Arts & Books Books

Confessions of a Scandinavian St Augustine

Knausgaard: is he right to expose his family and friends in the service of art?

Matt Thorne on the final instalment of a literary sensation

The End
by Karl Ove Knausgaard,
Harvill Secker, 1,153pp, £25/$49.95

The English translation of The End, the final volume of the celebrated Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard’s epic six-novel sequence My Struggle, confirms something Norwegian critics and readers have told us for some time but British and American critics have struggled to believe: the scope of the series is far smaller than it seemed at the beginning. Indeed, while the first novel of the sequence, A Death in the Family, seemed like a wall of a house, the subsequent novels haven’t added more walls to the building but, instead, demolished the wall brick-by-brick until we are left with nothing. But it has to be said, it’s a very impressive nothing.

Critics were quick to compare the opening volume to Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu, assuming the series would make a similar move from the micro to the macro, but it turns out that Knausgaard’s interests are confined to the walls of his writing room.

And rather than Proust, the author’s true influences are stranger. One is the Leeds-based alternative band The Wedding Present: his initial idea was to publish the six volumes of his book in a year, emulating the band releasing a single every month for the whole of 1992. Another is Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf, from which Knausgaard took his title (a large part of this final volume is a consideration of the nature of Hitler’s evil).

Although few reviewers have highlighted it, there is more in this volume about religion than in any other literary novel published this year. Although he does not cite it as an influence, the existential struggle experienced by Knausgaard is very similar to the spiritual struggle by another writer who had come to a similar crossroads in his 40s: St Augustine in the Confessions. In addition to this, Knausgaard’s second book, A Time for Everything, was a religious novel, concerned with a fictional 16th-century theologian who encountered angels as a child.

Just as it was the death of his mother that intensified Augustine’s passage to Catholicism, so Knausgaard’s journey begins with the death of his father (who resembles Augustine’s pagan father Patricius in his appetites and financial precariousness). The Norwegian’s “struggle” is seemingly straightforward: he wants to bear witness honestly (and in doing so stretch the limits of contemporary fiction).

As this book is an exercise in autofiction, where all the characters have the same names as they do in life, this is not just a small creative struggle but a wide-ranging moral dilemma. Is he right to expose his friends and family in the service of art? This act catapulted Knausgaard from obscurity to the front pages of newspapers in his home country and, eventually, led to international success.

The theological concerns of this book begin around the midpoint of its 1,153 pages. Knausgaard considers the differences between how modern life is supposed to be lived – where everyone is an individual and should strive to live free from the influence of others – and the instruction found in Thomas à Kempis’s 15th-century book Imitatio Christi, which encouraged readers to follow the path of Jesus.

As a child, religious studies was important to Knausgaard. The message he received from his teachers was simply to be good and kind. That was easy enough for him to follow. But after puberty, he struggled to reconcile religious instruction with his desires, and began to feel alienated from the Bible. Part of this distancing, he believes, is to do with culture and time. Without the Church to help interpret stories for him, he began to find biblical parables strange and hard to connect to contemporary life.

He also struggled (and this ties in to his own dilemmas) with the conflict between the individual and the masses. While there are many stories in the Bible about Jesus standing up to the corrupt many, Knausgaard believes that, in contemporary history, social forces are the best way to maintain morality, especially when facing dictators such as Adolf Hitler. He writes that Ian Kershaw’s famous biography of the dictator is immature and almost unreadable because (he suggests) Kershaw believes Hitler is “evil incarnate”, rather than a person who committed terrible crimes.

Some will find Knausgaard placing himself alongside Hitler and Jesus ridiculous, but he gets there first, flagellating himself for his ego and ambition. He’s not sure if his book is any good, and this crushes him.

But instead of trying to write something better, he turns inward. A Death in the Family was a great opening; almost everything that has come after (as well as My Struggle’s other volumes, there are four commonplace books and a football book) is commentary on that opening. Maybe a great masterpiece is still to come.