Karl Ove Knausgaard’s “My Struggle” series has been described as a literary sensation by the Guardian and The New Yorker, and he has sold one copy for every ten people in his native Norway, where it achieved a cult following. And yet he writes about nothing. A lot. In detail. For six volumes. How come?
Although still relatively unknown in the UK and Ireland, he’s likely to raise his profile more with his Sunday Times Award For Literary Excellence at The Cheltenham Festival this week. So what’s the big deal? Well, as someone who normally likes to read authors fresh and with little preconception, I was still thankful for the blurb to give me some warning and preparation for what lay ahead:
“ abandoning every literary feint” The Guardian
“an insane project with a disdain for conventions” Affaritaliani (Italy)
“wants us to inhabit the ordinariness of life” The New Yorker
…and “Proustian” gets used a lot as well.
The press quotes set you up and will encourage you to push on when the going gets tough, because you are in for an unusual read, one that I found challenging but also texturally different from anything I have ever read.
So he’s going for it. He’s doing that thing that many writers’ aim for, in some ways the Holy Grail: to capture reality in all its ordinariness and (if that’s the easy bit) to take the reader with them on the journey.
Of course there are many philosophical arguments we can get into around this claim: a book is always a book, it’s never real life; the author is always making decisions of omission and deletion, whether conscious or not. So yes, it certainly doesn’t meet its objective in the truest sense. But does it achieve a move towards realism? I believe it does and brings many rewards along the way.
So whether completely conscious or not by the author, it’s an experiment: what happens when someone switches off the expected literary mechanisms and just writes. If it has a parallel, it could be the Dogme 95 films and their manifesto to take away the superficial gimmicks that were glossing over the truth in the medium.
The first book of the series is subtitled “A Death in The Family” for its U.K. publication by Vintage but the U.S. publication title was just “Book 1”, which seems more in the spirit of the experiment. In Book 1, Part 1 we are in Karl Ove’s childhood, in Part 2 he is an adult. Sorry for the big spoiler. That’s pretty much it.
Initially there are lots of relentless details. Beautifully observed in places, and in other places extremely mundane, they both come together without distinction on the same page and are given equal weight.
And yet something starts to happen over the course of the first 50 or 60 pages and I found myself quietly drawn into this non-eventful world where he waits up for his mum, wonders about his Dad’s moods and listens to cars coming up and down the drive.
It’s not easy to pull out an exemplary passage because that’s the point: there is no exemplary passage. Yet I feel this moves it toward a new stronger realism. This doesn’t come from any one revelationary lightning strike section of spell-binding writing. The realism comes from a cumulative effect. Life happens and keeps happening, and there is no real high drama, no end of chapter climactic cliff-hangers. In fact there are no chapters. And even though I was really enjoying Part 1, there was no hook to make me want to start Part 2, no obvious unresolved questions to be answered. I read on because I was enjoying the texture, and the texture of my relationship with Karl. Because it is Karl in this novel, and his brother, his mother and his dad. Later on, we meet his grandmother in her senility. With their real names. And no one is spared the harsh spotlight, including Karl. But he’s not that terrible a person either: bit selfish when he should be looking out for his pregnant wife, a bit non-committal, a bit cold, but pretty normal.
The overwhelming sensation is one of layers – as no one moment or passage is extremely significant, the experiences come one after another and the whole develops it’s own rough edges. Pages upon pages where we spend time with this ordinary man doing fairly ordinary stuff in an ordinary Norwegian rural, urban and suburban life. In Part One Karl the boy and teenager struggles to connect with his parents, and the world, struggles to get beer cans past his parents and to a party, and struggles to get anywhere with the classmate he’s attracted to.
Things take a long time. We end up on sparse country roads thinking about where to hide aforementioned cans and many pages later we are on the sofa after the party reflecting on a few awkward encounters. Almost all of part 2 is preparation for a funeral. There is a lot of tidying and I now know the names of several Norwegian cleaning products.
At times, it becomes a reading experience similar to a very well written diary or journal, although less arbitrary. And there’s one of the paradoxes. This might be a book with greatly reduced literary convention, but there is still an editor at work here, making decisions and choices about what to show us, whether consciously, or instinctually through the streams of consciousness and meditations.
The second related paradox is, to pull this off, “ a cheap trick” as someone in the Guardian comments section called it, you need to be a very good writer. And I think he is. So it’s not a completely pure experiment in that sense, the discipline might not be absolute, but in trying to stick at it as hard as he has, he yields an authentic uncompromising voice.
Probably the biggest compliment I can give a book is that it will affect how I judge the next book I read. I think it will increase my awareness of affectation, posturing and manipulative constructs. Some of the excitement reading Knausgaard echoes back to when I first discovered Kerouac. As well as his poetic prose, one of Kerouac’s other strengths was his outbursts of emotional honesty in books such as Big Sur. Knausgaard may not be able to match the Beats for pace, but he has managed a more grown-up version of their drive towards “truth” or “it”. Knausgaard is a lot less likely to end up stealing a car in the middle of the night and ending up in a drunken adventure; he steers a soberer course past Kerouac’s pitfalls of fatalism and romanticism, but there is something common in the bravery of attempting to capture “everything”. Interestingly when he does get drunk, he captures that too in minute detail.
There were themes that emerged for me in the work, but it seems to go against the experiment to name them. Because they’re not that obvious and because the landscape is so level, another reader might interpret the layers in a different way. It also seems a shame to reduce something that spreads out in so many directions.
So to get a bit philosophical for a moment, I suggest his approach does offer something new, - that life can’t actually be boiled down to a few climactic moments: putting on the kettle is life too. Even if it could be a very dull proposition, it’s potentially very exciting: no gimmicks, no plot twists, practically no plot. Raymond Chandler’s famous advice for keeping up the tension in pulp fiction: “When in doubt have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand” is the opposite of what’s happening here. If the momentum starts to wain, Knausgaard is more likely to offer us a couple more pages of car doors closing, some reminiscence, or a paragraph of observation.
So in it’s attempt at neutrality, is it toneless? It could be argued that over the course of the first book sometimes a nihilistic or cynical tone creeps in, - but it’s not loud, so that there is still space for expressions of emotions as they arise, including optimism and compassion.
His style is more than pure denotation; it can also be forensic, plunging deeply into what is happening at a particular moment before moving on. At times the insights are resonant and brave:
“ …I was working in an institute for the mentally impaired as well, and not content with fawning on the other staff there, who were trained nurses, I was also joining them at their parties, which were held in the part of town the students shunned, the down-homey bars with pianists and sing-alongs, to tune into their opinions and attitudes and perceptions. The few I had of my own I repudiated or kept to myself. There was consequentially something furtive and dubious about my character, nothing of the solid pure traits which I encountered in some people during this period, people whom I therefore admired.”
This is as big as the individual revelations get in Knausgaard Land. But the real difference comes from the fact that the book moves on, just offering this as one moment of many to create a multidimensional image. In the same way that there is no climax, there is also very little in the way of solid conclusion or denouement so it becomes an open metaphor – we are always adding to it, never closing. His account of an interview with an esteemed poet that was rejected carries hefty pain and slow burning embarrassment and then we move on.
At times I became conscious of the experiment, like a scientist checking an instrument– is the book uneven? Or is it simply that life is uneven and the book shows that like a good instrument would?
The anti-style yields other rewards that aren’t explicit on first reading. For example, we get a real anti-hero. Whilst he doesn’t do anything extraordinary, he doesn’t willfully negate the hero construct either and instead we meet a much more layered and complex protagonist.
As well as genuine critical acclaim, the “My Struggle” series has gained a lot of press around the controversy of his “warts and all” portrayal of family and friends. Several were very unhappy about having their lives and those of their loved ones depicted in a very unflinching style with no attempt to mask names or identity. Knausgaard sent a final draft to the main characters featured but did not make all changes requested and some legal battles ensued. Personally I’m a hypocrite when it comes to the ethical question – I really enjoyed the book, but I don’t think I could do that on my family and wouldn’t really want to be forensically microscoped in this way. I’m glad he did it, but I’m glad it wasn’t done on me.
And then there’s the title – “My Struggle” translates to “Min Kamp” in Norwegian. It appears this is an ironic provocation, the primary struggle is Karl Ove’s struggle to do ordinary middle-class mid-40s Scandinavian life, but it is a bit of a reckless choice. The final book does features a 400 page meditation on elements of Nazism, although this was written after the title choice, and ties in Anders Brevik and Hitler’s early years. According to the New Yorker, its only controversy is to “claim that we are fooling ourselves if we think Hitler was an unreal monster that no man could ever match.” This seems to be grown-up thinking in a world of twitchy twitterers and we need more of it, not less, but don’t tweet me on that until I’ve finished all six books. In a more general sense, in a media full of memes, tweets, vines, clips, and short blogs on serious subjects, taking 400 pages to reflect on a theme or 3,600 pages to chase for “it” might be the new punk.
For all this talk of what he doesn’t do and his rejection of constructs, the bottom line is that Book 1 has a high level of readability and after a certain point, becomes subtly addictive. Zadie Smith seems to agree, saying she “needed the next book like crack”. Part of my addiction may be because I trust this guy. I mean he’s told me a lot. I want to hang out with him. He might be a lot of things, but he seems to be honest. It is fresh enough that I feel after I finished it, that this is a manifesto, accidental or otherwise. There is something new going on here. Jeffery Eugenides claims Knausgaard has “broken the sound barrier for the novel”. I think he’s definitely broken through something, in some way redefining the relationship between reader and author.
In terms of the grand experiment, Hari Kunzru reports that Knausgaard had reached a crisis when he said in 2007:
‘ "Just the thought of a fabricated character in a fabricated plot made me nauseous." The only genres of writing he still found valuable were diaries and essays, "the types of literature that just consisted of a voice, the voice of your own personality, a life, a face, a gaze you could meet"’.
As the fifth and penultimate book of the series is released this year in English in the U.K., I for one am thankful that he addressed the crisis in such an epic way and was brave enough to offer us his gaze.