Karl Ove Knausgaard's "My Struggle"
When Richard Linklater’s Boyhood was released two years ago, I had the good fortune of reading a Time magazine piece that compared the film to a book by a Norwegian author named Karl Ove Knausgaard. Not just a book, but a 3600-page, six-volume autobiography called – oddly enough – My Struggle, (you gotta wonder if they came up with a different title for the German translation). I socked away this little bit of information for future use, and lo and behold, while at a used bookstore in Bayfield, Wisconsin in July, I happened upon the first volume of Knausgaard’s opus and thought that for nine dollars I should give it a go. I’m glad I did, and though I likely won’t be reading volumes two through six, I enjoyed the first volume (or the first 300 pages or so, anyhow) not only for what the author illuminates about his life, but for the way his words inspired me to consider my own life journey. If you’re ever in want of stopping the routine of daily living, of taking a moment to self-reflect, to remember and to wonder – in the words of David Byrne – “Well, how did I get here?”, My Struggle would be a good place to start, as it holds back nothing: not a sentiment, not a doubt or desire, not a transgression or dejection, and likely not a single conceivable detail about the physical surroundings of the author's childhood.
Arthur Miller once wrote: “The writer must be in it; he can’t be to one side of it, ever. He has to be endangered by it. His own attitudes have to be tested in it. The best work that anybody ever writes is the work that is on the verge of embarrassing him, always.”
It seems Knausgaard has no qualms whatsoever of walking on the beam of embarrassment and revealing the seedy underbelly that is his life (and is all of our lives if we’re ever to be truthful). He writes about his daughter, “(She) can be so cheeky that I completely lose my head and sometimes shout at her or shake her until she starts crying…” This is not something most people would admit to unless they’re discussing a past that they’ve now recovered from. My Struggle is not one of those books. It reveals the gory details of living.
Have you ever closed your eyes and tried to conjure up a detailed mental image of the home where you grew up? The colors. The texture. The scents. The layout. Was the toilet of the first floor bathroom on left or on the right? Was that the room with flowered wallpaper or the little green design that always reminded you of a military seal? Was the floor linoleum, wood or tile?
Knausgaard has thought through all this and more, and so much of his reminisces brought to life my own childhood. His crush for a girl named Hanne and the desires she summoned (“There was nothing between us…but I loved her. I didn’t think of anything else…I saw her all the time, not in a scrutinizing or probing way; that wasn’t how it was, no, it was a glimpse here, a glimpse there, that was enough”) recalls my own childhood crushes to a “T”.
Or this! Knausgaard writes about two childhood memories that may as well have been describing my own: “At a certain point in childhood my most exciting game was building dams in streams, watching the water swell and cover the marsh, the roots, the grass, the rocks, the beaten earth path beside the stream” and “Another fantasy I had at that time was that there were two enormous saw blades sticking out from the side of the car, chopping off everything as we drove past.” Holy crap. That was me.
Knausgaard was born the same year I was, and though from a different country and with a very different family makeup, his life has so many similarities to mine, and – if the half a million sales are any indication – to many other people’s lives as well, that reading it is both externally engrossing and internally revealing.
The difficult relationship Knausgaard has with his father and brother and the distance between them (“We never touched, we didn’t even shake hands when we met, and we rarely looked each other in the eye”) could be describing my own complicated kinships. His intense desire to warrant his father’s approval is palpable: “I had also wanted to show him that I was better than he was. That I was bigger than he was. Or was it just that I wanted him to be proud of me? To acknowledge me?”
Then there’s his description of alcohol, the substance that had killed his father: “This was a magic potion we were drinking. The shiny liquid…changed the conditions of our presence there, by shutting out our awareness of recent events and thus opening the way for the people we normally were, what we normally thought, as if illuminated from below, for what we were and thought suddenly shone through with a luster and warmth and no longer stood in our way.”
My Struggle is an autobiography, but novelized so that details are described and words are spoken that the author assuredly couldn’t testify transpired exactly as he recounts. But he puts them in there, sometimes with excruciating detail:
“Here’s your Coke,” I said. “I’ll put it on the table.”
“Fine,” he said.
“What have you got in that bag?” Grandma said, eyeing the paper bag from the pharmacy.
“It’s for you,” I said.
Most authors would have summarized this exchange: “I returned home with the Coke and gave Grandma her medication” or something along those lines. Many editors – me included – would have told the author to back off from the dialogue that does nothing to move the story forward. Knausgaard must have a very special editor indeed to have let things stand as he wrote them, and I wonder if much editing was done at all.
It’s the mundane stuff of life – the same “stuff” that I’ve mentioned in previous posts such as my review of the play “The Flick,” of the documentary series “Seven Up” or of Joe Swanberg’s movies – and the mundane stuff is actually very interesting. Living is interesting. And if captured by a skilled writer, it can even be a page-turner.
I did lose patience with the second half of the book, much of it devoted to Knausgaard and his brother cleaning up their grandmother’s home in the wake of their father’s death, but up until about three-quarters of the way through, I was sold. Volume two may not make it into my itinerary, but it clearly has for others. The book has been translated into at least fifteen languages and has been uniformly praised.