The duty of literature is to fight fiction. It’s to find a way into the world as it is.
The only genres I saw value in, which still conferred meaning, were diaries and essays, the types of literature that did not deal with narrative, but just consisted of a voice, the voice of someone’s own personality, a life, a face, a gaze you could meet.
The everyday with its chores and routines was something I endured, not something I enjoyed, not something that gave me a sense of meaning or made me happy. It wasn’t a question of not wanting to wash the floor or change nappies, but of something more basic, namely that I didn’t experience the value of daily life but always longed to escape and always had. The life I lived wasn’t my own. I tried to make it mine, that was the struggle I was engaged in, because of course that was what I wanted, but I failed, the longing for something else completely hollowed out everything I did. What was the problem?
Knausgaard, My Struggle, vol 2 (my trans.)
The simultaneity of presence in the moment and distance from the world is the site of art. The meditative and religiously coloured experience of the now, this tremendous concentration on the moment, which triggers enormous waves of feelings of connectedness with the world, and perhaps says nothing more than ‘I exist’, is only possible if the world becomes visible as the world and not as the world of the self, and it does so only when that self is outside of it. In one and the same movement, art takes us out of the world and brings us closer to it.
— Knausgaard, The America of the Soul
I knew that to be human was to be inadequate, to fail, to never be good enough. Everywhere weaknesses, everywhere flaws, which often hardened into self-righteousness. If there was one consistent character trait I saw in people, it was self-righteousness, conceit, smugness. Humility, that word that everyone in the public sphere was always tossing off, was something hardly anyone knew the meaning of anymore.
— Knausgaard, My Struggle, Vol. 6 (my tr.)
When I was with her, it was as though something was sucked out of me. The dark got brighter, the stunted straighter, and the strange thing was that it didn’t come from the outside, it wasn’t that she lit up the dark, no, it was something that happened in me, because I saw myself with her eyes and not just my own, and in her eyes there wasn’t anything wrong with me, on the contrary. That was how the balance changed. When I was with Gunvor, I no longer wanted to do harm to myself.
— Knausgaard. My Struggle Vol. 5 (my tr.)
The university was a new beginning. More than that, it was something to hold on to. The lectures were fixed points, as were the reading room and the books. No matter what happened, no matter how miserable I was, I could always go up to the reading room and find a place and sit there reading as long as I wanted to, nobody could object to that, nobody could think that was strange, after all that was the essence of university life. I bought a two-volume survey of world literature and ploughed through it author by author, from Homer to the sixties, tried to remember a line or two from each of them, what they wrote. I went to the lectures, Kittang on the poetry of antiquity, Buvik on the epics of antiquity, Linneberg on the drama of antiquity. Among all the names and years, some turbulent insights emerged. Odysseus who tricked the Cyclops by saying his name was ‘no one’. He lost himself but gained life. The song of the sirens. Those who heard it also lost themselves, were drawn towards them, did everything in their power to get close to them, and died. The sirens were both Eros and Thanatos, desire and death, the most desirable and the most dangerous. Orpheus, who sang so beautifully that all who heard it were spellbound and lost themselves, he who went down into the kingdom of death to bring back Eurydice, and who would have succeeded had he only not turned around and looked at her, but he did, and lost her forever. A French philosopher named Blanchot had written about it, and I read his essay about Orpheus, which said that art was a power that made the night open itself, but that it’s Eurydice he wants, and that she was the highest that art could achieve. Eurydice was the other night, wrote Blanchot.
These thoughts were too big for me, but I was drawn to them and tried to think them through, master them, make them mine, without succeeding, I saw them from the outside and knew that their full significance escaped me. Give the sacred back to the sacred? The night of the night? I recognised the main image, what appears and disappears in the same moment, or the simultaneous presence of one thing and another that negates the first, this was an image I’d seen in many contemporary poems, and I also got a special rush from the thoughts about the night, the other night and death, but as soon as I tried to think about them independently, in other words, step outside the form in which the thoughts were presented, it all got banal and stupid. It was like mountain climbing, you had to put your foot exactly here or there, had to grip exactly this or that with your hand, otherwise you either stayed in the same place or lost your grip and tumbled into the abyss.
The highest is what disappears when it is seen or understood. That was the core of the myth about Orpheus. But what does *that* mean?
When I sat in the reading room, which was old and oozed obscurity, and read Blanchot in the afternoon, a brand-new feeling arose in me, something I’d never felt before, an enormous overexcitement, as if I was very close to something exceptional, mixed with an equally enormous impatience, I *had* to get there, and the two feelings were so contradictory that I both wanted to stand up and run around shouting and sit quite still and read on. The strange thing was that I became so restless when I read something good which I understood and absorbed that I could hardly bear it. Often I got up and took a break, and as I walked through the corridors and up the stairs to the second floor of the canteen, my overexcitement and impatience mingled with the mocking mouth in my mind, the one that reminded me I was going to the canteen alone, and in this wild and inexplicable state of inner uproar, I bought a cup of coffee, sat down at a table and tried to look as calm as possible.
The will to acquire knowledge also had something panicky about it, in sudden and frightening insights I understood that actually I didn’t know anything, and that it was urgent, I didn’t have a second to lose. It was almost impossible to adapt this speed to the slowness that reading demanded.
— Knausgaard, My Struggle Vol. 5 (my tr.)
Before I started to write I had quite a clear idea of who he or I was. If I’d written that down it might have been ten pages.
I sat down by the brick fireplace outside the cottage and lit a cigarette. It might have been eleven or maybe half past eleven. The mountainside looked as it must have done when my grandmother worked here in the thirties and forties. Well, everything looked more or less how it must have looked back then. But still, everything was different. It was August 1988, I was a product of the eighties, contemporary with Duran Duran and The Cure, not with the violin and accordion music that my grandfather had heard that time when he and his friend lumbered up here to woo my grandmother and her sister in the twilight. I didn’t belong here, I felt it in my whole body. It didn’t help that I knew that the forest was actually a forest of the eighties and that the mountains were actually mountains of the eighties.
So what was I doing here?
I wanted to write. But I couldn’t, because I was alone, alone to the depths of my soul.
– Knausgaard, My Struggle, Vol. 5 (my. tr.)