Everyone Is Raving About This Mostly Uneventful, 3,600-Page Norwegian Memoir

Reading between the lines.
June 3 2014 11:58 AM

“There Was Something Stupid in This”

Karl Ove Knausgaard’s epic autobiography is narcissistic, indiscreet, and a remarkable work of art.

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Illustration by Liana Finck

Sometime in the early months of 2008, Karl Ove Knausgaard, by then 39 years old and the author of two novels, invented for himself a new style of narration. It would dispense with the pretense of fictionality, and its defining characteristic would be the highest possible degree of authenticity: What fictional details were present wouldn’t be distinguished from what was real, and it would give the impression that everything, no matter how banal, was being told. Many of the rules of storytelling, some of them so basic to the way we tell stories that we hardly think of them as rules, would be discarded. Time and place would shift abruptly, and so would the mode of speaking, from a litany of humdrum household tasks on one page, to philosophical reflections and speculations on the next, to events of a high dramatic quotient on a third. The reader would have to be ready at any time for the author’s personal theory of art or his personal hygiene routine. Digressions would nest within digressions, for dozens of pages at a time. The writer, in the name of speed, of getting it all down, would abandon many aspects of literary artifice—first among them, what we might term “good writing.” Most of what he had to say would be telegraphed in plain language, and the majority of his lapses into the figurative would come in the form of clichés and mixed metaphors.

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The result was My Struggle, a confessional outpouring that became a sensation and a scandal in Knausgaard’s native Norway. In Norwegian the title is Min Kamp, and in German Mein Kampf—the book shares its title, in other words, with the manifesto Adolf Hitler wrote in the 1920s. (Book Six reportedly contains 400 pages on Hitler, and how Knausgaard links this up to his own life remains a matter of some suspense for English readers.) The book sold roughly half a million copies in Norway, equal to about one-tenth of the country’s population. Bitter public disputes followed, particularly between Knausgaard and his estranged ex-wife—who made a radio documentary called Tonje’s Version, in which he participated—and his uncle, who attacked him in the press. Knausgaard’s second wife, Linda, to whom he is still married, relapsed into depression on the publication of Book Two.

In the Anglophone world, the response has focused less on the plight of one Norwegian family than on Knausgaard’s innovations. The publication of My Struggle in English has coincided with an autobiographical turn among younger novelists in North America, among them Tao Lin (Taipei), Sheila Heti (How Should a Person Be?), and Ben Lerner (Leaving the Atocha Station). These writers also make extensive use of essayistic digression. The roman à clef has been around as long as the novel, of course, and it has always been subject to a standard set of criticisms: narcissism, laziness, failures of discretion to the point of betrayal. Knausgaard has triumphed by committing the maximum of all three sins.

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Despite the presence of the first-person singular pronoun in the title, My Struggle has been praised for its universalizing qualities. Its appeal is especially universal for middle-aged writers who also happen to be married parents. Knausgaard conveys the situation neatly early on in Book One:

I have always had a great need for solitude. I require huge swathes of loneliness, and when I do not have it, which has been the case for the last five years, my frustration can sometimes become almost panicked, or aggressive. And when what has kept me going for the whole of my adult life, the ambition to write something exceptional one day, is threatened in this way my one thought, which gnaws at me like a rat, is that I have to escape. Time is slipping away from me, running through my fingers like sand while I … do what? Clean floors, wash clothes, make dinner, wash up, go shopping, play with the children in the play areas, bring them home, undress them, bathe them, look after them until it is bedtime, tuck them in, hang some clothes to dry, fold others and put them away, tidy up, wipe tables, chairs and cupboards. It is a struggle, and even though it is not heroic, I am up against a superior force, for no matter how much housework I do the rooms are littered with mess and junk, and the children, who are taken care of every waking minute, are more stubborn than I have ever known children to be.

It is writing “something exceptional” that will give Knausgaard’s life meaning, and it is his family life that’s the main obstacle in accomplishing it. His solution is to make family life the content of his writing, its source of meaning. And the passage above shows the compromises Knausgaard the prose writer has made at the sentence level (the gnawing rat, that sand through his fingers), but also the velocity he achieves by heaping his (often very lengthy) paragraphs with unlingered-over detail. Note too the rather easy way he conceptualizes his children as a “superior force” that have descended to oppress him.

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