My Struggle, Volumes 1,2,3 by Karl Ove Knausgaard, Random House
After volume two, I took a break from Karl Ove Knausgaard’s mesmerizing literary enterprise, My Struggle, a six-part meditation on life – namely his. One can only afford to be under the spell of a strong personality for so many hours before the need to breathe fresh air triumphs over the urge to stay in bed, turning pages.
Hugely popular in Norway, the English translations are generating a phenomenal level of critical attention, though he’s not a best-seller by contemporary standards, which some readers will take as a recommendation. In any case, we can definitely speak of Knausgaard’s polarizing effect. For proof, I need look no farther than my own dear companion who, having exercised patience while I read aloud long passages to him and urged others to buy the books, finally blew up at dinner party of literate guests, denouncing my find as an insufferable narcissist who drones on about trivia, has no social conscience, no style, etc. An opinion based entirely on my selected excerpts, it made for a memorable evening, and may have contributed to my decision to put distance between a pre-Christmas binge of two 500-page volumes and part three. The fact is, I don’t fundamentally disagree with this criticism. The thing about spells is, either they work or they don’t.
My theory is that whether you love or loathe Knausgaard will probably depend on how comfortable you are with the anxieties and obsessions of his generation. A 46-year-old Norwegian, he’s married to a beautiful bi-polar Swedish woman; they are raising four rambunctious children by contemporary standards, that is, juggling the demands of self, work and relationship with fine-tuned awareness. His project is a detailed chronicle of thoughts, actions, feelings, adventures, not always chronological, apparently exhaustive, always reflective. A generation older, I sometimes found myself tut-tutting some of his choices and values, but then that’s what being of another generation is all about. The future as represented by younger people seems strange, challenging, vaguely doomed, a sensation that enhances the present, thwarts nostalgia and makes old age look good.
What I like most about My Struggle is its audacity. Honesty, seamlessly matched with dazzling fakery. Written in the first person, the narrative is presented as an autobiographical project, complete with real names. The author’s ex-wife fortified that claim in a radio documentary where she criticized him for spilling the beans on their marriage and breakup. His uncle reportedly expressed similar reservations in the Norwegian press. Nevertheless, it’s impossible to read these books without marvelling at the incredible act of invention required to create such a level of detail, the dramatic craft, smoothness of dialogue and, especially, page after page of interesting conversation by people who do not sound at all like each other.
The central drama of K.O.K’s struggle – and sustaining quality – is his attempt to live deeply, intensely, meaningfully in the middle of ordinary days and people, and to catch the struggle in words. “To get as close as possible to my life.” You wouldn’t think from the first two volumes that the narrator was anything other than a failure. He doesn’t aggrandize success, he reports the gritty difficulty of raising beloved children and sitting alone in a room with an empty screen.
Here he is on the involved father: “When I was in the café feeding Vanja there was always at least one other father there, usually of my age, that is, in his mid-thirties, and who had a shaved head to hide hair loss. You hardly ever saw a bald patch or a high forehead any longer, and the sight of these fathers always made me feel a little uncomfortable, I found it hard to take the feminized aspect of their actions, even though I did exactly the same and was as feminized as they were. The slight disdain I felt for men pushing strollers was, to put it mildly, a double-edged sword as for the most part I had one in front of me when I saw them. I doubted I was alone with these feelings, I thought I could occasionally discern an uneasy look on some men’s faces in the play area, and the restlessness in their bodies that made them prone to snatching a couple of pull-ups on the bars while the children played around them.”
Twenty-four hours after picking up Boyhood Island, Volume 3, I’m half-way through. The prose is more polished, fewer run-on sentences, less digression. But happily success hasn’t spoiled the project. The artful balancing act of memory, reflection and narrative craft still works. That we know a great deal about the man makes his boyhood terrors and joys all the more fascinating.
Ultimately, the strength of this writer is not his particular life, or the issues that keep him awake at night. It’s his artistic project, which is grand, and original. This is ‘real life’ drawn by a master. It only seems natural, which is the hallmark of naturalism. Once again, a Scandinavian mines his tradition.
Click here to read a piece on Knausgaard in the New York Review of Books
Marianne Ackerman’s collection of short fiction Holy Fools + 2 Stories was published by Guernica Editions in 2014.