I’m about 1,000 pages into Karl Ove Knausgaard’s 6-volume, 3,600 autobiographical novel My Struggle. It’s translated from the Norwegian, and in case you’re wondering, the Norwegian title is Min Kamp, and yes, those words are close cognates to the title of Hitler’s infamous tract. According to another piece I read, that parallel is intentional, though I’ve not encountered any sort of an explanation yet.
I imagine your question is something like this: why the hell would you want to read a 3,600-page autobiographical Norwegian novel with a titular reference to Hitler, especially when the cover makes him look like quite the pretentious asshole to boot? And when I push this further, and tell you that sometimes you’ll encounter a 20-page description of scrubbing vomit- and blood-encrusted bathroom title, or something very similar, many times over, your question won’t get any closer to an answer.
I’ve only read two other novels of this length – Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle, just a massive sci-fi/historical-fiction/adventure story, and then, Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. My Struggle is much more like the latter than the former. I read Proust 15 years ago, and it was awesome. After some fits and starts, I was more than 50 pages a day until I had finished. It was that all-consuming. It may be one of the reasons I didn’t finish earning my PhD. I wrote very little about the experience at the time, and only have a vague memory of the sweep of the whole thing, but memory is not all that book gave me.
My Struggle is even more all-consuming than I remember In Search of Lost Time having been. And what is it about? In a few words, not much. Knausgaard relates the minutia of his day to day experiences. The self-conscious thoughts, feelings and narrations of a man in his early 40’s looking back on his earlier experiences, drifting freely back and forth between the present and different points in the past, gradually spirally outward to encompass the whole domain of Knausgaard’s life. Volume 1 centered largely around the death of his father; volume 2 (what I’ve finished so far, about two-thirds) concerns the birth of his first child.
In a recent New Yorker piece reviewing David Mitchell’s books, focusing especially on his most recent work, The Bone Clocks, James Wood begins by observing that
As the novel’s cultural centrality dims, so storytelling—J. K. Rowling’s magical Owl of Minerva, equipped for a thousand tricks and turns—flies up and fills the air. Meaning is a bit of a bore, but storytelling is alive. The novel form can be difficult, cumbrously serious; storytelling is all pleasure, fantastical in its fertility, its ceaseless inventiveness. Easy to consume, too, because it excites hunger while simultaneously satisfying it: we continuously want more. The novel now aspires to the regality of the boxed DVD set: the throne is a game of them. And the purer the storytelling the better—where purity is the embrace of sheer occurrence, unburdened by deeper meaning. Publishers, readers, booksellers, even critics, acclaim the novel that one can deliciously sink into, forget oneself in, the novel that returns us to the innocence of childhood or the dream of the cartoon, the novel of a thousand confections and no unwanted significance. What becomes harder to find, and lonelier to defend, is the idea of the novel as—in Ford Madox Ford’s words—a “medium of profoundly serious investigation into the human case.”
Reading that holds our attention, engrosses us, has, for Wood, overtaken reading that provides something called “serious investigation into the human case.” Television series that are “so good” and which we must “catch up” on and “can’t wait for the next season of” have come close to triumphing over whatever Ford Madox Ford thought novels might once have been able to do.
My Struggle limns this boundary: it is both totally engrossing in its banality, but at the same time somehow it stretches towards the ultimate questions: about the meaning of life, the place of humans in our cosmos, the relentless approach of death, and all the rest. It does this sometimes because its narrator, a writer, asks these questions explicitly. It does it at other times simply by its focus on minutia. And sometimes it’s the shift from the former to the latter and back again. In many ways its the ultimate anti-story: little happens to Knausgaard, other than becoming a famous writer, that doesn’t happen to millions of other middle- and upper-middle class residents of western industrialized nations. He’s just really good at relating it. It’s like one massive Facebook status update from one of your friends who likes to tell you about eating cereal and brushing their teeth and the bad taste that follows if you do those things in the wrong order.
And yet. Perhaps the strongest praise I can offer for this book is that it somehow makes me want to live through a winter in Stockholm, in its confined, wood-panelled spaces, its constricting social mores, its overly formal dialogue, its characters’ odd two-part and consonant-laden names, like Karl Ove and Yngve, and its penchant for indusing depression, alcoholism and suicide in its residents.
You will not find a theme here that hasn’t been taken up at length many other places, but somehow the totality of it is no less arresting. In Sunday’s New York Times travel section, Rief Larsen describes a tour of the Norwegian northland (that’s a link to a video), which notes that apparently, Norway is in the throes of a bizarre television trend: people are watching 65+hour long real-time broadcasts of things like the progress of a freight train along its course across the country with a camera mounted on the front, or a boat-mounted camera panning the hundreds of miles of fjord. “Slow television” it’s called – and Larsen rightly puts Knausgaard in that trend. This is the ultimate in slow-television, a slow-novel, which masterfully creates the illusion I remember from Proust as well (and at times from Dostoevsky, one of several authors mentioned repeatedly through My Struggle): It is as though no editing has taken place, and the book was just written in one massive sitting, one unending take.
It’s totally unpretentious and sincere, seemingly without guile, but in that, it transcends the story-soaked but investigation-into-the-human-question-condition contemporary mediascape.
Sadly, only the first three volumes have been translated from Norwegian so far, and volume 4 isn’t due until May of 2015. I’ll have to wait, given that there’s little chance of me learning enough Norwegian any time soon.