Karl Ove Knausgaard and James Boswell: Fellow Memoirists and Alcoholics?

By Stanton Peele 05/16/15

How two great memoirists were rescued from addiction by life purpose.

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Karl Ove Knausgaard, the Norwegian writer whose fourth in the international mega-bestselling series of his memoir-novel, My Struggle, was released for sale in the United States in English last week, seems unique in his writing style. Over the course of this series, Knausgaard details the minutia of his daily life, the conversations and interactions, his sexual and family events—often failures—and his drunkenness, along with his intellectual ruminations on topics large and small.

Purpose in life prevented them from turning themselves over to the dark side of addiction

Has anyone else ever written this way? The novelist Jeffrey Eugenides calls these two facets of Knausgaard’s writing “auto-fiction” and “rumination,” and claims that this blend is something “nobody’s done before.” But what about James Boswell, who lived and wrote in 17th century Britain, who is a quite similar writer? Boswell is the author of The Life of Samuel Johnson, which details not only Johnson’s bon mots and meanderings and social outings, but the goings-on in Boswell’s own life alongside of Johnson’s.  

Beyond this, Boswell wrote separately about his peripatetic existence in his journals. Boswell released The Life of Johnson in 1791, and died in 1795. He first met Johnson in 1763 (well before our Declaration of Independence). But that was far from being the determining event and center of Boswell’s existence. Boswell soon after went to Holland for two years to complete his legal education, followed by his grand tour of Europe. And there, and everywhere else he travelled, even after his marriage in 1769, he wassailed, chased women, sometimes with success, often without, and ruminated about great people he met and places he saw while, filled with self-loathing, he remonstrated against himself for his drunken and abandoned ways. 

We know this because he kept journals. Boswell’s journal writing first saw the light of day before his Life of Johnson when he published The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides in 1785. (The Hebrides are islands off the coast of Scotland, which he toured with Johnson in 1773). Boswell's journals covered his life from the early 1760s, before meeting Johnson, until just before Boswell’s death. These first-person accounts are remarkably—brutally—honest, perhaps more so (if we can make such a judgment) than Knausgaard’s when we consider the period in which they were written. Rediscovered only in the 1920s, the journals are works of such literary distinction that in themselves they secure Boswell’s literary reputation for all time.

And what is Knausgaard’s writing other than journals, with their accountings of events, including intimate details of his personal life, peppered with observations and thoughtful treatments of people he meets and larger events and places and historical and cultural landmarks? Eugenides’ recent review of Knausgaard’s work points out how “he uses the stuff of his life to fashion his stories.” That is to say, he selects, crafts, and fine-tunes these memories/events into exquisite written form.  

Of course, millions of people have written about their lives, more all the time. But Knausgaard and Boswell have gotten millions of people to read these writings. For Boswell, the hidden craftsmanship involved in such an enterprise prevented his gifts from being recognized. After his Life of Johnson was published, for more than a century, readers and critics assumed that Boswell was nothing more than an amanuensis, simply recording, like a secretary, what he observed when hanging out with Johnson.

But the slightest reflection would seemingly discount such a notion. Thousands upon thousands of words, often misdirected, overlapping, almost never in the final quotable forms in which, according to Boswell, they emerged from Johnson’s mouth, are passed in an evening, drunken or sober. Life just does not follow a literary format; writers fit them into that template. That’s what Boswell did; that’s what Knausgaard does. Life can be boring—Boswell’s and Knausgaard’s stories are not.

Which brings us to the idea that both of these men were/are alcoholics. Both often got drunk. Both came from binge-drinking cultures (there is an historic link between Scotland and the Norsemen). Both Boswell and Knausgaard had overbearing, tyrannical fathers who dominated their lives. Knausgaard’s was an alcoholic. Boswell’s was a distinguished Scottish jurist, a role Boswell himself aspired to, but failed to achieve, which left him with a perpetual inferiority complex.

To the American mind, Knausgaard’s youthful drunkenness, along with his alcoholic inheritance, unambiguously qualify him as an alcoholic. Yet, people don’t tend to call him alcoholic. Perhaps his serious side, his monumental success, protects him. Here is Knausgaard’s description of how he resolved these disparate sides of his personality, split between seriousness and drunkenness, as a youth:

"I couldn't, and I didn't. Instead I opened a new subdivision in my life. 'Booze and hopes of fornication' it was called, and it was right next to 'insight and sincerity,' separated only by a minor garden-fence-like change of personality."

Knausgaard, a shy man, describes how drinking transformed him: “OK just to sit there drinking without uttering a word until the alcohol kicked in and loosened everything in me, including my heart, which was now so small and constricted.” Knausgaard went on titanic drinking bouts throughout his late teens and as a young man, frequently ending in blackouts. What’s more, he welcomed this drinking as necessary for his peace of mind, and in order to interact socially, particularly with women.

He still can go on drinking jags, especially in social situations, for example at a bar last fall, when he visited the United States:

"After the fourth round of beer and whiskey, we started playing darts. . . . 

When I woke up the next morning, I had an anxiety attack. I lay there for a long time, staring out at the empty room. The last thing I could remember was that I had gotten into an elevator. I had no recollection of seeing the room before. Everything was terrible, everything was diseased and I was a ridiculous, laughable character. Oh, God, what an idiot I was.

I had talked.

To total strangers, I had babbled away. With no dignity whatsoever, happy and enthusiastic over every little thing. . . .

With an act of will I swung my feet to the floor, sat there for a few minutes, then got dressed with a new act of will and went down to the breakfast room."

But Knausgaard is among the most productive writers of all time. The fourth volume of his gigantic six-volume memoir recounts that, when drunkenness was most central to his life, Knausgaard, only 18, moved from his home in southern Norway to a rural community in the north. He lived alone and worked as a teacher—without any training or prior teaching experience. At his first class, “My heart was beating as if it were being strangled. I saw the letters on the page I had opened but couldn’t make any sense of them.”  

But he persevered. How badly alcoholic could he have been?

In regard to his destructive drinking, Boswell may have outdone Knausgaard. His weeks-long binges and loss-of-control drinking, led him to abuse his wife and seek out the lowest haunts in the countries he frequented, give him a much larger leg up on the diagnosis. Boswell’s own biographer, Frank Brady, characterized his drinking this way: “he tended to get drunk quickly and then stay at the same level of intoxication for some time; if he went on for too long he either lost all control or blacked out.” As the great Johnson himself famously said of Boswell, he was “without skill in inebriation.” 

Yet, how can the author of what Brady says is "by common consent the greatest biography ever written,” a work that took decades to complete (as well as Boswell’s first having lived and recorded its events, often after a night of drinking), including a remarkable amount of research into Johnson’s upbringing, relationships, and early career before Boswell knew him, be an alcoholic? 

Brady decides that Boswell wasn’t an alcoholic because it didn’t prevent him from creating his fantastic journals and the greatest biography of all time, life projects that involved long periods of intense, solitary research and writing. That doesn’t meet the definition of an alcoholic for Brady, and perhaps it should give us all pause in applying such a label to Boswell. Meanwhile, at 18, committing himself to being a writer, even while preoccupied with drinking and sex, Knausgaard stays up the first night he arrives at the small village where he’ll be teaching to write a short story. And he continues to write, often throughout the night, during his stay there.

Knausgaard never considers himself an alcoholic, or considers joining AA, or going to therapy. These ideas never emerge in the current volume of his memoir, for him or his fellow partying Norwegians. What the heck is the matter with all of them? Don’t they realize that the only road to salvation is to acknowledge that they are alcoholics?

But Knausgaard—as described by his memoir’s title, My Struggle—has a different life plan for himself. At age 17, the almost pathologically shy teen talks his way into becoming his small village newspaper’s music reviewer, and he hosts a radio show. And the only thing that can dissuade him from going to a party while teaching in the small, party-hardy village is to stay up all night writing.

When his loving brother questions the possibility that his stories can be published, Knausgaard burns with resentment:

I'll be so big no one is even close. No one. No. One. Never. Not a chance. I will be the greatest ever. The fucking idiots. I'll damn well crush every single one of them.

I HAD to be big. I HAD to be.

If not, I might as well end it all.

(He was 19.)

So, we may fairly find, two tormented drinkers and souls were rescued from their worst selves by their own seriousness of purpose and commitment to their life goals, goals at which they have monumentally succeeded, even as both continued to torture themselves. As Knausgaard says of his excuse-making for his carelessness with daily life details and his procrastination:  

"at the same time I also know that the reason I say it is to turn all my faults and weaknesses into strengths. It’s good that I’m afraid to speak on the phone with anyone except my closest friends. It’s good that I always put off paying bills. It’s good that I never cash the checks I receive. That means I’m a writer, I think I’m not so focused on worldly matters, which in turn means that some day I just might write a masterpiece."

Knausgaard “is mostly remote and unhappy, unplugged from existence, a blue-eyed zombie going through the paces of adult life. He fears that he feels alive only when he’s writing, during the transubstantiation—a kind of reverse tattooing—of blood into ink.”  And, at age 46, father of four young children, he’s still yearning, striving, to do more—much more.

We might go in two different directions in summarizing these men's experiences. One direction is to say, "So what? Two of the great literary geniuses in history were able to stave off alcoholism by their creative efforts. What's that have to do with the average person who has addictive problems?" Or we might see that these men outline the path to "pre-recovery," let alone recovery. That is, purpose in life prevented them from turning themselves over to the dark side of addiction. And purpose may serve the same for many others as well.

Stanton Peele, Ph.D., is the author of Recover! Stop Thinking Like an Addict. He will be interviewed by Tom Horvath, President of SMART Recovery, in a webinar on the future of addiction treatment today, Saturday, May 16, 2015, 5:00 PM EDT. He is the recipient of career achievement awards from the Center for Alcohol Studies and the Drug Policy Alliance. His Life Process Program for treating addiction is available online. He last wrote about 12 concepts of recovery that have stood the test of time and how he became an addition expert.

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Stanton Peele, Ph.D., J.D., is the author (with Ilse Thompson) of Recover! An Empowering Program to Help You Stop Thinking Like an Addict and Reclaim Your Life. His Life Process Program is available online. His book Addiction-Proof Your Child is a model for the emerging area of harm reduction in addiction prevention. Stanton has been innovating in the addiction field since writing Love and Addiction with Archie Brodsky. He has published 12 books, and has won career awards from the Rutgers Center of Alcohol Studies and Drug Policy Alliance. You can find him on Linkedin and Twitter.