On Karl Ove Knausgaard's "My Struggle"
Having just finished his colossal, six-volume autobiographical novel, an endeavor spanning the past 3 years, it is safe to say, I have some thoughts.
“Writing is drawing the essence of what we know out of the shadows. That is what writing is about. Not what happens there, nor what actions are played out there, but the there itself. There, that is writing’s location and aim. But how to get there?” – Karl Ove Knausgaard
I feel as though I have lived twice, two completely different lives, two completely different realities; one in which I am myself with my everyday occurrences, problems, minutiae, the quotidian details unique to myself and myself only, and the other as Karl Ove Knausgaard with the enumerable details unique to his life and his life only, ranging from his childhood as an innocent boy discovering the world and those around him, to the rebellious teenager searching for solace and identity, to a young man beginning to make a name for himself in the world, to an adult falling in love, having children, and enduring the death a parent; and strikingly, it is the latter of the two lives, with its endless ups and downs, triumphs and defeats, emotions and conflicts, that is in many ways far more vivid and real than my own.
I am of course talking about Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, a monumental six-volume autobiographical novel than spans over 3600 pages. In his series, Knausgaard writes about his life with an impossible and exhaustive meticulousness, often lingering on certain events, scenes, interactions, situations, and expanding on his thoughts and analyses, frequently in long-winded, stream-of-consciousness diatribes that sometimes last for a hundred pages or more. This is a writer who has striven to portray life as it is within the realm of literature, which is to say, at times, contradictory, futile, exhausting, meaningless, anticlimactic, and nonsensical but all the while beautiful nonetheless. It is, in my opinion, one of the most important pieces of contemporary literature.
In early 2016, I picked up a copy of My Struggle: Book One and opened it. I had discovered the book from the TV show You’re the Worst which my roommate and I were big fans of at the time. I did a bit of reading about the Norwegian writer, learned that he had written this series, obviously narcissistically, and entitled it My Struggle–doubtless an allusion to Mein Kampf; that it had been translated into 35 languages; sold millions of copies across the globe; and that Knausgaard had been donned the “Norwegian Proust.” By those accolades alone, I knew it had to be worth reading, so I picked up a copy and began.
After months of reading, as I was very much a novice reader then, I came half way through the book and put it down. I remember straining to understand exactly what the point of the book was as there was no plot, barely any action, and pages upon pages of long-winded, grandiloquent descriptions and convoluted philosophical musings. I was bored and frustrated to say the least, and so I closed it, totally convinced I was done with the works of writer Karl Ove Knausgaard.
Months later and few more books under my belt, I decided to give My Struggle another chance, figured I’d restart and finish it to the end, hopefully it would pick up and if not, then I would know and be done with him, at least I gave it a shot, right? Well, I finished the book, and again I was disappointed and cursed Knausgaard (and myself) for the months I wasted, the hours upon hours of strenuous work for which I was always left feeling unrewarded.
I was in a secondhand bookshop many months later, wandering the aisles, perusing the shelves, when lo and behold, My Struggle: Book Two with a black-and-white photo of Knausgaard on the cover, his long hair, stern posture, a cigarette drawn to his mouth, staring off into the distance. I took it into my hands; it was thicker by maybe 200 pages, and I cracked it open, read the first page. Remembering how wildly popular his books were, I decided, screw it, why not? it has to get good at some point, right? and I bought it.
It was Book Two that hooked me. Knausgaard, from the early offset of the novel, seized me by the heart and led me on a torturous, windy, emotionally-driven, beautiful, heart-breaking journey of love and life and it was nothing like anything I had read before. I was absolutely captivated. I burned through pages, turning them blindly, all the while feeling, breathing, living his life through his words. Passages inspired internal reflection on my own life in ways that no other book had ever achieved. On a midnight metro in Philadelphia on a visit to see my dad, I remember tears streaming from eyes, sniffling my nose repeatedly, all from reading a passage about the birth of his first child. The woman behind me patted my shoulder and asked if I was okay, to which I responded, “yeah I’m fine, thanks, it’s just this book.”
The years following, I sporadically read Knausgaard, usually a few months in between volumes, not just to read other books by other authors, but to build suspense for the next volume and rinse my palate so that I could start afresh and soak in his words all the more. I didn’t want to rush through his books too quickly, a certain restrain which in itself took very hard work.
Book Three I finished atop my back deck at my Richmond apartment, the fresh air tousling my hair, twilight settling in off a backdrop of a golden setting sun, in the company of one of my closest seated diagonally across the porch, her nose also buried in a book.
Book Four I dove into months later, reading in the early mornings with a cup of coffee and a brisk breeze on the back deck, during lunch breaks at work, in the late hours after a good night, drunkenly turning pages and squinting to focus on the words. I finished it on a train, and then proceeded to talk my passenger companion’s ear off about it.
Book Five I read late 2018, November I believe. I read in the spare time in classrooms, at my grandmother’s house, in cold cemeteries amid the ghosts and gray headstones. But for once, I finished it in the comfort of my own bed and the solace that only solitude can grant.
And Book Six I began late October 2019, lugging the heavy tome to and from campus where I would stand back against the wall reading before class began, in the break room at work during my 30 minute breaks, on train rides in and out of the city, in parks on the occasional fine fall day, and finally I finished the grand book the week of Christmas in the comfort of my easy chair with my feet kicked up on the ottoman.
Throughout all the years with his books, more than countless hours of losing myself within the pages, the thousands upon thousands of words, what I remember most are the reflections, the tiny instances where I would pull my eyes away from the pages to consider my own life, my own experiences.
I remember the countless conversations with my friends, me droning on and on about this writer, about his skill with words, and how I felt as if I were living two lives, one in Richmond, the other in Norway. I remember consulting my one Norwegian friend in regards to the pronunciations of the myriad names of cities, streets, people, concepts, etc. I remember the multitudes of reviews I read, interviews I watched, Reddit rabbit holes I fell down, all about Knausgaard.
I remember rereading multitudes of passages, lingering on the text, ruminating on the profundity of the words, the feelings evoked; in such instances, how I wished I could rewind time if only a minute so that I could read the words again with fresh eyes; surely the universe would grant me that! what is a minute against a life time?!
I remember writing about him and his work, in emails and letters to friends back home about how specific scenes had moved me, inspired me, propelled me into contemplation, considerations of my own life, the people I knew, the relationships that I held dear.
I remember the ways in which I would constantly wonder how it would be to attempt to do what Knausgaard accomplished, to write about my own life in such incredible detail and muse upon my own self and the people I know and have known, along with my decisions, the situations, the questions, and all the anomalous rest that constitutes the mystery of life.
What Knausgaard has managed to capture in his novels is a sense of universality, and I know that this is not an uncommon opinion among readers. Through the series, there were many, many times that I felt that I was reading about myself; the interactions, the people, the ideas, and the resulting emotions, actions, situations such struck me in ways that I was not only unprepared for but certainly did not think were possible to portray in literature. The themes that pervade his novels, not simply elaborated upon in the litany of never-ending diatribes but, too, hidden within the subtle descriptions and nuance of his details are themes that eerily resonate with me and accurately pertain to not just my life, but the ways in which I perceive the world. Confessions of weakness, vulnerability, naiveté, indiscretion, mistakes, sorrow, insecurity, and pain alongside scenes of triumph, love, learning, lightheartedness, beauty, exuberance, and meaning form the disarranged, discursive trademark of the series, a brutally honest, sharpened mirror of life, as life is in itself truly chaotic and most oftentimes unexplainable.
What, too, Knausgaard has managed to accomplish, at least for me, is the coloring of life in a way that I personally do not believe I would have attained had I not read his books. What I find so incredibly fascinating is that, for Knausgaard, the stupidly boring, tiny, minuscule, and insignificant aspects of life, which is to say the banal, are actually not only interesting and worthy of studying, but in fact more worthy of studying because they comprise and make up what are so often overlooked or even looked down upon.
That notion alone, for me, defines literature. That literature is not beyond the banality or mediocrity of our lives is what Knausgaard has so skillfully demonstrated. Literature is the banal, the mediocre, the boring, the minuscule, the insignificant. And it is worthy of examining, pondering, analyzing, because it is life. However, to transcend such mediocrity and attain the beauty buried beneath analysis, Knausgaard destroys it, breaks it down into fragments and then restructures those fragments, building it up, into something new. He does this through form, ie the structure of his novels which is, by and large, stream of consciousness, ironically appearing to have no form at all.
“Form draws you out of yourself, distances you from yourself, and it is this distance that is the prerequisite for closeness to others.” - Knausgaard
It is not a story, as a story is merely a form, an arbitrary format used to understand life, life being condensed down into something that perceivably and objectively makes sense which in turn reveals something about it. No. This is the not what Knausgaard does. He does the opposite. He reveals the apparent absence of form, the lack of a narrative which in turn makes his work more authentic because life has no form, no narrative, no story. What is life? It is chaotic, erratic, devoid of reason, logic, and sense. Life is indescribable; it is something that no one can describe. But in his books, Knausgaard seems to get pretty close.
A new lens now covers my eyes, coating the world around me in a shimmering glow that reaches out and touches something deep within me; a lens that intensifies the subtle, colors the dull, enlivens the stale aspects of life that on the surface appear to be insignificant, trivial, nothing. By reading his books, Knausgaard has granted me the ability to lend meaning to the seemingly meaningless, to give importance to the meager, to find value in the insubstantial. Through this lens, the world that I perceive, with all its detail, from the infinitely large to the infinitesimally small, the people that I meet and grow to know, with all their idiosyncrasies, quirks, flaws, and traits, and what fills the spaces in between, sciences, humanities, understanding, and learning, all is transformed into beauty, something worthy of study, something of value.
Reading his books has changed me, not just as a reader and writer, but a young man and person, a sentient being in this beautiful world, one out of the very many lost souls who strive to discover some elegance in the anomaly of life, seeking a strain of something that reminds us of the reason we exist. Few writers are able to impart such an impossible gift, but of the few who have, Knausgaard stands tall.