Book review: The End by Karl Ove Knausgård

For a decade now, there have been a continual debate among Norwegian authors, critics, journalists and readers about the ethics of virkelighetslitteratur, or autofiction. The debate was sparked in 2009 by the publication of Karl Ove Knausgård’s autobiographical novel My Struggle, and now the last volume is published in the UK under the title The End. Does this book then represent the end of Knausgård’s everyday struggle? The end of his turbulent relationship with his father? Or is this book, brim-full of thoughts on the art of writing itself, really the end of Knausgård’s literary career?

Karl Ove Knausgård’s struggle was quickly heralded as a sensation, but many also saw his project as ruthless. Across six volumes, Knausgård describes his own life as well as the people around him in minute and often brutally honest detail. No action is too small, no train of thoughts too big; at one point in The End he rounds off one paragraph with the sentence “Oedipus is blind, Hamlet and Jesus see with open eyes in the darkness.” and begin the next with “I got up, rinsed the plate and put it in the dishwasher”. His style – elegant and pondering – grants the basic and boring events of everyday life a distinct literary value.

 Knausgård’s circle reacted strongly to being turned into characters in a narrative they had no control over. Several people disowned him publicly and acused him of exposing his surroundings whilst hiding behind the artistic freedom lent to him by the novelistic form. My Struggle 6 was not published until the end of 2011, which meant that Knausgård experienced the mayhem surrounding the publication of first three volumes whilst writing the sixth.

This makes The End a rather extraordinary work of something like meta-autofiction; he wraps up his autobiographical literary project by turning the overwhelming reactions to the project itself into literature. Knausgård’s anguish in relation to these reactions makes up a large portion of The End: “If there was one thing I feared in myself, it was not being reliable. (…) Where did my version come from?”

 UEA alumnus Don Bartlett have split the rather monumental task of translating the 1000-page book with Martin Aitken. They deserve praise for making Knausgård’s shifts between intellectual musings and everyday life appear natural in English, and they have also made the wise choice to leave some words and phrases in the original Norwegian and Swedish. The End proves an endlessly readable struggle – as always with Knausgård.

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August 2022
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