Knausgaard’s fecal fixation.
“I’ve been reading Knausgaard,” I’ve heard on more than one occasion, over this Scandinavian-grade winter, from a friend across a barroom table. And a few minutes into the conversation, almost inevitably: “There’s this part in the third book about taking a shit … ”
It came as no surprise that my friends wanted to talk My Struggle, the Norwegian novelist’s opus on the everyday in six volumes. (The fourth is out in English translation today.) But the number of those friends who zeroed in on Knausgaard’s excretory musings was another matter.
And it’s not just My Struggle. The subject reemerged earlier this year when The New York Times Magazine published “My Saga,” Knausgaard’s two–part North American travelogue, in which a jaunt on the john in a Newfoundland hotel leaves him with a hopelessly clogged toilet. He recounts the aftermath at length. The episode was at the center of Knausgaard talk.
Lest readers think this focus is a factor of the company I keep—that I surround myself with prudish types offended by bathroom scenes, fetishists attracted to them, or the scatological-humor crowd—I direct them to James Wood, a critic at a venue no less proper than The New Yorker. In an interview with Knausgaard published in the Winter 2014 issue of The Paris Review, Wood says,
In Book Three, you’ve got a bit about you and a friend shitting in a forest. Like everyone here tonight, I read it thinking, He’s going to describe the shit. Not just the act. I think, knowing Knausgaard, he’s actually going to describe what the piece of crap looks like. And you did.
An interviewer for the literary magazine Tin House similarly observed, “There’s an awful lot about shitting in Book Three.”
From all this, a question emerges. What made Knausgaard a chronicler of the lavatory side of life?
Is it a puerile sense of humor? Knausgaard’s take on the subject is too serious for that to be it. A fixation that’s the fate of all Raisin Bran–medicated middle-age men? It can’t be excluded, I suppose, but it seems oversimple. An expression of latent coprophilia? Writing therapy for a case of coprophobia? Residual trauma from childhood encopresis? One would need more data to make an assessment.
A related question—Why are readers struck by these scenes?—is easier to answer. Knausgaard isn’t the first literary writer on the subject. But more so than, say, Cervantes or James Joyce, both of whom notably depicted fictional bowel movements, Knausgaard’s scenes come across as gratuitous for the direct and graphic treatment of their subject and for the fact of their inclusion at all. Whereas in Don Quixote and Ulysses the scenes are sources of humor or art, in “My Saga” Knausgaard writes them with his usual candor: “I hadn’t gone since I arrived in America, so the result was significant.” What follows is fourteen paragraphs of Knausgaard striving mightily to divest the toilet of that significance (the “plug of feces and toilet paper”) manually, with his hand wrapped in a plastic bag (twice), and with a coat hanger until the toilet miraculously unclogs itself—call it deus ex latrina.
In Book Three of My Struggle, a young Karl Ove and a friend defecate in the woods after watching two men shoot rats in a garbage dump. (The friend: “Let’s go for a shit, eh?”) The three-page digression touches on the following: that a garbage dump is no place for a dump (it felt, “for some reason, inappropriate, there was something dirty about it”) because the waste there is man-made (made by man’s hand rather than his gastrointestinal tract) and “anything soft and sticky was wrapped”; the joys and risks of holding it in; extracting stool from oneself by hand (“What a method that was!”); the appearance and aroma, as per Wood, of Knausgaard’s and his friend’s leavings; and an almost science fair–like plan to return the following Saturday to examine the effect of a week in the woods on human excrement.
That gratuitous attention to detail may explain why these scenes jump out at readers, but it doesn’t explain Knausgaard’s minor obsession with shit. To be sure, the inclusion of these scenes is consistent with Knausgaard’s maximalist approach to the quotidian novel. “The banality of the everyday”—what Knausgaard is after in My Struggle—includes the human experience of basic biological functions. But there’s more to it than that.
Two years ago, Knausgaard published Sjelens Amerika, or The America of the Soul, an as-yet untranslated collection of eighteen essays he wrote between 1996 and 2013. Taking on subjects as disparate as Cindy Sherman and Knut Hamsun, he outlines his thinking on art and literature, a source of much internal inconsistency and contradiction in My Struggle. Because he has a tendency to return to certain core subjects—in his nonfiction as in his fiction—much of Sjelens Amerika reads like a My Struggle companion, clarifying what in the novels is opaque. In other essays, Knausgaard articulates his interest in the child’s perspective he adopts in Book Three and parts of Book One of My Struggle. He explains key circumstances of his alcoholic father’s death left ambiguous in Book Two. Of course, critics have read large parts of My Struggle as interpolated essays, and those essays are part of Knausgaard’s project as a novelist—asides that punctuate the narration with often contradictory ideas, accenting the character of his frequently contrarian narrator. But the form of the essay forces him to sharpen his thinking. The results are elucidating—even, it turns out, regarding his thoughts on shit.
In “Den Brune Halen,” or “The Brown Tail,” Knausgaard once again turns his gaze to evacuation. As he and his five-year-old daughter return to their apartment from the grocery store, he has an unsettling realization: “I had to take a shit so badly that it was hard to plan beyond it.” From here, the essay explains what Knausgaard finds so compelling about defecation and the customs that surround it, in which he sees many of the major themes that animate his novels—the tension between bodily and social existence, a religious sensibility in a secular world, the inescapable presence of death and loss in daily life.
Knausgaard feels the embarrassment of the body perhaps more acutely than most. In Book Two of My Struggle, he recalls cracking up at a Charlie Chaplin film, which brings to mind in equal measure the pleasure of laughter and “the shame of losing control.” Likewise, “The Brown Tail” is a litany of “my struggles” for Knausgaard—physical, psychological, and tactical struggles against his body and its efforts to humiliate him.
He struggles to keep his innards from reaching what he terms the “no-man’s land of the will,” to tense and loosen specific muscle groups so he can at once walk and not soil himself. And all this because of another struggle: to hide from his wife and children (of all people—a distinctively Knausgaardian anxiety) the bent-forward, “ape-like” posture that’s the outward manifestation of his inner struggles. “Maybe ask a question to shift attention away from the body. For example: do you know where the car keys are? Or: have you seen today’s paper anywhere?”
In Book Two, Knausgaard’s friend Geir identifies in him a kind of secular religiosity—Knausgaard finds this in defecating. It is, he writes in “The Brown Tail,” one of the few acts a person performs truly alone, cloistered to purify himself of an animal necessity. And there’s the act itself. Its impending arrival triggers what Knausgaard calls the body’s clairvoyance, its “soon,” giving a person time to prepare for a biological requirement that’s also a kind of small ecstasy—a quality he says it shares with only sneezing and ejaculating.
Finally, as with many of Knausgaard’s relationships, the specter of death and loss haunts his relationship with the bathroom. He sees the taboos around dead bodies—a subject that he explores at length at the start of Book One—as akin to the taboos around defecation. Both, though fundamentally linked to the human condition, are hidden from view, excluded from conversation. And in “The Brown Tail,” as in My Struggle, death and loss inexorably lead to Knausgaard’s late father. Mid-movement, Knausgaard recalls fishing with his father off the southern coast of Norway, a memory that brings to mind a recurring nightmare he had as a child: he is using his father’s private toilet when it begins to overflow. In Freudian fashion, only throwing a carrot into the toilet will unclog it. (It might have been worth a try in that Newfoundland hotel.) Knausgaard finds himself so distraught by thoughts of his father that he must flee the bathroom immediately, so—reprising his youthful maneuver in disgusting detail—he uses toilet paper to liberate the essay’s title character, the “large clump hanging there” above the toilet bowl.
The scene could be plucked from My Struggle. Yet there is a difference, and it’s the difference between Knausgaard the novelist and Knausgaard the essayist. The novelist would leave us with this weird association—defecation and dead father. The essayist offers an explanation. “It hangs behind us like a tail,” he writes earlier in the essay, “brown and slippery and unattractive, a fact we can’t escape: we shit and we die.”
It’s a quiet, powerful answer, appropriately Scandinavian and laconic, and sure to bring a halt to the barroom chatter, should it turn again to that question: Why does Knausgaard fixate on feces? Well, why not? We shit and we die.
Ian MacDougall is a former reporter in the Oslo bureau of The Associated Press. He has written about Scandinavian literature and other subjects for n+1, Slate, Newsweek, and the Guardian.