My Struggle, Karl Ove Knausgaard, Part 1
Copyright Dennis Mitton
I finally started reading the six-volume autofictional tome My Struggle written by Norwegian Karl Knausgaard. Many lit types laud the work as a modern classic. Just as many consider the book a stapled compilation of expensive toilet paper. I’m posting as I read, dividing the work into roughly hundred page chunks for easy digestion. I’m reading the English language version titled My Struggle, Book 1, translated by Dan Bartlett and published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.
We’ve already fought: a sign of a good book. If the reviews are true, it’s expected. For everyone who loves My Struggle, there is someone else burning it. People pay big money for press like that.
I discovered Knausgaard via a NYT review of Book 4. I was intrigued enough to check out Amazon reviews, and then traipsed headway to Barnes and Noble to buy Book 1. No Kindle download this time. I wanted to hold the book and have something I could talk to and scribble in. Something to save as a record. Something to argue with. Once home and ensconced firmly on the bed reading, Mal wanted to know what the fuss was. I gave her the elevator pitch and, when I set the book down, she picked it up, read a couple of paragraphs, and got that glow in her eyes. It’s the same glow that makes the kids clean their room without complaint.
“I know you. I know how you get wrapped up in a book and an author and everything he talks about.” She edges her words to let me know this was not a two way conversation.
“But I…what?” Oops. I forget easy. Time to listen, not talk.
“I know you. If you think that you’re going to start living like this, acting like this, if you think for a minute that you’re going to start being some pained art recluse…well, I’m telling you right now that you might as well put that damned book away. I’d put it down before it just gets you in trouble.”
My special look was met by her special – and more ominous – look. “But hon.. I’ve read about eight pages.”
“Well, as far as I can tell, that’s about eight pages too many.” Conversation over and she’s looking for matches.
What is Knausgaard’s struggle? Three themes stand out in the first hundred pages. The first, which is never explicitly mentioned but permeates the writing like a Norwegian fog, is his relationship with his father. They never connect. His father seems surprised to have a son. Dad is pleasant and well mannered, but distant and uninvolved. He surprises young Karl one night and, out of the blue, shows up to Parent’s Night at school. It’s the first time Karl remembers him taking any interest in him or in what he does. Dad has a bad experience with a teacher, leaves shouting, and announces loudly that he will never return. Who cares?
Karl’s mother mostly just stops by for the weekend. She is in school, studying for her Masters, far enough away to make spontaneous stops inconvenient. She evokes the same shrug from her husband as Karl does in his dad. Nothing overtly ominous or remarkable is written about, but a chill filters through their lives. Something’s broken like trying to right a broken Tinker-Toy. They live together from habit, without animosity or passion. It’s just easier. Knausgaard writes about his father in the same indifferent tone that his father uses to speak to him. Does this uninterested tone hide a deeper hurt and confusion? The lyrics from Pearl Jam’s Jeremy ring true here; ”Daddy didn’t give attention to the fact that Mommy didn’t care.” I want to see where this goes. Mothers can be crazy but it takes a father to really screw someone up.
Knausgaard is unabashed in his desire to be a great writer. Not just a writer who writes great lines, but a famed novelist, revered and recognized. He is entitled to it. He is a great mind. He sees things. A hundred pages in and his arrogance is overwhelming. That he doesn’t measure up is a central theme in the early pages. He has sold a few pieces over five years as a professional writer but not enough to load his bank or his ego. He blames his family. A genius requires a large space and lots of coffee for careful thoughts, for selecting just the right word, for crafting an exceptional sentence. Instead, he has diaper duty with breakfast and lunch to serve and clean. He shops. Comb hair. Carts the children to school. All wastes of time for a genius of his caliber.
Like any honest story about growing up, Knausgaard admits to a full helping of teenage confusion and sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll. I’m interested to see how this carries through to his adult life. His ‘rock band’ disintegrates within moments of striking the first power chords of their first live show. The mall manager, running toward them with a scrunched face and hands over his ears, thrusts their pay at them a tells them to pack up. Within weeks, his bandmates are all doing different things, uninterested in the art of the open-G chord. Knausgaard steals beer from his dad and hides it in the woods where he sips and smokes. He loves the feeling of laughing hilarity that washes over him when he drinks at parties. Until hilarity gives way to vomiting and passing out. He learns about love. Maybe not love, but certainly the glories of naked breasts. But in just a few pages he moves from kissing to sex to boredom.
This is the milieu of My Struggle. Burdened with familial chores and feelings of mediocrit, Knausgaard finally loses his taste for writing and searches for something – anything – to force him to put pen to paper. Something to get back to making letters into words and words into sentences. He decides to write the story of his life so far. He will write plainly and honestly. He will name names. Who cares? No one will ever read these scribbles. He will fillet his heart and ego and expose what is good and what is not. And each day he will call his agent and read what he wrote just to prove that he is still writing. He never imagined that this would be his best work. Friends and family were just as surprised by his honest telling of it,and of his popularity – it is reported that many have refused to see him since My Struggle has been published.
A hundred pages in and what can be said? He is any kid. He is my kid. He is me. But he writes my story in a way that makes me want to read more. (Is that it? Is Knausgaard’s struggle my struggle?) So far there is no epiphany. No secrets revealed. Just the everyday life of a normal, angst-ridden, rock star wannabe teenager in love with bare breasts.
At this point I couldn’t agree more with the reviewer on the back cover:
I can’t stop. I want to stop. I can’t stop, just one more page, then I will cook dinner, just one more page…