Jun 01, 2015

Min Kamp

Last weekend, I read the first volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle. I find it utterly captivating, as every dutiful member of the young intelligentsia should. As Karl Ove himself has pointed out, there is an addictive, hypnotic quality attached to moment-by-moment autobiography.

My Struggle has received a tremendous amount of press. In America, at least, most of this press says essentially the same thing:

  1. "Wow, get a load of this tell-all Scandinavian!"
  2. "Why do we find you so captivating, Karl Ove, when you write about such boring stuff?"
  3. "I wonder what life must be like for him now that he has spilled all his beans... and what about his poor family?"
  4. "What's next for you, Karl Ove?"

A friend recently pointed out that despite the all the buzz, little has been said about the appropriation of Hitler's distinctive title. So here is my contribution to the tumult — a brief analysis of two questions: 1) why did Karl Ove name his autobiographical masterwork after Hitler's autobiographical masterwork? And 2), why are we okay with it?

Why Min Kamp?

The identity has merited many in-passing mentions as a curious feature of the book, but little actual discussion. Well, there is a New Yorker piece on the question, which for some reason spends a large amount of time discussing a famed Norwegian author/Nazi sympathizer, before addressing its titular question with this:

When asked why he called the project “Min Kamp,” Knausgaard often remarks that he had working titles that he found unsatisfactory (“Argentina” and “Parrot Park”). Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” came up in conversation with his best friend, the author Geir Angell Øygarden, and Geir—as he is called in the book—said, “There’s your title.” Knausgaard says that he agreed right away, though Geir told me that he recalled some hesitation. But all this is more of a narrative than an explanation, and it seems notable that Knausgaard frequently refers to Geir’s role, as if to deflect some responsibility.

So here Knausgaard dodges the question, and the New Yorker doesn't have really draw out any illuminating insight. I suspect I won't be able to do much better – this is literary criticism I'm attempting, where the distance between insipid and inspired is quite short and the crossing-over point unclear.

Here's Knausgaard himself on the question: (in an interview covered by the Times)

Mr. Knausgaard said he originally planned to call the book “Argentina,” to represent a place he thought about a lot but to which he would never go. “My Struggle” is “a very ironic title,” he said. “Hitler’s ‘Mein Kampf’ is all about perfection and ideology. There’s no doubt in that book. In my book, it’s the opposite.” And the title “is a provocation, of course.”

As with everything else, Knausgaard is painfully aware of the connotations around the title. And the concept seems to have seeped in slowly to the body of the work. The first book contains only one reference to Nazism – the sixth is dominated by Hitler (I'm at risk of embarrassing myself here, I'm making sweeping claims having only read one-sixth of the thing). Knausgaard again: (interviewed by the Paris Review)

In the sixth book of Min Kamp, I wrote four hundred pages on Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf. Hitler was a man who lived a year without seeing anyone, just sitting in his room reading, and when he left that room, never let anyone close, and stayed that way, intransigent, through the rest of his life, and one characteristic thing with his book, is that there is an “I,” and a “we,” but no “you.” And while I was writing about Hitler, a young Norwegian who had stayed some two years all by himself, and written a manifesto with a strong “I” and a “we,” also without a “you,” massacred sixty-nine youths on an island. In other words, his countenance fell.


I was in Germany, I was talking to my German editor, and we were talking about this because in the last book there is that long essay on Hitler, treating Hitler as a human being, and this is a very delicate and sensitive matter in Germany, of course. So what shall we do with it? Shall we have some historian read it and modify it, treat it as an essay? Or shall we just treat it as a madman from Norway writing whatever he thinks?

And a little more: (from that New Yorker article I disparaged above)

Knausgaard allows that the title was “a way of saying ‘fuck you’ to the reader.” But that reflected, he felt, the aesthetics of his project: he would give no thought to pleasing the audience, never mind family or friends. He told me, “If it was boring, I wanted it boring... No compromises were made in this book. The title kind of makes that statement.”

So I think the best we can do here is something like this: Knausgaard's friend Geir happened on the title, and thought it was fitting. Knausgaard agreed and applied it, liking the spunk. The Nazi undertone wasn't the deciding factor in the naming decision, though it brings out some nice play with Knausgaard's idea that men who live evil lives are still men, after all.

Why are we all okay with the appropriation?

We live in a world where writing a fantasy novel about Muhammad will attract the unfriendly attention of the Supreme Leader of Iran. But apparently you can name your book after Hitler's book and no one bats an eye as it becomes an international literary sensation. No protests. No death threats. No strongly worded letters to the editor.

From what I've read, the Norwegian press is much more interested in the sensational revealing of Knausgaard's private life than in his choice of title (thanks, Google Translate!).

The American press is going in for the same, in addition to a fair amount of awkwardly self-conscious questioning ("what the hell is this thing and why do we all like it so much?"), and an effort to publish as many dramatic photos of this ruggedly handsome man as it possibly can.

Appropriately enough, the German press seems most concerned with the title, but even there the hubbub is minimal. In Germany, the books have been published under alternate titles. Here's a (machine-translated) excerpt from a review in Der Spiegel:

Knausgård's ironic idea, his life project with overwriting "Mein Kampf", but in this country has no chance against the imperative of moral propriety.

Not much there, really.

So why is everyone comfortable with Knausgaard's appropriation of Hitler's title? I suspect this is in the category of "interesting questions without firm answers." But it is certainly surprising, so I'm going to engage in a little speculation.

Maybe we accept the appropriation because we have all made our peace with the Holocaust and its principle perpetrator. But I don't think this is the case. In the world where everyone has reconciled themselves to past atrocities and moved on, there shouldn't be much interest in a work that includes a 400-page examination of Hitler's youth.

Here's my guess: we are all getting swept up in this exciting literary wave, and having to consider the implications of the title isn't very much fun. Most of the readers of My Struggle haven't read Mein Kampf. The Holocaust happened a long time ago, it's fading from living memory, and it's not on the minds of most people most of the time. So it's easier to just drop it, to go along with the heady flow, to not bring up the uncomfortable connotations.

And if that's what's going on, Knausgaard might just have the last laugh. Us Americans haven't had easy access to Book 6 yet, where Knausgaard rolls out his long analysis of Nazism and its modern-day analogs. Such dark things were brought about by men, and there might not be such a far distance between those struggles and the everyday struggles chronicled by Karl Ove as we would like to believe.

[rereads: 4, edits: reordered a list, fiddled with phrasing a lot, efforts to make the concluding paragraph punchy.]