Groys also points out that, more than anything else, each project “strives to acquire a socially sanctioned loneliness.” The secret joy of any project, it has to be said, is the ability to dip away from the constant stream of obligation and communication required by daily life. With the exception of Elena Ferrante, a case which just proves the point, no living author cultivates this “loneliness of the project” more than Knausgaard. In many ways, My Struggle is about the loneliness of its own production, which in turn opens a wormhole to the loneliness of the reader, who reads, in part, in order to be lonely. It is fair to say that this transaction of loneliness is increasingly rare in our culture, and this rarity is secretly dramatized throughout the novel. In Volume 4, where Karl Ove commits himself to the practice of writing, we’re privy to the endless negotiations required of him to manufacture his own loneliness. And this loneliness, too, is compounded by his problems with premature ejaculation — which is nothing if not a non-metaphor-metaphor for the discipline required to be truly lonely.
Comrade of Time
While we’re on the subject of discipline: another important feature of My Struggle is that it was written at all. It may sound crazy to you to read this, but the Buddhistic discipline required to produce projects is a major theme in contemporary literature. In Tao Lin’s Taipei, which is basically just a less successful version of My Struggle transferred to America in a duplicitous third person, the protagonist Paul, and by extension Tao Lin himself, strive to reach what I once called “Siddhartha-lite” enlightenment, often through the ascetic use of drugs and the practice of writerly discipline. Likewise, Laszlo Krasznahorkai’s Seiobo There Below, arguably the other greatest novel of the last few years, is entirely about the ascetic discipline required to ascertain and produce great works of art.
It isn’t hard to see why discipline is so important. It requires precisely what we seem to lack: presence. And this sense of presence is, for Groys, what identifies the truly contemporary:
Being contemporary can be understood as being immediately present, as being here-and-now. In this sense, art seems to be truly contemporary if it is perceived as being authentic, as being able to capture and express the presence of the present in a way that is radically uncorrupted by past traditions or strategies aiming at success in the future.
In contemporary life, we crave this presence unabashedly. It’s what people search for in their various “practices” — yoga or art or anything else — all of the time. That is, unless they are searching for the opposite of presence, which is oblivion. And Volume 4 of My Struggle is characterized by the interchanges between presence and oblivion, between sexual desire and writerly practice. Just about any passage offers some mix of memorial presence and represented oblivion:
As always, alcohol gave me a strong sense of freedom and happiness, it lifted me onto a wave, inside it everything was good, and to prevent it from ever ending, my only real fear, I had to keep drinking more. When the time came Dad ordered a taxi, and I staggered down the stairs to the car that would take us the five hundred meters to Fregarten, and this time there was no question of there not being enough space. Once there we were shown to our table, close to the window in the big room which was otherwise completely empty. I had been drinking since ten o’clock, now it was six, and it was only by the grace of God that I didn’t fall through the window as I went to pull out my chair and sit down. I barely registered the presence of the others, no longer heard what they said, their faces were blurred, their voices a low rustle…
Yet there is another, more powerful way that My Struggle deals with presence and contemporaneity — by collaborating with time. Groys points out that being a “contemporary” in German just means that you are a “comrade of time” — a friend of time. No living writer is a better friend to time than Karl Ove Knausgaard, although Ben Lerner, with his Back to the Future-citing 10:04, is a close second. But what does it even mean to collaborate with time? It means
helping time when it has problems, when it has difficulties. And under the conditions of our contemporary product-oriented civilization, time does indeed have problems when it is perceived as being unproductive, wasted, meaningless. Such unproductive time is excluded from historical narratives, endangered by the prospect of complete erasure.
The reclamation of Karl Ove’s “wasted, meaningless” time spent on Earth — isn’t this is My Struggle in a nutshell? And it’s clear from any passage, from any volume of My Struggle, that Knausgaard’s project is about total friendship with time. Why else subject the time of your life, in volume after volume, to such scrutiny, with such presence, with so much care?
When critics compare Knausgaard to Proust, I’m not sure they know why, and this probably has something to do with how little we think about the “contemporary” in “contemporary literature.” Let’s be honest, too: Proust was probably the best pure writer of all the modernists, and Knausgaard’s style resembles his not at all. Nevertheless, both writers, in their respective masterpieces, cultivated the “loneliness of the project” and both were good friends with time — they helped it along, supported it, made sure it knew that it wasn’t meaningless or wasted. And this springs perhaps the final paradox. Now My Struggle is totally contemporary, and by being totally contemporary, by being a friend to time, it is timeless. Or as Karl Ove says about his suitcases on the first page of Volume 4, “they suited me and my style, the not-quite-contemporary, the not-quite-streamlined, which was what I favored.”