The New Yorker

MARCH 25, 2015

Knausgaard or Ferrante?


What’s at stake when we opt for sun over snow, anger over awkwardness, herring over prosciutto, women over men, the north over the south, 1955 over 1985? What does our preference for Knausgaard or Ferrante say about us?

In 1959, the literary critic George Steiner published a book called “Tolstoy or Dostoevsky.” It didn’t ask which writer was better—they were “titans both,” Steiner wrote. Instead, it asked what a person’s preference for one over the other might mean. Discover which of the Russians a reader prefers and why, Steiner argued, and, “you will, I think, have penetrated into his own nature,” because an affinity for Tolstoy or Dostoevsky “commits the imagination to one or the other of two radically opposed interpretations of man’s fate, of the historical future, and of the mystery of God.”

The titanic novelists of the current literary moment are Elena Ferrante and Karl Ove Knausgaard, and the temptation to compare them is just as irresistible. Like Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, Knausgaard and Ferrante are equal geniuses whose books embody opposed values. Reading “My Struggle” alongside the Neapolitan novels, you can’t help but incline one way or the other, discovering that you’re more at home in Norway than in Naples, or that you’re more like Elena (or her friend Lila) than like Karl Ove. The meta-question, of course, is what these affinities mean. What’s at stake when we opt for snow over sun, anger over awkwardness, herring over prosciutto, women over men, the north over the south, 1955 over 1985? What does our preference for Knausgaard or Ferrante suggest about us?

Rivalry depends on similarity, and the first fact to acknowledge is that Knausgaard and Ferrante are strikingly similar. It’s not just that they’ve both written addictive multi-volume chronicles through which Americans can imagine their alternate European lives. It’s that their novels explore similar themes and even tell similar stories. Karl Ove and Elena have a core set of experiences in common.

Only Elena, I suspect, would put it in these terms, but one of their common experiences is patriarchy, especially as it is manifested in male violence and its repercussions. “I feel no nostalgia for our childhood: it was full of violence,” Elena tells us in “My Brilliant Friend.” “His fury struck like a wave, it washed through the rooms, lashed at me, lashed and lashed and lashed at me,” Karl Ove says, of his father, in Book Two of “My Struggle.” In the fourth book, which will be published in the U.S. next month, Karl Ove and his brother Yngve find themselves talking about their childhoods and “going through one incident after another.” Once, Yngve lost some change and their dad beat him in the cellar. When his bicycle tire went flat, their father “walloped” him. “The point of these stories was always the same, his fury was always triggered by some petty detail, some utter triviality, and as such was actually comical. At any rate we laughed when we told the stories,” Karl Ove writes. “It was absolutely absurd: I lived in fear of him, I said, and Yngve said dad controlled him and his thoughts even now.”

It’s often said that “My Struggle” is a book about banality, domesticity, and everydayness, but those aren’t its main subjects. At heart, it’s a book about fear—worst of all the fear Yngve conjures when he says that “dad controlled him and his thoughts even now.” Karl Ove fears that his father, in terrorizing him, has also shaped him. He has, of course—what child isn’t shaped by his parents?—and when Karl Ove describes his father’s rage and its petty triggers, he is also describing himself as we’ve come to know him over thousands of pages. For Karl Ove, the possibility that he harbors the same anger as his father is a source of terror and, above all, shame.

Elena and Lila live in a world more openly shaped by capricious and violent men (make the wrong move, and a man will “smash your face”), and their experience of the afterlife of violence is also deeply unsettling. Stefano, the son of Don Achille, a local loan shark, seems genuinely to believe that he’s shrugged off his father’s violent tendencies, but he’s wrong—at a stroke, Elena writes, “the shadow of Don Achille could swell the veins of his neck and the blue network under the skin of his forehead.” (“Is it possible that our parents never die, that every child inevitably conceals them in himself?” she asks.) It turns out, too, that violence isn’t just expressed or experienced through the body. Lila’s personality becomes organized around the idea that “you have to strike fear into those who wish to strike fear into you.” Pietro, the professor Elena marries, uses his power passive-aggressively: he is simply unable to find his wife’s mind interesting unless it mirrors his own. “No one knew better than I did what it meant to make your own head masculine so that it would be accepted by the culture of men,” Elena writes.

“My Struggle” and the Neapolitan novels don’t simply tell the story of these difficult early years, of course. Despite their smooth surfaces, these are metafictional books—both Karl Ove and Elena are writers (and authorial alter-egos)—and they extend into the present, when Elena and Karl Ove are writing the books we are reading. For them, the past isn’t just waiting, inertly, to be described: the past has its own agenda, and they must struggle to see it clearly, describe it honestly, and understand it. A great deal of the drama in these books comes from this present-tense struggle.

In the Neapolitan novels, Elena’s friend Lila represents the past: the energy of the neighborhood where they grew up is concentrated in her, and she is Elena’s muse. All the same, Lila resists being written about: “Are you playing the know-it-all, the moralizer?” she asks Elena. “You want to write about us? You want to write about me? . . . I’ll come look in your computer, I’ll read your files, I’ll erase them.” In “My Struggle,” the polarity is reversed: a shameful, troubled, and embarrassing past seems to flow unstoppably into the present. In Book Four, when Karl Ove’s father tries to apologize (“I’ve done a lot of things wrong”), Karl Ove suggests they forget all about it: “A lot happened, but it doesn’t matter any more.” “YES, IT DOES!” his father thunders.

In both Knausgaard and Ferrante, this writerly struggle of confronting the past is superimposed over the youthful struggle of oppression and resistance. These are books about young people struggling to free themselves from what they have inherited, written by older people struggling to come into a proper relationship with their younger selves. The luminous quality of these novels—the sense that every paragraph, no matter its content, is vital—is a result of that doubleness. Once, they seem to say, I was young, and despite my fear I resisted the world that was handed to me. Now, I’m older, and my own past is what I must either resist or accept. Or perhaps there’s an alternative to resistance or acceptance: these novels seem to be building toward metaphysical ideas about how our present-day selves relate to the whole sweep of our lives. Those ideas may become clearer in the volumes to come.

Ferrante and Knausgaard have these big subjects in common. And they are similar in other, smaller ways, too. They’re both drawn to serial storytelling: their books are one thing after another. They’re both fascinated by strong emotions, especially those that seem inexplicable in the light of day. They both write—or are presumed to write—autobiographically. (Why should serial, autobiographical chronicles of emotions recollected in tranquility be so compelling at this moment? A question for another time.) There are, conversely, many small differences. Knausgaard is ironic, Ferrante more serious; Knausgaard is leisurely, Ferrante propulsive; Knausgaard is an aesthete, a noticer of moments, while Ferrante is a dramatist, an orchestrator of scenes.

The most notable difference is an obvious one: politics. The women in Ferrante’s novels are engaged in a political struggle, while Karl Ove isn’t; both writers wrestle with the problem of male violence, but only Ferrante’s books are meaningfully feminist. It’s tempting, therefore, to say that politics is what’s at stake in the preference for one writer over the other—that readers with political souls, who want to think about justice and history, will gravitate toward Ferrante, while aesthetes will incline toward Knausgaard.

My suspicion, though, is that the differences run deeper than that. In the early pages of Book One, Karl Ove, as a small child, watches, on television, a search-and-rescue operation at sea. In the waves, he thinks he sees a face—“I stare at the surface of the sea without listening to what the reporter says, and suddenly the outline of a face emerges,” he writes. He’s so fascinated, so transported, that he runs to tell his father, who chastises him (“Now let’s not be hearing any more about that face”). As adults, he writes later, “Our world is enclosed around itself, enclosed around us, and there is no way out of it.” All the same, he is drawn to the idea that there is something beyond the enclosing world—“something that didn’t speak, and that no words could grasp, consequently forever out of our reach, yet within it, for not only did it surround us, we were ourselves part of it, we were ourselves of it.” Part of the magic of “My Struggle” is that it goes, from time to time, into this other, unknowable world. Unlike Ferrante, Knausgaard is nostalgic for his childhood, because while he was at his most vulnerable then he was also at his most receptive. This scene, placed right at the beginning of “My Struggle,” lays out the stakes for the novel as a whole: it will take place in an expansive, unknowable universe, and it will be an exploration of receptivity, in all its varieties.

Ferrante’s sense of reality isn’t transcendent in this way. In her books, nobility is achieved in the here-and-now and nowhere else. When Elena meets with Lila as an adult, Lila communicates, through her diffidence, dignity, and immersion in her circumstances, the idea that the real world is this world, exactly as it is:

She was explaining to me that I had won nothing, that in the world there is nothing to win, that her life was full of varied and foolish adventures as much as mine, and that time simply slipped away without any meaning, and it was good just to see each other every so often to hear the mad sound of the brain of one echo in the mad sound of the brain of the other.
These are two visions of reality. Knausgaard offers us intimations of the beyond while Ferrante offers us the dignity and concreteness of the world we share. Solitude or friendship; spirituality or materiality; the unseen or what’s right in front of you; the unknowable world or the world as it is—these are some of the commitments behind our preference for Knausgaard or Ferrante.

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