Jaded by memoirs that confess addiction, incest, and every other survivable trauma, American readers may find Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle merely a somewhat gloomy story of growing up in Norway. Indeed, Knausgaard doesn’t reveal any great horror or awful deed; instead he narrates the simple, even banal, details of his life—the conversations, the anxieties, the judgments—and the lives of those around him, attempting to present the reality of his existence. But the author has gone too far for some of his family and friends, who now refuse anything to do with him, and there is a segment of his homeland’s populace who are angry with his confession as well. Apparently revealing intimate details of one’s life has not become a part of Norwegian life the way it has in the United States, where we have a thriving culture of confession.
My Struggle is a hybrid narrative, the kind of collage of truth and fiction David Shields praises in Reality Hunger. In this first volume (there are six in all, totalling over 3500 pages), Knausgaard includes intricate conversations from when he was eight, conversations that could not be accurate (the book has thus been marketed as a novel), as well as philosophical digressions in which Knausgaard discusses how humans have created ideas about themselves and their civilizations. But most of the book is made up of overwhelmingly close attention to the details of everyday life, and as Knausgaard tries to get more reality into his story, it becomes clear that this reality is his. Time, for example, is handled on a personal scale. Nearly eighty pages of the first section is devoted to the youthful machinations of getting drunk and trying to hook up with a particular girl on New Year’s Eve, but then, in a prepositional phrase, years will pass. A moment in which something petty or mean-spirited is said, often by his father, can become bigger than whole decades.
An unavoidable question when approaching this work is trying to understand the literary allusion that is the title; a German translation would render it Mein Kampf (the book uses different names in various European editions). But in Book One, Knausgaard only ever addresses this foreboding literary predecessor metaphorically; in fact, he seems to try to ignore it as best he can (though apparently he does discuss Hitler’s book at length in volume six). The titular struggle—all consuming and subtle at the same time—is to escape the meaning of the past. To become an adult Knausgaard feels that he must disallow himself what he calls “soft emotions”: nostalgia, sentimentality, and sympathy. When he was young he felt everything was connected and full of meaning, a feeling he now distrusts and wishes to dismiss, questioning his emotional reactions in and to the past. Again and again in the book he tells us that some belief or idea he had no longer matters, that the stunning beauty of a Norwegian evening is the “purest form of meaninglessness.” He does this so often, however, and often while reacting emotionally to whatever he is trying to deny, that he sometimes comes off as a stubborn teenager saying he doesn’t care when it is clear that he cares very much.
This affected indifference is perhaps a central paradox in a work with many paradoxes, and the paradoxical nature of the narrative is where it gets much of its energy. The style of the book, for example, is at the same time off-hand and highly structured. For the most part, it is written in a simple, conversational anti-style, without worry about cliché or lovely sentences. But even if some of the sentences seem unmediated, even lazy, an orchestration becomes evident. The form becomes a model of Knausgaard’s thought processes—meditative, digressive, loose, and then suddenly focused.
The second part of Book One details the immediate aftermath of the death of Knausgaard’s father, who has drunk himself to an early grave. Knausgaard and his brother travel back to their boyhood home and discover that their father had been living in squalid conditions with his mother, their grandmother. They begin cleaning up his mess, hauling away moldy, shit-stained clothes and couches, throwing out bottles, scrubbing every surface clean. This seems a perfect allegory for Knausgaard’s own work of trying to get rid of the meaning of the past. As he cuts down the massive undergrowth in the yard, though, he can’t stop crying. Those soft emotions are not easy to escape and in his writing Knaussgard struggles to free himself from the ideas and meanings we have embedded in our culture through them.
Of course, we do have a deep faith in our ability to figure it all out, and we have created a universe in our own image using a system of representation, language, that we can not escape. But although Western civilization has moved progressively toward making our intellect the basis of our lives, this certainly isn’t the case globally; the mysteries of the gods are alive and well, for better or worse. One of the moments of apparent deep joy in the book is when Knausgaard meets the poet Olav H. Hauge, who reads a poem Knausgaard describes as belonging to the infinite. On the one hand he may be mocking the reaction of his younger self, but there seems to be some vestigial belief in the value of the poem, an example of art which is concerned with more than the merely human.
This seems to be the struggle then: how do we get beyond ourselves? How do we go about our daily business knowing the illusions, delusions, and confusions that are at work in ourselves and in our language, that tool we have created to try and get beyond ourselves? Many have told us (and it seems obvious) that we ultimately can’t get beyond these constructions, but this doesn’t mean we should dismiss the effort. Since completing this work, Knausgaard has abandoned writing, at least for the time being, perhaps due to exhaustion. But the record of Knausgaard’s struggle offers readers of contemporary literature a fascinating take on the ongoing discussion regarding reality and representation.