dawned on me as I stood there in that forest in Poland. We were missing reality, the movement of the everyday, the way in which this killing happened in stages, in batches, noisily and in color. We were missing, in other words, how profoundly local what we call the Holocaust was. The Holocaust, as we learn about and remember it, is in this way a fabrication—a collection of localities made to form a totality.
As Karl Ove Knausgaard sees it, this way of remembering falls quite short of a true account, “since it was not six million Jews who were exterminated, but one and one and one, six million times.” It happened every day, in all corners of the Reich, in remote camps and silent forests, under watchful eyes and indifferent eyes, yes, but also in silence, undetected and undetectable, the noise being made in protest not the roar of six million, but that of one, and one, and one.
How much did I really know about this event, so central to the collective memory of the Jewish people? I was not expecting the end of My Struggle, Knausgaard’s six-volume autobiographical novel, to make me doubt myself in this way. But it did.
Most of the books I read exist for me as little pockets of space and time. I can pick one up and enter its small room, snoop around, shine a light here and there—get the lay of the land, in other words—then grab a couple of interesting items off a shelf, leave, and shut the door behind me.
But there are some books that behave differently for me. They resist that kind of compartmentalization, that neat separation from my world. Their effect is such as to merge with my reality, to bleed into my life and my perception of it. They become my evenings and my lunch breaks. They are not used to distract me from my commute, but are rather as integral to the day as the commute itself. They throw a lens in front of my eyes and pattern the empty space into which I stare while daydreaming.
This is how it has felt, over the last year, to read My Struggle. Book 1 was October on the R train. Book 2 was the snowed-in silence of December in rural Québec. Book 5 was May and the shafts of light it sent pouring through the window of my 4th floor walkup, where I lived in New York just days before packing up and hauling my life elsewhere. Knausgaard’s prose isn’t always beautiful, and his high-modernist ideas often miss the mark, the sweet spot that would otherwise save them from our impulse to ironic acerbity. But at his best, critics haven’t hesitated to called him transcendent—even as one must acknowledge and shudder at the high levels of egotism required to write a 3,600-page novel in the 21st century.
None of this is to say that I read My Struggle as if in a dream. The novel demands things of its reader. Obviously, it demands sustained attention. But it also asks that we believe what is at the core of its premise: that this is the story of struggle, a real struggle. And there are times when it’s hard to stay onboard.
In our time, and especially in North America, one cannot speak of struggle without also considering its mediator: privilege. That is, one cannot neglect how one’s individual experiences are situated within and buoyed by one’s social identity. This truism was thrown into relief when I first cracked open Book 1 on the Brooklyn-bound R train. The car was fairly packed, and so I was standing, right hand grasping the pole and left hand keeping a brace on the open pages of the book. The woman sitting on the seat in front of me looked up at the book’s cover, half of which—this being the Farrar, Strauss and Giroux paperback edition—displayed an intense portrait of the handsome Norwegian, his eyes wild and his brow deeply furrowed. She laughed, loudly, without end until we had arrived at 8th street and she reached for the pole to pull herself up and leave the train. “My struggle!” she said with a chuckle, as she squeezed her way to the door.
Yes, it was a bit ridiculous. What did this man, who grew up in a middle class home, who had relative economic and social security and who went to an excellent state university, who got paid to write books and blather on about his life, who had never been subjected to discrimination on account of his race or gender—what did he, even after a childhood full of fear of his father, even after that same man died of alcoholism, really know about struggle? Suddenly, I wasn’t so sure that he did, and every subsequent time I opened Book 1 on that train I felt strange about it.
And so, one year later, it was hard not to laugh when I read about Knausgaard’s reluctance to read Mein Kampf on an airplane. He knew that the title of his upcoming novel—Min Kamp in the Norwegian—obliged him to read the infamous book he was so brazenly alluding to. But he was so scared to be seen with it that he had his friend Geir buy his copy for him and smuggle it to him like contraband. Even then, he couldn’t bring himself to read it on the plane: “If anyone had seen me reading it there in public a mood of distaste would have spread through the cabin and people would have thought there was something wrong with me.” In his utter embarrassment, he experiences a more extreme version of what many politically aware Americans might feel while reading his own novels in public.
This doesn’t simply have to do with the title he chose nor the images plastered on the covers of his books. Critics, especially those in Norway, have had a field day dissecting and dismantling Knausgaard’s project, and this has made it difficult to champion him without complication. He’s been scrutinized for lying about his father’s death, for destroying his family, for selling his relatives’ private lives for fame, and for causing his wife to have a mental breakdown. He has also been pinned for being blinded by sexism, a patriarchal worldview, and a consequent preference for male thinkers. A brief account of the writers he cites in volume six will help to illustrate the point: Hamsun, Joyce, Faulkner, Rilke, Celan, Zweig, Mann, London, Jünger, Handke, etc. However, it is certainly the case that his choice of title, more than any other transgression, posed the massive question for which he has had to answer. And so, he obtains a copy of Mein Kampf.
Knausgaard’s fear of reading Hitler in public led him to put it off until it was time to write Book 6, the last volume of the novel. And by that point, he had much to account for. His first two books had exploded into a media spectacle, turning his life upside down and likely causing his wife’s hospitalization. This external pressure, in turn, affected his ability to write books three through five with the same degree of brutal honesty, a qualitative dip which he acknowledges and in some sense apologizes for in this last volume.
And so these are the stakes for Book 6: to take stock of this novelistic wreckage, happening—uniquely for any novel I’ve read—in real time. And in an important sense, this accounting of the consequences traces right back to the title of the book: My Struggle. For whose struggle was it, in the end? Who suffered as a result of this telling, and to what was Knausgaard made responsible when he took Hitler’s title?
What does it mean for a white, non-Jewish, Norwegian man to write a 440-page book-within-a-book about Hitler and the Holocaust? Book 6 is a monumental effort, and in my view the most ambitious volume of the novel. Here is a writer who had to finish what he started. And we can’t say he didn’t do his homework.
When I think about the struggles inherent to my social identity, my mind inevitably goes to the Holocaust. That is my struggle, I tell myself; that is a part of my heritage, an experience belonging to my grandmother and her family, an inter-generational trauma—a well from which I, a Jew, can and have to draw.
But is that all that gives me the right to speak about the Holocaust, to instrumentalize it for my own purposes? What do I actually know about it? It is strange to feel that something is so much a part of me that it would be impossible to disentangle it from my identity, while at the same time realizing that what I know about it had for so long been fed to me. For years and years, I received it as an object of knowledge, ready-made and decided upon—not up for scrutiny or discussion, in other words. “As I write about the Holocaust I sense its unmentionable nature,” Knausgaard writes. Unmentionable, indeed.
“It feels as if there exists some right of ownership to it that means not just anyone can write about it, one has to have earned the right in some way, either by having lived through it or by writing about it in a manner that is morally binding and unambivalent. To write about the Holocaust one has to be irreproachable, only then is it possible.”
Or, I would add, one has to be Jewish. I am given the right to speak of it, as if from experience. And indeed, I do know quite a bit about it. But what I know is morally binding and unambivalent. Was this how it really happened—unambivalently? We often ask: how could the Holocaust have happened? And our answer is always some variation of the same: a mix of evil and indifference, arising out of social desperation. Knausgaard, ever the one to turn over rocks, wants to test the validity of that answer.
What is evident from the outset is how deeply researched this project is. I say this with some hesitancy, because this more academic experiment of his is what gets ridiculed most frequently in reviews of this volume—the New York Times, for one, calling it a “sophomoric exercise.” But if we can step off the scholastic high horse for a moment and pay attention to what he is really doing, our criticism would be better for it. For Knausgaard is not here attempting at an academic essay; rather, he is doing what he has always done, which is to interrogate why he feels what he does. This is why it’s a mistake to call this novel a memoir—this isn’t a chronicle of what he has done, but of what he has felt, and why. He picks up Mein Kampf and several books about the Holocaust in order to learn something, but then he feels something—about the peculiar way biographers and memoirists represent Hitler and the era, about petty bourgeois fathers, and about his own impulses toward identification. And so what emerges from this intellectual investment is a more potent emotional one. Knausgaard is a poor scholar, and not as clever as he thinks he is. But it is clear that he sees some of himself in Hitler; he sees some of his father in Hitler. And it is here that the strength of his grasp is most clearly felt. To demand that his ‘scholarship’ be less sophomoric is to criticize him for not writing what you wanted him to write, whereas the point is to critique what’s there.
My Struggle is in many ways Knausgaard’s psychological excavation of his troubles with his father. When he describes the way Hitler’s father responded negatively and violently toward his son over the latter’s desire to become an artist, he sees in this the mirror of his own father’s violence. When Knausgaard writes, about Alois Hitler, that “the traits parents tend to be most implacable toward in their children are often those most similar to their own, and in acts of brutality toward children there is always an element of self-loathing,” it would be difficult not to read this as a comment on his own father, who terrified him even after he died, and whose name he finally prints in this volume.
What emerges in this reading of Hitler, through the writings of August Kubizek, Ian Kershaw, Ernst Hanfstaengl, and others, is Knausgaard’s insistence that it would be delusional to think of Hitler as the human embodiment of evil; that is, it would be illogical to imagine that everything Hitler ever said or did, from the time of his childhood, pointed to what he would later do and become. On this point he spars with Kershaw, whom he sees as deliberately misreading Kubizek and other early accounts of Hitler. Knausgaard puts his annoyance this way:
“The issue with biography as a genre, and this is true of autobiography as it is of the memoir, is that the author purports to be omniscient, a sole authority, he or she knows how it all turned out, and as such it is almost impossible not to accord emphasis to any sign, be it character trait or event, that points in that one direction, even if…it is merely one trait, one event among many others that in no way called attention to themselves.”
This point is vital for him, because it reflects his experience at the hands of the media, who have wasted no effort trying to refashion him into an unreal image of himself, based on bits of ‘evidence’ gathered from his thousands of pages of autobiographical text. Knausgaard wants to insist that this is not how people are, that our existence is not teleological in this way. It is only when we try to comprehend something, when we project our insecure desire to control information so that it can be known, that we turn it into something it is not: an image, an object, unambivalent and clearly delineated—a whole whose parts are consistent with itself.
Book 6 is an effort to get beyond this false kind of knowing—though it would be too generous to say that it is an entirely successful effort. But this going beyond is something that many Jews never seem to grasp at, perhaps because we don’t want to, because it would be too close and unwieldy to bear. “What happened was not inhuman at all, but human,” Knausgaard writes, “and [this] is what makes it so terrible and so closely bound up with our own selves and our human lives that in order to see it, and thereby to take command of it, we must remove it and place it beyond ourselves, outside the boundaries of the human… sacrosanct and inviolable.”
The Holocaust, in his account, is “mentionable only in certain, meticulously controlled ways.” And in my experience this is true for Jews more than anyone else. This is what we know. The Holocaust is ours, it was inflicted upon us, it happened in this rotten land, by the hands of evil people with the help of indifferent people. It is cut and dried, us versus them, open and shut. Inviolable. Certainly, Arendt warned us of the banality of evil; but we didn’t really listen to her. That’s not how I learned about it, anyway, several decades after she wrote Eichmann in Jerusalem. And the reality is not only as she drew it, but goes further, according to Knausgaard: what we call evil is not just banal, it is not even inherent. It is an ex post facto determination. It is not that people saw, but that they decided to look away. It is that they didn’t see.
This is what Knausgaard means when he says that the Holocaust was a local phenomenon, not six million, but one and one and one. “While it is happening it is scarcely of consequence, since it happens namelessly and imperceptibly, and those who see it do not know what it is they see, whereas afterward, when it has happened, it is understood to be the very end point of humanity.” It only becomes something, an ‘event,’ when its reality has ended, the “traces removed,” and it has been wrapped up and objectified.
It is only when we understand such catastrophes as being local, he says, as being gradual and scattered and not obviously evil as they occur, that we can have a non-deluded understanding of what happened and how. For to begin with we must acknowledge that “had we been a part of that time and place and not of this, we would in all probability have marched beneath the banners of Nazism.” The “we” invoked here is obviously not an inclusive one, and I’m not just thinking of Jews. This is one of many instances where Knausgaard’s masculine Euro- (Scando?) centrism becomes a severe conceptual debilitation. Nevertheless what he is trying to feel and scrutinize— his own susceptibility to what we would call ‘evil’—is interesting. It was not the they who participated, but the we. That is, the we of the time. And the tension between they and we—them and us—and between the I and the we—the individual and the social—is for Knausgaard the starting point for understanding what happened psychologically, for understanding how a new mood of belonging swept a nation, and became not only dominant, but also right.
“Great is the power of the we,” he writes, “almost inescapable its bonds, and the only thing we can really do is to hope our we is a good we. Because if evil comes it will not come as ‘they,’ in the guise of the unfamiliar that we might turn away without effort, it will come as ‘we.’”
“It will come as what is right.”
Knausgaard’s essay on Hitler and the Holocaust, as long as it is, comprises only a third of Book 6. In the pages on either side of it, he has an unfinished story to attend to, one which seems almost unrelated to this lengthy rumination. In this way, the book-within-a-book seems out of place, out of touch with the everyday, tangible, and all-too-real grind of Karl Ove’s life– the life of steep fjords and glittering seas and shit-filled diapers, of drunken hijinks and marital troubles and meditations on death.
But nothing, in truth, could be more pivotal to his project. For at the end of this endless novel, when you can’t help but reflect on the (often bored and frustrated) hours and days spent reading about this man and his mundane life, when it’s clear you’re about to be on the outside looking in, and you can only wish you were at the beginning again, peeling back the cover of Book 1 for the very first time, you realize that the novel has been transformed before your eyes. What began as his struggle, his brash appropriation of a cultural taboo, and what became the struggle of his friends and of his family, has arrived in its final configuration as a simple question: what does it mean to talk about struggle?
It is this transformation, this offering up to the world what he had hitherto claimed for himself, which constitutes the end of Karl Ove’s saga. Without it, he could go on and on, describing his life as he lives it, without end and without arc, as life really is. But to go on would be to inflict more pain, to restart the cycle of violence of over again. “This novel has hurt everyone around me,” he writes, “it has hurt me, and in a few years, when they are old enough to read it, it will hurt my children.” To stop writing, then, he must cast off his claim to struggle. He must denounce it, question it, and see it as it is—not for him, but in the world.
Knausgaard closes his book with a declaration: “I am no longer a writer.” He wrote about reality, and reality reared its head and tore his world apart. He opened a portal that only he could close. And once he did, he ceased to be a writer—not the same one, anyway.