Karl Ove Knausgaard, Thomas Wolfe, Marcel Proust…Life is – How We Write It…?

While some authors have chosen to follow a literary path called transrealism, Knausgaard has chosen a path one might call hyperrealism. The question always rises rises, however: is there nothing new under the sun…?

Karl Ove Knausgaard (image courtesy Wikimedia)

A little more than a week ago I examined yet another attempt to claim that a new literary movement has arisen. That new movement, called transrealism, has its promoters, but it also has its doubters (including this guy). In this essay we take a look at what may/may not be a new 21st century literary movement – one I’m denominating hyperrealism. The best way to look at such a movement is, of course, by examining the work of the author who is probably its leading proponent, Norwegian literary star Karl Ove Knausgaard.

Knausgaard’s massive six volume documentation of his own life in excruciating detail is called, in English My Struggle. In Norwegian that title reads Min Kamp – and yep, you’re right that his title echoes a book that gives most sensible people the creeps. Knausgaard’s book has pretty much nothing to do with Der Fuhrer’s opus magnum but a lot to do with some other, weightier, literary figures. Whether he chose the title simply to spark some controversy – well, why would any author want to do that in a culture that is so distracted it can’t pay attention to any damned thing for longer than the time it takes to scroll down a Facebook feed? Hmm?

Marcel Proust (image courtesy Wikimedia)

The work to which My Struggle is most commonly compared is, as you probably have guessed, Marcel Proust’s À La Recherche du Temps Perdu ( currently translated as In Search of Lost Time, though I like the older, less literal, Remembrance of Things Past). Like Proust, Knausgaard’s work is a book about remembering – though unlike Proust’s narrative, which is driven by what critics like to call involuntary memories, Knausgaard’s work is driven by twin forces: the desire to come to terms with his father’s memory and understand why his father was the man he was – and why he left the family when Knausgaard was a teenager – and the author’s desire to somehow overcome that which cannot be overcome: death. Proust has other large themes that he deals with – anxiety, the nature of art, dealing with one’s sexual identity. With Knausgaard, the twin themes just mentioned are the enduring foci – though one might argue that Knausgaard wants to fight time itself. As one reviewer notes, it seems at times that Knausgaard is working from the premise that if one can describe life as deliberately, as painstakingly as possible, one can extend life – and thus defeat time.

On the one hand, then, Knausgaard seems to be following an old track, one laid by Proust in the early 20th century. But there’s another element to My Struggle that has caused some serious controversy and has even driven Knausgaard to leave Norway and move to a rural area in Sweden which he describes thus: “Nobody cares about literature around here.” Knausgaard has changed nothing – not place names, not events, not the names of his “characters” names (there is currently brewing controversy about whether Knausgaard has passed off autobiography as fiction). The main character in My Struggle is named – that’s right – Karl Ove Knausgaard. Some critics and literati are hailing this as a major achievement. No less a literary star than Jeffrey Eugenides describes what Knausgaard has done (or rather hasn’t done, since even in roman à clef the names get changed to protect the innocent) this way: “He broke the sound barrier of the autobiographical novel.”

Well, maybe. A number of roman à clef authors have found themselves embroiled in controversy and some have faced pretty angry  responses from those they have depicted in their works. Nothing particularly new there, unless one buys that “emperor’s clothes” claim that not changing names is some great literary achievement. Of course, roman à clef has often been more about scandal mongering and sensationalism than about literature, so perhaps it might be useful to look at the work of one whose literary stature makes his achievement in “tell-all” a reasonable comparison for Knausgaard’s.

Thomas Wolfe (image courtesy Wikimedia)

Thomas Wolfe’s achievement in the autobiographical novel is considerable, of course, and his place in literature is secure. Like Knausgaard, Wolfe chose as his subject the telling of his own story. Too, somehow the defeat of death and even of time itself, as with Knausgaard’s work, is at the center of Wolfe’s achievement. His own novels, which he claimed were separate works (even going so far as to change publishers and rename his main character out of frustration with the insistence of people that his separate novels were really one great work), are really one long narrative of the author’s life. And, as with Knausgaard, the reaction of people depicted in Wolfe’s first novel in his four novel opus, Look Homeward, Angel, was outrage and hurt. Wolfe had cut too close to the bone – while he did change the names of characters and places, his changes were often so slight (his father, W.O. Wolfe became W.O. Gant and Chapel Hill, where Wolfe did his undergraduate degree, became Pulpit Hill, for example) that people and events were easily determined – and he was threatened with libel suits despite the fact that, as Knausgaard and his publisher claim and that Wolfe and his publisher could claim even more believably given Wolfe’s name and place changes, slight though they were, he was writing fiction. When you tell about real events that people may not want recounted, changing people’s names or leaving them what they are may not be all that important. As another fine writer reminds us, “Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.” But it did happen – and squawking about it simply draws more attention to that which one didn’t want attention drawn to in the first place.

So has Knausgaard “broken the sound barrier” of the autobiographical novel and achieved the creation of a new literary movement? Well, he’s written an autobiographical work that goes into excruciating detail for thousands of pages – oh, Bonsoir, Monsieur Proust. And he’s caused considerable upset and controversy among those depicted in his work – just like the guy who said, “You can’t go home again.” So, no, all Knausgaard has done is keep the names of his characters the same. That’s an interesting twist on the classic autobiographical novel or roman à clef – but one has to doubt if it’s a whole new literary movement.

(All these guys write wonderfully, by the way. Here’s an excerpt from Knausgaard. And here’s one from Proust. And finally, here’s something from Wolfe. Whether any of them started new literary movements or not, they’re all remarkable writers. Enjoy.)



About Jim Booth

Novelist, college professor, rock musician - are we getting the band back together? Maybe....
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8 Responses to Karl Ove Knausgaard, Thomas Wolfe, Marcel Proust…Life is – How We Write It…?

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