Karl Ove Knausgård, a Norwegian now domiciled with his wife and four kids in Sweden, is perhaps the world’s most revered living writer.
Only, if he were American, the principal thing he and everyone else would say about him is that he is an alcoholic.
Knausgård abandoned his efforts to write straight-up novels 10 years ago, and instead launched a massive six-volume autobiographical novel titled in English, My Struggle. It was an immediate sensation in Norway, selling a half million copies in a country with a population of five million people.
The first three volumes were translated into English, and Knausgård’s reputation soared worldwide, including in the US—here, too, he is now a literary sensation. Only lately was the fourth volume translated, and now the fifth (excerpted in The New Yorker, which has published his work frequently before) is due out in April.
The first three volumes dwell on Knausgård’s mature life as a father, husband, friend, fretter and writer, always writing. They are not set in a particular time period. The fourth and fifth volumes, on the other hand, are linear descriptions of his graduation from high school, his teaching at a rural secondary school in Norway, and his entering a writing academy in Bergen, Norway’s second largest city, on its west coast, across the country from Oslo.
These latter two volumes cover Knausgård’s late adolescence and early twenties, as he leaves his mother’s home (his parents are divorced, and he also visits his father with his father’s new wife as his father’s alcoholism worsens), sets out on his own, and tries to form relationships with women.
Knausgård, a tall, good-looking man, encounters many women. But he is plagued by premature ejaculations. Readers can see that his sexual problems reflect his emotional and psychological ones, his uncertainty about his abilities, about his attractiveness, about his relationships within and outside his family.
All of which drives his drinking, which he carries on often all night, as well as sometimes for days at a time. Although these binges eventually peter out as he naturally collapses under their weight, Knausgård loves them. It is only when drunk that he feels attractive to women, and that he can forget his existential woes and anxiety.
A perfect picture of an alcoholic, right?
Flash forward: Now a famous, mature writer who has successfully established a family, Knausgård is sent on assignment by The New York Times (the articles were published in February and March last year) to explore the Vikings’ path into the New World, including tracing his own family’s roots. And, at least one night is spent in blackout drinking.
An alcoholic, like his father, right?
What’s going on? Somehow, Knausgård is able to return us all to the prehistoric time in America when people viewed humans—especially famous, talented ones—in the gestalt of their entire identities, rather than as manifestations of clinical syndromes, and most especially as “alcoholics” and “addicts.”
When you read about any number of famous American writers—like Stephen King—they view and describe themselves as alcoholics, as their reviewers naturally also do. See, for instance, King’s profile in The Guardian, which includes alcoholism in the title.
By comparison, profiles of Knausgård—like one also in The Guardian, published around the soon-to-be-released English translation of the fifth volume of his memoir, Some Rain Must Fall—focus on his emotional turmoil, and regard his drinking as secondary. The term “alcoholic” appears only in connection with his father.
Instead, as he himself does in his books, his reviewers describe the maturing, if still troubled, arc of Knausgård’s life. InThe Guardian’s review of Volume Five:
We see him getting wasted, being arrested, masturbating (for the first time, at 19), saying the wrong thing or (at a posh dinner, overawed) failing to say anything at all. The self-exposure is merciless. But the younger self being exposed wouldn’t have been capable of it. He first had to grow up and, through endless practice, find the true Knausgårdian voice.
Can you hear all those American readers, ever on the lookout for alcoholics and addicts, slyly chuckling over his “getting wasted”?
“Sure,” they might sneer. “That’s how I’d describe my alcoholism too—it’s called denial!”
In the excerpted portion of the fifth volume, Knausgård drinks very heavily, beer then wine, throughout one party at which he pursues a woman that he longs for and lusts after, but is unable to connect with. This is followed by a miserable period where his brother Yngve takes up with the woman, and then a days-long binge alongside his brother and a friend after his brother’s break-up with her:
The next three days were a blur, we drank day and night, slept at Asbjørn’s, got drunk in the morning, ate in town, continued drinking in his apartment, went out in the evening, to all sorts of weird places, such as Uglen or the bar at Rica, and it was wonderful, nothing could beat the feeling of walking across Torgalmenningen and Fisketorget in the middle of the day, drunk, it was as though I was right and everyone else was wrong, as though I was free and everyone else tied and bound to everyday life, and with Yngve and Asbjørn it didn’t seem wrong or excessive, just fun.
The binge eventually and inevitably ends:
I hit a wall whenever I did that, a wall of petite-bourgeoisie and middle-class manners, which could not be broken down without enormous anguish and fear. I wanted to, but I couldn’t. Deep down, I was decent and proper, a goody-goody, and, I thought, perhaps that was also why I couldn’t write. I wasn’t wild enough, not artistic enough, in short, much too normal for my writing to take off. What had made me believe anything else? Oh, but this was the life-lie.
And what did Knausgård do, what did he become, instead? In “At the Writing Academy” (the title of his New Yorkerexcerpt), he learns that he is inadequate as a fiction writer—he is even called out as a plagiarizer by a woman whose writing he pilfered. Yet, somehow, driven and strangely confident of his abilities even as he receives hardly any positive feedback, Knausgård staggers—no, marches—forward towards the unique, distinguished writer he is bound to be:
This was my final assessment, some days after going on a bender with Yngve and Asbjørn, walking home from the Academy after handing in my manuscript. The novel wasn’t finished, and I had decided to spend the rest of the spring and summer on it. When it was completed, I would send it to a publisher. I assumed I would get a rejection [he did], but I wasn’t entirely sure, they might see something in my writing that Jon Fosse and Ragnar Hovland [his instructors at the Academy] hadn’t, after all they, too, had seen something inasmuch as they had accepted me into the course—this was a small hope, but it was there and would be there right until a letter landed in my mailbox. It wasn’t over until then.
What does this tell us about alcoholism? How does Knausgård pull off living his life without recognizing or labeling himself as an alcoholic, which makes more sense in Scandinavia—where young people, despite frequently binge drinking, are unlikely to see themselves this way—but even with his American audiences, who label writers (and themselves) as alcoholics at the drop of a hat, but who seemingly accept Knausgård’s claim to a non-alcoholic identity?
We see in operation the reality of self-identification as the core of addiction (and, therefore, of recovery), as Ilse Thompson and I describe in Recover!: An Empowering Program to Help You Stop Thinking Like an Addict and Reclaim Your Life:
We reject this kind of thinking, expressed in the self-labeling mantra, “I am an addict.” We start instead from two assumptions: every human being is already worthwhile, and you will succeed best when you feel best about yourself, your potential, and your core value. You still need to take responsibility for your actions and practice the discipline required to put your life on track. But you are not your addiction.
And no one better illustrates this refusal to give up on himself by putting himself in the “alcoholic” bin than Karl Ove Knausgård. Indeed, his memoir, My Struggle, is a testament to his refusal to do so. And God bless him for his refusal, despite the ensuing struggle he endures as he commits himself to living his fully human life.