Deep into Book 2 of “My Struggle,” Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six-volume, 3,600-page Norwegian Bildungsroman that has become an international literary sensation, a scene unfolds in which Knausgaard, his second wife and two sets of friends sit talking and drinking.
Nothing unusual there. People are always talking and drinking, drinking and talking, in the pages of “My Struggle.” They make instant coffee, brew up tea. They power down mass quantities of beer, absorb a spirit called aquavit, which seemingly has the potency of diesel fuel. Multiple paragraphs – nay, pages – are spent describing these sipping sessions, which ultimately lead to bursts of Proustian reveries and incisive expository character digressions, but also serve as simply the prosaic palette from which the story of the author’s life, perhaps fictional or not, is painted.
So on this night, a New Year’s Eve in Sweden, Knausgaard’s friend since boyhood, Geir, defends Karl Ove when an acquaintance accuses him of self-puffery and braggadocio, after Knausgaard has detailed his skill at preparing salted sheep’s ribs, apparently a Norwegian holiday staple:
“Cut the man a bit of slack,” Geir said. “He’s made a career of telling people what a failure he is. One wretched, tragic episode after another. Shame and remorse all down the line.”
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Well, that pretty much sums up – in a good way – “My Struggle,” at least the first four volumes that have been translated into English by the indefatigable Don Bartlett: shame, remorse, wretchedness, little failures and small-scale tragedies. But add, too, these qualities: self-laceration, droll humor, insight into the human condition, meditations on mortality, the futility of fiction to fully render experience, the faultiness of memory, yet its power to cast a pall over generations of a family.
Book 4, which will be released in the United States on April 28 by Archipelago Books, figures to add another layer to the Knausgaard mystique, cementing his status as that rarest of literary specimens – the highbrow author-in-translation whose works actually sell here.
Critics, always waiting to pinprick writerly overindulgence, and fellow authors, often a catty bunch, nonetheless have lavished praise on “My Struggle” (“Min Kamp” in Norwegian.; more about the title and its Hitlerian overtones later) even as they strain to define it. Is it a novel, or a memoir?
Well, it’s neither and both. It’s a genre hybrid, or maybe a genre-buster, something altogether different. Whatever it is, the literati find it compelling. Zadie Smith tweeted that she craves the volumes “like crack” and “you live your life with him,” while Jonathan Lethem told The New York Times, “I read them compulsively; I can’t stop.”
How popular is “My Struggle”? In his native Norway, the books have sold more than 500,000 copies, impressive given than Norway’s population is only 5 million. It’s been translated into 22 languages and, despite Knausgaard’s oft-hilarious Swede-bashing in the books, he’s been whispered as a Nobel Prize candidate. Even the exacting James Wood, arbiter of taste at The New Yorker, is smitten with Book 2, writing: “There is something ceaselessly compelling about Knausgaard’s book: even when I was bored, I was interested. … Knausgaard is intense and utterly honest, unafraid to voice universal anxieties, unafraid to appear naive or awkward.”
Praise hasn’t been universal, though. Some critics scold Knausgaard for flouting novelistic conventions, The Nation magazine dismissed the first two books of “My Struggle” as a “flat record of superficial detail.” Some may be sensing an emperor’s-new-clothes backlash. Upon Book 4’s release last month in England, the London Telegraph’s Anthony Cummins wondered whether Knausgaard “ought to get over himself,” and throws out the B-word – boring. Yet, the London Observer recently gushed that the series “has strong claim to be the great literary event of the 21st century – so far.”
Synopsizing the works is daunting, but here goes: Book 1 deals with the death of Knausgaard’s father, yet veers from glimpses of his childhood to his failed first marriage to his fraught life as a writer/husband/parent (yes, in that order) in Sweden; Book 2, subtitled “A Man in Love,” shows a domesticated Knausgaard but then veers into his troubled young adulthood and circles back to his father; Book 3 is the most narratively coherent, detailing his childhood on a Norwegian island and finally revealing the reasons behind Knausgaard’s animus toward his alcoholic and abusive father; Book 4 is a comic portrait of the novelist as a cringe-inducing young drunk, in which he alternates between youthful literary pretension and embarrassing sexual inadequacy.
On perusal, the casual reader might shrug and wonder what all the fuss is about. A 40-something Norwegian writer with self-esteem problems, daddy issues and perfect recall of every sandwich he’s ever eaten? They may ask: Where’s the plot and what drives the narrative?
But after reading volumes 1 through 4 – that’s 1,945 pages for those counting at home – after immersing yourself in Knausgaard’s alternately bleak and hopeful world view, you feel a cohesion in his disparate set pieces and digressions, find something monumental in his depiction of the mundane. He slows down life, makes readers contemplate something as ordinary as a tennis racket or bathroom toilet cleaner. It’s not easy reading, for certain. But then, neither is “Ulysses” or “Infinite Jest.” Knausgaard darts among time periods, breaks the fourth wall on occasion, then hustles back to continue the set piece. He’ll contradict himself, saying he wants a “bourgeois lifestyle” only to mock it, and himself, later in the same lengthy paragraph.
Concision and brevity are not Knausgaard’s strengths, nor should they be. There is poetry and rhythm in his rambling. The final 100 pages of Book 1, in which he chronicles, with searing exactitude, the funeral preparations for his dead father and the unholy mess to clean up in his father’s apartment, strewn with bottles and feces, is as riveting as it is revolting. It hits the reader viscerally as Knausgaard details, with each toothbrush stroke on moldy bathroom tile, the grim task at hand. Another extended scene comes in Book 2, when he depicts a toddler birthday party as something out of Dante, his eldest daughter displaying the same misanthropic tendencies he exhibits.
Rambling accounts such as those almost always have a payoff, such as the sublime ending to Book 1, when Knausgaard confronts his father’s corpse:
… (T)here was no longer any difference between what once had been my father and the table he was lying on, or the floor on which the table stood, or the wall socket beneath the window, or the cable running to the lamp beside him. For humans are merely one form among many, which the world produces over and over again, not only in everything that lives but also in everything that does not live, drawn in sand, stone, and water. And death, which I have always regarded as the greatest dimension of life, dark, compelling, was no more than a pipe that springs a leak, a branch that cracks in the wind, a jacket that slips off a clothes hanger and falls to the floor.
Though dark, “My Struggle” is not a litany of unrelenting Scandinavian gloom. Self-effacing humor leavens the descriptions of abuse at the hands of an angry God-like father. For example, Book 4’s repeated accounts of sexual dysfunction while trying to lose his virginity is cringingly spot-on, and the scene in Book 2 when he takes his toddler daughter to a mommy-and-me “Rhythm Time” music class is chock full of chuckle-inducing, emasculating antics.
Yet, when an author names his opus “My Struggle,” a direct reference to Adolph Hitler’s manifesto “Mein Kampf,” eliciting laughs is not the primary consideration. Knausgaard, at least in the first four volumes, never explains the title. Is he comparing his childhood under a tyrant of a father – “It wasn’t the pain I was afraid of, it was him, his voice, his face, his body, the fury it emitted, that was what I was afraid of, and the terror of it never let up … ” – to life under a dictator? Or is he “struggling” with his own misanthropic feelings – admitting he wants his father dead, grousing that child-rearing is crimping his artistic pursuits, vacillating between love for and indifference to his wife?
Or, perhaps, there are larger points to be made in the final two volumes, yet to be translated to English. They are said to deal, in part, with Hitler’s cult of personality and Norwegian right-wing mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik.
Heavy stuff, but what else would you expect from writer who, perhaps under the influence of aquavit or, at least, very strong coffee, offers this summing up of his world view: “I saw life; I thought about death.”
Call The Bee’s Sam McManis, (916) 321-1145. Follow him on Twitter @SamMcManis.
My Struggle: Book 4
By Karl Ove Knausgaard
Archipelago Books; $27; 485 pages
Author appearance: City Arts & Lectures, May 4, 7:30 p.m., $27, Nourse Theater, 275 Hayes St., San Francisco. Tickets: www.cityarts.net/event/1756