Real, but not that real: My Struggle, Book 6, by Karl Ove Knausgaard

I received the first volume in this series as a gift, mailed to me by Anne Pier in, I think, 2013. I was living in Rochester at the time; I remember standing in the entryway to the building on Meigs St. when I opened the package. I brought the book with me to Champaign, Illinois, then to Tel Aviv, next to Durham, and finally to New York, where I lived for two years, from 2016 to 2018. My first spring in New York, I took a week-long vacation and stayed in an apartment in Thomas, WV, looking out on the Monongahela National Forest. I took the book with me and finally read it after dragging it around with me for almost 4 years. My days in Thomas were quiet and consistently though loosely structured. I woke up, had coffee and breakfast, walked Marcel, then came back and read until lunch, went out again for a long hike, read more until dinner time, drank beer, smoked a cigarette, and read some more. Knausgaard’s writing–simple, precise, even-keeled, almost monotonous–resonated with and helped strengthen the particular mood on this trip, which still stands out in my mind as a particularly happy time. I returned a year later, and by that time I was reading the fourth book. After two years in New York, in 2018, I moved back to Durham, and finished book 5. Almost three years later, I’ve just finished the sixth and final book in the series. 

These books have a meditative quality that I think comes from a stylistic feature the author has commented on many times, in interviews and in the books themselves–attempting giving equal weight to the various impressions and phenomena of his experience. The physical sensations accompanying the preparation of coffee are given just as much space in the text as the argument taking place between the narrator and his mother as he prepares the coffee. The literary device echoes the methodology of classical psychoanalysis, where Freud advocates that the analyst maintain a kind of “evenly hovering attention” (gleichschwebende Aufmerksamkeit) during the session. The same kind of bare, vigilant, nonjudgmental attention arises on its own during the practice of zazen in my experience, at least I have found this to be the case during day-long or multi-day meditation intensives. 

But even from this free-floating attention, a distinct voice and a particular narrative emerges. The narrator’s “I” can’t help but structure these impressions around his own egoic needs, his likes and dislikes, his shame and insecurities and ambition. In attempting to lay bare the raw materials, the bare phenomenology, of experience, Knausgaard drills deep into the core of the self, to what is real in our sense of separateness and individuality. In the context of Buddhist psychology and metaphysics, it is often said that the ego “is real, but it’s not that real”. The way I understand this is that the ego, or sense of self, is a real phenomenon, a natural and biologically rooted outgrowth of human cognitive development, as real as a daisy or a large-mouth bass. But it is also as unreal as a daisy or a large-mouth bass, insofar as all these phenomena are in some radical sense inseparable from all other phenomena–indeed, they (all phenomena) are all literally one thing. Knausgaard’s books get at this point obliquely, using the tools and language of literature and memoir rather than psychology or religion. 

For me, these books draw out and beautifully develop the painful and often embarrassing details of childhood, growing up, fatherhood, friendship, and heartbreak to get at what is the most urgent and arguably only real spiritual question: what is this?