A Death in the Family - My Struggle: 1 by Karl Ove Knausgaard (Vintage - March 2013)
A Man in Love - My Struggle: 2 by Karl Ove Knausgaard ( Vintage - October 2013)
Boyhood Island - My Struggle: 3 by Karl Ove Knausgaard (Vintage - March 2014)
In the wake of each of the first three volumes of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s Struggle, I have been left with a terrible sense of being cut adrift from a life that I have come to know, or feel I have come to know, as intimately as my own. A few days of restlessness ensue before I can find my land legs again and begin to think through the magnitude of what I have just been immersed in. For those who have yet to discover this extraordinary project, I can understand how daunting the prospect may seem: a 3600 page autopsy of a man’s life. And, by all accounts, not an extraordinary man (though, more on that later),rather Knausgaard himself, a house-husband whose life revolves around getting children to playschool and remembering to buy diapers in between his increasingly maniacal drive to work on his book, the book you are reading. You are reading not just his book but the process of the book so that the writing, the product and the reading all become one strangely amorphous experience.
The Hitlerian title, Min Kamp/My Struggle, is the least of the controversy—he has been shunned and sued by family members while being declared the voice of a generation by Scandinavian cultural commentators.
He acknowledges the fuss about his books with gravity and understanding and acknowledges too that this project has laid out its stall in spite of the claims that he has pillaged the lives of others for his artistic project, essentially saying—my book is more important than your life.
He is frequently described as “Proustian" and he admits to having less read A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu than “imbibed” it, though direct comparisons are hasty.
Though he admits detailing his own life and that of others, he describes the books as novels, and they are. The books have more in common with the traditional bildungsroman than they do with the chronology and project of a memoir. While he is the protagonist, he is also the author and the self-editing that occurs in the process of a memoir will of course have found their way into these volumes. He has chosen particular dinners to describe and not others, some quarrels with his wife are included, we need to assume others were not and, in the end, all truth projects are always just one version of the reality.
At its core, this is a book about creation, art and the sacrifices we need to make in order to fulfil that. This is a book about writing a book and the failures and cruelties that a writer, or Knausgaard at any rate, must make in order that the project be fulfilled. And the flip side is that this is a spiritual quest and asks ethical questions; how to be a good man in various roles: stroller-dad, husband, son, though he might feel as though he is failing, daily at even the most mundane tasks. Again he asks the question, is my book more important than your lives? And over again the answer is yes.
More than this the book offers a portrait of a modern man trying to find his way in a fractured, virtual existence; desperately trying to remember and record life off-line before it is lost—a chronicle of a time that is near extinction.
In a Paris Review interview (26 December 2013) Knausgaard says:
I dislike the fact that we are letting go of our local places, in the sense of what surrounds us. (…) What has happened in the last thirty or forty years, I deeply despise. The physical world is gone.
Here he is grappling with every last detail of the physical world, how tea, brown like wood, fills a white cup, how a man walks down a road as the writer looks down from his office, a shopping list of the cleaning products he and his brother bought to clean their father’s squalid house after he died there from alcoholism, and on and on.
He fights to pin down the physicality of life at a time when the world is increasingly less physical, which writ large, is his existential struggle against mortality. The clue to most books is in the opening and Min Kamp, Vol 1 begins with his father’s death.
The death of father as archetype too is tackled as Knausgaard, in the reformed Scandinavian welfare state, finds that the reality of being the original romantic poet-dandy about town does not sit well will strollers and diapers and the relentless boredom of repetitive domestic tasks.
The spiritual quest of the book(s) is of a man, indistinguishable from the writer, who is struggling to be a good man. In interviews Knausgaard says he had always thought of himself as that “good man”, as someone who tries to please people, not cause offence, a good father and husband, and of course a good citizen—the modern Scandinavian man, pushing strollers along crowded pavements to take his three children to school. What he discovers though, and records in painful and even awkward detail, is that he is not a good man—he is resentful of the role he has adopted, callous with the feelings of his depressive wife, he grapples with feelings of hate and pity for his dead father and he gets drunk at dinners and embarrasses his family. All of this—all the messy, fetid secret stuff is there on the page.
Much of the enjoyment for the reader is the frequently awkward and sometimes shocking contrast between Knausgaard the good man, the polite, people pleaser standing at the school gate with other parents or being interviewed on television about his novels, and the man underneath who is spitting and raging against the mediocrity and banality of it all. Some of the passages are so peculiarly angry as to be almost naïve—like a man who feels he is Byron plucked from fame and wild adventure to sell cars in Woking—and Knausgaard does admit that he hopes for artistic genius. He wants to write the perfect book and yet daily, he finds himself failing.
If these great themes of mortality, masculinity and the creation of art, as well as the creeping sensation that Knausgaard may in fact turn out to be the voice of a generation, are not enough for you, there are writerly reasons to read him too.
Initially his sentences have a sense of chaos as they lope and roll on and on, but, and here’s the trick, they do not meander towards some elusive truth or offer some esoteric platitude. Instead, they gather a momentum and nail themselves down to be cauterised. He is relentless in hunting down his quarry and nothing but Truth will suffice. He writes with a complete lack of irony which makes him seem naive, kind and often, painfully awkward. This is where he parts company with Proust; there are no lyrical asides and extended metaphorical reveries. He doesn't avoid cliche either, which when combined with his dismissal of conventional narrative forms and structures might be another reason why he should be unreadable. When he fell in love he felt as if he had “been struck by lightning.” Add to this the relentless categorising, tagging, listing and his insatiable appetite for the mundane and the domestic and he should be sent to the bottom of the To Be Read Later pile:
After a while I picked up the teapot and poured. Dark brown, almost like wood, the tea rose inside the white cup. A few leaves swirled and floated up, the other lay like a black mat at the bottom. I added milk, three teaspoons of sugar, stirred, waited until the leaves had settled at the bottom, and drank.
So what is the appeal? Why are his sentences so hypnotic and mesmerising, why does Zadie Smith claim she needs the next volume “like crack”? I suspect the answer is; that for everything that is bedded into the six volumes, there is a good deal that isn’t. The scope of the project means there is also a sense of spaciousness; as a reader you can walk around bit, poke your nose though a door just left slightly ajar. The flipside to space is that the books do have an oceanic feel to them, but there is just enough underneath the rolling swells to offer an anchor to a nervous reader.
Time is flexible; a few hundred pages are spent on a dinner but a few years are set aside with a single sentence—all part of the pace. This gives the reader just enough legroom to insert themselves into his realm. The sentences too, though fast and casual, have a scrupulous attention to that truth that reads like life as it is lived: pedestrian, banal, repetitive, so that we, with our mundane domestic lives, are implicated. Our own banality has been turned into art. This world, the site of Knausgaard’s struggle, is the transcendence of the inexhaustible that he finds so moving and overwhelming in Constable and other paintings.
Where to from now? There are three volumes yet to be translated into English and it is certainly worth doffing a cap to Don Bartlett whose task it is to translate these monsters. All accounts seem to suggest that, as the project continues, it opens up a little to include some political musing (including a few pages on Hitler) and the books end with the tragic events of the Anders Breivek camp shooting incident.
Evidently volume six has the reputation of being a bit of a cracker, with four and five beginning the process of planting Knausgaard (as character and writer) more in the role of citizen as his marriage begins to un-seam a little and his momentous project continues. Of the three already in English translation, volume three feels most solidly like a middle volume, and feels a little more self-censoring than the first two, but it is too early to judge the volumes as a whole, and this is how they should be read.
Interestingly, the last volume ends with the sentence, “I am not an author anymore.” This is the death of the author the project had hoped to achieve—to do away with fiction, the narrative constrains of novels and the formal boundaries between memoir and fiction. The real life man merges with the character in the novel, the reader is lost in meandering digressions through the mundane and the banal and the killing off of the author has been achieved. Knausgaard has managed to completely undermine Barthes insistence that the author and text are unrelated and the author is thus “dead” by doing exactly the opposite, they are so seamlessly interchangeable that for all intents and purposes, life itself is the author and Knausgaard is simply its reporter—the artistry lies in life itself.
But if the author is dead, what next for Karl Ove Knausgaard?