This text includes some spoilers for Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Cycle and Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle (all volumes)
Some time ago I was talking to my mum on the phone and mentioned that I bought the first volume of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Cycle, My Brilliant Friend. Her immediate reaction was to suggest I’m a bit out of touch with the literary trends, since both she and my grandma finished reading Ferrante’s cycle more than a year ago. I defended myself, saying I didn’t have time to read half a page of fiction (not too mention four books) last year because of my studies and internship, only to later realise I actually managed to consume quite a lot of another phenomenon of our times: the edgily titled My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard.
My mother dismissed Knausgaard’s books without reading them, claiming she’s not interested in someone’s traumatised childhood and alcoholic father (actually Ferrante’s books also feature plenty of trauma and addiction). Personally I found the first volume of My Struggle, focused on said trauma and father, a captivating masterpiece. It is in the next messily written volumes, full of clumsy male sexual experiences and (equally alien to me) fatherly dilemmas, where Karl Ove lost me to the obligations of writing my thesis. On the other hand, Elena Ferrante and her heroine, conveniently also named Elena (Greco), forced me to postpone work and socialising to follow their story, also covering topics absent from my everyday life (maternity, organised crime, earthquakes).
I don’t want to rely on my experience with these works just to claim that Ferrante is better: the ending of her cycle disappointed me and killed my hopes of seeing it as something really great, something like Father Goriot by Balzac, which I finish reading and think “wow”. Also I appreciate the somewhat gimmicky novelty of Knausgaard’s “fictional autobiography”, while Ferrante’s novels are pretty conventional (which might be why I liked reading them).
Still, the comparisons write themselves, and while I’m pleasantly surprised that The New Yorker implied Ferrante and Knausgaard are two titans with a “radically opposed” visions of human condition in the vein of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy (because I like generalisations swooping across the ages), their analysis doesn’t quite satisfy me. Of course, there is a deeper meaning in Ferrante and Knausgaard’s books, related to violence, growing up and mundane everyday lives. But the more superficial aspects of their work and personas deserve to be presented as the full of contrasts clickbait material which they are. Karl Ove writes about his own life in ruthless detail, Elena writes potentially autobiographical fiction. While we see photos of Karl Ove’s ruggedly handsome face on the covers of his books, we have no idea about Elena’s looks – she might even be a male author using a female pseudonym. Karl Ove lives in Norway and Sweden, the lands of grey skies, cold winters and IKEA, Elena lives in Italy, the land of loud conversations, good food and a lot of sun. These are cliches, but marketing loves them, and while Ferrante’s covers show sunny weddings, I wouldn’t be surprised if someone, somewhere presented My Struggle as a twisted addition to the hygge trend.
The biggest difference, however, has to do with my favourite topic (other than random cultural consumption): politics. Largely absent from Knausgaard’s novels, politics provide most of the context and much of the plot in Ferrante’s Neapolitan Cycle. Knausgaard writes about his personal relationships and artistic struggles, and at first the life of Ferrante’s supposed alter ego, Elena Greco, seems to be filled with exactly that. She’s a lover, a writer and a mother, more or less in that order. But Elena’s relationships, studies and publications are often just reflections of her biggest desire: to escape the poverty and violence of the place where she comes from, a working class neighbourhood in Naples. For many years she studies, extremely disciplined, at schools which almost no one from her neighbourhood attends, to finally become the only local university graduate. Among the people left behind is her best friend forever, Lila, whose family is slightly poorer than Elena’s. The twelve year old Lila has to help her parents with work and isn’t allowed to attend the middle school, despite her almost supernatural intelligence. The reader has no doubt that she’s the “brilliant friend” from the title – until at some point, when she’s sixteen and about to get married, Lila implores Elena: don’t end up like me, study to do great things: you’re my brilliant friend.
Ferrante’s books are in fact a readable analysis of social classes shaping people’s lives. There’s the obvious layer of this analysis, in which Elena, Lila and their friends represent the working class; rich teachers and professors like the Galianis and Airotos are a sort of bourgeois intelligentsia; the factory owner Soccavo is a textbook capitalist; some people situate themselves on the borders of these distinctions, like the third most important character of the cycle, the womanising arriviste Nino Sarratore. But within these categories individual decisions lead to more complex consequences. After the initial tragedy of stopping with her education, Lila has to deal with a restless mind, symbolising all the potential unrealised because of her various struggles. Elena, who compares herself to the spoiled youth of the higher classes, discovers that she spent most of her life studying only to achieve what others have gotten as if it was their natural right. Even though at some point Lila’s uniqueness manifests itself as striking physical beauty, Elena observes that the girls from the higher classes possess charm and grace which neither she nor Lila will ever have. Nothing can replace Elena and Lila’s childhood dream of getting rich, and while both of them admire characters devoted to some other goal – be it communism or science – by the end of the last book we realise that even these characters have no influence on the violent chaos in their neighbourhood, Naples, Italy and, ultimately, the world.
In Knausgaard’s novels, the chaos is hidden within: deep in people’s minds, but also behind the curtains of their bourgeois homes. Karl Ove barely has any financial problems. Unlike Ferrante’s heroines, who work hard to survive for the majority of their lives, the reckless Norwegian is penniless only once, as a result of a spontaneous and therefore terribly planned hitchhiking trip to Greece. In the later years, he might run out of his student credit money, but he can always borrow cash from his brother or immediately find a well-paid summer job on an oil platform. Despite the unemployment of his wife, he earns enough with his writing to support her and their three small children, while still having time to do his share of the household tasks. From an economic point of view, such welfare is like a dream come true – but naturally Knausgaard progresses to the hell of post-material values.
The huge trauma in Karl Ove’s life is caused by his father, a mysterious man who terrorises his young sons with strict rules and punishments, but ultimately succumbs to alcoholism later in his life. Ferrante’s novels are full of characters far more violent than Knausgaard’s father: rapists, terrorists and murderers. Yet the only reaction we really see from her main characters is yet more passion, yet more attempts to escape or remove oneself from the cruel reality. Knausgaard is different: he’s a self-conscious narrator, a man on a mission to describe an intimate, real version of himself. Reading about his childhood, I remembered the uneasy feeling of breaking something in the house, or not studying, and awaiting my parents’ reaction. Heartbreakingly, little Karl Ove remains in that uneasy state most of the time. During his student years, he often gets embarrassingly drunk and exposes his emotions, sometimes in an auto-destructive way. He cuts his face after romantic rejections, which at first seems shocking, but is explained in the last book of the series: Karl Ove looks just like his father. Instead of creating a panorama of the society, or at least a portrait of one social class, Knausgaard follows the remark of Gombrowicz – that one should write about oneself, since that is the only topic one really knows – and takes it to its very extreme. I almost accepted that personal focus halfway through the sixth novel, relaxed by the descriptions of Knausgaard’s summer family life, when suddenly the political subtext turned into a text in long pages of author’s musings about Adolf Hitler.
People discussing the first volumes of My Struggle were quick to dismiss the title as a meaningless provocation, unwilling to assume that an adult, respected writer would stain his life story by evoking Nazism. Yet on the more contemplative pages of these earlier novels Knausgaard already shows himself to be a particular kind of erudite, someone who didn’t stop his literary education on contemporary writers but followed the paths of their historical inspiration. That’s why we get to know his thoughts on Hoelderlin, Hamsun and a couple of less famous, mostly Scandinavian, authors. Through these references and Karl Ove’s conversations with his friends (most of them called Geir), we discover him to be a polar opposite of Ferrante’s classically trained author and mother, Elena. While Elena writes her first book, a fictionalised account of her rape-y first time, in a month before finishing an excellent humanist scholarly thesis, Karl Ove struggles for years with his studies and writing to finally debut with a fictionalised account of his 18 year old teacher self’s affection for a 13 year old pupil. His political consciousness is barely existent unless he ponders on cultural issues: the immigrants in his town, his emasculation as a caring father, the Americanised celebrations at his kids’ school. In other words, he only cares about the political which is very, very personal – to him. And that brings us back to Hitler.
I’ve read Knausgaard’s long essay on Hitler’s youth in the middle of book six with great interest, probably because I went through a period of fascination with Nazi Germany when I was 17 and reading about people like Ernst Hanfstaengl brought a lot of deeply buried knowledge back to the surface of my mind. That could be the difference between me and the numerous reviewers who criticised the essay for its length and lack of connection with the rest of the story. That critique was also voiced in Polish reviews, written by people who, just like me, grew up with the ever present shadow of the 2nd World War and Shoah hanging over our rebuilt cities. I understand that even the Polish education system won’t make everyone a Nazi history expert, but my own interest grew from the stories of terrible crimes I’ve learned at school, and the equally terrible absence of Jews in Poland, Jews who made up 30% of Warsaw’s pre-war population. Knausgaard also starts with Nazi crimes, by analysing a poem by Paul Celan, and with his personal Norwegian experience of the past: finding a copy of Mein Kampf in his grandpa’s attic. Beginning with a description of the young Hitler, someone destitute and unhappy, and his times, times when people deeply respected culture and patriotic sacrifice, Knausgaard looks at himself, a relatively miserable youth, young man and a grown-up in times when sublime ideals seem to be forgotten by the general populace. He muses on the feeling of “we”, the national enthusiasm that Nazis were able to evoke, and observes with surprise his own feeling of unity with the Norwegian nation mourning after Anders Breivik’s terrorist attack. What he looks for in the past are not simple parallels between himself, Hitler and their fathers, as many reviewers seem to suggest, but some wisdom about how the yearning for unity with other people, for erasing the “I” with “we”, can lead to monstrosities once the singular “you” disappears and the plural “you” becomes a hated out-group. And that’s important to Knausgaard, since he sees that yearning in himself and suspects many people share it. That’s where the personal turns into the very political in his novels, although it might be a different, more overly emotional kind of politics than the partisan shambles we’re used to.
As a writer, Knausgaard gives up some of his rights as an individual in order to share his relatively ordinary story with the readers. And his books are most fascinating when he focuses on his relationships with other people, most of them driven by his desire to be liked and loved while he believes he isn’t worthy of such affection. He wrote the My Struggle books because he was a writer and couldn’t come up with any good fiction, sure, but sometimes they read like a long cry for attention and a justification for his shortcomings and wrongdoings. Of course, the results are problematic on the personal level, with strangers on planes inquiring about the health of Knausgaard’s children and his wife suffering from manic and depressive episodes after reading his manuscripts. But doesn’t being famous and acclaimed just mean that a whole lot of people like you?
The starkest contrast between Knausgaard and Ferrante would then be Knausgaard making himself a significant character of his novels, while Ferrante hides as an author and her main characters want to hide or escape. It’s the question of the society holding some promise in reaching out to each other and sharing our traumas or being a violent, scary structure, one that brings more and more suffering to individuals doing their best. In this comparison, Ferrante is Dostoevsky, only there’s no God waiting to save the sinners. From the very beginning her novels are a biography, written by the narrator-character Elena about her friend Lila, a brilliant heroine who puts up a fight and then realises the fight can’t be won. In her God-like role of an author, the more fortunate Elena believes she’s right to go against Lila’s deepest wish (even though she knows Lila is the wiser one): the wish to disappear. Both cycles are thus unexpected biographies of “common people” which, instead of dissolving their heroes in the anonymous “we”, form a narrative mirror reflecting the past decades of human struggles.