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In America, an Alcoholic—In Scandinavia, Writer Karl Ove Knausgård is Just a Genius

  1. Beenthere2Hippie
    Karl Ove Knausgård, a Norwegian now domiciled with his wife and four kids in Sweden, is perhaps the world’s most revered living writer. Only, if he were American, the principal thing he and everyone else would say about him is that he is an alcoholic.

    Knausgård abandoned his efforts to write straight-up novels 10 years ago, and instead launched a massive six-volume autobiographical novel titled in English, My Struggle. It was an immediate sensation in Norway, selling a half million copies in a country with a population of five million people. The first three volumes were translated into English, and Knausgård’s reputation soared worldwide, including in the US—here, too, he is now a literary sensation. Only lately was the fourth volume translated, and now the fifth (excerpted in The New Yorker, which has published his work frequently before) is due out in April.

    The first three volumes dwell on Knausgård’s mature life as a father, husband, friend, fretter and writer, always writing. They are not set in a particular time period. The fourth and fifth volumes, on the other hand, are linear descriptions of his graduation from high school, his teaching at a rural secondary school in Norway, and his entering a writing academy in Bergen, Norway’s second largest city, on its west coast, across the country from Oslo. These latter two volumes cover Knausgård’s late adolescence and early twenties, as he leaves his mother’s home (his parents are divorced, and he also visits his father with his father’s new wife as his father’s alcoholism worsens), sets out on his own, and tries to form relationships with women.

    Knausgård, a tall, good-looking man, encounters many women. But he is plagued by premature ejaculations. Readers can see that his sexual problems reflect his emotional and psychological ones, his uncertainty about his abilities, about his attractiveness, about his relationships within and outside his family. All of which drives his drinking, which he carries on often all night, as well as sometimes for days at a time. Although these binges eventually peter out as he naturally collapses under their weight, Knausgård loves them. It is only when drunk that he feels attractive to women, and that he can forget his existential woes and anxiety.

    A perfect picture of an alcoholic, right?

    Flash forward: Now a famous, mature writer who has successfully established a family, Knausgård is sent on assignment by The New York Times (the articles were published in February and March last year) to explore the Vikings’ path into the New World, including tracing his own family’s roots. And, at least one night is spent in blackout drinking.

    An alcoholic, like his father, right?

    Only, Knausgård never once refers to himself as an alcoholic. Nor have I seen anyone refer to him as one in print. He certainly never joins AA or enters rehab. What’s going on? Somehow, Knausgård is able to return us all to the prehistoric time in America when people viewed humans—especially famous, talented ones—in the gestalt of their entire identities, rather than as manifestations of clinical syndromes, and most especially as “alcoholics” and “addicts.”

    When you read about any number of famous American writers—like Stephen King—they view and describe themselves as alcoholics, as their reviewers naturally also do. See, for instance, King’s profile in The Guardian, which includes alcoholism in the title. By comparison, profiles of Knausgård—like one also in The Guardian, published around the soon-to-be-released English translation of the fifth volume of his memoir, Some Rain Must Fall—focus on his emotional turmoil, and regard his drinking as secondary. The term “alcoholic” appears only in connection with his father. Instead, as he himself does in his books, his reviewers describe the maturing, if still troubled, arc of Knausgård’s life. In The Guardian’s review of Volume Five:

    We see him getting wasted, being arrested, masturbating (for the first time, at 19), saying the wrong thing or (at a posh dinner, overawed) failing to say anything at all. The self-exposure is merciless. But the younger self being exposed wouldn’t have been capable of it. He first had to grow up and, through endless practice, find the true Knausgårdian voice.​

    Can you hear all those American readers, ever on the lookout for alcoholics and addicts, slyly chuckling over his “getting wasted”?

    “Sure,” they might sneer. “That’s how I’d describe my alcoholism too—it’s called denial!”

    In the excerpted portion of the fifth volume, Knausgård drinks very heavily, beer then wine, throughout one party at which he pursues a woman that he longs for and lusts after, but is unable to connect with. This is followed by a miserable period where his brother Yngve takes up with the woman, and then a days-long binge alongside his brother and a friend after his brother’s break-up with her:

    The next three days were a blur, we drank day and night, slept at Asbjørn’s, got drunk in the morning, ate in town, continued drinking in his apartment, went out in the evening, to all sorts of weird places, such as Uglen or the bar at Rica, and it was wonderful, nothing could beat the feeling of walking across Torgalmenningen and Fisketorget in the middle of the day, drunk, it was as though I was right and everyone else was wrong, as though I was free and everyone else tied and bound to everyday life, and with Yngve and Asbjørn it didn’t seem wrong or excessive, just fun.​

    The binge eventually and inevitably ends:

    I hit a wall whenever I did that, a wall of petite-bourgeoisie and middle-class manners, which could not be broken down without enormous anguish and fear. I wanted to, but I couldn’t. Deep down, I was decent and proper, a goody-goody, and, I thought, perhaps that was also why I couldn’t write. I wasn’t wild enough, not artistic enough, in short, much too normal for my writing to take off. What had made me believe anything else? Oh, but this was the life-lie.​

    And what did Knausgård do, what did he become, instead? In “At the Writing Academy” (the title of his New Yorker excerpt), he learns that he is inadequate as a fiction writer—he is even called out as a plagiarizer by a woman whose writing he pilfered. Yet, somehow, driven and strangely confident of his abilities even as he receives hardly any positive feedback, Knausgård staggers—no, marches—forward towards the unique, distinguished writer he is bound to be:

    This was my final assessment, some days after going on a bender with Yngve and Asbjørn, walking home from the Academy after handing in my manuscript. The novel wasn’t finished, and I had decided to spend the rest of the spring and summer on it. When it was completed, I would send it to a publisher. I assumed I would get a rejection [he did], but I wasn’t entirely sure, they might see something in my writing that Jon Fosse and Ragnar Hovland [his instructors at the Academy] hadn’t, after all they, too, had seen something inasmuch as they had accepted me into the course—this was a small hope, but it was there and would be there right until a letter landed in my mailbox. It wasn’t over until then.​

    What does this tell us about alcoholism? How does Knausgård pull off living his life without recognizing or labeling himself as an alcoholic, which makes more sense in Scandinavia—where young people, despite frequently binge drinking, are unlikely to see themselves this way—but even with his American audiences, who label writers (and themselves) as alcoholics at the drop of a hat, but who seemingly accept Knausgård’s claim to a non-alcoholic identity?

    We see in operation the reality of self-identification as the core of addiction (and, therefore, of recovery), as Ilse Thompson and I describe in Recover!: An Empowering Program to Help You Stop Thinking Like an Addict and Reclaim Your Life:

    We reject this kind of thinking, expressed in the self-labeling mantra, “I am an addict.” We start instead from two assumptions: every human being is already worthwhile, and you will succeed best when you feel best about yourself, your potential, and your core value. You still need to take responsibility for your actions and practice the discipline required to put your life on track. But you are not your addiction. ​

    And no one better illustrates this refusal to give up on himself by putting himself in the “alcoholic” bin than Karl Ove Knausgård. Indeed, his memoir, My Struggle, is a testament to his refusal to do so. And God bless him for his refusal, despite the ensuing struggle he endures as he commits himself to living his fully human life.

    Stanton Peele is a columnist for The Influence. His latest book, with Ilse Thompson, is Recover!: An Empowering Program to Help You Stop Thinking Like an Addict and Reclaim Your Life. He has been at the cutting-edge of addiction theory and practice since writing, with Archie Brodsky, Love and Addiction in 1975. He has since written numerous other books and developed the online Life Process Program. His website is Peele.net. Dr. Peele has won career achievement awards from the Rutgers Center of Alcohol Studies and the Drug Policy Alliance. You can follow him on Twitter: @speele5.

    By Stanton Peele - The Influence/March, 2016
    Newshawk Crew

    Author Bio

    BT2H is a retired news editor and writer from the NYC area who, for health reasons, retired to a southern US state early, and where BT2H continues to write and to post drug-related news to DF.


  1. Gradient
    Re: In America, an Alcoholic—In Scandinavia, Writer Karl Ove Knausgård is Just a Geni

    Very interesting article, and I think there's likely some truth to the idea that the compulsive categorization that we do in the US (as is the case elsewhere, I'm sure) is likely counterproductive in some respects. However, I think the argument at the end - that he isn't an alcoholic because he elects to not include that descriptor in his conception of self - doesn't quite hit the mark.

    I think the US tends to implicitly associate professional success of any kind with good. This is strongly demonstrated in the current political climate - but perhaps even more strongly by how we make the mistake of perceiving celebrities as possessing some intrinsic superiority. People listen when a movie star says something about foreign policy, as though they have some insights by virtue of their professional success in an unrelated field. Like a modern version of the elect.

    This misconception probably bundles the whole of a person's behavior into the category of 'right', and so if Knausgård - a successful and praised writer - drinks a bunch, it's just a part of what makes him good. But if someone who's unemployed day drinks, wandering around town all inebriated, he'll be considered an alcoholic - because it's perceived as part of what's preventing their success. The clinical definition of addiction corroborates this: continued behavior or use of a substance despite negative consequences. There aren't conspicuous negative consequences for his drinking - so while it may be problematic for subtle reasons - it's simply not addiction.

    In other words, I don't think this lofty argument that we're only addicts if we accept that characterization is true. It's more that Knausgård's success essentially justifies behavior that, exhibited by a less successful person, would be considered problematic.
  2. AKA_freckles
    Re: In America, an Alcoholic—In Scandinavia, Writer Karl Ove Knausgård is Just a Geni

    I wonder if his wife and kids would characterize him as an alcoholic. They aren't even mentioned in this. I know it's about his professional life, but his profession is putting his personal life down on paper.

    I come from a long line of successful alcoholics (some very), some were writers* and they were still definitely alcoholics, no matter how they saw themselves.. Which was usually not as an alcoholic. That was in the past though, the present culture is definitely the issue

    Also I can't tell from the article if his drinking is still so serious.

    Very interesting indeed.

    *my grandfather won a Pulitzer in journalism and spent the last 15 years of his life battling cirrhosis and alcohol related dementia.(ARD)
  3. Calliope
    Re: In America, an Alcoholic—In Scandinavia, Writer Karl Ove Knausgård is Just a Geni

    Gradient I don't think I disagree with your basic claims really, but I do think you may be inserting an unfairly simplified claim into the view of the author of the piece. It is absolutely true that there is at work in America (and all places infected by Calvinist and Lutheran protestant visions of how we can pick out those who god really loves) a cult of success that ends up distorting badly who we pay attention to and how. But I dont think that is the force at work in this article. Well the hopeful me hopes not...

    It seems more about how the destructive forces of self-doubt, fear and shame can get leveraged into sustaining destructive patterns of behaviour through making that label--addict, alcoholic, junkie...--the definitive center of self-understanding. It seems really important to me that in the (admittedly self promoting) quote at the end the claim is that it is a mantra of self description as an addict that they reject not the fact of addiction. This is pretty clear here: "You still need to take responsibility for your actions and practice the discipline required to put your life on track. But you are not your addiction."

    Maybe a subtle difference, but accepting that one has an addiction is perhaps importantly not the same as being an addict.
  4. AKA_freckles
    Re: In America, an Alcoholic—In Scandinavia, Writer Karl Ove Knausgård is Just a Geni

    Isn't part of this the idea that if drinking is necessary to the process, it gets a pass? Which I think is what Gradient was saying.

    From Bukowski to Virginia Woolf drinking was central to the work of many writers, with (maybe arguably) mostly devastating effects. Whether they themselves saw it that way didn't matter in the end. We praise them but is it worth it? Especially to their families.

    The cultural difference is interesting because the U.S. culture used to not label everyone as alcoholics, because everyone just drank a lot. It's a recent phenomenon. I wonder if other countries, where drinking is often excessive, will eventually follow suit.

    Edit - I just realized this is like the "if a tree falls in a forest, but no one hears it, does it make a sound?" riddle.
    "If a writer drinks too much, but no one calls him on it, is he still an alcoholic?"

    The answer to both is yes, in my opinion.
  5. Calliope
    Re: In America, an Alcoholic—In Scandinavia, Writer Karl Ove Knausgård is Just a Geni

    I'm not meaning to claim in any way that destructive patterns of behaviour should be ignored or redescribed simply because someone is thought a success. Quite the opposite. I dont know enough about Knausgård and his life to have a view about his actual status (either as a writer or substance user) and I think your question and points about the impact on families are completely on point and relevant, AKA_freckles.

    But I think the notion that drinking is necessary for the kind of creative success Knausgård seems to enjoy is part of the package of ideas about some special people having some destiny, some special mission from gad, and this being part of their essence, their specialness and what makes them deserving of our attention, praise and admiration. All of this a package of being a person of a certain sort, the mad genius, the demented self indulgent self hating drunk/junkie/romantic hero who we love and admire all the more for being a horrible mess making beauty And I think this is connected to the obscene notion that there are special geniuses who not only should get away with excessive and harmful (ab)use of alcohol and other drugs but that through this they are somehow proved closer to god/the truth/the source of creativity etc... But I really don't think that the author of the piece is buying this at all, quite the opposite.

    Again, maybe I am being overly hopeful in my interpretation, but I do think what they are saying is that staking a claim of identity as an alcoholic or addict places all that destructive stuff at the center of one's self-concept and ties it to these deep and understandable human needs for recognition and success. Not making 'alcoholic' or 'addict' a part of one's identity no more has to mean denying the truth of being addicted or alcoholic than not making having brown eyes part of one's identity needs to involve denying one's eye colour.
  6. AKA_freckles
    Re: In America, an Alcoholic—In Scandinavia, Writer Karl Ove Knausgård is Just a Geni

    I love your posts Calliope. (Fallible scallops)

    I think you are correct in the sense that the self labeling is detrimental in some ways, when it defines us, but I think at the end of the day (well the next morning really) alcoholics know who they are, consciously or not. The reason functional alcoholics are often so successfull is that innate need to over compensate for what they perceive as a huge failing. They work their asses off (when they aren't too drunk) so the negative almost becomes a positive. The conscious or unconscious knowledge of their inability to control their drinking propels them further than they would have normally.

    Alcoholics are often very good employees, minus that sick day once a month.
  7. vervain
    Re: In America, an Alcoholic—In Scandinavia, Writer Karl Ove Knausgård is Just a Geni

    Thanks for posting BTTH! Strange article but good discussion afterwards.

    The writer seems to be reaching quite a bit with this stuff, his main premises are:
    1. All you Americans label Knausgard as an alcoholic, or would if you'd heard of him.
    2. But he categorically refuses to be defined by that label.

    To which I'd answer:
    1. Where is anyone necessarily saying that? You're just quoting descriptions of alcohol benders from his books and then reaching for that conclusion, with the most compelling evidence as "Stephen King considers himself an alcoholic."
    2. Again, he wasn't even interviewed for this subject. It's quite possible he explicitly describes himself as an alcoholic privately, again a ton of inferences being made here against a handful of novel excerpts. For all we know he's personally tormented by it. There's just not enough info to make the author's claims here.

    To me it seems like the writer's building a straw-man to awkwardly shoehorn into a reference about his new book. As far as the alcoholism label & writers/artists, I don't necessarily buy it. Some writers use(d) it thematically in their work - Bukowski, Raymond Carver, Anne Lamott, etc - and for some it was a very visible & destructive force in their lives - David Foster Wallace, Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald, etc, so sure, they are painted with that label although I'd argue that for none of them does it overshadow their creative output. However, many many many others deal with alcohol abuse quietly just like the rest of the population and it certainly does not define those individuals' public persona.

    I do think the constant hammering of "addict for life" that seems to have its origins in the 12 Step world can be an unhelpful model for many, but then again for others it seems like a suitable approach - I certainly know more than one person who says they would never have gotten clean without surrendering to that self-label to an extent.

    Ultimately there's no one-size-fits-all approach to this stuff.
  8. Gradient
    Re: In America, an Alcoholic—In Scandinavia, Writer Karl Ove Knausgård is Just a Geni

    ha! Started a response, but had to step away for a bit - and then vervain posts a better version of a paragraph I'd written.

    I absolutely agree that there's something to the underlying acknowledgment of a toxic element to accepting that label and everything that's associated with it. Particularly given the extraordinarily widespread misconceptions of what exactly causes & constitutes addiction, even among some clinicians, I can see how counter-productive all of those destructive forces to which you refer almost certainly are. It's one of the better arguments in favor of designating addiction as something other than a disease, though not a winning one, from my perspective. So I think this is true for most people most of the time.

    My point, as AKA_freckles suggested, is that there's something a bit unique that happens when we're talking about highly successful people who use substances. As she noted, some of the most culturally important artists, political leaders, and probably business executives and scientists as well have had notoriously devout relationships with alcohol and other substances. But unless they decide to get sober, we don't call them alcoholics - we say they burned the candle at both ends, or it's even painted as a charming quality.

    People almost lionize Winston Churchill's tolerance and use of alcohol, however (in)accurate his purported intake might be. When we study Hemingway or Capote or Joyce as students, their notorious intakes are rarely even discussed. Christopher Hitchens, regardless of whether you like or agree with his writing, isn't widely regarded as an alcoholic, but just someone who drinks and smokes.

    If any of those folks hadn't had a single thing published, record sold, or been elected to office, I'd bet the people around them would decry their use of alcohol. But their success affords them a shroud of justification, and perhaps one that's even warranted. The point, though, is that I think it's a category error and misconception to suggest that Knausgård's avoidance of accepting the portrayal as an alcoholic despite heavy use is what distinguishes him from a typical (North? I imagine it's not too different in Canada?) American. I don't think it'd work the same way for most people. While it's a romantic idea, I think the pragmatic reality is: the dude's sold half a million books in one country alone.
  9. AKA_freckles
    Re: In America, an Alcoholic—In Scandinavia, Writer Karl Ove Knausgård is Just a Geni

    What a great conversation, Gradient, Calliope, Vervain- all such well thought out posts.

    I'm going to veer a little and put my feminist hat on. I wonder if a woman wrote like this (granted i have not read his work, but in regards to the summaries in the article) how she would be received / perceived. So I guess I'm thinking this is also a gender thing. Even in this day and age, women and men have different standards expected of them. Hence the quote "There is nothing uglier than a drunk woman".
  10. perro-salchicha614
    Re: In America, an Alcoholic—In Scandinavia, Writer Karl Ove Knausgård is Just a Geni

    Okay, I'll add a couple of points of my own here as well.

    1. This entire article seems like a somewhat convoluted justification for the addiction philosophy (which I don't entirely disagree with) of the author, so I can understand why he isn't exactly unbiased in the way he's presenting this guy's alcoholism. This whole article almost comes across as an alcoholic "success story" of someone whose drinking may have contributed to his success, despite the fact that heavy substance use of any kind usually affects creative output really negatively.

    2. I detect a not - insignificant undercurrent of cultural elitism here. I can imagine the author of the article turning up his nose and saying something like, "Well, Americans just don't get it." Not that there isn't a distinctly anti-intellectual quality in American culture at times, but I don't think this approach really adds anything constructive to the discussion of addiction and creativity.
  11. rawbeer
    Re: In America, an Alcoholic—In Scandinavia, Writer Karl Ove Knausgård is Just a Geni

    Just to make this interesting, let's substitute another character flaw for alcoholism. I recently read an article about HP Lovecraft, and how much racism was a driving factor in his horror stories. We could bring up Joseph Conrad too...

    There are plenty of differences but some parallels: Lovecraft's racism was not worth noting at the time. Like Hemingway's drinking it would have either gone unnoticed or simply labeled a quirk. It was necessary to his writing; he himself said that fear of the unknown was the greatest impetus to human fear. Racism is basically fear of then unknown. It's an element of his writing you can't ignore, yet his writing does not endorse racism.

    Or William S. Burroughs. He's often been labeled a pedophile due to his references to sex with young males (how young I can't say but some of it does seem pretty creepy). Yet his self-loathing and sexual repression were an important part of his writing, and his writing was very important in starting what we now call the LGBT movement. He drew important attention to homosexuality, drug addiction, and freedom of speech.

    So at what point do we decide that these flaws trump artistic achievement? I think we can all agree that Hitler's paintings don't excuse the Holocaust, or that your stoner friend who "makes bracelets" or something between shifts at Pizza Hut isn't really a creative genius. But there are some much stickier examples. And does demonizing a man like Lovecraft really help the world's race problems?

    I've been thinking about this since I read this article yesterday and I'm curious as to how others feel!
  12. vervain
    Re: In America, an Alcoholic—In Scandinavia, Writer Karl Ove Knausgård is Just a Geni

    Ha yes rawbeer, sometime last year a writer at Vox or HuffPo or something "outed" Lovecraft as a racist, and then people started retweeting/facebooking/whatever their surprise and righteous indignance at it. I was just sort of like, have you actually read any of his stuff people? Stories like "The Horror At Red Hook" are just dripping with loathing for immigrants and "foreign mongrels". He was on the record as overtly admiring Hitler. Really weird reactionary dude, even for his era.

    The whole artistic-output-vs-personal-life dynamic is an oft discussed question. Should we as readers/consumers approach them completely separate or is it essential to take into account the artist's personal matters to gain context & insight about their stuff? So many incredible writers, musicians, visual artists, etc, that have created lasting & beautiful works that enhance our lives were also difficult (and occasionally 100% reprehensible) personally, and caused a great amount of pain for those who were close to them.

    It seems that in general great art is to some extent borne through suffering, uncertainty, restlessness, mental/emotional turmoil, and other states that in a way we're conditioned to avoid. The truly content & satisfied don't seem to create or search for transcendence and expression to the same degree. I personally think that the tendency toward substance use/abuse in artists results from that root pain/instability, rather than inherently improving or somehow being essential to their creativity.... IMO the old "correlation does not equal causation" thing applies.
  13. AKA_freckles
    Re: In America, an Alcoholic—In Scandinavia, Writer Karl Ove Knausgård is Just a Geni

    Hey for all we know this author (Knausgard) could just be the Scandinavian thinking man's Tucker Max.

    Edit - Except Tucker Max would never cop to recurring premature ejaculation.
  14. perro-salchicha614
    Re: In America, an Alcoholic—In Scandinavia, Writer Karl Ove Knausgård is Just a Geni

    I remember us having a similar discussion about Baudelaire in the opium forum, if I recall correctly. My issue with the article lies in the fact that the author is trying to extrapolate a very exceptional individual's experience to the general public in an attempt to hawk his book. That's a little irresponsible, in my opinion.
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